It’s no exaggeration to say that Crime and Punishment is one of the most staggering achievements in all of literature. I don’t think I can possibly say anything new about C&P which hasn’t been said before, but I will try and express my own thoughts about the book. What I found particularly fascinating was the book as a modern philosophical (and psychological) representation of the story of Cain and Abel.
It’s no spoiler to tell that Dostoevsky’s masterpiece novel focuses on the brooding, maddened, profound character of Raskolnikov, fiction’s most famous axe-murderer. What’s so powerful about Dostoevsky’s intense character study is that, against a backdrop of the emergence of more nihilistic philosophies such as Nietzsche’s critique of Catholicism (wrongly taken by many to be an excoriation, when in fact it was in fact a warning for it to get its act together, and boy was he right) which themselves grew from the seeds of Marxism and Darwinism, he builds up Raskolnikov’s reasoning for committing his infernal acts of violence and murder upon foundations of iron.
The first act of the book leads up to the murder, but is in fact building, brick by brick in Raskolnikov’s head, the justifications and reasons for committing such an act. For Raskolnikov, there are several good reasons for ridding the world of the scraping, grasping, Scrooge-like old pawnbroker woman: it would enable him to rob her and pay his way through law school, which in turn would free his sister from a loveless marriage to a rich but conceited suitor, it would liberate the old woman’s retarded little sister, whom she beats and essentially enslaves. These are Raskolnikov’s practical reasons, but Dostoevsky does not rest there; he also allows Raskolnikov to construct a moral and philosophical argument; he argues that great men, truly great men who have the ability to change the world, find themselves in a position where they have to break free from the paradigms that hold the world in check, because to do so and check their own greatness would itself be an unethical act, and potentially hold back the advancement of civilisation as we know it. That some men must remould thought around what is ethical and what is permissible – and not for anybody, but only for the very greatest of individuals. When this argument is held up against figures such as Marx, bubbling away in the background, Raskolnikov’s reasoning becomes very powerful indeed.
And yet. After committing the crime, we are witnesses to the punishment. Truly, the worst thing in the world is to realise what you have done. And slowly, creepingly, maddeningly, the realisation of what he has done assaults Raskolnikov through dreams, fevers and madness, exhausting him with guilt and distress. He is become Cain, who ran and hid from God after murdering his brother. When God says, “your seed will be punished for seven generations” (I’m paraphrasing), Cain replies, “my punishment is worse than I can bear.” This is what has happened with Raskolnikov. He is consumed by his grievous sin, and the punishment for it is of his own making. What’s interesting about the Cain and Abel story is that we are all partly Cain and partly Abel, and the story represents which part of us do we want to win in our own internal conflicts; the one who makes sacrifices and gets rewarded, or the embittered, impulsive part that destroys the better part of us. Which is exactly what happens with Raskolnikov: he destroys the better part of himself through his actions and agency in the world, and is thus cast into a hell of his own making, and he drags down all the people around him through his dire actions.
The supporting characters are no less well constructed. I won’t go into all of them here, but Svidrigailov, Doumia and Katia are all wonderful characters in their own right. However, special attention ought to be paid to Razhumikin, Raskolnikov’s great friend. Razhumikin is loyal, passionate, strong, and has a strong sense of what is morally right, and stands up for an individual’s means to assert himself in the world – he is, then, a classical foil to Raskolnikov’s nihilism. But he can also be read as Abel to Raskolnikov’s Cain; he is the better part of Raskolnikov; he uses his philosophical skills to construct ethical frameworks of hope and aspiration; he works hard, he champions the individual over the collective, and he tries with all his heart to help his dearest friend and his family, even in direst need. And, at the end, when Raskolnikov faces his fate alone, Razhumikin has also been broken by the knowledge of his brother’s sin.
I’ve said more than I intended. But I was compelled to do so. No book has exhilarated me this much since I read The Name Of The Rose for the first time, and I feel that it is one of the most devastating philosophical takedowns of the brutal idea that the “ends justify the means”. Like 1984, Crime and Punishment is a book that everyone should read.