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Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment (1866)

 

By Vladimir Nabokov

Because he can spin a yarn with such suspense, such innuendoes, Dostoevski used to be eagerly read by schoolboys and schoolgirls in Russia, together with Fenimore Cooper, Victor Hugo, Dickens, and Turgenev. I must have been twelve when forty-five years ago I read Crime and Punishment for the first time and thought it a wonderfully powerful and exciting book. I read it again at nineteen, during the awful years of civil war in Russia, and thought it long-winded, terribly sentimental, and badly written. I read it at twenty-eight when discussing Dostoevski in one of my own books. I read the thing again when preparing to speak about him in American universities. And only quite recently did I realize what is so wrong about the book.

The flaw, the crack in it, which in my opinion causes the whole edifice to crumble ethically and esthetically may be found in part ten, chapter 4. It is in the beginning of the redemption scene when Raskolnikov, the killer, discovers through the girl Sonya the New Testament. She has been reading to him about Jesus and the raising of Lazarus. So far so good. But then comes this singular sentence that for sheer stupidity has hardly the equal in world-famous literature: “The candle was flickering out, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had been reading together the eternal book.” “The murderer and the harlot” and “the eternal book”—what a triangle. This is a crucial phrase, of a typical Dostoevskian rhetorical twist. Now what is so dreadfully wrong about it ? Why is it so crude and so inartistic ?

I suggest that neither a true artist nor a true moralist—neither a good Christian nor a good philosopher—neither a poet nor a sociologist—should have placed side by side, in one breath, in one gust of false eloquence, a killer together with whom? — a poor streetwalker, bending their completely different heads over that holy book. The Christian God, as understood by those who believe in the Christian God, has pardoned the harlot nineteen centuries ago. The killer, on the other hand, must be first of all examined medically. The two are on completely different levels. The inhuman and idiotic crime of Raskolnikov cannot be even remotely compared to the plight of a girl who impairs human dignity by selling her body. The murderer and the harlot reading the eternal book—what nonsense. There is no rhetorical link between a filthy murderer, and this unfortunate girl. There is only the conventional link of the Gothic novel and the sentimental novel. It is a shoddy literary trick, not a masterpiece of pathos and piety. Moreover, look at the absence of artistic balance. We have been shown Raskolnikov’s crime in all sordid detail and we also have been given half a dozen different explanations for his exploit. We have never been shown Sonya in the exercise of her trade. The situation is a glorified cliche. The harlot’s sin is taken for granted. Now I submit that the true artist is the person who never takes anything for granted.

Why did Raskolnikov kill? The motivation is extremely muddled. Raskolnikov was, if we believe what Dostoevski rather optimistically wants us to believe, a good young man, loyal to his family, on the one hand, and to high ideals on the other, capable of self-sacrifice, kind, generous, and industrious, though very conceited and proud, even to the point of entirely retiring into his inner life without feeling the need of any human heart-to-heart relations. This very good, generous, and proud young man is dismally poor.

Why did Raskolnikov murder the old money-lending woman and her sister?

Apparently to save his family from misery, to spare his sister, who, in order to help him get through college, was about to marry a rich but brutal man.

But he also committed this murder in order to prove to himself that he was not an ordinary man abiding by the moral laws created by others, but capable of making his own law and of bearing the tremendous spiritual load of responsibility, of living down the pangs of conscience and of using this evil means (murder) toward attaining a good purpose (assistance to his own family, his education which will enable him to become a benefactor of the human kind) without any prejudice to his inner balance and virtuous life.

And he also committed this murder because one of Dostoevski’s pet ideas was that the propagation of materialistic ideas is bound to destroy moral standards in the young and is liable to make a murderer even out of a fundamentally good young man who would be easily pushed toward a crime by an unfortunate concurrence of circumstances. Note the curiously fascist ideas developed by Raskolnikov in an “article” he wrote: namely that mankind consists of two parts—the herd and the supermen—and that the majority should be bound by the established moral laws but that the few who are far above the majority ought to be at liberty to make their own law. Thus Raskolnikov first declared that Newton and other great discoverers should not have hesitated to sacrifice scores or hundreds of individual lives had those lives stood in their way toward giving mankind the benefit of their discoveries. Later he somehow forgets these benefactors of humanity to concentrate on an entirely different ideal. All his ambition suddenly centers in Napoleon in whom he sees characteristically the strong man who rules the masses through his daring to “pick up” power which lies there awaiting the one who “dares.”

This is a fast transition from an aspiring benefactor of the world toward an aspiring tyrant for the sake of his own power. A transformation which is worth a more detailed psychological analysis than Dostoevski, in his hurry, can afford to make.

The next pet idea of our author happens to be that a crime brings the man who commits it that inner hell which is the inevitable lot of the wicked. This inner solitary suffering, however, for some reason does not lead to redemption. What does bring redemption is actual suffering openly accepted, suffering in public, the deliberate self-abasement and humiliation before his fellow-humans—this can bring the sufferer the absolution of his crime, redemption, new life, and so on. Such actually is to be the road which Raskolnikov will follow, but whether he will kill again is impossible to say. And finally there is the idea of free will, of a crime just for the sake of performing it.

Did Dostoevski succeed in making it all plausible? I doubt it. Now, in the first place, Raskolnikov is a neurotic, hence the effect that any philosophy can have upon a neurotic does not help to discredit that philosophy. Dostoevski would have better served his purpose if he could have made of Raskolnikov a sturdy, staid, earnest young man genuinely misled and eventually brought to perdition by a too candid acceptance of materialistic ideas. But Dostoevski of course realized too well that this would never work, that even if that sort of a sturdy young man did accept the absurd ideas which turned neurotic Raskolnikov’s head, a healthy human nature would inevitably balk before the perpetration of deliberate murder. For it is no accident that all the criminal heroes of Dostoevski (Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, Fedka in The Possessed, Rogozhin in The Idiot) are not quite sane.*

Feeling the weakness of his position, Dostoevski dragged in every possible human incentive to push his Raskolnikov to the precipice of that temptation to murder which we must presume was opened to him by the German philosophies he had accepted. The dismal poverty, not only his own but that of his dearly beloved mother and sister, the impending self sacrifice of his sister, the utter moral debasement of the intended victim—this profusion of accidental causes shows how difficult Dostoevski himself felt it to prove his point. Kropotkin very aptly remarks: “Behind Raskolnikov one feels Dostoevski trying to decide whether he himself, or a man like him, might have been brought to perform personally the act as Raskolnikov did. . . . But writers do not murder.”

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*  VN deleted the next sentence : ” It is further no accident that the rulers of Germany’s recently fallen regime based on the theory of Superman and his special rights were, too, either neurotics or ordinary criminals, or both.” Ed.

I also entirely subscribe to Kropotkin’s statement that “… men like the examining magistrate and Svidrigailov, the embodiment of evil, are purely romantic invention.” I would go further and add Sonya to the list. Sonya is a good descendant of those romantic heroines who, for no fault of their own, were to live a life outside the bounds established by society and were made by that same society to bear all the burden of shame and suffering attached to such a way of life.

These heroines were never extinct in world literature ever since the good Abbe Prevost introduced to his readers the far better written and therefore far more moving Manon Lescaut (1731). In Dostoevski the theme of degradation, humiliation, is with us from the start, and in this sense Raskol-nikov’s sister Dunya and the drunken girl glimpsed on the boulevard, and Sonya the virtuous prostitute, are sisters within the Dostoevskian family of hand-wringing characters.

The passionate attachment of Dostoevski to the idea that physical suffering and humiliation improve the moral man may lie in a personal tragedy: he must have felt that in him the freedom-lover, the rebel, the individualist, had suffered a certain loss, and impairing of spontaneity if nothing else, through his sojourn in his Siberian prison; but he stuck doggedly to the idea that he had returned “a better man.”

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