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«Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky - 1866 FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY'S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Virginia B. Morris, Associate Professor of English, John ...»

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Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky





by Virginia B. Morris, Associate Professor of English,

John Jay College, City University of New York

For Ralph and Dorothea Baumgartner


Michael Spring, Editor, Literary Cavalcade, Scholastic Inc.


We would like to acknowledge the many painstaking hours of work Holly Hughes and Thomas F. Hirsch have devoted to making the Book Notes series a success.

(C) Copyright 1984 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

Electronically Enhanced Text (C) Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.






The Plot

The Characters

Other Elements Setting



Point of View

Form and Structure................. DCRIFORM THE STORY


Tests and Answers

Term Paper Ideas


The Critics

Advisory Board




- When Fyodor Dostoevsky was twenty-eight, he was arrested by the Czar's secret police and sentenced to death, along with other members of a group that supported revolutionary political and social ideas. (His particular crime was publishing illegal articles advocating changes in Russian society.) When the prisoners were bound and waiting to be shot, and as the Czar's firing squad readied for the execution, a royal messenger dramatically announced a reprieve. The men's lives were spared.

The spectacular salvation had been prearranged. The Czar had merely wanted to frighten the men and demonstrate his power.

Dostoevsky got the message. More important, his escape from death- followed by four years of imprisonment in Siberia- had an enormous impact on his life and work.

When you read Dostoevsky's novels, it's easy to see how his experiences influenced his choice of theme and character. This is especially true of Crime and Punishment, published in 1867, which tells the story of a brilliant but emotionally tortured young man whose theories about human behavior make him think he is above the law. At the end of Part Two of the novel, for example, Raskolnikov, the main character, suddenly feels "a boundlessly full and powerful life welling up in him." He compares the emotion to the reaction of "a man condemned to death and unexpectedly reprieved." The source and significance of that image are overwhelmingly clear.

Dostoevsky's prison experience provoked his interest in the causes of crime. It also made him wonder about the usefulness of punishment. In a letter describing his plan to write Crime and Punishment, he said, "Punishment meted out by the law to the criminal deters the criminal far less than the lawgivers think...." He believed that in order for punishment to work, it had to make the criminal accept his own guilt. His ideas about rehabilitating criminals were far ahead of the accepted attitudes of his time.

Another of Dostoevsky's innovative attitudes about crime and punishment was his emphasis on the emotional or psychological reasons why people commit crimes. In his time social scientists had only begun to use emotional factors as an explanation for changes in people's behavior. The field of criminology, which studies the various causes of crime, was not clearly formulated until about 1910.

There are other experiences in Dostoevsky's life that are important to understanding Crime and Punishment. At seventeen he left home to study engineering in a military school in St.

Petersburg (now called Leningrad). He was miserable there, partly because he was really more interested in literature than in science.

Also, incredible poverty plagued his student life. Often he went hungry, and he knew all about pawnbrokers as a poor man's only source of money. He frequented taverns and was acquainted with the seedy part of life in the city. The stifling, poverty-stricken slums and the teeming, drunken crowds in the Haymarket Square section of St.

Petersburg are so vividly described in Crime and Punishment because he knew them from personal experience. From the beginning Dostoevsky's fiction depicted desperately poor men and women.

Dostoevsky's fascination with doubling- the psychological term to describe dual personalities- is one of the reasons he's often described as one of the first modern novelists. Characters with double personalities exist in many old legends and tales, but his analysis of such characters as emotionally, and often mentally, disturbed was provocative and influential. In fact, Crime and Punishment is still used in psychology lectures to illustrate the phenomenon of split personalities.

You can understand even more about the ideas that obsessed Dostoevsky if you know what happened to his father. At about the time Dostoevsky moved to St. Petersburg, his father, with whom he'd never been close, was murdered by the outraged serfs on his country estate. Many readers, searching for ways to explain some of the emotional instability in the author's own life, point to this murder as a key influence. Fathers aren't ever depicted very positively in his work; in Crime and Punishment the only father we see is a bad one.

Scholars who've written about Dostoevsky often suggest a connection between the epileptic seizures that began to plague him in the 1840s and his father's death. In Crime and Punishment the novelist himself suggests a connection between emotional problems and physical illness; it would be fascinating to know if he saw his own illness as psychologically based.

The period of Russian history in which Dostoevsky lived and wrote was tumultuous. New ideas for change were in the air, as his own early political ideas illustrate. Russian serfs were freed in 1861. Many Russian thinkers believed that their nation should forge closer ties with Western Europe and become "modern," an idea Dostoevsky rejected.

Believers in Nihilism, one of the most influential movements of the period, preached the need to destroy the existing social and political systems even if nothing had been set up to replace what was destroyed. Dostoevsky, after his prison experience, was repelled by this negative view of life, even though its advocates offered some constructive ideas for reform.

Another idea that was in the air was that of the "superman," an extraordinary individual set apart from most other men. The German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel had written a great deal on the subject, and his countryman Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche developed the idea in different ways during the 1880s. Hegel suggested that a superman works for the good of mankind, whereas Nietzsche's idea was that a superman was primarily interested in self-gratification. The character Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment uses the idea of the superman to help justify the murder he commits. Dostoevsky challenges us to weigh Raskolnikov's ideas against the seriousness of his crime and draw our own conclusions.

Dostoevsky's fascination with suffering is based on his religious beliefs- fervent but not always orthodox Christianity. Christian ideas of forgiveness, salvation, and rebirth (or resurrection) of the spirit are also central to Crime and Punishment.

