“Crime and Punishment” is the greatest of Dostoevsky’s novels, and those who have not read it can have only an incomplete idea of the author’s genius. A great critic of Russian literature, whose affection for Turgenev never allowed him to do more than strict justice to a rival’s work, once declared that this book was the most perfect study in criminal psychology since Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth.” The story is quite simple. A certain student named Raskolnikov is living in miserable poverty. His head is as full of ambitions as his pockets are empty of roubles, and he is constantly chafed by the thought of an old hag who keeps a pawnshop where he has now and then raised a little money. The horrible idea of murder for the sake of coin comes to him, but at first he resists it. His whole nature revolts against any act of cruelty, but a number of small circumstances combine to make it seem that the crime is inevitable. In a tavern he hears a discussion of which the gist is that in a world where young lives are often wasted for lack of help those who abuse their riches should be destroyed. A letter suddenly tells him that his sister is hastening into a miserable marriage simply on account of his family’s penury. Another chance conversation reveals how easily the old woman’s death could be compassed.
This part of the book is powerful beyond praise. In reading Dostoevsky’s other novels we often have the feeling that he wrote at times for the sake of covering paper, and it is actually known that he took an absurd pride in telling his friends that the volumes containing his longest story weighed five pounds. Here, however, every line tells. At first it seems ridiculous that this tender-hearted young man should even contemplate a deed of blood. He has strange and ugly dreams, and we put the thing down to the disordered fancies of sickness, but the pages which follow read like decrees of Fate. When Raskolnikov finds the axe at the porter’s lodge and walks for the last time to the pawnbroker’s shop, in spite of all the deliberate plans he has laid, we feel that he is no longer a free agent. The book has been described as immoral. Certainly there is not a word in it to suggest that we should turn with loathing from the murderer. Nothing but pity is excited for him, yet it soon becomes plain that the novel was written to serve a double purpose. As soon as Raskolnikov realises what he has done, all those thoughts which had seemed to justify the deed in advance cease to exist. He does not make use of a single kopec he has stolen from her. Hitherto he has been in his thoughts a superman, ready to plead necessity as a cogent reason for all his acts. He has told himself that a Napoleon would never have hesitated over removing such an obstacle as the life and death of a horrible old woman. Dostoevsky is going to show not only the supreme virtue of compassion, but also that the only hope of human happiness lies not in the will to power, but in the complete subjection and humiliation of self.
After the murder has been committed Raskolnikov occupies himself for a long time in dodging the police. He is, moreover, very indignant because his conscience troubles him, and he is angry that his crime has brought him no reward. The psychological study here is equally acute, but it is difficult to help feeling that some of it involves too much torment for ourselves. The conversations with Porfiry, the police magistrate, seem designed to keep one on the rack, yet they give a wonderful revelation of the murderer’s state of mind. Raskolnikov scrapes acquaintance with this man of law in order to enjoy the delights of danger, and he is drawn by him as a mouse is drawn by a serpent. The talk seems for ever to be leading to a point at which the criminal must fall into a confession, but still the frantic play of words continues. It is not at all Dostoevsky’s object to allow his man to pay the price of crime until he can do so with deliberate intention like that with which he planned the murder. Raskolnikov must receive public punishment, but he is to be brought to a state at which he will actually ask for it. Salvation cannot come to him until his pride has been broken.
Sonia, the woman who is to be the agent of his redemption, is as humble as she is heroic. The pitiful sketch of her history is given in the beginning of the book by her father, Marmeladov, a shameless, drink-sodden wretch, so an interest in her is created long before she appears. In “Crime and Punishment” the author for once seems to have taken complete control of his subject. The architecture of the story is marvellously efficient. Even here there are a good many pages over which a reader would willingly pass lightly, but no sort of inattentive reading will suffice. A small fact or a line of dialogue may suddenly be recalled after a dozen chapters as a matter of the deepest importance. We are kept a long while waiting before Sonia is known as anything but the hapless daughter of Marmeladov and a type of those who for the sake of others take up a cross of shame. Yet she is destined to exercise supreme influence over Raskolnikov. In ordinary circumstances he would have been sorry for her and avoided her, but in the state of mind which his crime has produced he can share with her a love which can only be likened to that of two lost souls. There is no trace of human passion in the whole thing. Dostoevsky did not understand what is ordinarily meant by love. All his books show that he knew only of mystic devotion or the opposite extreme of brutish lust. Sonia and her lover are simply united by compassion—by their suffering together.
It is at the end of the novel that the author reveals most clearly his nationality. Penitence to most people in our modern world is either a mental process or an affair between man and God, but in Russia it is still commonly held that a crime is only deleted from the book of life when it has been punished by the established civil authority. Strangely enough, this is not a doctrine confined to the supporters of autocracy. It is preached also by those who regard the sword of the law as the weapon of Anti-Christ. Much that is most purely Russian in Dostoevsky cannot be understood by Western reason, yet it certainly seems inevitable here that Sonia should induce Raskolnikov to confess his crime openly, and that in the penal settlements of Siberia, whither she follows him, he should find again peace of mind and hope for a new life. He has sinned and suffered every kind of mental torture through his pride. Only in meekness is he to discover the treasures of the world.
Dostoevsky’s methods and ideas must alike meet a good deal of repugnance in countries like France and England, where we believe in such things as taste and the virtue of human activity. His realism knows no bounds. Such a novel as “The Idiot” shows that he not only tolerated but could actually praise a merely supine life. Emphatically he belonged to Russia in Asia, yet we believe that some parts of his gospel might be accepted with advantage in Europe. His message is at least a corrective to the preaching of Nietzsche and many of the modern German prophets. Apart from all this, Dostoevsky is, moreover, almost the only writer of the last century whom sane critics can mention in the same breath with Shakespeare. “Crime and Punishment” is not unworthy of comparison with “Macbeth” and in “The Possessed” the character of Stavrogin can stand on a level with Hamlet. There are passages in this Russian’s work, such as those recording the first interview between Raskolnikov and Marmeladov, when the latter confesses his own infamy and his daughter’s shame, which are as great as anything written by mortal man. When we remember his sickness, his pains, his imprisonment, we may even begin to understand that other part of his work which is so huge and terrific a monument to ill-regulated genius. It is not too much to claim that in his own day he was in himself an epitome of all the Russias.
THE SATURDAY REVIEW, 17 October 1914.
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