Dostoevsky’s life was, if you’ll pardon the cliché, stranger than fiction. Born in Moscow in 1821, he was later orphaned. He was arrested for reading banned texts and for his membership in the group of writers and intellectuals known as the Petrashevsky circle. He was sentenced to death by firing squad, and spared by a last minute pardon by the Tsar. He spent 4 years in Siberian labor camp, released in 1854. He later married and found work editing a magazine with his brother, but that too ended in tragedy, when in 1864 the magazine was closed and he lost both his brother and wife in the space of a few months (Robson). This is the stuff of TV thriller legend.
These experiences helped shape Crime and Punishment. Robson asserts, “…no great novel had sprung from the mythology of another book by the same writer in quite the way that Crime and Punishment, the story of a murder that ends in a Siberian prison, did from Dostoevsky’s memoir of his own four-year stretch, Notes on the House of the Dead (1861) (Robson, 2018).”
“Dostoevsky wrote his brother Michael: I won't write the novel till I've got out of Siberia. I must put it off till then. The motive of this book is most excellent, the principal figure is new and has never yet been done. But as to-day in Russia such a figure frequently emerges in actual life (Squires, 1937).” He began developing his novel “attacking nihilist St Petersburg in the form of “the psychological account of a crime” – the murder by a university dropout of a local moneylender, on the strength of “half-baked” notions “floating about in the air” (Robson).”
But why should we care, now, in the year 2020, about what Dostoevsky wrote nearly 200 years ago? According to the late Harold Bloom, American literary critic and Professor of Humanities at Yale University, Crime and Punishment remains the best of all murder stories, and we have to read it because “it alters our consciousness.” What does that mean?
The faculty of consciousness, of self-awareness, has been defined by Steve Fleming, who studies consciousness at New York University, as “the ability to self-reflect, to know about yourself (Young).” It’s a fuzzy definition that has received tremendous attention, and has been the subject of much heated debate in intellectual circles for hundreds of years, yes hundreds, think of Descartes’ famous “I think therefore I am” quote dating back to the 1600s. To further shape the debate in modern times, at a conference in Tucson, AZ in 1994, the then unknown-philosopher David Chalmers broached what would soon after be dubbed “the Hard Problem of Consciousness”, shaped as this: “why on earth should all those complicated brain processes feel like anything from the inside? (Burkeman).”
Chalmers, now Professor of Philosophy at New York University, continues to speak about consciousness as some kind of internal spark, a reference that surely makes scientists of other disciplines cringe. But for the purpose of our discussion, let’s accept the notion that consciousness is something internal that makes us aware of how we feel. What Bloom is suggesting, then, is that reading Crime and Punishment makes us aware of our feelings in a different way than before our reading of it, or that we feel differently about certain topics; murderers, for example, after reading it. Literary artistic merit aside, on this point, I agree with Bloom.
Crime and Punishment is an important murder story that I would put on par with Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Bloom suggests the unacknowledged nihilism of Shakespeare’s high tragedies of blood were the forerunners of Dostoevsky’s nihilists, including Crime and Punishment’s Svidrigailov (Bloom 1).
In both stories, gruesome and premeditated murders are carried out by the protagonist, and in both cases, the protagonist suffers terrible mental anguish over their acts. In both cases, we see the protagonist as almost a tragic hero-villain, the one whose fall was precipitated by almost mythical blindness, and who, for those reasons, elicits a certain amount of sympathy. As the reader follows the protagonist down the path of evil, we are hoping, sometimes vocalizing our warnings to deaf ears on a dusty-page, that the would-be killer will turn around before it’s too late. And in both cases, the rule of Aristotelian catharsis is violated, as we are not purged of pity for the hero-villain in the end.
