Vasily Perov, Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1872, oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 

One hundred and fifty years ago, when Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, Russia was seething with reform, idealism, and hatred. Four years earlier, the “tsar-liberator” Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881) had at last abolished serfdom, a form of bondage making 90 percent of the population saleable property. New charters granted considerable autonomy to the universities as press censorship was relaxed. The court system, which even a famous Slavophile said made his hair stand on end and his skin frost over, was remodeled along Western lines. More was to come, including the beginnings of economic modernization. According to conventional wisdom, Russian history alternates between absolute stasis—“Russia should be frozen so it doesn’t rot,” one reactionary writer urged—and revolutionary change. Between Peter the Great (died 1725) and the revolutions of 1917, nothing compared with the reign of Alexander II.

And yet it was the tsar-liberator, not his rigid predecessor or successor, who was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists. The decade after he ascended the throne witnessed the birth of the “intelligentsia,” a word we get from Russian, where it meant not well-educated people but a group sharing a set of radical beliefs, including atheism, materialism, revolutionism, and some form of socialism. Intelligents (members of the intelligentsia) were expected to identify not as members of a profession or social class but with each other. They expressed disdain for everyday virtues and placed their faith entirely in one or another theory. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were typical intelligents, and the terrorists who killed the tsar were their predecessors.


The intelligentsia prided itself on ideas discrediting all traditional morality. Utilitarianism suggested that people do, and should do, nothing but maximize pleasure. Darwin’s Origin of Species, which took Russia by storm, seemed to reduce people to biological specimens. In 1862 the Russian neurologist Ivan Sechenov published his Reflexes of the Brain, which argued that all so-called free choice is merely “reflex movements in the strict sense of the word.” And it was common to quote the physiologist Jacob Moleschott’s remark that the mind secretes thought the way the liver secretes bile. These ideas all seemed to converge on revolutionary violence.

The intelligentsia prided itself on ideas discrediting all traditional morality.

The hero of Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, discusses disturbances then in progress, including the radicals’ revolutionary proclamations and a series of fires they may have set. But by nature he is no bloodthirsty killer. Quite the contrary, he has an immensely soft heart and is tortured by the sight of human suffering, which he cannot and refuses to get used to. “Man gets used to everything, the scoundrel!” he mutters, but then immediately embraces the opposite position: “And what if I’m wrong . . . what if man is not really a scoundrel . . . then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.” (All quotes from the text are taken from Constance Garnett’s Modern Library translation.) He means that man cannot be a “scoundrel” because that is a moral category, and morality is simply “artificial terrors” imposed by religion and sheer “prejudice.” There is only nature, and nature has causes, not moral purposes. It follows that all is as it should be because if moral concepts are illusions then things just are what they are.

As the novel begins, Raskolnikov alternates between horror at evil and assertions that evil does not exist. When he encounters a girl who has been made drunk and raped, and is being followed by another predator, he summons a policeman and gives his last kopecks to get the girl home. We know that Raskolnikov can’t pay his rent and eats only when the landlady’s servant brings him food at her own expense, yet he gives away the little he has to help a fellow creature. Nevertheless, a moment later Raskolnikov turns into a complete Darwinian amoralist: “let them devour each other alive.”

We wonder how Raskolnikov manages to hold such contradictory positions. Perhaps, as he surmises, he simply can’t shake the “dead weight of instinct” inculcated by religion in childhood. Or maybe his extreme sensitivity to suffering when he is powerless to alleviate it makes a doctrine denying evil’s existence attractive. From extreme moralism to absolute nihilism is but a step.

Raskolnikov asks: is there really any such thing as crime? He has in mind the sort of thinking familiar to us from Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker and other “rational choice” theorists. In a classic article entitled “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach,” Becker relates how he once found himself late for a meeting and wondered whether to park illegally. Multiplying the potential fine by the likelihood of being ticketed, he arrived at the “expected value” of the punishment, and concluded it was less than the potential benefit of timeliness. Then he reasoned: what if that is all there is to crime?