The novel is exciting to read because Dostoevsky makes these ideas come alive in a suspenseful story. As you read the novel, you'll be challenged to form your own opinions about contradictory views of human behavior. Does Dostoevsky want us to agree with Raskolnikov that some people have the right to commit crimes? There are times when you think he does, and other times when you're sure he doesn't.

PLOT THE NOVEL THE PLOT (DCRIPLOT) Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a desperate man. He thinks he's exceptional, extraordinary. He believes that gives him the right to break the law if he chooses. But he's also a physical and emotional wreck, afraid to do the things he wants to do to test his own courage.

Driven by his poverty and the shame of his mother's and sister's sacrifices for him, he plans a bold act: to kill a repulsive old pawnbroker. Her murder will accomplish two things: give him the money he needs and prove he's a superman. The plan misfires. He kills not only his intended victim but also her mild, gentle sister, who returns home too early and surprises the murderer.

Made physically ill by the trauma of his deed, Raskolnikov is cared for by his old friend Razumikhin. But his behavior becomes so bizarre that everyone who meets him wonders if he's insane.

Unfortunately for him, several police officials, including Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator in charge of the pawnbroker's murder, hear about his self-incriminating actions. He faints in the police station when the crime is discussed; he returns to the scene of the crime and makes a spectacle of himself; and he is obsessed with the details of the murder. Even without any physical evidence against him, suspicion focuses on him.

The other side of Raskolnikov's personality, the side that feels sympathy for other people's troubles, finds an outlet in the midst of his own struggle to escape detection. He meets the family of Marmeladov, a drunk who is killed in a street accident, he's so appalled by the family's poverty that he gives them all his money to see them through the funeral. He's most intrigued by Marmeladov's daughter, Sonia, who has become a prostitute to bring in enough money to provide food and shelter.

To complicate Raskolnikov's problems, his mother and his sister, Dunya, arrive in St. Petersburg the same day Marmeladov dies. They have come to prepare for Dunya's wedding to the affluent but repulsive Luzhin. Dunya's former employer, Svidrigailov, a man who has tried to seduce her and is still eager to see her, also shows up at Raskolnikov's apartment. Raskolnikov feels increasingly tormented, but he still wants to go on living; he resists the temptation to kill himself and end his troubles.

Because Sonia Marmeladov is so forgiving and, at the same time, guilty herself of immoral acts, he decides that she is the only one in whom he can confide. He can't ignore Porfiry Petrovich either, though, because he knows that the investigator suspects him. Raskolnikov alternates visits with his confessor and his pursuer, both of whom force him to reexamine his behavior. Both Sonia and Porfiry talk to him about spiritual rebirth and want him to turn himself in to the police. They both believe he can be saved. He resists both of them.

Then he finds out that Svidrigailov has overheard his confessions to Sonia. Raskolnikov knows that such information, in court testimony, would confirm his guilt. What worries him even more is that the unscrupulous Svidrigailov will use his knowledge to blackmail Dunya into a physical relationship to protect her brother. Raskolnikov never hears about it, but Svidrigailov does exactly what he'd feared.

Dunya resists his threats, however, and even tries to shoot him to protect her honor. Forced to face his own decadence and the fact that Dunya will never love him, Svidrigailov commits suicide.

Raskolnikov has been thinking about suicide again himself, but he's not ready to die. He decides that even the humiliation of a trial and the misery of prison are better than dying. But he also realizes that he can't go on living with the tension of trying to escape detection. He goes to Sonia for her blessing and then goes to the police.

His sentence is eight years in Siberia. At first he is as arrogant and self-involved as ever, but a miracle happens at Easter of his second year in prison. He recognizes that, if widely followed, the theories that led him to commit murder would doom the world to anarchy. In shedding his egotism, he is also able to recognize that he loves Sonia. Though their life together will have many hardships, they can believe in the promise of the future.



Before you read Crime and Punishment, you should understand something about Russian names. Every character has a middle name called a patronymic, formed from his or her father's first name. For a man, the patronymic ends in ovich; for a woman, its ending is ovna.

The patronymic is considered an important part of a name and is commonly used, unlike our own middle names.

The characters are also often identified by their nicknames, so it might take you a little while to realize that Rodya, Roddy, Rodka, and Rodenka all refer to Raskolnikov. It's a good idea to make a list, either inside the book or on an index card, of all the characters' names and their variations. Translators also use different spellings. Most of the variants are given in parentheses. The spellings used here are from David Margarshack's translation.



Is Raskolnikov a criminal who should be severely punished for his crime- or a tortured young man who makes a terrible mistake in trying to understand himself? Because his crime is so brutal, many readers think he's a repulsive, self-centered character who escapes the punishment he deserves. In contrast, because he's tormented by his conscience and fun of pity for the needy, other readers feel that the murders were a dreadful mistake that should not ruin his life.

Dostoevsky shows the reader both sides of Raskolnikov, but the structure of the novel supports the author's belief that Raskolnikov can be rehabilitated. The reader has to decide if Dostoevsky proves his point.

In choosing Raskolnikov's name, he has given one important clue to his character. The word raskol, in Russian, means "schism" or "split."

Dualism is the key to Raskolnikov's character. He is torn between the desire to do evil and the desire to do good.

He wants to do evil, to commit murder, in order to test his theory that there is such a thing as a crime of principle. He believes he is brilliant and more gifted than other people and has the right to commit crime to accomplish his goals. All he needs is daring. The problem is, he's not exactly sure what his goals are.

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