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Crime and Punishment

by Dante Moreno

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment between 1864 and 1866. Dostoyevsky was in financial ruin when he conceived the concept of Crime and Punishment, and had to write the book quickly, with very little editing, for example Sonia’s younger sister has her name change half way through the book, and the room that the murder takes place changes floors. Pierre Francois Lacenaire, a French criminal, who, at his trial, claimed that he committed murder as a protest to social injustice, inspired Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Siberia in 1849 for his radical ideas and allegedly reading banned books, which the Tsar feared could start a rebellion. During the time this novel was written, Europe was in turmoil from the Revolutions of 1848, which makes the radical Raskolnikov even more poignant. Russia was beginning a transition to modernity and enacted many, far-reaching, failed reforms. There were different revolutionary groups that were gaining ground in Russia that espoused ideas that are similar to the protagonist, Raskolnikov. An analysis of Crime and Punishment reveals that the new ideas permeating Russia were dangerous, and that the old ideas were better.

Raskolnikov embodies the new thinkers of Dostoyevsky’s time. He’s an intellectual, who has thoughts and ideas that match directly with that of an intelligentsia, in a mostly uneducated country. He believes he is superior human being, comparing himself to Napoleon. Raskolnikov believes his murder is justifiable because it’s “"one death for hundreds of lives—it's simple arithmetic!" (Dostoyevsky 63). The new fanatical thinkers of Dostoyevsky’s time would argue that the ends justify the means. Raskolnikov had his theory that humans could be separated into two different categories, and he was placed in the better category, which meant that ordinary laws did not apply to him. He wanted to test his theory out, but in order to test it out he needed to break not only a human law, but a moral law, which was used to justify the murder. Raskolnikov embodies the characteristics of the Russian intelligentsia, “its habits of thought, its delusions of insight, and its self-image of superiority to the rest of society” (Gary Morson). Raskolnikov decided to kill the old woman because he thought he had the ability to decide who lived and who died. This ‘self-image of superiority’ is one of the ideas that Dostoyevsky found so dangerous during his time period. Russia was in such turmoil, the Enlightenment had finally reached it and the Orthodox Church had been perverting itself for political means, that time was ripe for people to rise up and disown their past beliefs. The Russian people were becoming more dangerous to Russia because of the intelligentsia belief that their means of protest, even if it meant hurting other people or Dostoyevsky’s beloved Tsar, was okay because they were better. Raskolnikov, like others of his time, was “an intelligentsia [that] yield[ed] to a belief in its special mission to save society” (Morson). Raskolnikov uses the notion that Alyona Ivanovna’s death would be beneficial to society, so he felt no moral misgiving in killing her. Raskolnikov believed that Ivanovna was contributing more evil into the world than the immorality of her murder would cause. Ivanovna makes the lives of those in financial hardship even harder, and beats her poor and defenseless younger sister, Lizaveta. Raskolnikov’s attempt at a good deed backfires when he is forced to kill Lizaveta. Raskolnikov also tries to defend the murder by declaring that the money he stole form Ivanovna would allow him to devote himself to the service of mankind. Raskolnikov never uses the money he stole. Dostoyevsky uses Raskolnikov to criticize the intelligentsia’s belief that they could ‘fix’ the world. Raskolnikov’s plan doesn’t work, and Dostoyevsky is implying that no such plan could ever work. Considering the Tsar ruled Russia, whenever the intelligentsia was acting to save society, they were protesting against the Tsar’s wrongdoing. Dostoyevsky uses the intelligentsia’s failed principles, which leads one to believe that this was an attack on the new principles that had made their way into Russia. Dostoyevsky is using Raskolnikov to denounce the new, enlightened ideas and the branches that grew from them, and praising the old and traditional ideas.

