Book review

Crime and Punishment (1866)

Crime and Punishment (1866) is an astute analysis of the distinction between moral thinking and moral feeling, and an ode to the power of love to redeem the forsaken

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When I first read Crime and Punishment (1866) in secondary school, protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov struck me as the person – real or fictitious – with whom I most identified. Rereading it now, when I’m twice as old, I felt the same. Perhaps my feeling is simply testament to Dostoevsky’s power to invoke Raskolnikov’s physical experience. Or, perhaps, my feeling originated from my experience echoing some substantive aspect of Raskolnikov’s experience: specifically, the schism that characterises him through the novel’s length, right up until the last page when his redemption begins.

This schism is the one between moral feeling and moral thinking. This schism is universal.

The schism between thinking and feeling, and the influence of these two processes on human behaviour – whether in the moral domain or any other – have drawn attention throughout history. Most famously, Plato’s dialogue on romantic love, Phaedrus, depicts the black horse of emotion and the white horse of reason striving in opposite ways, with the charioteer of the self struggling to maintain control. Behavioural scientists today invoke thinking and feeling (cognition and emotion) in any number of ‘dual-process theories,’ most famously Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s System I-System II approach to studying human decision-making. Simply, the idea is that any given behaviour can be produced by: (a) an intuitive, emotional, evolutionarily ancient rapidly-operating emotional system; and/or (b) a deliberative, calculating, evolutionarily recent effortful cognitive system. Some situations call for System I (withdrawing one’s hand after touching a hot stove; chewing a meal; deciding whether one is sick enough to take a day off); others for System II (plotting a story; learning a new language; planning a conference). Most tasks, however, call for emotion and reason to cooperate.

Raskolnikov embodies this schism. ‘Raskolnik’ means schismatic. This schism refers both to his breaking away from conventional morality; and to the schism within himself.

Dostoevsky describes his protagonist as a noble young man: born poor, forced to interrupt his studies, solitary, but endowed with potential for great things – and for good things, too. Raskolnikov becomes seduced by the idea that there’re two classes of men: great men, who dare; and common men, who don’t. To prove himself great, Raskolnikov sets himself a trial by fire. He judges himself capable of acting cold-bloodedly in his horrifying enterprise; he furnishes reasons aplenty why his project is justifiable, even desirable; throughout the book, before and after his deed, he maintains that he has done the right thing. Raskolnikov’s moral cognition, then, is all aboard with his actions. What betrays him is his schism.

For all his efforts to reason himself into a state beyond the common man’s morality, Raskolnikov persistently self-sabotages: for his moral feelings refuse to be silenced. Cognitively, he wishes to free himself of ‘herd morality’ (though Nietzsche probably never read Crime And Punishment, Raskolnikov is trying to become what Nietzsche would later call an ubermensch); emotionally, Raskolnikov finds to his disgust, he remains mired in herd morality.

Raskolnikov’s self-sabotage begins the moment his deed is done. Throughout the novel, he never closes a door: at home in his garret, friends and strangers are continually walking in on him, often finding him in the unguarded privacy of sleep. At his crime-scene, too, Raskolnikov fails to close the door; notices his omission; and still fails to close the door. What do these unclosed doors represent? For all his self-sabotage, Raskolnikov has committed a crime close enough to perfection to have got away with it – if only he’d let himself. It’s his own conscience – his own moral feelings, above which he fails to rise – that keep the doors unclosed. His punishment is primarily self-inflicted. Still reluctant to abandon his pursuit of greatness, to turn himself in, Raskolnikov struggles valiantly: through illness, hallucination, and his self-sabotage. “How you have suffered!” Sonia cries, when he confesses to her. She is shocked at his crime: but shocked also at the record his body bears of his self-inflicted punishment.

It is through love that Raskolnikov will ultimately be redeemed. His friend Razumikhin describes him, accurately, as “incapable of love.” It is by becoming capable of love – of commonplace, romantic love for Sonia – that Raskolnikov will begin his path towards moral redemption. At first, this path to redemption seems counterintuitive. It was his moral reasoning that was disordered; his moral feelings were intact. Why, then, is it a further experience of feeling – love, in this case – that redeems him?

Love is what grounds Raskolnikov. It brings him finally down from his pursuit of a twisted greatness, and reconciles him to life’s ordinary pleasures. The desire to enjoy, in love, these pleasures – bleaches the once-attractive prospect of becoming another ‘Napoleon.’ Love is what heals the schism in our protagonist: brings his white horse and his dark horse into synchrony, trotting down the same path.

I’ve never read a writer who invoked bodily experience as intensively as Dostoevsky. In simulating a character’s total embodiment, Dostoevsky foreshadows 20th-century minimalism: though his own style is far from minimal. You feel Raskolnikov’s fever, his hallucinations, his haunting by a guilt he must hide from his friends and family. To read Dostoevsky is to become trapped in his characters’ bodies, to suffer their anguish, to become sick. And, afterwards, to be released into a state of health more open-eyed, compassionate, and self-examining. It is by forcing his readers to physically experience dark corners of the human condition – that Dostoevsky’s fiction scales both artistic and humanistic summits.

Like much of his other work, Crime and Punishment was published in serial format; but the final work shows high structural integrity. Raskolnikov commits his crime in Part One (of six); his motive for the crime is revealed only in Part Five. Along the way, he offers various partial accounts. That Dostoevsky maintains, for almost 500 pages after the novel’s crime is committed, a tension almost unbearably intense – is itself an achievement of pacing. It is an achievement that redirects our focus: from the act of the crime, to its origins in and consequences on the criminal and his circumstances.

The narrator of this study – like Raskolnikov’s acquaintance Sonia, sister Dounia, and police-detective Porfiry – empathises with the criminal while unambiguously condemning the crime. Notably, Raskolnikov himself fails to do both. Until the very end, he shows no remorse for his crime; but his life has become empty after his own failure to walk away from his crime and enjoy his newly-earned greatness. Dostoevsky invites us to do what it takes Raskolnikov almost 600 pages to do: to understand the situational origins of crime; to forgive the criminal while punishing the crime. We are asked to go one step further than Raskolnikov does: to think less about punishing crime, than about preventing it. Dostoevsky forces us to ask ourselves: How can we help those at risk of losing themselves to live lives of dignity and meaning? So that crime can be prevented organically, via a total healing of the schisms between and within individuals. So that crime will be attractive neither rationally nor emotionally.


Read a free ebook of Crime and Punishment here, or here. To save paper, please consider reading in soft copy.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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