Bloom argues that there was little idea of a “motive” for either protagonist, that “malignancy, deep rooted in Svidrigailov as in Iago (Othello) and Edmund (King Lear), has little place in the psyches of Raskolnikov and Macbeth, which makes their descents even more terrifying (Bloom 4).“ However, it could be argued that to many readers, and I would argue, that an apparent motive eventually presents itself in Macbeth, inasmuch as the desire for royal - for ultimate power - can be seen as a driving force behind his eventual regicide. Lady Macbeth confirms this initial lack of malignancy when she proclaims Macbeth “too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way” while also confirming their eventual goal to be attended with “illness”, and charges forward to inform Macbeth of her plan, “chastising with the valor” of her tongue “all that impedes thee from the golden round.” Eventually Macbeth not only succumbs, but ups the ante, piling body upon body in his quest to retain power.
This malignancy is not as easily defined within Raskolnikov. In Crime and Punishment we are invited into the mind of one whose act of taking the mantle of a murderer is steeped in a cauldron of psychological malady: the theory of the superman, or the extraordinary man as having super-moral rights.
It is this treatment of the criminal act that makes Crime and Punishment one of the great murder stories, and it is this foray into “experiential darkness” that “alters our consciousness (Bloom 1).”
The strongest critical body of disagreement regarding Crime and Punishment, rather ironically, comes from Dostoevsky’s Russian compatriots, including Nabokov, Chekhov and Tolstoy, along with other writers contemporary to Dostoevsky, including Henry James and Joseph Conrad (although it is possible that Conrad’s disdain for the Russia that “swallowed up his homeland” colored his view). For one thing, their criticisms focus quite severely on the literary merit of Dostoevsky’s writing.
Bloom reports that Nabokov and Chekhov were not fans, “to them he was scarcely an artist, but a shrill would-be prophet (Bloom)”, Chekhov writing, “It's all right, but much too long and lacking in modesty. Too pretentious (Karlinsky, 1971).”
Nabokov defined Dostoevsky as “a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar,” “a prophet, a claptrap journalist, and a slap dash comedian (Karlinsky, 1971)”. He wrote, “My position in regard to Dostoevsky is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me-namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one-with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between (Abrams).”
Tolstoy, commenting on Dostoevsky’s Karamazov: “I cannot conquer my revulsion for its lack of artistic quality, its frivolity, posturings and wrong-headed attitude toward important matters (Karlinsky, 1971).”
Bloom himself branded Dostoevsky as tendentious, whose design was to convert the reader, particularly the Russo-Slavic reader of his time, from the nihilistic and gnostic view to Orthodoxy. Bloom later wrote, ““with each re-reading”, he found Crime and Punishment “an ordeal, dreadfully powerful but somewhat pernicious (Bloom, 2004).” And the Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, “refused to grant Dostoevsky any literary talent or stature whatsoever (Karlinsky, 1971)”.
I am not substantially misaligned on the subject of artistic literary merit. There were indeed times when I tired (this my second reading) of Raskolnikov’s philosophical rants and seemingly indecisive milling about, partly because Dostoevsky’s writing is more stripped-down than I prefer, although at times it works very well for the pace of a crime drama (for example, during the exchange between the workmen and porter and Raskolnikov as he revisits the scene of the crime). And if you are new to the presentation of the “how do we even know we exist” line of thinking popular with nihilists and existentialists, you may find this more frustrating than a circular reference.
But it is other comments of Nabokov and Tolstoy, for example, that criticize the presentation of the plot, that are offered as proof that Crime and Punishment does not deserve it’s pedestal perch in the hall of crime-writing greatness. Nabokov saying, “In Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov for some reason or other kills an old female pawnbroker and her sister. Justice in the shape of an inexorable police officer closes slowly in on him until in the end he is driven to a public confession, and through the love of a noble prostitute he is brought to a spiritual regeneration that did not seem as incredibly banal in 1866 when the book was written as it does now when noble prostitutes are apt to be received a little cynically by experienced readers” (Abrams, 2011).”
