Here’s Richard on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment…
“If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison.”
In many ways that is the leitmotif of one of the most brilliant, disturbing novels ever to have been written. While occupying a strong position in literary fiction, Dostoyevsky’s seminal Crime And Punishment is also a crime novel. It is a dark, unflinching look at the human psyche and the irrational mechanisms at work within it. It is a dig by an expert archaeologist into the mind of Raskolnikov, who, influenced by the theory of the superman, kills his grasping landlady only to fall prey to his guilt.
In some ways the novel is about why he is unable to turn himself into a psychopath. And that is why I have given nothing away in telling you who he murders, because it is not a whodunit, it is a whydunit.
Dostoyevsky takes a scalpel and peels back the layers of his characters’ motivations. He exposes the need for the irrational in human beings, the fact that despite our illusion that we are governed by reason, we fall prey to impulses that get the better of us.
There is an interesting historical footnote to Crime and Punishment. Nietzsche read Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and wrote of the author, “At last a psychologist I can learn from”. While there is no written evidence Dostoyevsky read Nietzsche, there seems to be some cross-fertilisation at work in Raskolnikov’s use of the theory of the superman, and it is likely Dostoyevsky did read the theory and use it in the novel.
He shows the connection between crime and irrational drives in a St Petersburg filled with paranoia. In terms of its depth of characterisation and exploration of the nature of guilt it is a great novel.
- Richard Goodwin
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.