Book note: Crime and Punishment

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1866) translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1992) with an introduction by W.J. Leatherbarrow (1993)

Dostoyevsky’s great novel is about how a young man with basically decent and humane feeling puts himself into a psychological state in which he commits a cold-blooded murder.

When we meet the young man, Raskolnikov, he is hungry, exhausted, and in ill health.  He is full of guilt for sponging off his needy mother and sister.  He is deeply in debt to a pawnbroker, a greedy old woman who has an abused half-sister.

We later learn that he wasn’t always like this.  A fairly short time before the action of the novel begins, when he was solvent and healthy, he was compassionate and responsible, keeping his own life in order and going out of this way to constructively help others.

But now he is in a state where his mind is on automatic pilot—acting on impulse rather than conscious decision.  Some of his impulses are generous and kind, some are bad, but none are the result of conscious decision.

This state has been well described by 20th century psychologists, starting with Sigmund Freud.  The conscious mind is not necessarily master in its own house.  It thinks it is the CEO of the human personality, but often it is just the PR department.  

Dostoyevsky understood through introspection and observation what Freud and others later figured out through scientific study and clinical experience.

Raskonnikov’s main source of self-esteem is an article he wrote about how the end justifies the means, and how a truly great person, such as Napoleon, pursues his goal by all means necessary, without concern for moral rules.

Napoleon knowingly caused the deaths of many thousands of innocent people, but he was regarded as a great man because he was a force for progress, Raskolnikov wrote; a Napoleon on the individual level, who acquired money through a crime, but used the money to do good, would also be great.  In fact, it could be your duty to overcome qualms of conscience to accomplish a great goal.

He begins to fantasize about killing the pawnbroker and using her money to help his mother and sister, canceling out the criminal act by the good deed.  But there is no point in the narrative at which he comes to a conscious decision to commit the murder.

One day he overhears a student arguing with a military officer about that very thing.  The student says that killing and robbing the pawnbroker would be justified if the money was used to accomplish a greater good, because the pawnbroker contributes nothing to society.  Ah, replies the officer, but would you really do it?  No, the student admits.

This is what the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman called priming or anchoring—one of the subtle things that influence human action below the level of consciousness.

Raskolnikov goes ahead and commits the murder.  He kills the greedy pawnbroker and then her innocent half-sister.  All the while he acts more on impulse and instinct more than rational judgement.  It is as if he is a spectator to his own actions.

I myself have experienced being in such a mental state.  I have done things with my mind on automatic pilot, sometimes to my great regret, and then wonder why I did them.

Raskolnikov flees the murder scene and gets away with loot, but not as much as if he had been able to act calmly, rationally and decisively.  

Later he reproaches himself, not for committing the murder, but for not being Napoleon-like character he imagined himself to be.   But his sense of guilt is too great and he eventually confesses.  Even so, he is still tortured by the conflict between his conscience and his philosophy.

Raskolnikov’s inability to overcome his basic human decency is not, as he saw it, a fatal flaw, but a saving grace


Good, bad and evil characters

Crime and Punishment is not just about Raskolnikov.  Dostoyevsky depicts a wide spectrum of good and evil

Marmeladov is a hopeless drunk who Raskolnikov meets before he has carried out the murder.  Raskolnikov is deeply moved by his passionate, almost ecstatic confession of how his abject alcoholism led to the devastation of his life, the destitution of his wife and children, and ultimately to his daughter Sonya being forced into prostitution.

Marmaladov is given a job and a chance to set himself on a better path, but he can’t bear the anxiety and stress of resisting his addiction.  He soon succumbs to addiction again.  He dies in a road accident, which may or may not be suicide. 

He is a type of person I define as bad rather than evil.  Bad people are ashamed of being bad, but are unable to be otherwise.  Evil people consciously reject the good.

Luzhin is well-off lawyer who is engaged to Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya,  in the beginning of the novel.  His motives for the marriage are dubious, as he more or less states that he has sought a woman who will be completely beholden to him.  He slanders and falsely accuses Sonya of theft in an attempt to harm Raskolnikov’s relations with his family. 

Raskolnikov, despite his own problems, does his best to help Marmeladov and his family.  But he instantly takes a dislike to Luzhin, even before he knows the extent of his villainy, and tries to prevent his sister from marrying him.

But even Luzhin pays lip service to morality.  The womanizer Svidrigailov rejects morality.  He believes that since the universe is meaningless and directionless, his pleasure and gratification are all that matter.  He can rape a mute 15-year-old girl and, upon hearing that this girl has hanged herself, have no feelings of remorse.