Dostoyevsky stresses the importance of religion on influencing a person’s morality. Sonia, the most virtuous character in the book, is also the most religious. Sonia is the very representation of holiness. Sonia herself does not have a ‘holy’ career, she’s a prostitute, but her actions and ideas are all very virtuous. In the novel, Sonia represents the old ideas, and is cast in the most favorable light. Everyone who comes in contact with Sonia enjoys her presence, “When she came to see Raskolnikov at work, or when she met a party of prisoners on their way to work, they would all take their caps off, and they would all greet her: ‘Sofia Semionovna, ma’am, you’re our tender, aching mother!’” (Dostoyevsky 524). Dostoyevsky wrote that Sonia never did anything especially nice for the prisoners in Siberia, but they all still loved her anyway. Sonia radiated love and holiness, which made almost everyone who came in contact with her in the book come to love her. By comparison, Raskolnikov is hated by the Siberian prisoners, and just about everyone else he comes in contact with. It’s stated several time that Raskolnikov is an atheist, and even though he never told his fellow prisoners that, they seem to know instinctually and hate him universally. Dostoyevsky is making the point that religion is a dominant force in people’s lives and affects a person’s demeanor and presence. Raskolnikov goes to Sonia right before he turns himself in and asks for her Cyprus cross, with “the implied resolve to seek a new life though accepting suffering and punishment” (Gibian). While before, Raskolnikov was running away from the lying and the responsibility of the murder, when he begins to ‘bear’ the cross, he turns himself into the police station to accept his penance and start his redemption. Dostoyevsky alludes to the fact that without a God Raskolnikov has little sense of morality. In the Epilogue, the last action by Raskolnikov is opening the New Testament, a symbol of his rebirth, and being brought back to the moral life. During the time of turmoil in Russia, the major metropolitan areas were becoming less religious as the people began to lose faith in God. The Russian Orthodoxy was traditionally so important and powerful, that this declining power of the Church seemed immoral to Dostoyevsky. Religion is the moral compass for Raskolnikov, when he has no religion he has no morals. The story of Lazarus plays an important role throughout the novel, “The raising of Lazarus from the dead is to Dostoyevsky the best exemplum of a human being resurrected to a new life, the road to Golgotha the best expression of the dark road of sorrow, and Christ himself the grand type of voluntary suffering” (Gibian). The story of Lazarus plays in important role in Crime and Punishment because the first time Raskolnikov visits Sonia’s apartment, he asks her to read aloud the story of Lazarus. Raskolnikov is eventually resurrected to a new life in the Epilogue, when he accepts the love given to him by Sonia and opens up the New Testament. The road to Golgotha represents the months he spent physically ill and mentally deranged. Raskolnikov fell ill the moment he consciously conceived the idea of murder, and the illness never truly went away until his rebirth in Siberia. Nikolai and Raskolnikov represent the voluntary suffering of Christ. Nikolai was a painter who confessed to the murder because he belonged to a religious sect that rewarded voluntary suffering. Nikolai also represented the chance Raskolnikov had to get away with his murder, because even though Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator, believed Raskolnikov was the murderer, he had no proof and a man had already testified to the crime. Raskolnikov represents Christ because he gave himself up to the police at the end. Siberia was the penance that was needed to ease his sick and weighed down mind, and only through the hard labor could he redeem himself. Dostoyevsky is trying to show the stark differences between the moral and the immoral, and has religious motifs throughout the novel. By praising the morality that comes from the religious, and demonizing the one person who is an atheist, Dostoyevsky moves to elucidate the importance of the Church, which was an institution that many Russians were beginning to feel out of touch with. It should also be noted that God does seem to interfere in Sonia’s life. When Raskolnikov first meets Sonia, he taunts her by predicting that her younger siblings would become poor orphans, and her sister, too, would have to prostitute herself for support. God seems to intervene when Svidrigailov offers to set up a trust for the orphans after their mother dies. This suggests that the religious and moral can find a helping hand with God. Dostoyevsky furthers his convincement for conservative traditions by stressing the importance of familial connections.

