Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky 
St. Petersburg + Siberia
PLOT SUMMARY: Raskolnikov is a college dropout, living day to day in a run-down apartment, scavenging for money from a pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna. One night he meets a drunk who squandered all of his money and has been avoiding his family for a week in shame. Raskolnikov helps him confront his family and meets his wife and her daughter Sonya, who has become a prostitute to help her family make ends meet. Raskolnikov hears that his sister, Dunya, is now engaged to Luzhin, a rich but insolent man, to help her family. The story quickly progresses and in cold blood, he kills the pawnbroker and her sister, who witnesses him going through her things. Raskolnikov goes into lapses of fever and delirium from the ordeal and the guilt for his actions and is unwillingly assisted by his friend Razumikhin. Raskolnikov is rattled by the police investigations of the murder and is sure that Porfiry, the detective, knows that he is the murderer. He continues to push away the help offered by Razumikhin, Sonya, Dunya, and his mother, but eventually confesses to the murder. He is sent to Siberia for hard labor of eight years, and Sonya follows him to Siberia, living in a nearby town. Despite his initial lack of repentance for his actions, he eventually learns to return Sonya’s affections and become more open to interacting and accepting others around him.

ANALYSIS: Despite its title, Dostoevsky does not focus on the aspect of punishment imposed upon Raskolnikov through his hard labor that is detailed at the end of the novel. Most of the punishment is self-inflicted through Raskolnikov’s feelings of guilt and internal turmoil on whether he should turn himself in and whether his murder was truly justified as he first convinced himself. Similar to how Dostoevsky’s earlier novel Notes from the House of the Dead gives us an insight into the minds of criminals, Dostoevsky depicts the mind of Raskolnikov leading up to the act of murder and in its aftermath. By doing so, he comes close to humanising a murderer or at least to some extent, making him almost worthy of sympathy.

     Yet the rationale behind the murder is difficult to sympathize with, as it is founded upon a sense of self-grandeur that he was doing humanity a favor by ridding it of a nuisance. Despite his desperate attempts to justify the murder of the pawnbroker, Raskolnikov quickly descends into a state of delirium caused by his guilt and his fear of being caught. The detective that is in charge of the case also acknowledges that he will either go mad or turn himself in from guilt. The detective proves to be true, and Raskolnikov turns himself in. The guilt, however, does not seem to be one of repentance and is one that is based on the belief that his murder was imperfect. The process of his acceptance of Sonya’s love is also quick, and seemed to be triggered by his realization of Sonya’s kindness and what she means to him. Thus, it is difficult to frame simply as repentance for his actions, but rather that love and affection for another brought him back to earth when he had considered himself above it all.  

“What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?” (14) 
"I … hinted that an 'extraordinary' man has the right … an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep...certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea." (101) 

"If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison." (230)
BIOGRAPHY: Dostoevsky was born in 1821 and was the son of a retired military surgeon who served the poor at a hospital in Moscow. Being surrounded by the impoverished and sickly as a child invoked sympathy for those of the lower class from early on, and he also attributed the difference in his writing from other notable writers who came from gentry backgrounds, such as Tolstoy, to this humble background. He attended a military boarding school for engineering in 1839 and started his writing career in 1842, and his first short novel, Poor Folk (1846), was critically acclaimed. 
     However in 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for being a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, a literary discussion group of progressive, utopian, socialist intellectuals. He was incarcerated for eight months and experienced a mock execution during which he was brought before a firing squad. This is reflected in his later works such as The Idiot and The House of the Dead, the latter of which was also inspired by his sentence to four years of physical labor in Siberia after the mock execution. During his time in the prison camps, Dostoevsky became very passionate about Russian Orthodoxy and also the idea of individual freedom as the most fundamental need of a human. 
After returning to St. Petersburg from Siberia, Dostoevsky edited unsuccessful journals with his brother, but after his brother’s death, he suffered from crippling debt exacerbated by his gambling addiction. He was thus forced to churn out literary works to pay off his debt, such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky later stated that his work did not reach its full potential due to the hard-pressed deadlines and was also destitute because of this. He died in 1881 in St. Petersburg from an epileptic seizure. 
“Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.” Columbia College,
Morson, Gary Saul. “Fyodor Dostoyevsky.” Encyclopædia Britannica
Inc., 6 Mar. 2019,
Bem, Alfred L. “Guilt in Crime and Punishment.” Readings on Fyodor Dostoyevsky, edited by Tamara Johnson, Greenhaven Press, 1998, pp. 58–62.
In this chapter, the author speaks more to the psychology of guilt and Dostoevsky’s focus on not only the details of the crime itself, but rather the ex ante and ex post guilt. 
Midgley, Louis C. “Dostoevsky on Crime and Revolution: A Study in Russian Nihilism.” Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 1961, pp. 55–73. 
Midgley focuses on Dostoevsky’s perception of nihilism and the “revolutionary Russian.” The author states that Dostoevsky likened Russia to a man that has “lost touch with reality,” which is in essence, Raskolnikov and his detachment from society, his family, and common morals. This should give more background into Dostoevsky’s perception of the concept of “evil” and “good.” 
Simons, John D. “The Nature of Suffering in Schiller and Dostoevsky.” Comparative Literature, vol. 19, no. 2, 1967, pp. 160–173. 
The idea of ‘suffering’ as a bridge to self-realization is a part of many Russian writers’ narratives. This article explores the influence of Friedrich Schiller, a German poet and philosopher, on Dostoevsky’s concept of freedom and suffering.

This page has tags: