An Analysis of Crime and Punishment
by Paris Whitney
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a novel that has been deemed controversial, yet notable over the course of centuries. This novel was influenced by the time period and setting of 19th century St. Petersburg, Russia. Society was transitioning from medieval traditions to Westernization, which had a large impact on civilians, specifically those in poverty. Dostoevsky writes this novel centered around a poor man whose poverty drives him to test an ideology that results in his own detriment. Although this is important, the plot is only part of what makes this novel significant. What continues to make this novel memorable centuries after it was written is how Dostoevsky uses the concept of time to progress the plot and establish information, how his use of symbolism contributes to the message and meaning of the story and its characters, and how his writing has unintentionally embraced and related to different philosophies.
symbolism, nature, time, philosophy, existentialism, ego transcendence
Fyodor Dostoevsky is perhaps the most controversial author of the nineteenth century. His best-known work is Crime and Punishment, a novel that explores the psychological depths of man. At the center is Raskolnikov, a character who inflicts and experiences a great deal of suffering, all because he perceives himself to be superior to the average man.
Crime and Punishment takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia. The time is 1860, Alexander II holds reign, and consequently political skepticism is abundant. In addition to skepticism, the country’s economic state has disproportionate effects on its citizens, as the increasing wealth gap parallels the increase of turmoil in the streets. The novel follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a man of lower class whose poverty leads him to forming an idea and testing its validity. This theory is that certain men are exempt from laws created by society, as their actions against these laws are done for the greater good. In order to test this theory, Raskolnikov forms a plan to murder Alyona Ivanovna, an old pawnbroker whom he has had many exchanges with. After killing Ivanovna, he ends up killing her sister Lizaveta as well, when her appearance at Ivanovna’s apartment startles his original plan. In a frenzy, he leaves their bodies at the crime scene, and on his way out his mental state begins to spiral leading the readers to follow his psychological decline.
Around the world, philologists and psychologists alike have studied Crime and Punishment to understand what makes this work essential to literature. Through studies of symbolism, philosophy, and psychology, it is recognized how Dostoevsky uses the concept of time to develop the story, how he uses symbolism to reflect underlying emotions and intentions of characters, and how different ideologies may be related to the meaning behind Crime and Punishment. These components used together showcase how Dostoevsky’s work remains notable for centuries.
Crime and Punishment is a novel symbolic of the drawbacks that society can have on individuals, specifically those who are at a disadvantage as a result of their class or mental state. When Dostoevsky penned this novel, the time was 1866. 19th century Russia was a transition period from medieval traditions to Westernization. During this transition, many people struggled to accommodate to the changing times. There was unrest in the streets, conflict amongst the classes, economic upheaval, and a lack of concern for those suffering by the government. Those who were of higher class were better able to navigate this complex transition, while those in poverty lacked the materials necessary to accommodate to the coming changes. Previously Westernized countries exhibited unrest fromtheir populations while progressing in societal advancement. There was concern about this potentially translating into Russia’s development. Russia was not exempt from these issues, and Dostoevsky was no help in assuring that peace would be maintained. Dostoevsky’s work concerned people in power when he indirectly made an association between violence and societal progression, and how this may prompt the masses to revolt against their government. Localized current events, such as a rise in domestic violence and murder, also influenced this novel. Due to these real-life events that inspired Dostoevsky’s work, it can be said that Crime and Punishment is an accurate representation of its time period.
Not only was time period an influence on his work, but Dostoevsky would manipulate the concept of time itself to convey the meaning behind his stories. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky writes Raskolnikov as a character continuously in a fever of thoughts. His mind is constantly running rampant, unrelenting even in slumber. Before significant events Raskolnikov would either flashback or dream of memories foreshadowing future moments. An example of this is before committing to murder Alyona Ivanovna, his subconscious takes him and the reader back to a moment where he and his father witnessed the cruel killing of a mule at the hands of a crowd for being too weak to pull a wagon. From a third person perspective, young Raskolnikov’s reaction to this moment is described hither, “But by now the poor boy is beside himself. With a shout he plunges through the crowd into the sorrel, embraces her dead, bloodstained muzzle, and he kisses her, kisses her on the eyes, on the mouth…” (Dostoevsky, 1866, pg. 57). By preceding Raskolnikov’s murderous intentions with his younger self’s mournful reaction to the mule’s death shows the audience how Raskolnikov has developed over time, and the degeneration resulting from his experiences in life.Time also seems to slow down when Raskolnikov is in moments of heightened emotion, because as he loses the ability to conceptualize, the more feverish his mind becomes. Towards the end of the novel, Raskolnikov reflects on the events that have occurred, saying “after a long time had passed, he thought his consciousness must have kept flashing on and off, with several dim, dark intervals, right up to the final catastrophe. He was absolutely convinced he had been mistaken about many things at the time; the duration of time of certain events, for example.” (Dostoevsky, 1866, pg. 417). This feverish mindset also manifests into physiological symptoms, giving Raskolnikov the appearance of being sick. “He was not completely unconscious all the time he was sick, but rather delirious, in a feverish state of half consciousness. He could recall a good deal later. Once in his room seemed full of people… They had all gone out. They were afraid of him.” (Dostoevsky, 1866, pg. 112). Dostoevsky uses syntax and diction to write these occurrences in a way that mimics Raskolnikov’s thinking. The transitions between events are frenetic, reflecting the tumultuous thoughts that plague Raskolnikov as a result of his actions. Choosing to modify the chronology of the novel in this way, he emphasizes the severity of situations by making the readers feel like they are experiencing the event as well.
In addition to this, Crime and Punishment contains levels of symbolism to enhance the mental conditions of characters. George Gibian explored traditionalsymbolism within Crime and Punishment, and came to find that many motifshave religious roots. Ranging from Christianity to Paganism to Russian Orthodoxy, Dostoevsky’s implementation of images such as water, vegetation, air, and earth come together to express the mental state of the characters immersed in a particular setting. For example, Gibian described how water is used as a symbol of rebirth or regeneration. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov would aimlessly walk about the setting in moments where his mind and thoughts were chaotic. He would end up in symbolically important nature scenes, for instance beside a river that ran through his town, or on the ground surrounded by bushes and trees. When near the water, he would feel the weight of guilt coming from the crimes he has committed. “He stared at the darkening water of the canal. He seemed to be scrutinizing this water. At last red circles danced before his eyes, the buildings swayed, the passersby, the embankments, the carriages- everything around him began to swirl and dance. All of a sudden he shuddered. A wild and grotesque scene saved him, perhaps, from another fainting spell.” (Dostoevsky, 1866, pg. 163). In this scene, Raskolnikov’s physiological symptoms begin to arise as his consciousness fights for contrition. This is important because Raskolnikov’s proximity to water when these feelings arise is representative of the good side of his conscience, trying to push him in the direction of what is right.
While water and vegetation are symbols that typically have a positive connotation, their presence can be used to emphasize the degeneration of one’s mental state. An example would be Svidrigailov, a character whose presence is nothing short of problematic. He strives to satisfy his erotic desires regardless of who may be harmed in the process, solidifying his position as one of the antagonists in Crime and Punishment. Svidrigailov also possesses a dislike for nature. This is shown when he visits St. Petersburg, and in his final night of life he ends up spiraling in his hotel room. During this downward spiral, he hears the sound of trees rustling outside of his window combined with rain. Instead of comforting him, they drive him further towards insanity. “‘The trees are sighing. I must admit I don’t care for the sighing of trees on a dark, stormy night- it gives me the creeps!’” He takes time to contemplate his life, saying, “ ‘I never in my life liked water… You’d think now, of all times, I’d be indifferent to these fine points of esthetics and comfort, whereas actually I’m fussier,’” (Dostoevsky, 1866, pg. 480). He resents the sound of vegetation when having a mental breakdown, and he ends up committing suicide in the midst of a fog that has emerged after a thunderstorm- showing his opposition to growing as a person. The use of nature as a way to reflect internal torments and emotions of different characters shows Dostoevsky’s proficiency in storytelling. Having the character’s surroundings speak the unspoken about what they may be feeling adds a level of meaning to the novel. This implementation of pathetic fallacy strengthens the story while aiding the reader in understanding the message of the text. When looking at the novel as a whole, it is clear nature bridges a connection between the audience and the author, by contextualizing events using the description of the setting where they take place. The narrator establishing the environment before delving into details about actions is a way to indicate to the reader potential outcomes of events, or foreshadow underlying emotions.
