{Slow Progress From One World to Another} “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment feels like a very relevant novel, despite being written well over a century ago. I find that it is difficult to express why. After all, Dostoevsky’s milieu is hardly our own: science has progressed, ideas have changed, and our world is a completely different place. Still, Crime and Punishment feels modern to a degree that it seems topical, and maybe even current. Of course, this may be a sensation that is peculiar only to myself. Perhaps a short personal anecdote may better illustrate my position.

I am reminded of an encounter I had with two gentlemen a few years back. Both were former acquaintances of mine, schoolmates actually. We were heading off together to a dinner to toast a friend’s birthday. Both of these gentlemen had recently read translations of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and so the book became a topic of friendly conversation. The main subject of our dialogue concerned the ending of the novel and whether it was a credible resolution to the plot. The elder gentleman, Peter, held that the ending was perfectly consistent with the previous material in the novel: “It was the natural course for Dostoevsky to take, after all it is an orthodox novel.” The other gentleman, Evgeni, confessed that he felt the ending “struck a false note and seemed incongruent to the preceding chapters.” Their dialogue ended shortly thereafter. I had not read any of Dostoevsky’s novels at that time, so I could not participate in their discussion, but I was struck by their passion for the book. I was even more affected by the disparity between their interpretations. Peter stated that the purpose of the novel “was to educate and to illustrate the pitfalls of dissenting ideas and beliefs. The form of the novel is similar to the standard parable. The author depicts the life of the criminal for the purposes of moral instruction. It is a traditional narrative form. The sinner always repents in the end and is restored by the grace of God.” (Peter was a reputable and active member of the Russian Orthodox community. He could be counted on to uphold the Churches views.) It was clear by his countenance that Evgeni did not agree with Peter’s views; his silence confirmed as much. Besides, I hasten to believe that Evgeni did not want to add further suspicion to the nature of his religious beliefs. (Evgeni had acquired a reputation for the heterodoxy of his ideas. My friends regarded him as an anarchist and he was not well liked.) Their conversation had ended then and there, on the cusp of orthodoxy.

Being asked that question myself now, about the ending of the novel, I could not help but remember that episode from my past. One of the most peculiar features of Dostoevsky’s novel is its ability to support divergent interpretations. Effective arguments could be made for both of the viewpoints I highlighted with my anecdote—the orthodox and the heterodox. My friends were hardly academic about their concerns, but their dialogue did reveal a kind of duality in the novel. There is a rich tradition of criticism on Crime and Punishment, and much of the scholarship is divided on the ending of the novel. In Part Six of the novel, Chapter II, Porfiry Petrovich tells Raskolnikov that “psychology is a double-edged weapon, and its second edge is heavier and much sharper” (386). With this statement, Porifry is alluding to various things. For one, he is referring to Raskolnikov’s murder weapon—the axe. Most traditional axes only have one metal head, but older axes, especially battle-axes, had two heads facing in opposite directions. Porfiry’s statement is describing both the literal and psychological action of the murder through the object of the figurative axe. He is saying that when Raskolnikov struck the pawnbrokers head with the weapon, the figurative second blade struck Raskolnikov, leaving an irreparable mark and a trace of the murder on his psyche. Porfiry is aware of a psychological dimension to action; he is interpreting the crime causally. His belief is that Raskolnikov’s interior self bears the record of the crime that was committed on the exterior.

Another motivation behind Porfiry’s statement is to reveal the method of psychological inquiry. He compares psychological inquiry to a “double-edged weapon” because investigative techniques often tend to reveal more about the inquisitor than they do about his subject. The same can be said about the scholarship on Crime and Punishment. Helen Muchnic, a literary scholar, stated, “it is hard when reading the critical literature on Dostoyevsky to avoid the feeling that interpretations of his work tend to say more about those who make them than they do about the novelist himself.” It is true in the case of my friends, Peter and Evgeni, and it is probably true for the majority of Dostoevsky’s scholars.

