I started out writing a review of this novel since I recently reread it; however, Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite novels and Dostoyevsky is my favorite author (I know, an English major shouldn’t have a favorite author, but I do!) so I couldn’t be critical enough for a review. Instead, I’ve come up with 5 reasons why you should read Crime and Punishment. Now, let’s see if I can be persuasive…
1. The moral dilemma is intriguing
The big theme in Crime and Punishment centers around the question “Is there ever a morally justifiable reason to commit a crime?” Intriguing, right? Raskolnikov, our main character, believes that he may be similar to other great men—like Napoleon—who have killed in pursuit of a greater good. He decides that the only way to find out is to conduct an experiment in which he kills someone. His target is an old woman who is a pawn broker and is generally not a very nice person. This brings up the other issue attached to Dostoyevsky’s main theme: Can crime be pardoned if the motive is morally good? Ridding the community of this woman could be seen (by someone like Raskolnikov at least) as being for the greater good.
If that iteration of the theme doesn’t work for you, then take a look at Sonia. A poor girl with a struggling family—her father drinks away most of his wages—faces a choice: should she turn to prostitution and provide for her family or should she not work and eventually see herself and her family starve? For Sonia this is a choice between giving up her moral integrity (or soul) to keep herself and her family alive or remaining innocent and pure but sacrificing her family’s lives.
Through relatable characters like Raskolnikov and Sonia, Dostoevsky probes into larger questions about good and evil which are still relevant today.
2. The main character: Raskolnikov
The central character in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is a poor student who cannot afford to continue to go to the university. Forgoing the offer of a friend to work together, he spends a lot of time in his room thinking. In his isolation, Raskolnikov decides to try his murderous experiment.
It is later revealed that Raskolnikov wrote an academic paper about a class of men who are better than their fellow men—“great men” who are not beholden to normal societal rules like morality. Here Dostoyevsky is critiquing a specific theory of some Russian radicals during the time he was writing the novel, but also addresses a question that has been asked again and again in history: Are some men beyond the typical moral code? Read the story to find out of Raskolnikov is one of these “great men”.
3. Svidrigailov’s attitude that “all is permissible”
Svidrigailov’s attitude about life may be one you’ve encountered before: “all is permissible”. Coming from a humanist place, this attitude assumes that there is no “good” or “evil”, only being human, and there is no moral judgment of right and wrong.
Svidrigailov comes into the story as the former employer of Dounia, Raskolnikov’s sister. A married man, he tried to seduce her when she was his employee. Svidrigailov comes to St. Petersburg after the death of his wife to try to win Dounia from her fiancé, believing she loves him (although he is also engaged to a 15-year-old girl). Basically, he’s creepy and really the most evil character in the novel.
Don’t you want to see how this attitude that “all is permissible” works out for him?
4. Exploring Raskolnikov’s madness
From the moment Raskolnikov’s experiment of murder is complete, he becomes ill. This illness is not just physical; it comes from his mind and psychological state. Often taken to fevers and manic moments of truth, Raskolnikov’s interactions from that point on are clouded in madness. Dostoevsky predicts the future stream of consciousness style of writing (think Faulkner) when putting the reader in the middle of Raskolnikov’s madness. Dostoevsky tells his story so that the reader gets an all-access pass to Raskolnikov’s thoughts and feelings—his madness, dreams, and rantings. What’s fascinating is how relatable he still is (I love it when books make me question my own sanity, don’t you?) and how his point of view can make the most mundane people and events exciting and strange.
Crime and Punishment is not a “whodunit” story nor does it have a simple “throw him in jail” punishment, and that makes it so much more fun.
5. Russia’s urban St. Petersburg
Reading Dostoevsky has been my inspiration to visit Russia, although he doesn’t always bring out the prettiest parts of the country in his novels. Crime and Punishment focuses on St. Petersburg during the time of the book’s writing, the 1860s. A decidedly urban city, this novel focuses on the poor areas of St. Petersburg. Most of the action happens in taverns and small rented rooms. Raskolnikov’s room is so small that he uses a couch as a bed, and if there are more than three people in his room it seems comically full.
While the descriptions may be of dirty, impoverished places, these places reflect the feel of the novel. Crime and Punishment opens during a very hot summer that parallels the oppressive feeling of Raskolnikov’s thoughts. Although the portrayal may be bleak, I still want to visit Dostoevsky’s Russia.
There you have it: 5 reasons why you should read Crime and Punishment.
Come for the intriguing moral questions and Russia, and stay for the dark characters and the madness.