Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Rereading "Crime and Punishment": a personal exploration

This blog has been dominated so far by amateur art criticism, accidentally so in that two interesting exhibitions happened to come along at the same time to galleries near my home. Since nothing else is likely to open now before Christmas, here’s a change of tack.

I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment  in 1979, when I was barely 20. I only returned to it about a fortnight ago, with 32 years’ more life and a great many additional books behind me. I’ve often reread things which affected me when younger,  discovering in them ideas I’d been in no position to appreciate first time around, owing either to a lack of experience or the paucity of imagination that often afflicts those who have yet to find or reconcile themselves to a perspective on the world. Sometimes it’s almost as though it were an entirely different book from the one I remembered. My revisiting of  Crime and Punishment  is a good example of both types of experience. It’s not the first instance, but it’s the first I’ve thought to write about in a semi-public forum. Perhaps that, too, says something about me.

The novel I remembered was the story of the student dropout Raskolnikov, living in squalor in 19thcentury St Petersburg, who conceives the Nietzschean idea that murder might be justified if it furthers the will and ambition of a superior man, citing what was then the near-contemporary example of Napoleon Bonaparte. To test himself he dispatches, brutally, with an axe, an elderly pawnbroker whom he despises for her avarice. There is business involving Raskolnikov’s mother and sister – decent but innocent bourgeois folk from the provinces – and a ‘tart with a heart’, the unwilling prostitute Sonya, who preaches religion at him. Raskolnikov is eventually caught out by the psychological acuity of examining attorney Porfiry Petrovitch, who plays on his guilt and extracts a confession. Raskolnikov is sent to Siberia, where he undergoes a religious epiphany and is saved. The End.

Now I suppose it’s pretty obvious that one impoverished, egotistical student living in a capital city for the first time away from his folks is going to be immediately impressed by the tale of another in the same position. A scepticism about conventional morals, and a desire for the decisive existential act are, I’d guess, pretty commonplace in such cases. Add to that the encounter with individuals from worlds he has never previously entered, and a nascent unease about the validity of his self-justifications, and  Raskolnikov – as remembered – might  well seem to any reasonably-educated, directionless young man a fairly accurate portrait of himself.  Leaving aside for a moment the greater part of the novel – say 500 pages – which unfolds between the murder and the confession, I was therefore more than a little disappointed by the apparent submission of the imprisoned hero to what I thought I was supposed to take for Divine Grace, but which at the time felt more like The Establishment. I was, after all, one of those who cheered for  Camus’s Meursault at the end of L’Étranger.

But on rereading the book, there was the small matter of those forgotten 500 pages. Crime and Punishment is, among its more obvious attributes,  a hefty 19th century novel,  which fact brings me to my initial impetus for picking it up again. In Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of Charles Dickens I came across an anecdote of which I’d previously been unaware, that  Dostoyevsky met Dickens in 1862, expressing  to him great admiration for his work, which he claimed to have read in prison. This was an unexpected conjunction. In the 1970s Dickens was out of fashion among  younger British literary aspirants, perhaps as a result of the Leavisite Diktat of thirty or so years earlier which relegated all but Hard Times to the Second Division in FR’s League of English Novels, compounded with the rise of an international  Marxian and Structuralist criticism which contrived to ignore him almost entirely while drawing English attention to other, continental European writers.  Set against the lowlife and intrigue of pre-Revolutionary Russia, with its violence, class-politics, alcoholism and philosophy, the caricature Dickens of Pickwick, Tiny Tim and the Artful Dodger exercised little superficial attraction. To learn, therefore,  even at a remove which had enabled me to take a somewhat more rounded view of Dickens, that the Russian had regarded the English author as a master, was grounds in itself for revisiting Dostoyevsky, if nothing else to see what correspondences could possibly exist.

 Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Well, there are plenty. Between the murder (or rather, murders, since Raskolnikov also kills the pawnbroker’s entirely inoffensive sister – something else I’d forgotten) and the confession, the novel sets out a drama of contrasting and complementary ‘crimes’ perpetrated by a cast of vividly-drawn characters, all linked in some way to Raskolnikov, and whose ultimate fate or ‘punishment’ might be interpreted as unintended consequences of  his action. Certainly, they enable him to be seen, and to see himself – albeit unwillingly – in a context broader than simply that of the lone existential individual he evidently believes himself initially to be. I use the term ‘drama’ advisedly, since there is a certain staginess  about the way these characters suddenly come into Raskolnikov’s orbit and accompany him through a series of perambulations between rooms in the city, and there is almost certainly something of a ‘state of Russia’ purpose in Dostoyevsky’s crowding of them all together into such a narrow circle and compressed timescale – not unlike, for instance, the Dickens of Little Dorrit.  The dramatis personae  are perhaps not so overdrawn as some of Dickens’s memorable figures, and with the exception of Porfiry Petrovitch  do not repeat themselves quite so often in order to make sure the reader is absolutely clear where they stand, but there’s a flamboyance of utterance if not of physical description that renders them so brightly that I’m astonished I retained so little of them, even over three decades. One sees and recalls what one wants to see and recall, I suppose – or what one can, given one’s own resources.  For the most part, these are remarkably sophisticated psychological portraits, but perhaps it isn’t really surprising that a twentysomething  middle-class boy with pretensions to intellect couldn’t immediately appreciate that. Raskolnikov doesn’t.

Thus Marmeladov, the civil servant who has drunk away his prospects, effectively abandoned his family, and is encountered railing against himself in a grog-shop, swearing abstinence and reform should he be given a chance, then slipping right back into drunkenness as soon as that happens, might well appear a grotesque, an unbelievably stupid and unprincipled man, if he were not the exact type of every alcoholic I’ve ever encountered since I learned anything about alcoholism. He’s an addict, a sick man who knows he is sick but has no conception of a cure, and who sees all too clearly the end that awaits him – a senseless, booze-related death that will leave those who love him hopeless as well as destitute. There is nothing he nor anybody else can do to help him. Raskolnikov tries – this before the murders, even while he is still toying with his Napoleonic fantasies – but his act of kindness in giving Marmeladov what little money he has only leads to a further binge, leading ultimately to his squalid demise. Raskolnikov’s subsequent additional generosity to his widow, Katerina Ivanovna, has still further, unforeseeably disastrous consequences.

The vain Luzhin, a wealthy middle-aged man who is introduced as the fiancé-of-convenience of Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, believes he can buy gratitude and affection from those less well-off than himself. But we are allowed to see the insecurity that motivates his attempts to manipulate others into compliance with his wishes, so again a figure who might well have been presented as a caricature of wickedness is permitted a psychological depth beyond his actions. He has already betrayed himself with his statement that he would prefer to have a socially ‘inferior’ wife who is totally dependent on him, and the repulsion this engenders in Raskolnikov, and the righteous indignation this latter evinces, even while he is increasingly aware of his own criminality, forces Luzhin into a corner from which he unsuccessfully contrives to escape by cynically attempting to frame the hapless Sonya for theft. Exposed, Luzhin flees, but the only consequence of his trying to inflict lifelong torment on his victims to satisfy his own vanity is a brief humiliation before a group of people with whom he need have no further dealings. There is certainly a moral crime, but no real punishment.

Svidrigailov, Dunya’s would-be seducer, is a monster. I don’t think I really appreciated  this when I first read the novel, but he is clearly, in contemporary terms,  a rapist and paedophile. How much such terms would have been distinguished from the stock categories of ‘libertine’ or ‘rake’ at the time of Dostoyevsky’s writing is perhaps a moot point, and working originally with a somewhat stylised template for the conventions of the 19th century novel I cannot honestly say I noticed, but he shares what is now a well-established pathology among such people in confidently blaming his victims for ‘inciting’ his crimes against them. The nightmares which attend his last night before he shoots himself make explicit a kind of  self-awareness.  The twin catalysts for his suicidal despair are Raskolnikov’s refusal to be blackmailed by him (Svidrigailov has overheard his confession to Sonya), and Dunya’s resistance to attempted rape, their combined effect being to expose to him his own moral bankruptcy.  News of his suicide is then the final ‘push’ which impels Raskolnikov to admit his own crimes to the police. Thus once more there is a complex play of cause and effect, and the generation of one kind of good from what might equally be seen either as a good or an evil event. We are certainly given no authorial help as to how these incidents are intended to be interpreted, and there is no  sudden epiphany either for Raskolnikov or for the reader.

As with Dickens, the women characters are less well-realised than the men: they are either mad, or quite exaggeratedly virtuous. Katerina Ivanovna is already unhinged by her husband’s fecklessness, and becomes completely deranged following his death and her family’s eviction from their lodgings;  Raskolnikov’s mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, begins as an innocent abroad and sinks into a vague insanity following his conviction; even the jointly-murdered pawnbroker’s sister, Lizaveta, is described as having been ‘simple-minded.’  It is true that Dunya has enough about her to train a gun on her assailant Svidrigailov, but she cannot bring herself to shoot him, while Sonya, driven to prostitution in order to support her abandoned family, takes refuge in a passive religious faith.