Much of the last section of the book consists of Svidrigailov, the real nihilist, taunting Raskolnikov, the would-be nihilist.  

He does perform charitable acts, but apparently based on whims and a desire to surprise people rather than actual concern for others.    

He is attracted to Dunya, attempts to rape her and is beaten off.  

In the end, he commits suicide.  The reasons are not spelled out, but he comments earlier in the novel that his life is a battle against boredom, and rather than face a life of boredom, he would commit suicide.

Dunya herself and Raskolnikov’s loyal friend Razumíkhin are the opposite extreme.  They are upright, strong, resourceful and good-hearted, and stick by Raskolnikov no matter what happens.  In the end they marry.

But their goodness and friendship are not enough to influence Raskonikov.   His transformation requires the unconditional love offered to him by Sonya.   Her love inspires him to confess, but he later regrets his confession.  Sonya follows him to his prison camp in Siberia and her self-sacrificial love eventually causes him to repent.  But Dostoevsky notes that repentance is never forever; it is a lifelong struggle, and Raskolnikov’s struggle has only begun.


Could Raskolnikov’s argument have been right?

Suppose Raskolnikov had been able to act out his fantasy.  

Suppose he had been able to offset the death of the pawnbroker by using her wealth for the salvation of himself and his mother and sister.  Suppose as a result, he had a great, constructive career as a public intellectual.  

Wouldn’t that have justified his deed?  Wouldn’t his philosophy have been proven right?

After all, Napoleon wasn’t the only statesman who committed crimes and later was judged to be on the right side of history.

This is not a fringe viewpoint.  Virtually every crime against humanity is justified in the name of a greater good.  Secretary of State Madeline Albright said the deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to the 1990s U.S. blockade was “worth it” as part of the campaign against the evil tyrant Saddam Hussein.  Her way of thinking was not unusual.

George Orwell, in a 1946 essay, called this “catastrophic gradualism.”  You are supposed to accept the that progress cannot be accomplished without war, tyranny and atrocities.  You are told that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.  But when you ask to see the omelette, you’re told that progress can’t be accomplished overnight.  

The famous trolley-car problem basically makes the same argument that Raskolnikov did.  You are supposed to be willing to murder a fat man by pushing him in front of a runaway trolley car in order to save the lives of people standing on the track.  Never mind that the situation is virtually impossible.    

The ethicist Peter Singer made an argument to justify torture in certain theoretical circumstances, which was taken as validation by real torturers.  Ideas do have consequences.

There are situations, both for individuals and for heads of state, in which the only choice is a choice of evils.  Abraham Lincoln had to choose between engaging in a bloody civil war and allowing the breakup of the Union by slaveholders.  A mother in a Nazi extermination camp was ordered to choose which of her children was to be killed, or else lose both.

Such situations are rare, and you should intentionally put yourself in such a situation.

Raskolnikov put the question to Sonya.  He asked her whether, if she could have foreseen all the harm that Luzhin did to her family, she would have willed his death.

“Why do you ask about what cannot be?” Sonya asked with feeling.

“So it’s better for Luzhin to live and commit abominations?  You don’t dare to decide even in this?”

“But I cannot know Divine Providence . . . And why do you ask what cannot be asked?  How could it come about that it could depend on my decision?  And who put me here to judge who is to live and who is not to live?”

The world is full of criminals who could have killed the pawnbroker and looted her shop without the blinking of an eye.  Such people are called sociopaths.  A sociopath would never have considered using the loot to do good.  There are sociopaths of great wealth and high public office as well as in urban slums.


Crime and Punishment is, among other things, an argument against two philosophies that hadn’t even been formulated at the time.  With Svidrigailov, he foresees Nietzsche’s übermensch, the egoist who lives for self-fulfillment and cares nothing for ordinary people or their morals.  With Raskolnikov, he foresees Lenin’s Chekist, the idealist who’s willing to kill ruthlessly in order to push history to its goal.

[minor revisions made immediately after posting]

Afterthought.  [06/30/2022]  A friend of mine asked why we sympathize with Raskolnikov and not with Luzhin.  Raskolnikov, not Luzhin, was the murderer.  Raskolnikov disapproved of Luzhin’s offer of marriage to Dunya, but there was nothing dishonorable about it, in and of itself.