I interpret Crime and Punishment in neither the orthodox or heterodox vein. Neither category is especially appealing to me. I am aware of Dostoevsky’s notes leading up to the creation of his novel, but I am not interested in his claims either; besides, they are secondary to the novel as well. There are many philosophical issues raised in the novel—doctrines are introduced, sometimes subtly and sometimes explicitly; ideas are presented, sometimes they are resolved and sometimes they are not. The narrator from Notes From Underground makes a grand declaration near the end of the work. He states that he “carried to a logical conclusion in [his] life what [others] didn’t dare take more than half-way.” This is one belief that I think we can quite definitely attribute to Dostoevsky himself. It holds even more true when considered alongside Crime and Punishment. I think that Dostoevsky believed in the idea of carrying a premise to its conclusion even more than the narrator of Notes did. This quality alone does not make Dostoevsky unique; men of every age have shared his ambition. What made Dostoevsky unique, in my opinion, are the depths that he was able to traverse in pursuit of an idea. The narrator of Notes claims that he took ideas to their “logical conclusion.” That was his particular hamartia, but it was not Dostoevsky’s.

The conclusions that Dostoevsky achieves in his major novels are hardly logical. In fact, his novels hardly feel conclusive at all, otherwise why would the ending of Crime and Punishment still be a matter of debate among scholars? Dostoevsky’s philosophical shortcomings are debatable, but his artistry is not. He dramatizes ideas, but he does not always resolve them. However, as an academic, I am haunted by his idea of carrying ideas through to their conclusion, but not in a philosophical or argumentative sense. I am fascinated by the indirect arguments Dostoevsky makes through his art. I have tried coupling Dostoevsky with other artists/philosophers and their ideas, hoping that one artist would help to clarify another. With Nietzsche: the ubermensch, the celebration of struggle, and the will-to-power. Kierkegaard: the path of the apostle, the either-or, and the leap of faith. But none have brought me close enough to understand Dostoevsky. The key to interpreting Dostoevsky may well lie in his own time. A socio-historical interpretation of Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment is illuminating but I don’t think it will explain away the novel. I believe the novel is more than a historical artifact; it is relevant outside of its social context. My understanding of Crime and Punishment lands me somewhere between the orthodox and the heterodox poles of interpretation. I think one of the clues to the novel’s larger meaning lies in the story of Lazarus.

In the second epilogue to the novel, the author states that Raskolnikov “could not think long or coherently of anything or concentrate his attention on any idea, and indeed he was not consciously reasoning at all; he could only feel. Life had taken the place of logic.” In other words, Raskolnikov’s intellectual mission in the novel is a failure, not because his plan is flawed but because the intellect is flawed and has its natural limitations. Raskolnikov’s failure is not one man’s failure but everyman’s failure. Raskolnikov’s monomania in the novel, his desire to transcend his being and situation intellectually is a failure. Of course, these are all generalized statements to draw from the novel, which is why critics have had difficulties with reading it literally, orthodoxy and all. The epilogues seem to draw very simple conclusions out of very complex situations and ideas. The denouement is almost portrayed deus ex machina. Neither the author, nor the character of Raskolnikov have succeeded in bringing about a “logical conclusion”, unless you believe that logic has been brought to its “logical conclusion” in the epilogue to the novel. A persuasion of that type will require a kind of leap-of-faith, because such a resolution cannot be reasoned. It is purported to lie outside the realm of logic and reason.

Is the novel orthodox then? What is the definition of orthodoxy? The author himself uses the term “orthodox” in his notes for the novel but he does not define what he means by it. We can hypothesize that he means the Orthodoxy of the Russian church and its doctrines, but the novel hardly seems to fall within the perimeters of the Christian faith. In part five, chapter IV of the novel, when Sonya hears the confession of Raskolnikov, she bids him to “stand at the cross-roads, first bow down and kiss the Earth you have desecrated.” Kissing the Earth is not a recognizable image of Christian atonement. I cannot recall a single narrative that has described such an act. To revere and idolize the Earth, in Christian terms, is a pagan act. It is to pay tribute to the creation and not to the creator proper. Raskolnikov himself undermines the process of his repentance: “Killing a foul, noxious louse, that old moneylender, no good to anybody, who sucked the life-blood of the poor, so vile that killing her ought to bring absolution for forty sins—was that a crime?” He does not humble himself nor does he acknowledge the sinful nature of his crime. His performs his repentance in a very perfunctory way. His self-consciousness berates him till the last: “I wonder if my spirit will really grow so humble in the next fifteen or twenty years that I shall whine and whimper before people, branding myself a criminal with every word I utter”. The previous statement reads like a self-prophecy on Raskolnikov’s behalf. His repentance does not seem to be sincere or heartfelt, and it hardly seems traditional and orthodox. Doestoevsky’s orthodoxy does not appear to be conventional, so why does he employ the term? What is Dostoevsky’s definition of orthodoxy? In my opinion, the novel is the author’s definition of orthodoxy.