If so, there is no essential difference between illegal parking and murder. There are just different punishments. How many parking tickets equal a murder? Becker and Raskolnikov have decided, on “scientific” grounds, that there is no such thing as moral crime, just legal crime, however horrified benighted souls, clinging to nuns and religion, might be.

Even after confessing to murder, Raskolnikov does not think he did anything wrong: “Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he asks himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law . . . and that’s enough.”

Raskolnikov is mad for rationality. In addition to radical amoralism, he has also invoked another form of rationalism, then called utilitarianism, as a justification for the murder he plans to commit. His victim is to be an old pawnbroker, a greedy, cruel woman who not only preys upon her poor customers but also mistreats her kindly, simple-minded sister Lizaveta. Logic itself, he decides, prescribes her death.

According to utilitarianism, the fundamental criterion of morality is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What if that entails murder? Sitting in a tavern, Raskolnikov overhears two students posing that very question. “On the one side,” one student explains, “we have a stupid, senseless, spiteful, ailing, horrid old woman, not simply useless but doing actual mischief, who has not an idea what she is living for and who will die in a day or two in any case. . . . On the other hand, fresh young lives thrown away for want of help by thousands.”

According to utilitarianism, the fundamental criterion of morality is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What if that entails murder?

The conclusion is mathematically certain: “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. . . . One death and a thousand lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic!” You can’t argue with arithmetic. For that matter, since the pawnbroker’s life is not just valueless but of negative value—she does positive harm—it would be moral to kill her even without using the money for a good purpose. Indeed, it is immoral not to kill her, since her death would increase society’s total utility.

Raskolnikov is struck by the coincidence that the students are discussing just what he is thinking, but Dostoevsky’s point is that these ideas are in the air. It is almost as if people don’t think ideas, but ideas use people to be thought. As Raskolnikov is aware, the city in which he lives is itself, as the first planned city ever built, an embodiment of abstract reason. Established in a swamp by order of Tsar Peter, and following the design of French utopian architects, the notoriously unhealthy Russian capital fostered the spirit of rationalism in its noxious air. That is why, on his way to murder, Raskolnikov finds himself considering a “totally irrelevant” thought about how city planning might improve the neighborhood.

Raskolnikov convinces himself that the murder he contemplates will occasion no guilt because it is not really a crime. Fifteen years later the revolutionaries who killed the tsar demanded amnesty because their crimes “were not crimes, but the fulfillment of social duty.” To think otherwise would be sheer “prejudice.”

Nevertheless, after the murder, Raskolnikov endures horrific pangs of conscience and an almost overwhelming desire to confess. Above all, he suffers from nightmares.

Nobody but Dostoevsky ever created such terrifying dreams. In one, Raskolnikov finds himself drawn to the pawnbroker’s flat, sees her seated with her back to him, and swings his axe onto her head to kill her again. But she doesn’t die. He swings again and again, and at last peers down into her face and discovers her suppressing her laughter. Evidently she has lured him to the crime in order to ruin him! He turns around only to find people pointing and laughing at him. Overcome with shame as well as guilt, he awakes in a fever.

The novel’s detective, one of Dostoevsky’s great creations, uses Raskolnikov’s feverish emotions to ensnare him. An apparent bumbler and a masterful psychologist—Peter Falk’s klutzy detective Columbo was loosely based on him—Porfiry Petrovich has read Raskolnikov’s article entitled, appropriately enough, “On Crime.” Connecting the evidence pointing to a “bookish” murder with Raskolnikov’s frantic desire to show he is not confessing, Porfiry Petrovich guesses who the murderer is. As adept a psychologist as his creator, he devises schemes to drive Raskolnikov to confess out of sheer overwrought nerves. As the murderer’s anxiety mounts, it almost seems as if author and detective are acting in concert against him, each setting traps and provoking terror.

One reason Porfiry Petrovich understands Raskolnikov so well is that he has once been like him. And so he gets inside his mind. At some moments he actually whispers to Raskolnikov the very words he is thinking as if he were a voice within. The supposed rationalist feels almost possessed. Strange to say, Porfiry Petrovich is arguably world literature’s most empathetic character.

