Crime and Punishment is one of the most heartfelt stories that I have read. Never a book is written about agonies of a human mind with so much compassion, sympathy, and feeling. There is no question as to Dostoevsky’s mastery in writing. The beauty and charm in his work mainly lie in his truthful and sincere portrayal of human psychology. But that is not all. He also paints a truthful and sincere picture of different classes of Russian society. The two elements combined produce such realistic stories that it never occurs to the reader that he is reading fiction.
Set in St. Petersburg, the main plot in Crime and Punishment revolves around a murder committed by the protagonist, Raskolnikov. His mental agony at the horror and guilt of his action and his terror at being caught dominates the storyline. Raskolnikov is an ex-law student, whose mind is overstrained to the point of madness by his oppressive condition in life. So, when the murder was committed it looks as if the motive was to rob; but his later actions heavily contradict this conviction, and it is not clear what truly drove him to commit the hideous crime. There is however a hint here and there that Raskolnikov believed in the extremist socialist idea of “killing for common good”.
Raskolnikov is characterized as a proud and egoistic man with queer ideas about morality. On one hand, he justifies himself of committing the crime by saying that the victim is a worthless person, but on the other hand, he is burdened with guilt. His conflicting ideas constantly torture him. It is amazing how the author penetrates the criminal mind; the torment Raskolnikov goes through while planning, at the time of committing the murder, and afterward the crime is committed, is portrayed with such accuracy that although one cannot pardon him for the sin he has committed, it is hard not to feel sorry. It is also surprising that the amount of cunning that is displayed in such a tortured mind. Through all his agonies, Raskolnikov does play a very clever game at concealing his crime and evading the police.
The story and characters all revolve around Raskolinikov; these supporting characters are chosen from different sections of Russian society. The psychological portrayal of these supporting characters transports you into their minds and makes you live in them so that every action of theirs is not read but felt. I enjoyed his choice of characters; their difference added colour and contrast to the story. Of them, I loved Avdoyta, the devoted sister of Raskolnikov, Razhumikhin, his true and loyal friend, and Sofya, his savior who shows him the path of redemption.
There are few subplots intertwined with the main plot. Through them, Dostoevsky raises the issue of social conditions and the suffering of women. His sensitive and compassionate account of women’s position and suffering is heartbreaking. Their anguish, their pain is written so truthfully in those pages that I was crying my heart out as I read them. The character of Sofya is for whom I felt the most. She is forced into prostitution to provide for the family as his drunken father cannot keep to a good job. Then Katerina Ivanovna’s suffering from consumption, all the while struggling to provide for her children, touches your heart. And Avdotya’s being subject to unseemly sensual attention from the master of the house where she works as a governess, and her inability to leave her position as she was prepaid half her salary make you burn with indignation. It is shocking to read how unprotected women were legally and socially. And it is even more shocking that men like Pyotr and Svidrigailov, who have the power to help, victimizing the defenseless women to satisfy their own desires. The injustice of it all makes your blood boil. Dostoevsky through the characters of Pyotr, Svidrigailov, and Sofya’s father put men to shame.
There is also a social commentary on Russian society exposing the radical atheist ideas the progressive movement was advocating and the author’s anti-radical and piously religious views as against them. He seems to be criticizing heavily on the emerging socialist doctrines.
I have always liked Dostoevsky’s outlook on life. There is so much humanity in it. And in Crime and Punishment, it is well exhibited.
It is a little wonder why Crime and punishment is called a masterpiece. It is complete in every sense and perfectly so. With each work, Dostoevsky makes me fall in love with him all over.