Symbolism in this novel does not stop with traditional aspects. Janet Tucker explored the significance of clothing in respect to a character’s religious prospects and how their clothing reflects their beliefs or state of mind. When being worn by someone who has dedicated their life to Christ, clothing is modest and kept to the best of their ability. Sonya is a character in Crime and Punishment who serves as a deuteragonist, being one of the women that only have pure intentions when it comes to helping Raskolnikov. She tries to help Raskolnikov find faith and become a better person, and she does her best to comfort him in his worst moments of mental distress. Sonya even follows Raskolnikov to Siberia when he is imprisoned, despite his resistance to loving her. After analyzing this description of character, it can be said that Sonya’s clothes reflect the graciousness of her soul. She conceals her body in rags because she is poor, although she tries her best to keep them from becoming tattered, showing her values and how she maintains her composed state of mind. Comparing her to Raskolnikov, his mental state is too far distracted for him to care about trivial matters such as his appearance. His clothes are riddled with holes, and he lacks the incentive to fix the damage. An interesting point that Tucker made is how Raskolnikov uses his clothes in his crimes. He wears an overcoat that he uses to conceal his murder weapon and the items he has stolen from Ivanovna after killing her. Considering this, Tucker’s point is validated by the quality of clothing matching the quality of the person who bears it. Dostoevsky using clothing to portend the mental state and values that characters hold is a creative and effective way to give the readers insight as to how they will be progressing throughout the novel. Astute members of the audience will be able to recognize the differences among presentation of characters and base predictions about their actions off of their clothing. It is also interesting to see how characters’ religious affiliations can be observed through their attention to quality of clothing, reflecting how they choose to preserve and care for their items. In contrast to nature’s reflection of emotions, clothing gives insight about personal traits and the morals that shape a character into who they are.
While symbolism is important to developing the meaning behind Crime and Punishment, what makes this novel so notable are the philosophies it both challenges and embraces unintentionally. Existentialism is a philosophy maintaining the belief that as individuals, there is a right within everyone to determine quality of life through acts of free will. It is easy to see how Crime and Punishment can be regarded by many existentialists as representative of this philosophy, but overall Dostoevsky is not one many would like to consider an archetype for existentialism. And, in retrospect, he is not. Dostoevsky’s main character in Crime and Punishment spends a lot of his time soliloquizing his belief that certain men are greater than others. Raskolnikov thinks men like this come to be by exercising their free will in ways that defy the common laws of life, but with the intention that what they are doing will better the world in the end. This idea is the reason behind Raskolnikov’s eventual murder of Alyona Ivanovna, a pawnbroker, and her half-sister Lizaveta. He kills Ivanovna as a way to test if he can be one of these people, but quickly discovers in the throes of his crime that he is not. This misconstrued idea of free will presented in Crime and Punishment can be where many begin to wonder if Dostoevsky was an existentialist. But a conclusion can be made that Dostoevsky’s free will is psychologically based and pushes the boundaries between what is right and what is wrong. Existentialism, on the other hand, is a philosophy centered around creativity and authenticity of the self.