Insanity threatens Raskolnikov, but it may have already overtaken the weird visitor who appears, almost supernaturally, in his room. Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov stands as another of Dostoevsky’s completely original characters, simultaneously terrifying and funny, cruel and generous, insane and rational. In fact, he is insane because he is so rational. Raskolnikov has already learned of him as a wealthy man trying to seduce his poor sister. To further his pursuit, Svidrigailov shrewdly takes advantage of accidental information proving Raskolnikov is the killer. But villainy is the least interesting part of his character.

Svidrigailov wholly accepts the complete amoralism Raskolnikov merely professes. Today he would be the perfect deconstructionist, one who realizes the full implications of his doctrine. Valuing nothing, he suffers from metaphysical boredom, and so has excited stronger and stronger sensations of whatever kind he can find. Sadism, gambling, debauchery, the seduction of a child, beating a servant to death: he has exhausted them all. And now he is haunted.

As Dante makes the punishments of hell appropriate to one’s sins, Dostoevsky has his madmen experience a hell appropriate to their philosophy. The ghosts who pay social calls on Svidrigailov are decorous, boring, and not the least bit otherworldly. In their triviality, they promise a world to come even more pointless than this one. “We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast!” Svidrigailov observes. “But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like an outhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?”

When Raskolnikov reproaches him with his monstrous crimes, Svidrigailov points to the oddity of a moralist murderer, but he is also ready with excuses. If, as the progressives argue, people are wholly the product of their environment, if free will is an illusion, and if crime derives solely from bad social conditions, then how, he asks, can I be personally responsible? “The question is, am I a monster or am I myself a victim?” Besides, he continues, even if I have grievously insulted others, well, “human beings in general greatly love to be insulted” because taking offense allows them to feel morally superior. Why, people even seek out ways to feel offended! My students, who know just what Svidrigailov has in mind, appreciate Dostoevsky’s relevance.

Why does Raskolnikov kill the old woman? Dostoevsky, who wrote an article on Edgar Allan Poe, loved to exploit the thrilling plots of mysteries while filling them with philosophical and psychological content. He turned the whodunit into a whydunit. He did so because he wanted us to ask not “who committed the crime?” but “what is crime?”

Looking back on the murder, Raskolnikov himself wonders why he committed it. As if anticipating a century of critics, he consider a series of possibilities. It is easy to reject the motive he gives when he turns himself in, the desire for money, since he immediately buries his plunder under a stone and forgets about it. Clearly, his theories had something to do with it, but the problem is, they contradict each other. The one denying that good and evil have any substance obviously runs counter to utilitarianism, which gives them a firm, if repugnant, foundation. In his article on crime, Raskolnikov has developed yet another theory, and Porfiry Petrovich taunts him with its implications.

Raskolnikov divides humanity into two groups, the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary.” In so doing, he takes to an extreme the intelligentsia’s presumption that they, as the enlightened ones, should govern society for its own good. No matter how other intelligentsia beliefs may shift, that presumption remains. Dostoevsky predicted how it would lead to what we have come to call totalitarianism, but even in softer forms it persists among progressives. After all, it is highly gratifying to belong to the elite of righteous people deserving all power. Whenever you hear that true democracy is to be achieved by an oligarchy from prestigious institutions, you are encountering the thinking Dostoevsky feared the most.

In Raskolnikov’s version, ordinary people work, breed, and keep society going. To fulfill this role, they must submit to the law and so are deluded into deeming it sacrosanct. Such people “are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding . . . it is their duty to be controlled.”

Everything important depends on the few extraordinary people, towering figures like Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Caesar, and above all Napoleon, who have the possibility, indeed the obligation, to say “a new word” and so advance the human race. They are inevitably criminals because “by virtue of the very fact that they make a new law they must transgress the old one.” It follows that “if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred or more men, Newton would have had the right, would have indeed been duty bound . . . to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men.” Ordinary people are their “material.”