Dostoevsky does not permit Raskolnikov to repent of his crime in the usual orthodox fashion. In the epilogues, Raskolnikov realizes that he had committed a crime: “The fact that it was a…crime? What does the word mean? My conscience is easy. Of course, an illegal action has been committed; of course, the letter of the law has been broken and blood has been spilt; well, take my head to satisfy the letter of the law…” Raskolnikov has not internalized the crime. He has not injured his conscience. It is the “letter of the law” that he must satisfy. His head rests easy on the matter of spirit and divine law. Raskolnikov is an unbeliever. A curious thing happens to him later in the epilogue. He realizes that there is “something profoundly false in himself and his beliefs”, but still he does not acknowledge the providence of God, nor does he make any direct gestures toward confirming a belief in a divine creator. The change that occurs in Raskolnikov during the epilogue is a kind of affirmation. He yields himself to humanity and exposes himself to human qualities. He realizes he loves Sonya: “Love had raised them from the dead, and the heart of each held endless springs of life for the heart of the other.” If anything, it is his monomania that he surrenders. His obsession with the saving capabilities of the intellect: “Life had taken the place of logic and something quite different must be worked out in his mind.” Again, it is a pagan type of reference that Dostoevsky makes to illustrate Raskolnikov’s repentance and atonement. Dostoevsky’s focus is on the earthly. In the Haymarket, where Raskolnikov bows to kiss the Earth at Sonya’s behest, he takes satisfaction in the experience: “He knelt in the middle of the square, bowed to the ground, and kissed its filth with pleasure and joy.” The focus of the scene is hardly Raskolnikov’s repentance. Dostoevsky’s language does not attempt to convey the character’s remorse for his criminal acts. The passage is more effective in expressing a kind of reverence on Raskolnikov’s part for the Earth. He does not seem to be embracing a doctrine or a kind of symbolic Earth. It is the body of the Earth that he prostrates himself before—the living, natural body of the Earth. It is Raskolnikov’s most sincere act in the novel and it is Dostoevsky’s most complete expression of his orthodoxy.

The story of Lazarus is one of the novel’s most profound images. Dostoevsky wisely chose the figure of Lazarus to correspond with Raskolnikov. Apart from Jesus, Lazarus is the only figure in the New Testament to be physically resurrected. He is resurrection is a divine miracle, but he is returned to an earthly life, not to the heavens that Jesus returned to. Lazarus is primarily an earthly figure. In the New Testament, Lazarus is a representative of the saving power of Jesus. He is a testament to Jesus’ divinity. In Crime and Punishment, the story of Lazarus is elaborated by its place within the novel. Like Lazarus, Raskolnikov is plucked out of a kind of tomb by the love of a friend. Sonya stands in for the character of Jesus. Raskolnikov’s room is often spoken of as a tomb in the novel. The room comes to represent a kind of prison for Raskolnikov. It is the house of his monomania and the cage of his intellect. It is Sonya’s love that pulls Raskolnikov out of his figurative tomb. After all, like Lazarus, Raskolnikov is raised to an earthly paradise, and for Dostoevsky, there is no other. His story is “of the gradual renewal of a man…of his slow progress from one world to another.” In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky takes orthodoxy and heterodoxy to their “logical conclusion.” Both are products of the intellect. For him, the regeneration of man can only occur through love: through a love for the Earth and a love for each other.