Family has long been an important cornerstone in people’s moral education. Raskolnikov lives far away from his mother and sister, in the metropolitan area of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg was known to be an unprincipled city in Dostoyevsky’s time. In the novel, Dostoyevsky stresses the importance of familial connections, because they help to keep moral standards strong. One of the signs that Raskolnikov has devolved morally is when he doesn’t want to spend time with his family, “ ‘I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it’ he repeated irritably. ‘Don’t torment me. Enough. Go away. I can’t stand it!’” (Dostoyevsky 197). Throughout the book Raskolnikov treats his friends and family with disrespect and flagrant disregard. His estrangement with his family sends him spinning into insanity, he’s physically sickened by the crime he commits and being near his family, which represents love, only further drove him mad. When Raskolnikov decides to turn himself over to the police, he first expresses regret to his mother, his sister, and Sonia. By making amends with his family members, Raskolnikov is trying to mend his broken morality. Sonia is the epitome of morals and representation of old-age ideals. “She is willing to sacrifice herself for her family, and she puts the ideals of love and service to one's fellow humans above any notion of self-aggrandizement” (Connolly). Sonia is constantly praised and cast in a favorable light because of her willingness to help and love her family throughout every ordeal. She loved her father, even though his drunken ineptitude drove her to prostitution in order to support her family. She loved her consumptive stepmother, even when she went insane. She loved Raskolnikov, even though he was a murderer that refused to treat her with respect until the end of the novel. Sonia kept these conservative values and is continually treated with admiration both by the characters in the book and Dostoyevsky himself. Sonia also becomes the most important family member in Raskolnikov’s life; “Only Sonya's appearance outside the police station at the end of the main section of the novel prevents Raskolnikov from emulating Svidrigailov's example and committing suicide. Instead, he follows her advice, confesses his crime, and with her love and support he ultimately finds redemption in Siberia.” (Connolly). Raskolnikov is lost, sick, and immoral until he meets Sonia. When Raskolnikov was avoiding his mother and sister, he sought the comfort of Sonia’s company and confessed to her the murder. Sonia did have a slight aversion to him after his confession, but she overcame that because she realized that she needed to be Raskolnikov’s savior. Sonia became the one family member he relied on most, and every time he was in need of comfort or company he went to find her. Sonia became Raskolnikov’s moral compass, and kept setting him on the right path. When he rejected his family, he was at the bottom of his immorality. When he starts to accept the love and compassion of Sonia, who becomes his whole family, Raskolnikov starts on the path of redemption and rebirth. Dostoyevsky is pushing the importance of familial bonds because during this time of turmoil in Russia, the most likely candidates for revolutionaries were those less connected with their family and traditions. The revolutionaries congregated in cities like St. Petersburg, which was a city full of intelligentsias and college-aged students, and did not house an overwhelming amount of families. Dostoyevsky makes sure to point out that the moral characters are those that are connected with family, like Dunia, Razumikhin, and Sonia, and the most dangerous character in the book, Raskolnikov, was the person shunning his loved ones. There is definitely an importance to family connection, but the ideas spouted by one’s family aren’t necessarily the correct ideas, they do tend to make a lasting impression and stay strong throughout adulthood, which would reduce the number of revolutionaries roaming around the city, and increase the aggregate total Tsar supporters.

Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment during a turbulent time in Russian history. There was a fight raging on between the traditionalist Tsar-supporters, and the utopian socialists. He was championing ideas that supported the traditional way of life, like family and religion, while actively demonizing the ideas of the radical groups of his time, which included the intelligentsia. The key characters exemplify these overall themes, and most of the secondary characters are extreme examples, being either extremely virtuous or extremely wicked. The novel continually argues that the new ideas in Russia were dangerous and immoral, while the old, traditional way of life remains the correct and safe way of life.

Works Cited

Connolly, Julian. “Overview of Crime and Punishment.” EXPLORING Novels. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. 09 Nov. 2015
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. “Crime and Punishment.” New York: Signet Classic, 2006. Print
Gibian, George. “Traditional Symbolism in Crime and Punishment.” EXPLORING Novels. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. 09 Nov. 2015
Morson, Gary Saul. “How to Read Crime and Punishment.” EXPLORING Novels. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. 09 Nov. 2015