Every intelligent, more or less, has the right to use ordinary people as material. Dostoevsky’s progressive readers must have squirmed.

If “wading through blood” is allowable for the Napoleons, then it is proportionally also justifiable for those who are only “a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word.” Every intelligent, more or less, has the right to use ordinary people as material. Dostoevsky’s progressive readers must have squirmed.

“Excuse the natural anxiety of a practical law-abiding citizen,” Porfiry Petrovich teases, but couldn’t these extraordinary people “adopt a special uniform”? What if an ordinary person should get it into his dense head that he is extraordinary and “begins to ‘eliminate obstacles,’ as you so happily expressed it?” And set my mind at ease, he continues, “are there many people who have the right to kill others?” I don’t know how many, Raskolnikov replies, but there must be “some definite law” specifying a particular portion, because “it cannot be a matter of chance.” With his faith in a mathematical law, Raskolnikov has become a social scientist.

It is left to Raskolnikov’s sister to express the ordinary person’s moral response to this hideous theory: “what is really original in all this . . . to my horror, is that you sanction bloodshed in the name of conscience, and excuse my saying so, with such fanaticism.” A moral sanction for murder, she continues, is worse than any other.

Plainly, the Napoleonic theory contradicts the amoral one because it makes bloodshed a moral obligation, done “in the name of conscience.” It also contradicts the utilitarian principle that the happiness of each person is equal. Soon enough, Raskolnikov comes up with a fourth possibility: he didn’t kill because he thought he was a Napoleon but to find out whether he was a Napoleon. If so, he reasons, he failed the test, because Napoleon would not have felt a moment’s guilt; and that means, Raskolnikov tells himself, that he is “a louse like all the rest.”

So which explanation is correct? Which theory led to Raskolnikov’s choice to kill the old woman? The answer is none of them, because he did not “choose” at all, in the usual sense of that term. We typically assume that to act one must first choose to act, but that is psychologically naïve. Raskolnikov lives in a state of mind in which nothing is quite real and everything is hypothetical. Completely abstracted from his surroundings, he has long been “so completely absorbed in himself” that he has fallen into extreme slovenliness. He spends his time dreaming of theories and what it would be like to commit a crime based on them. Strictly speaking, it is not crime that fascinates him, but the possibility of it. The possible is what is most real to him.

As a rationalist, Raskolnikov believes he can plan the perfect crime that would be impossible to detect, but he never actually plans it, only plans to plan it. Even on the day of the murder he relies on chance to secure the murder weapon. As the novel opens, he attempts to conduct a trial run for the crime but loses himself in dreams, so that, as he soon reflects, “even his late trial run was simply a try at a trial run.”

Never choosing either to commit or not to commit the murder, he lives in an in-between realm in which he might commit it. This kind of might-be time is a special way in which people can experience temporality. Dostoevsky diagnoses it as a disease to which dreamers and theorists are especially subject. “We may note in passing one peculiarity in regard to all the final resolutions taken by him in the matter,” the narrator explains:

They had one strange characteristic. The more final they were, the more hideous and absurd they at once became in his eyes. In spite of all his agonizing inward struggle, he never for a single instant could believe in the carrying out of his plans.

And, indeed, if it had ever happened that everything to the least point could have been considered and finally settled, and no uncertainty of any kind had remained, he would, it seems, have renounced it all as something absurd, monstrous, and impossible. But a whole mass of unsettled points and uncertainties remained.

Raskolnikov leaves details unsettled in order to remain in uncertainty. In principle, he could live forever in this in-between state, except that he happens by sheer chance to learn that Lizaveta will be out at 7:00 PM and so the old woman will be home alone. Since he could never hope to acquire such information again, he must either act on his dream or give it up. But he postpones doing either. As 7:00 PM approaches and the territory between action and renunciation shrinks almost to a point, he loses track of time, falls asleep, and wakes up just a bit late to keep his appointment for murder.