There is, therefore, a lot going on in my ‘forgotten’ main bulk of the novel. And yet, if one concentrates on Raskolnikov’s internal dilemma, as I did all those years ago, it is just about explicable that this whole block of narrative might be set aside as secondary to his existential  plight. For all the examples of human turpitude, self-deception, sin, guilt and exposure with which he comes into contact, none of these directly affects his attitude to his own crime nor, apparently, his decision to turn himself in. Porfiry Petrovitch has rumbled him, and quietly pointed out that his only options appear to be suicide or submission to the law. He has also raised some interesting points, arising out of the housepainter Nikolay’s false confession to the murders, about a fanatical streak in the Russian character which makes individuals want to suffer, perhaps in imitation of Christ. This is, of course, another self-deception, but it is both counterpointed and emphasised by the way in which the arch-sufferer and potential religious fanatic, Sonya, pursues Raskolnikov to the police station, like some kind of Hound of Heaven,  to ensure that he comes clean. Raskolnikov himself does not really know why he has confessed. He has called the dead pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, a ‘louse’ until the very end; he has contemplated escaping to America; he himself has no religious scruples, and his (pseudo-)philosophy of ‘permissible’ crime does not appear to have been confounded in his own estimation. Perhaps he simply should have considered the fate of his hero, Napoleon, and contemplated what happened to him when he took on Russia…

But this is not quite the final word. Various mitigating factors are discovered at Raskolnikov’s trial (introduced rather too conveniently, in my view) which leads to a relatively short sentence of penal servitude in Siberia (à propos, was there not a death penalty for murder in Russia in those days ?)  Sonya, of course, follows him there. Raskolnikov does undergo some kind of change while in prison, but I was wrong in assuming that this is necessarily a religious conversion. He appears finally to have fallen in love with Sonya, and this may involve also a spiritual dimension, or lay the ground for such, but Dostoyevsky is emphatically unforthcoming about this. Raskolnikov’s story remains ambiguous to the very last.

So what do I learn from all this ? FR Leavis, whom I cited above, was a prominent scholar and critic who believed that great novels have ‘moral seriousness’ and should be capable of changing their readers.  Crime and Punishment is undoubtedly a morally serious work, and I hope I’ve demonstrated that it had a significant effect on me as a youth; but the effect it has had on a second reading in middle-age has been quite different. Then, it was the relationship of the solipsistic individual to the world and its moral codes and conventions which struck me as important; this time it has been an exploration of the ways different people fill their lives with self-deceptions, contradictory codes of conduct, opportunism and manufactured meanings as bulwarks against the unknowability of our ends. If I’m spared to read it again in old age, I will probably derive something still more from it, appropriate to the state of knowledge and - I hope - wisdom I will have reached. Leavis was partially right: great books change us, but we also change them as we bring our own experience and ability to make distinctions to bear on them.

 Which brings me to a concluding conundrum. Unless a book is worth rereading, it probably isn’t worth reading once. Discuss. 

In 1979 I read the Penguin Classics edition of "Crime and Punishment" (1979; translator: David Magarshack.) In 2011 it was the Golgotha Press "Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky"  for Amazon Kindle (2010; translator not listed.)


  1. Excellent post Phil. I also read Crime and Punishment as a young man - around 25 - and I can say it had a profound effect on me. Did you know there was a poll recently - in the guardian possibly - of the most popular novels, divided into men and women, and C + P came out on top for men (or very near the top). The explanation given by the accompanying article was that young men often go through a period of alienation, and are then redeemed by love - so this novel speaks to them. My memory of the novel pretty much matches yours, and you've made me want to read it again now. One thing that struck me, but which you didn't mention, was Raskolnikov's friend (name forgotten) who falls in love with his sister, and who acts as a counterpoint to the hero, who is unable to love (until the end of the book). At the time, I felt like Raskolnikov, but wanted to be like the friend.


  2. Thanks, Alan. It's Razumihin. He's a sort of general good-egg everyman counterpoint to Raskolnikov, isn't he ? I wanted to say something about him (and about Lebeziatnikov, the Utopian Socialist who gets such a sending-up), but didn't want to ramble on too long ! Glad you like the piece. And I *didn't* know about the poll.