On a more granular level, while Dostoevsky was not an existentialist, his work shows his agreement with the philosophical concept of ego transcendence. Transcendence of the ego is described as an advancement of the “authentic self” through experiences that result in a greater awareness. Once this awareness is achieved, this person usually begins to see themselves as greater than the average human. This is easily relatable to Raskolnikov’s philosophy that he reiterates often throughout the novel. The way that Dostoevsky sets his characters up for transcendence is through suffering. Richard Chapple analyzed the way Dostoevsky progresses Crime and Punishment by noting the use of the prism of the divine. The prism of the divine includes 6 reasons that people suffer, and Dostoevsky provides different scenarios for representations of each reason. Raskolnikov suffers as a result of “recognition of transgression,” which is his guilt overpowering him after killing two women. It is even more stressful because in this guilt he realizes that he is not the monumental person he thought he was. In turn, he suffers because of “involvement in the torments and suffering of others,” as a result of brutally murdering his victims, followed by “greed and ambition.” Once failing to follow through with his entire plan beyond murdering Ivanovna, the weight of his ambition becomes heavy as it never had a chance at being attained. This dissatisfaction with himself contributes more to his depression than the fact that he is a murderer.
The last three prisms of the divine are “lack of faith,” “pride,” and the “inability to love.” Here, it is important to note Chapple’s perspective on how pride stems into all categories of suffering. Chapple discussed concepts such as clothing, a previously mentioned symbol, and how its relation to pride can be interpreted. He states, “The proud often suffer because of poverty or other seemingly external circumstances such as name, clothing and position. Pride generates a façade, and characters wear masks to conceal an inner reality…” (1983, p. 97). While Raskolnikov’s hubris is his biggest torment, Raskolnikov suffers for all of these reasons, and these intersections are where Sonya tries to ease his pain. When Raskolnikov is in his apartment with Sonya and is attempting to explain his crimes, she reassures him that she will not forsake him as he believes she will, going as far as to promise to follow him wherever he goes, even to prison. When he asks her what he should do, she advises him to go back to where he committed these atrocities, kiss the earth and kneel on the ground, then confess aloud that he is a murderer. By doing so, he is confessing to God and has a chance of being forgiven for his sins.
While religion plays a big role in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s implementation of Lazarus is predominately referencing the song rather than the biblical story- though that is mentioned. The Lazarus song is a song that encapsulates the belief that the relationship between the rich and the poor should include the rich helping those in poverty by almsgiving. When Raskolnikov is preparing to face Porfiry Petrovich, a detective in the case of Ivanovna and Lizaveta’s murders, he says to himself “I’ll have to play the part of Lazarus for him too,” (Crime and Punishment, 237). When Raskolnikov says this, he means that he is going to have to embrace his situation as a poor, college dropout, as a way to appear more innocent to Petrovich. This manipulation is seen from the side of poor people such as Raskolnikov, but also from those of wealth.
Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, was engaged to a man of the name Luzhin who expected her to marry him out of desperation. When Dunya backs out of the marriage, Luzhin scolds himself for not using his money to manipulate her into staying by purchasing expensive gifts, as opposed for thinking he should have treated her better. It is through secondary characters like these when many underlying messages are being portrayed. While Raskolnikov is the central character of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky uses secondary characters as a way to reflect certain aspects that Raskolnikov may be lacking, such as consciousness and an ability to recognize and admit to one’s mistakes. With Sonya, she was a part of a family that forced her into prostitution because they were too poor to provide for her, with a father who was too drunk to care. Marmeladov was the father’s name, and he is who Raskolnikov first meets in a bar and confesses to his shame about the situation he has put his daughter in. Similarly, Raskolnikov’s mother reduces his sister to working in uncomfortable scenarios in order to be able to send Raskolnikov to college. She feels guilt at this when Dunya becomes the center of town drama, after the husband in the family she works for begins to lust after her. These characters have made mistakes, but what parallels them to Raskolnikov is the fact that they acknowledge their wrongs, whereas he has to find the courage to do so.
Raskolnikov’s struggles with admitting that he can make mistakes like anybody else stem from his beliefs that there are two types of people in the world. He references Napoleon throughout the novel, because he believes him to be an example of how things considered to be bad have to happen in order for progress to be made. Pearl Niemi defines this as “power-cult,” the part of Raskolnikov believing in certain people’s superiority to regular laws. The part of Raskolnikov that cripples him once he tries exercising this belief can be referred to as “child-cult.” The child-cult is Raskolnikov’s emotions and thoughts that challenge the power-cult and ultimately overtake it. This duality within Raskolnikov has an interesting relation with his name. “Raskolot,” is the Russian verb meaning division, or split. When analyzing the schism between Raskolnikov’s feelings and actions, it gives his name a greater meaning and shows how Dostoevsky was very intentional with his work.
Considering what makes a novel notable, Hugh Curtler elaborated on the idea that a novel which can be widely interpreted is what makes it memorable. Curtler referred to the part of the writer that allows for this to happen as the “poet,” because they write without clarification. In this respect, they acknowledge how Dostoevsky was successful at this throughout the majority of Crime and Punishment. Where Curtler thought Dostoevsky failed with this novel is in the epilogue. Instead of leaving the audience to gather their own opinions about certain aspects, he writes an epilogue that confirms what would have been better left unsaid, specifically Raskolnikov’s ability to feel emotions such as sadness, love, regret,etc.
In retrospect, Dostoevsky’s use of time, symbolism, and philosophical aspects in Crime and Punishment each provide different levels of meaning to the story. When incorporating the concept of time in terms of context and story progression, it allows the reader to grasp the importance of the events being foreshadowed, in addition to understanding the influences on decisions of characters. His attention to detail using motifs to communicate underlying emotions and intentions of his characters creates another layer of meaning for this novel, as the interpretation of these motifs make Crime and Punishment different for every reader. And lastly, Dostoevsky’s novel embraces different philosophies, while simultaneously maintaining its individuality from any one ideology. He writes this novel in a way where it applies to different ideals, wherein itself it is exclusive from being categorized, due to its unique central message. This message is one that can be applied to many time periods in history, including the 21st century. The inevitable progression of societies tends to commonly leave those who are underprivileged to fend for themselves. When this isolation persists, is it unexpected to have people who attempt to create a life for themselves trying to prove that they are worth something, when their government treats them like nothing? Crime and Punishment provides a variety of perspectives for the audience’s consideration. Despite the many ways that this novel can be read and interpreted, one thing is clear, Crime and Punishment is illustrious.
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 Tucker, J. (2009). Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: Stopping History’s Clock. Russian History, 36(3), 443-453. Retrieved May 8, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24664577
 Gibian, G. (1955). Traditional Symbolism in Crime and Punishment. PMLA, 70(5), 979-996. doi:10.2307/459881
Tucker, J. (2009). Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”: Stopping History’s Clock. Russian History, 36(3), 443-453. Retrieved May 8, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24664577
 Bourgeois, P. (1980). Dostoevsky and Existentialism: An Experiment in Hermeneutics. Journal of Thought, 15(2), 29-37. Retrieved May 8, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/42588842
 Harrison, L. (2013). THE NUMINOUS EXPERIENCE OF EGO TRANSCENDENCE IN DOSTOEVSKY. The Slavic and East European Journal, 57(3), 388-402. Retrieved May 8, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43857534
 Chapple, R. (1983). A Catalogue of Suffering in the Works of Dostoevsky: His Christian Foundation. The South Central Bulletin, 43(4), 94-99. doi:10.2307/3187246
 Curtler, H. (2004). The Artistic Failure of Crime and Punishment. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 38(1), 1-11. doi:10.2307/3527358
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