Even when he stands before the old woman, removes the axe from the secret loop inside his coat, and holds it over her head, he still has not decided whether to swing it! As the narrator explains, throughout the scene he behaves “almost mechanically, as if someone had taken him by the hand and pulled him along irresistibly, blindly, with unnatural force, without objections. As if a piece of clothing had been caught in the cogs of a machine and he were dragged into it.” It turns out that even in his dreams it had vaguely occurred to him it would be like this, which is why he chose an axe, a weapon requiring no accuracy or presence of mind, rather than, let us say, a knife. Even in his dreams he imagined doing it dreamily.

She stands with her back to him, but he postpones acting until she is just about to turn around and his chance would be lost. When “he had not a minute to lose” he “pulled the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, he brought the blunt side down upon her head. He seemed not to use his own strength in this.”

Dostoevsky is at the height of his powers here. The hero commits a hideous, violent act without ever actually deciding to do it! It seems that the picture of human psychology familiar in legal thinking and social science is much too simplistic. Raskolnikov cannot understand why he chose to commit the crime because he did it without choosing.

Russia’s other great psychologist, Leo Tolstoy, was the first to grasp what Dostoevsky was doing here. Tolstoy asks: when did Raskolnikov live his true life and when was it decided that he would kill the old woman? It was decided not when he stood before her with axe in hand, Tolstoy explains, because then he was simply “discharging the cartridge with which he had long been loaded.” Neither was it decided when he made the loop in his overcoat by which the axe hung or while thinking any thoughts directly connected with the murder. No, he lived his true life leading to murder when he was just lying on his sofa, doing nothing but letting his mind wander. And in that state of mind “tiny alterations” of consciousness were taking place: “tiny, tiny alterations—but on them depend the most immense and terrible consequences . . . houses, riches, and people’s bodies may perish, but nothing more important can happen than what was hidden in the man’s consciousness. The limits of what can happen are set by consciousness.”

The crime emerged not from a specific decision but from a state of mind, resulting from his neglect of prosaic duties and kindnesses, and from his cherishing “bookish dreams.” Because he let himself sink into and persist in dreams where murder is a possibility, he is, without having chosen murder, still morally responsible for it. Every moment in which he fostered the theoretical state of mind, in which abstract considerations displaced common decency, made the crime more possible.

He lived his true life leading to murder when he was just lying on his sofa, doing nothing but letting his mind wander.

When one dreams of killing, whether individual homicide or the mass murder honored by the term “revolution,” one creates a field of possibilities in which killing is much more likely to happen, directly or indirectly. John Maynard Keynes famously observed that “madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Dostoevsky would have added: a scribbler who may have been indulging in a play of bloody abstractions but who would himself never harm a fly. Would the Parisian Marxists with whom Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge colleagues studied actually have killed anybody? Do such scribblers ever accept responsibility for a theory’s consequences?

Like most critics, I have referred to a murder, but that way of speaking misses a key moral point. It isn’t a case of murder but of murders, because Lizaveta walks in on the crime and Raskolnikov winds up killing her, too. This murder, indeed, is even more mechanical than the first and so Dostoevsky gives the agency not to the killer but to the weapon, as if it committed the crime on its own initiative: “the blow landed directly on the skull, with the sharp edge, and immediately split the whole upper part of the forehead. She collapsed.”

Dostoevsky’s point is that however theoretically justified or well-planned a crime may be, the unintended consequences include completely innocent victims. Later Raskolnikov will proclaim, “I killed a louse, not an old woman,” but even then he forgets the other victim and so repeats the thinking that caused her death. Revolutionaries typically excuse such crimes by pointing to all the innocent victims bound to suffer if the tyrannical monarchists or capitalists are left in power, and, indeed, the students Raskolnikov overhears voice just this argument. And so real lives are equated with hypothetical ones, and present people die for the sake of improvements that might never take place. Bystanders are so easy to forget! How often have you heard revolutionaries mention they will kill thousands of bystanders along with the capitalists?