Luzhin’s false accusation against Sonya was despicable, but so was Raskolnikov’s reckless spending of the money that his mother and sister sacrificed so much to accumulate for him.

One answer is that we know that Raskolnikov had a guilty conscience, and there is no indication that Luzhin did.  Raskolnikov was capable of redemption, and we see him on the road to redemption.  It is hard to imagine Luzhin changing.

Also, Dostoyevsky does not deny that Raskolnikov deserved punishment.  Understanding the reasons why someone might be driven to commit a crime is not the same as saying the person should not suffer consequences for committing the crime.

Afterthought.  [O7/06/2022].   My friend also put in in a good word for Svidrigailov.  She pointed out, right before his suicide, he helped Dunya and Sonya by arranging for them to get money he inherited from his wife—the wife he allegedly murdered.

I admit she has a point.  Svidrigailov is a more complex character and a more tormented soul than I gave him credit for being.  He is a real nihilist – one who believed that God does not exist and there is no such thing as right and wrong.  He lived that way, without, like Raskolnikov, trying to rationalize or justify his behavior.  

It’s not clear to me which of his crimes are real, which are merely rumors and which are dreams and fantasies, but he is a depraved character—not just a womanizer, but a pedophile.  We readers do not enter into his thoughts, but his actions and suicide show he is in despair.

He is infatuated with Dunya.  He tries to blackmail her into submission with his knowledge of Raskolnikov’s guilt and then tries to force himself on her.  When he sees she will never submit in spirit, he gives up and lets her go.  This shows he is not wholly bad.  

But, unlike Raskolnikov, he sees no way to change himself or lead a meaningful life.  In despair, he commits suicide.

Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “Book note: Crime and Punishment”

  1. philebersole Says:

    The following passage is from the novel Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. The dialogue is between Rubashov, an old Bolshevik falsely accused of plotting against Stalin, and Ivanov, his interrogator.

    “Do you remember ‘Raskolnikov’?”

    Ivanov smiled at him with irony. “It was to be expected that you sooner or later would come to that. Crime and Punishment . . . You really are becoming childish or senile.”

    “Wait a bit. Wait a bit,” said Rubashov, walking up and down agitatedly. “All this is just talk, but we are getting nearer the point. As far as I can remember, the point is whether the student Raskolnikov has the right to kill the old woman? He is young and talented; he has, as it were, an unredeemed pledge on life in his pockets; she is old and utterly useless to the world. But the equation does not stand. In the first place, circumstances oblige him to murder a second person; that is the unforeseeable and illogical consequence of an apparently simple and logical action. Secondly, the equation collapses in any case because Raskolnikov discovers that twice two are not four when the mathematical units are human beings . . . .”

    “Really,” said Ivanov. “If you want to hear my opinion, every copy of this book should be burned. Consider what this humanitarian-fog philosophy would lead to, if we were to take it literally; if we were to stick to the precept that the individual is sacrosanct, and that we should not treat human lives according to the rules of arithmetic. That would mean a battalion commander may not sacrifice a patrolling party to save the regiment. That we may not sacrifice fools like Bogrov and must risk our coastal towns being shot to pieces in a couple of years . . .”

    Rubashov shook his head:
    “Your examples are all drawn from war—that is, from abnormal circumstances.”

    “Since the invention of the steam engine,” replied Ivanov, “the world has been permanently in an abnormal state; the wars and revolutions are just the visible expressions of this state. Your Raskolnikov is, however, a fool and a criminal; not because he behaves logically in killing the old woman, but because he is doing it in his personal interest. The principle that the end justifies the means is the only rule of political ethics; anything else is just vague chatter and melts away between one’s fingers. . . . If Raskolnikov had bumped off the old woman at the command of the Party—for example, to increase strike funds or to install an illegal Press—then the equation would stand and the novel with its misleading problem would never have been written—and so much the better for humanity.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Connor McDowell Says:

    great post.
    “Later he reproaches himself, not for committing the murder, but for not being Napoleon-like character he imagined himself to be.”
    I love how in this book it’s so fever-ish. Dostoevsky writes such a dusty, feverish, psychotic half-dream.
    Favourite scene: when the man who wanted to marry Dunya plants money on Sonya in order to reprimand her during the funeral meal, and Raskolnikov’s response.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Johanna connelly Says:

    Hi Phil. I was an English major at Penn State and had to read Crime and Punishment. Your review casts light on the characters not emphasized in my class. Sonja was the emphasis I remember. Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful commentary. Johanna Connelly.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: