The World of ‘Crime and Punishment’

The World of ‘Crime and Punishment’

Floating in the Air

The world that made Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.


In September 1865, Fyodor Dostoyevsky was living in Wiesbaden, Germany, and couldn’t pay his rent. A string of gambling losses had left him near financial ruin, a familiar circumstance for Dostoyevsky (as dramatized in his novel The Gambler). Owing a considerable amount of money to his landlord, he hoped an advance for a new novel might shore his fortunes up. Writing to Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Herald, Dostoyevsky asked for 300 rubles, promising in return the manuscript that would become Crime and Punishment. To make his case, he explained its plot to Katkov:

It is a psychological account of a crime. The action is topical, set in the current year. A young student of lower-middle-class origin, who has been expelled from the university, and who lives in dire poverty, succumbs—through thoughtlessness and lack of strong convictions—to certain strange, “incomplete” ideas that are floating in the air, and decides to get out of his misery once and for all.

“Floating in the air” were a set of ideas, imported from Western Europe, that would come to define the tenets of Russian radical thought in the 1860s. Russian students like Crime and Punishment’s antihero, the 23-year-old Raskolnikov, were bombarded with somewhat distorted and jumbled versions of English utilitarianism, French utopian socialism, and Darwinism. Taken together, they created an intellectual climate that, in Dostoyevsky’s estimation, put too much stock in the ability of science and scientific reasoning to explain human behavior.

These various theories of social improvement became distilled for a Russian audience in the work of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, whose novel of ideas What Is to Be Done? (1863) modeled a philosophy that would later be described as “rational egoism.” Rational egoism relied on the idea that human beings, guided by enlightened self-interest, would ultimately choose to live in a fair and equal society. The idea inspired a generation of young Russians coming of age in the wake of Czar Alexander II’s “great reforms” (which included the abolition of serfdom and the establishment of local forms of self-government), who wanted to push Russian society along further and more quickly through a revolution that they believed began with remaking themselves and interrogating their own desires. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, could not abide this scientific dissection of desire, believing that people were ultimately unaware of why they wanted the things they wanted. He knew human beings to be irrational and profoundly self-destructive. He saw these tendencies in his own propensity for gambling, procrastination, and daily forms of self-ruin.

Dostoyevsky was especially appalled by Chernyshevsky’s claim that actions taken in pursuit of a better society were themselves necessarily good. He saw in this seemingly innocent theory a potential justification for violence. Wasn’t Raskolnikov, in killing an avaricious pawnbroker who lent money at predatory rates and abused her sister, acting in the interest of the greater good? It was the same danger that Dostoyevsky recognized in the nihilists and anarchists, who by the 1870s and ’80s had indeed turned to terrorism to achieve their ends. The 1881 assassination of Alexander II caused many later readers to see in Dostoyevsky’s novel something like a prophecy.

With this new translation of Crime and Punishment by Michael Katz (who has also translated What Is to Be Done?), today’s readers have renewed cause to reflect on the novel’s resonance with the social problems facing our own society. Some would argue that, with the election of Donald Trump, the American public made the most self-destructive and irrational decision in our nation’s history. And yet, despite this overwhelming evidence that rational choice plays little to no part in political decision-making, those who advocate for liberal causes continue to build arguments around logic, facts, statistics, and science, rather than reckoning with the seemingly impenetrable potency of emotions like hate, shame, and fear that lead people to make unreasonable choices and form baseless opinions about one another. Reading Crime and Punishment in 2018, we are reminded of the need to take irrationality and willful self-destruction seriously. They are not only born out of individual choice; they are social forces that can play a much larger role in our politics than we might care to admit.

Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment amid an unprecedented upsurge in violent crime that was sweeping St. Petersburg. Following the abolition of serfdom in 1861 (just five years before the novel’s publication), the then–Russian capital saw a massive influx of people seeking work. Severe overcrowding and limited opportunities for employment left many in a state of desperation. As Katz writes in his introduction, “The murder rate rose, and the Russian press reported on horrendous crimes in graphic detail. Drunkenness, prostitution, disease, unemployment, family breakups, and abandoned children all came to typify the nature of Russian reality in the 1860s.”

The novel certainly depicts the oppressive sense of corruption and misery plaguing St. Petersburg, but it takes special care to castigate those eager to exploit the victims of these desperate circumstances (most notably the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna). Indeed, an onslaught of everyday economic violence (the denial of loans, the shame and humiliation inflicted on those in debt, the indignity of having to beg, and so forth) forms so painful a backdrop that the murder sometimes gets lost in the larger canvas of depravity that Dostoyevsky paints in Crime and Punishment.

Despite his tendency to rage at the amount of cruelty and greed to be found in 19th-century St. Petersburg, Dostoyevsky reserves a special anger in this novel for those who talked about the economy in terms abstract and thus callous—the followers, as he puts it, “of the latest ideas.” Shortly after the novel begins, Raskolnikov wanders into a tavern. He has just completed a trial run of the murder, visiting the pawnbroker and taking note of her apartment, its layout, her habits. An intoxicated older man, a government clerk named Marmeladov, approaches Raskolnikov and begins to tell him his life’s story, particularly the woes he has brought upon his family as a result of his alcoholism and financial irresponsibility. (His daughter Sonya works as a prostitute to support the family.) Having asked a man who lives in his building, a young intellectual committed to the “latest ideas” named Lebezyatnikov, for a loan, our clerk is coldly refused with the explanation from his neighbor that “in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

Dostoyevsky’s treatment of utilitarianism and social progressives is hyperbolically ungenerous (it is also suggested that Mr. Lebezyatnikov beats Marmeladov’s wife), and many radicals, not surprisingly, were unhappy to see someone of their political persuasion depicted as so cruel and unfeeling in the face of suffering. Ultimately, though, Dostoyevsky was concerned not with debasing any single idea, but rather with exposing how easy it is to use lofty theories to mask self-interest, and how quickly mere concepts—unlike convictions—could shift and evolve. After speaking with Marmeladov in the tavern, Raskolnikov is said to have “a strange idea” emerge “in his head, like a baby chick pecking its way out of its egg.” The next day he successfully carries out his crime, and thus begins the true drama of the novel: the slow revelation that there was no one idea “pecking” away in Raskolnikov’s head, but a confused chorus of ideas—far more noise than notion.

While it ponders larger questions of sin, free will, and forgiveness, Crime and Punishment is unmistakably a novel about what it means to break the law, something Dostoyevsky had experienced firsthand in his late 20s—in part because he too had once been a follower of the “latest ideas.” In 1849, Dostoyevsky was tried for and convicted of crimes against the state. Some two years earlier, he had become involved in an intellectual society devoted to the utopian ideals of the socialist Charles Fourier. Dostoyevsky was drawn to the group, known as the Petrashevsky Circle, largely for the principled stance it took against the institution of serfdom. When the group’s activities were discovered, its members were arrested and then sentenced to death by firing squad. Just minutes before Dostoyevsky expected to die, however, as the officers were steadying their weapons against the first group of conspirators, he and the other prisoners learned that their sentences had been commuted to hard labor as a supposed “act of mercy.” Dostoyevsky spent the next four years in a katorga (penal camp) in Omsk, Siberia.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in subsequent years Dostoyevsky was fascinated by the judiciary; throughout his career, he devoted a considerable amount of time to attending trials in person and reading about them in the news. (A later novel, The Possessed, was inspired by a court case where a group of nihilists were put on trial for murdering a member of their organization.) He conversed with lawyers about the nature of guilt and innocence and debated court decisions in one of the journals he edited, Diary of a Writer. At the center of his writings on crime, particularly in the Diary, was a frustration with defense attorneys, who were increasingly winning acquittals for their clients by pointing to “environmental” factors like a poor upbringing. To Dostoyevsky, such arguments left no room for questions of conscience and morality and undermined an individual’s free will, all of which he viewed as a rejection of Christian principles.

The murderers in his novels, therefore, are often misguided, confused, full of convoluted passions and even more convoluted ideas about the world. Besides Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky wrote three more novels in which murder plays a major role—The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov—and in which the crime becomes a way of indexing the stages of a character’s moral degradation and, likewise, absolution. For Dostoyevsky, murder provided the most compelling lens through which to understand a human being’s capacity for both destruction and redemption. In depicting the taking of a human life, Dostoyevsky could bring the full spectrum of lived experience rapidly into focus.

When we first meet him in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov lives in a state of crushing poverty and gets by on meager translation work. His situation deeply grieves his loving mother and sister; the latter is even considering marriage to a man she doesn’t love in the hopes that it will ease her brother’s financial woes. Even in this hopeless setting, however, Raskolnikov isn’t driven to violence by poverty, but by an all-consuming idea: the thought that by murdering someone who perpetuates poverty, he would be doing a great deed for all of society. At least this is what he claims. Dostoyevsky spends much of the novel chipping away at this explanation for Raskolnikov’s actions and exposing the true murkiness of his motives (and human motivation writ large).

One distinctive feature of Crime and Punishment is that its real plot centers on the search not for the killer, but for a motive. Indeed, with Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky rewrote a basic facet of the detective story by eliminating the question of who committed the crime and focusing instead on the matter of why. As the distinguished Dostoyevsky biographer Joseph Frank put it, “Crime and Punishment is focused on the solution of an enigma: the mystery of Raskolnikov’s motivation.” Even Porfiry Petrovich, the magistrate investigating the crime, largely functions as a conduit for Raskolnikov’s own desire to confess.

It is in Porfiry’s first interrogation of Raskolnikov (who has aroused his suspicion by not coming to claim the watch and ring he’d sold to the pawnbroker) that we get a glimpse into the “strange idea” that possesses him. Porfiry mentions that he’s read an article Raskolnikov wrote, an essay titled “On Crime” that appeared in one of the local periodicals. Its main thesis is that there are two kinds of people, the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary.” The first group are the proverbial sheep; they accept whatever the social order dictates and thus are obliged to abide by the rules and laws that govern everyday people. The second group, the “extraordinary”—a collective to which Raskolnikov assigns Isaac Newton, Muhammad, and Napoleon—cannot be judged by those same criteria; indeed, in order for them to bring their greatness into being, to break down barriers and open up new frontiers, they must be permitted to overstep the law. (In fact, the Russian word for crime, prestuplenie, translates as “a stepping over.”) During the interrogation, Raskolnikov explains that “Lycurgus, the Solons, Mohammeds, Napoleons, and so forth, each and every one of them, were criminals, just by virtue of the fact that in propagating new laws, they were at the same time destroying the old laws viewed as sacred by society and handed down by their fathers.”

In killing the pawnbroker, was Raskolnikov testing himself to see if he too belonged to this group of extraordinary men? Was it a utilitarian act of selflessness, eliminating a greedy and tyrannical individual for the greater good? Or did he just want revenge against one of the many people in St. Petersburg who’d exacerbated the conditions of his poverty? The ideas in Raskolnikov’s head remain as “strange” and “incomplete” as they were when Dostoyevsky initially sketched his antihero for his editor, and purposefully so. In failing to provide an answer to the novel’s central question—why?—Dostoyevsky doubles down on his argument that we ultimately do not know why people do the things they do. There is no order or rationale to human behavior. This may be a more terrifying explanation, but, in Dostoyevsky’s view, it is also the truth.

Katz’s new rendition comes on the heels of the widely acclaimed translation by Oliver Ready. Published in 2014 by Penguin, Ready’s Crime and Punishment was praised for its preservation of Dostoyevsky’s humor, a welcome relief in a novel whose mixture of emotional intensity, philosophical speculation, and gruesome realism can at times be dizzying. Decades earlier, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (still in the early stages of building their translation dynasty) brought their talents to Crime and Punishment, producing a rendition unmistakably theirs: prose so crisp and clear that reading Russian literature feels easy, perhaps easier than it should.

Both the Pevear-Volokhonsky and the Ready versions were seen as vast improvements over the stultifying translations of Constance Garnett, who, though tirelessly prolific—she translated 70 volumes of Russian literature, including all of Dostoyevsky’s novels—was often accused of having too timid (and British) a style. (The critic Korney Chukovsky wrote that Garnett distorted the “volcano” that was Dostoyevsky’s “nervous trembling” style, sanitizing it into “a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner.”) But Katz has added something with his own translation: Hoping to accentuate what he calls the novel’s “richness of registers or tones,” he pays specific attention to how Dostoyevsky’s characters alternate between religious solemnity and drunken vulgarity. The new work also has an American simplicity and informality that sets it apart from Ready’s more elegant British rendering: Where Ready has Raskolnikov describe the pawnbroker as “positively vicious to all and sundry,” Katz elects for the sparser “causing harm to everyone.”

Perhaps because I’m an American and Ready’s translation presents a modicum of foreignness to me, I feel it better captures the heightened reality of the novel. But it may also be that, in an era marked by illogical actions and self-destructive decisions, a Dostoyevsky translation like Katz’s—one that feels so pedestrian and familiar—is what’s needed for us to recognize how much like, not unlike, Dostoyevsky’s world is to our own.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that the decision to commute Dostoyevsky’s sentence was made at the last minute. In fact, the decision had been made earlier, but only announced to the prisoners at the very last minute. The text has been corrected.

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