Crime and Punishment (1866) is a Russian novel about a young man named Raskolnikov who murders a pawnbroker and her mentally challenged sister. The crime is motivated in part by the young man’s poverty, but the more important element has to do with something else. He is obsessed by notions of superiority; namely, the idea that a Napoleon lives on a plane that transcends moral laws and restrictions. In other words, if an ordinary man commits murder, he has broken the law and consequently deserves to be punished; but if a Napoleon commits murder, even on a mass scale, that is permissible—because he is superior. Raskolnikov wants more than anything else to be such an extraordinary individual. But the theory and the grisly deeds that result reduce him to a broken state.
However, this is not an abstract philosophical treatise but a novel; and as such, it deals with flesh and blood people and concrete action. There are many and varied characters which are skillfully woven into the lengthy narrative. My favorites, aside from the protagonist himself, include the boisterous yet good-natured Razumikhin; the saintly Sonia; Porfiry, the brilliant detective (who might remind readers of television’s Columbo, starring Peter Falk); and there’s also the complex and creepy Svidrigaylov. The pivotal episode, the murder itself, is described with unsettling intensity. The author conveys with penetrating insight Raskolnikov’s virtual helplessness against the temptation to follow through with the plan. He is terrified and profoundly disgusted, and yet he goes on with it. But this is not a mere madman who has no control over his actions or cannot distinguish right from wrong, reality from fantasy. Raskolnikov is, I would say, disturbed but sane.
The novel has its share of weaknesses. The character named Luzhin is so despicable he comes off as a caricature for the most part. Also, some of the dialogue is dragged out to excess, and too frequently takes place in Raskolnikov’s room—which is described as being almost claustrophobically cramped and stuffy. In this miserable space, several sizable gatherings occur in which people chatter interminably and seem to be at ease. If this was an attempt at humor, that is one thing; but I don’t think that was the case.
Incidentally, Dostoyevsky can be quite humorous; not often but sometimes. That is a trait that most of his fans don’t seem to notice.
Three fateful choices were made for the modern world during the 1800s; and those choices can be represented by three exceptionally brilliant writers: Marx, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky. It seems to me that each of us orbits around or gravitates toward one of the three, whether we know them or not. Maybe this is too simplistic, and yet I think it has enough validity to warrant close consideration. Insofar as Dostoyevsky is concerned, Crime and Punishment is the key work; and unlike Marx and Nietzsche, the prophetic vision of Dostoyevsky turns his readers toward God.