And Tolstoy held that the probing of evildoing, as Dostoevsky was prone to do, was downright dangerous. Dostoevsky’s writing was driven by curiosity about limits, of spirituality and morality, for example. He thought it dangerous to cease to explore these limits, and was willing to accept that the fruits of such exploration could just as easily be “madness” or “faith.” But Tolstoy found this “logic profoundly flawed. It was his conviction that we live not by curiosity, but by habit. Axe murders, rape of children, patricide…these melodramatic and extravagant crimes, according to Tolstoy, are not too horrific to contemplate, but too easy… Tolstoy was convinced that as a moral compass, ideology — “ideas” — were exceptionally unreliable…and the slicker and sleeker the words backing up the idea, the more dangerous it was (Emerson 220).” Tolstoy estimated that Raskolnikov’s crime was committed in a series of small, seemingly inconsequential steps, such as when he was lying about on his couch allowing himself to be absorbed by its thought. He would have therefore seen the resulting crime as “hyped-up, sensationalized (Emerson).”
Finally, it is of note that Karlinksy reports that “Russian dictionaries list a common noun, derived from the writer's name, dostoevshchina, which is a derogatory term describing an undesirable mode of behavior. A person guilty of dostoevshchina is being deliberately difficult, hysterical or perverse. Another possible meaning of this word is excessive and morbid preoccupation with one's own psychological processes (Karlinsky, 1971).”
This and the aforementioned criticisms of Dostoevsky’s treatment of this crime novel do seem to tarnish its stature. It is my estimation, however, that separating the treatment of the subject from the sometimes tedious writing-style, bound up as it was with attacks on nihilism and seemingly incongruous exaltations of Orthodoxy, allows the treatment of the crime itself to impress our thoughts.
Crime and Punishment has a powerful impact on our consciousness because it invites us into a world of ‘otherness.’ David Mikics, the John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston, argues: “Dostoevsky shows us what subjecting ourselves to a book whose vision is extreme and uncomfortable can do for us: broaden our knowledge of others (Mikics).”
It would be reasonable to argue that there is no value in broadening our knowledge of psychopathic criminals, unless, of course, we are employed in pursuing such. And to be sure, we may not like what we see, what we learn about ourselves, when we are alone with the characters and their evil. “Dostoevsky actually portrays bad people in unrivalled depth, and over hundreds of pages: the terrorists, the murderers, the scoundrels (Mikics).” We may find ourselves sympathizing with, while despising, the villain.
But here is where it gets to the part of why we should read works like this despite their being pretty old. This mental exercise can build our mental muscle, which may not be getting sufficient training by limiting our reading to digital means. “Glancing at evil and tragedy, as the internet encourages us to do, lets us avoid the hard questions about motivation and human personality that novels make us confront (Mikics, 2013)”, argues Mikics.
More broadly, exercising our mental powers in seeking to understand different points of view, borne from different life experiences, is a valuable skill, sorely lacking in modern society. Modern communication vehicles; the internet and social media, allows us to wrap ourselves in a cocoon of opinion that closely matches our own, we need not listen to the opinions of others. Spending time with ‘otherness’ as we do in novels like Crime and Punishment challenge our mode of thinking by forcing us to think critically about that with which we do not agree.
In a study conducted by researchers at The New School in New York City, Emanuele Castano, a social psychologist, and PhD candidate David Kidd, attempted to measure the “theory of mind”. This has been described as “the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others….not everyone really gets that other people see, feel, and perceive the world deeply. It’s this distance that makes it possible for us to dismiss the positions of those we disagree with, or, in the worst cases, dehumanize them altogether (Livni, 2018).”
Castano and Kidd believe they found evidence that “literary fiction (such as Crime and Punishment) improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling (Chiaet).” Said Kidd, “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations, (Chiaet)”. The preoccupation one engages in when reading something like Crime and Punishment, which invite us to peer into “a window into the inner lives of strangers in other times and places (Livni, 2018)”, helps us build empathy.
This line of reasoning provides powerful evidence of the ability of Crime and Punishment to “alter one’s consciousness.”
A related line of reasoning is that Crime and Punishment presents a thesis on the view of the exalted intelligentsia (specifically in Russia at that time, but one that can applied more broadly today) that the “superman”, based on Nietzsche’s theory that a group of men who were above others would lead humanity to exaltation, were exempt from the moral code if actions were necessary to bring about a better society. This belief purports that Napoleon, for example, was justified in committing terrible crimes because he would liberate society from the ills the current government had forced upon them. Raskolnikov offers, “…legislators and leaders of men, such as…Napoleon…were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one…and they did not stop short at bloodshed either… (Dostoevsky 211).” Through Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky focuses on the “intelligentsia, its habits of thought, its delusions of insight, and its self-image of superiority to the rest of society (Morson, 49).”
Intelligentsia in 19th century Russia “meant something different from just the educated classes. An intelligent (member of the intelligentsia) was identified as such by his sense of solidarity with that group and by his contempt for all others, who were regarded either as enemies of the people or as benighted objects to be saved even against their will (Morson, 49).” This group believed “that they possessed or would soon find the underlying laws of history and civilization; and second, that by violent activity in accordance with those laws they could eliminate absolutely every evil from the world forever (Morson, 49).”
We may not see this immediate connection, but the beliefs espoused in this movement challenge our beliefs about sympathy and judgment. For example, Raskolnikov, at the point of confession, asks Sonia if she can choose between the death of two individuals: should Luzhin, who had tried to ruin Sonia and her family, die or Mrs. Marmeladov? How many times have we watched a film and rooted for the death of the villain, or felt comfortable selecting one to live and one to die based on our estimation of each life’s worth?
One of Raskolnikov's theories about the murder is that it must be done on moral grounds – for the greater good, he relates as a fellow student opines that the pawnbroker is taking advantage and causing the suffering of many, so it’s "one death for hundreds of lives--it's simple arithmetic!" But he later questions whether morality even exists, imagining that the “extraordinary man, such as Napoleon, acted on precisely this principle, which justifies any crime if for no other reason than that there is no such thing as crime (Morson, 50).”
It seems that it is on this idea that Raskolnikov settled, he later insisted that his shedding of blood was not criminal, “Which all men shed…which flows and has always flowed in cataracts, which men pour out like champagne, and for which men are crowned in the Capital and afterwards called the benefactors of all mankind. ..Never, never have I understood why what I did was a crime (Dostoevsky 423).” He was content to settle on the direct claim of “superiority, which is the constant element preserved through all ideological fashions (Morson, 50).”
The ability of Crime and Punishment to challenge our system of judging people and ideologies is further proof that it “alter one’s consciousness.”
Finally, Crime and Punishment presents a heady debate between the laws of morality and the laws of nature. In fact, Sonia and Svidrigailinov represent the two moral poles of Raskolnikov: god and self. Raskolnikov introduces the basis for the debate by asserting that each man scurrying about on the streets is “a scoundrel and predator by its very nature”. Can we call ones scoundrels or are we simply creatures of nature?
Robert Louis Jackson, retired Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale, uses Crime and Punishment’s own words to muse, “…if man is truly defective by nature, then all our moral systems, standards, injunctions, pejorative epithets (the very word scoundrel) are senseless “prejudices”, “imaginary fears”; it follows that if human nature is, morally speaking, an empty plain, than “there can be no barriers”, all is permissible”, as Raskolnikov asserts (Jackson 24).”
The dastardly Svidrigailov defends himself using this cunning, “Just supposed too, that I am a man, et nihil humanum…The whole question boils down to this, am I a monster or am I a victim (Dostoevsky 229)?”
Again, Crime and Punishment challenges us to consider our basis for the judgement of others; if there is no god, is there a basis for morality? Are men “a law unto themselves” as St. Paul asserts or governed by the baser instincts of nature?
Although Crime and Punishment does not impress me in its artistic merit, in line with how other notable authors and compatriots of Dostoevsky felt, I believe there is sufficient evidence to support its ability, as an outstanding crime novel, to alter one’s consciousness, to make us engage in self-reflection, as Harold Bloom asserts. Crime and Punishment exercises our mental faculties to consider the “other”, sharpening our critical thinking skills and helping us build empathy for those whose beliefs are different from ours. It challenges our notion of sympathy and judgment, forcing us to consider the rubric by which we value one life over another. Finally, it challenges our belief in the basis for morality: is it divine law or natural law?
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Mikics, David. What Crime and Punishment Can Teach You that the Internet Can't. 25 November 2013. <https://www.newstatesman.com/cultural-capital/2013/11/what-crime-and-punishment-can-teach-you-internet-cant>.
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