All critics sooner or later must face the novel’s signal weakness, its epilogue. It is set in Siberia, where Raskolnikov is serving his term. The saintly Sonya, the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold who implored him to confess, has followed him. Epilogues are supposed to be set in a sort of after-time so they can trace the consequences of the crucial events already narrated. But this epilogue has real plot. I recall an old cartoon showing a sullen writer listening to a publisher: “Mr. Dostoevsky, we like your novel Crime and Punishment and Repentance, but we think you should cut it by about a third.” The book we have reads as if Dostoevsky complied and crammed “Repentance” into the epilogue.

To make matters worse, momentous events are narrated not realistically, like the rest of the book, but mythically, in a setting where shepherds tend their flocks just as they did “in the days of Abraham.” The conversion experience occurs in a dream, which works not psychologically but mythically. Raskolnikov dreams that a terrible intellectual plague has infected everyone with the delusion that he alone possesses the absolute truth. Armies battle until they disintegrate into fighting individuals. The dream is an obvious allegory for what happens when the spirit of the intelligentsia prevails.

Critics have spilled rivers of ink justifying the epilogue, but their very effort shows the need for it. How did Dostoevsky wind up with such an ending? The answer, I think, lies in a philosophical conflict he couldn’t resolve.

If ideology is the plague, what is the cure? This novel offers two distinct alternatives. I think of the first as Tolstoyan because it develops a line of thought found in his work, especially in War and Peace, which, as it happens, was being serialized in the same literary periodical at the very same time! Porfiry Petrovich actually mentions a scene from it. Readers got a lot for their money.

For Tolstoy, what makes life meaningful is not dramatic heroes but decent, prosaic people who (as George Eliot concluded Middlemarch) “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” In both Crime and Punishment and War and Peace, Napoleon represents the dramatic view of life. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin, whose name means “the reasonable,” represents the prosaic alternative. Here “reasonable” is opposed to “rational” the way common sense is opposed to abstract deductions.

Before the murder, whenever Raskolnikov is drawn to renounce his plan, he finds himself on his way to Razumikhin. He asks himself whether he could actually imagine a solution lies with his practical friend. It does, not so much in Razumikhin’s moderate political views as in his resourcefulness and hard work. When Raskolnikov lies brooding, he tells the servant who brings him soup that it isn’t worth working for small sums, which he equates with piecemeal solutions rather than destroying all evil at a blow. Razumikhin, by contrast, is always contriving some small job to make ends meet and as the novel ends, he sets up a publishing business. He is, perhaps, the only wholly positive portrait of an ethnically Russian businessman in Russian literature. Live right moment to moment, rely on common sense, work for small sums, and do a kindness whenever possible: that is the prosaic alternative to Raskolnikov’s grandiose theorizing.

But the novel also offers a religious answer. Sonya, whose name means “wisdom,” and who reads the Gospel aloud to Raskolnikov, is so saintly, so free of Dostoevskian psychology, that she seems superhuman. Dostoevsky deliberately made her unrealistic as if to suggest that the truth is not of this world. Until the epilogue, he presents both alternatives, Razumikhin’s and Sonya’s, without choosing between them.

The epilogue fails, I think, because it relies wholly on the religious answer, as if the prosaic one, worked out so meticulously for so many pages, did not exist. Raskolnikov’s repentance follows not from the overwhelming portion of the book devoted to psychological realism but from the Gospel story Sonya reads aloud, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Raskolnikov too is raised. It is all a bit too neat.

The questions this masterpiece poses still haunt us, perhaps even more than when it first appeared. Revolution still attracts. “New atheists” and stale materialists advance arguments that were crude a hundred fifty years ago. Social scientists describe human decisions in absurdly simplistic terms. Our intelligentsia entertains theory after theory elevating them above the ordinary people they would control. Morality is explained away neurologically, sociobiologically, or as mere social convention.

In such a cultural milieu, we might recall what Raskolnikov learns so painfully: that people are more complex than any model; that basic decency is a better guide than theory; and that a crime—whatever else it may be—is a crime.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9 , on page 4
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion |