Discussion Questions/Food for Thought to Help Understand Crime and Punishment

So (as I’m sure I’ve made it abundantly clear over the last few weeks) Crime and Punishment is my absolute favorite book. As I’ve said before, it’s my bellweather. It’s helped me define what literature is to me, and it’s a big–maybe the main–reason I love literature enough to have made it my major.

That being said, I don’t think it’s an easy read. And I don’t think it will, or even should, be everyone else’s favorite book. My tastes can run morbid, and I value characters and psychology much more than I value plot. I know this.

I also know that everyone has different preferences. And I know there are several blockades that make this book less accessible then most people’s regular reads, such as language difficulties due to century of publication and unfamiliar customs/naming conventions (unless you’re Russian, of course).

But I think, with guidance, everyone can appreciate what Crime and Punishment brings to the table. You can understand why it’s stuck around this long, and you can have some really, really great conversations about it with interesting people. You don’t have to like it as much as I do, but I think I can help you extract value from reading it.

Questions coming up. First, the most important thing to making Crime and Punishment more accessible: keeping track of who’s who.

Russian Naming Conventions

It’s really hard to keep who’s who straight because everyone has at least four names (well, in the sense that us Anglofolk have two or three names–a first, a last, and possibly a nickname). And Russians have seemingly endless combinations of those names.

I can’t recommend this enough: say the characters’ names aloud in your head. Like, sound them out, syllable by syllable. It really helps keep them straight in your head.






(That’s kind of a cool name.)

Also, this (adapted and then quoted from a U Virginia site) will help you understand the names better:

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

Rodion = first name

Romanovich = patronymic

Raskolnikov = family name 

Russian names generally consist the three parts: the first or given name, the patronymic, and the last or family name. The patryonymic is created by taking the given name of a person’s father and adding a suffix to it. This suffix means “son of” or “daughter of.” Thus the patronymic takes a different form for men than it does for women. The most common men’s suffixes are -ovich or -evich while for a woman they are -ovna or -evna.

Russians call each other by first name and patronymic. Often, however, Russians will use a shortened form of the first name, a diminutive that connotes more familiarity. Often friends and children will be addressed in this way. One can think of the patronymic and name being equivalent to “Mr. So and So” in our culture.

So calling Raskolnikov “Rodion Romanovich” is like calling him “Mr. Raskolnikov” in the English-speaking world. His dad’s name is Roman. So his sister, who is most often called Dounia, has the patronym “Romanova” as a female version of the dad’s name. But a person not close to her would call her by her non-nickname first name and patronymic, Avdotya Romanova.

Women are never called by their last name. For instance, Dounia isn’t who we think of when we say Raskolnikov, but that’s her last name as well. So Katarina Marmeladov is (obviously) a Marmeladov, but when “Marmeladov” is mentioned as a character in the book, it’s a reference to the patriarch.


Questions to consider while reading Crime and Punishment

There are no cut-and-dry answers to these questions, which, in my mind, is what makes the book so great.

*Note: I consider these questions spoiler-free, unless you consider the murder of the pawnbroker a spoiler. If you’re picking up Crime and Punishment and you don’t know the main character is going to kill a pawnbroker…um, sorry for that. You would have figured it out pretty soon, though. I promise.

1. This is my favorite question, so it’s going first on the list.

Raskolnikov gives a number of reasons throughout the novel for killing the pawnbroker, especially when he goes to visit Sonia the second time. Some of them are clearly just not true. Others are more plausible. The one most often believed is his idea that he is somehow the embodiment of Nietzsche’s idea of the ubermench, or superman, who is above the common man and therefore need not abide by their rules. If you believe this, then Raskolnikov killed to prove to himself that he was, indeed, above the common man and would not suffer their common consequence, including guilt or remorse. Do you think that’s the real reason? What evidence would you give for what you think?

2. Does the guilt Raskolnikov feels manifest itself in ways you imagine guilt would? Is it guilt that he is experiencing, or is it something else? If it is guilt, why was he so disturbed before the murder as well? Was the thought of killing tearing him apart, or is he mentally unbalanced in a different way?

3. I would argue that 90 percent of the characters in the novel are delusional. Raskolnikov has literal delusions in the form of hallucinations, but he also holds broader, more philosophical delusions. Katerina has delusions. Raskolnikov’s mother certainly has delusions. Think of Sonia. Svidrigailov. Razumihin. What is each character’s particular delusion? What role does the delusion play in helping them cope or destroying them? Are any of the delusions healthy?

4. Think about Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse and the way he spends his money. Is Raskolnikov a compassionate person? Or is simply ruled by impulses that swing more wildly than those of most people? Is it too complicated a question to answer?

5. Does Raskolnikov seek absolution or credit for what he did? Both?

6. Both the pawnbroker and her innocent, good-hearted sister are murdered. One might think that the focus of the novel would be on the death of the innocent woman, and that this would be the murder that troubles Raskolnikov the most. Yet, she seems not to be the focal point at all.  Why is Raskolnikov’s guilt and the murder of the pawnbroker such that the sister is just a byproduct, not the true tragedy?

Here’s the real question: is it important to the novel that Raskolnikov feels the way he feels after killing a pretty awful person that did more harm than good?

7. If you were going to argue that Raskolnikov was a good person, what would you use as evidence?

If you were going to argue Raskolnikov was a bad person, what would you use as evidence?

What does it mean that you could make a good argument for either side?

8. Svidrigailov. Is he evil? Are you glad when he is no longer in the picture? If not, why? Either way, why do you think he departs from the novel the way he does?

9. It’s tempting to think this a story about redemption through suffering, especially by the end–a very Christian theme indeed. The most religion-focused family is the Marmeladov family. There’s Katerina’s blasphemous rejection of it near the end, Sonia’s embrace of it, Marmeladov’s love of his righteous punishment, almost like self-flagellation (and his “confession” to Raskolnikov in the bar in beginning of the book). Does anyone have the right of it? Do any of them wind up the better for it?

10. Do you find the ending–either the non-epilogue or epilogue version–satisfying? Was there a better way to end it? Does anything remain unresolved, in your mind?

11. What do you think of the women in the novel? Why are they all so self-sacrificial? Do you think it’s cultural, or do you think it says something about the author?

12. Would you argue that Raskolnikov would be in a different state of mind and would have perhaps chosen another path if he were less broken by poverty, hunger, and illness? Or is it simply his personality that makes him who he is? Any evidence for your reasoning?

These are just a few of the things I like to contemplate as I read. There’s so many more questions worth exploring. But I hope this gives you a launching pad and that wondering about these questions along with me makes your experience reading Crime and Punishment more meaningful.

Crime and Punishment: Svidrigailov as Raskolnikov’s (Rich) Doppleganger

I’ve finished Crime and Punishment, and I’m more certain than ever that Svidrigailov is what Raskolnikov would be if he’d been born into different circumstances. Well, let me qualify–the two are hardly twins in their core values, and their social personas are quite different. But their nature is composed of the same stuff, I think.

Yes, Svidrigailov disgusts Raskolnikov. Notice Dounia and Raskolnikov are both extremely chaste and seem fairly scandalized by anything that has to do with sex. So in this sense, Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov are nothing alike. But by the time that he and Svidrigailov meet in the pub (their last interaction), Raskolnikov knows that he doesn’t have much moral high ground. His former hope that he is an exceptional person is unfounded, and he knows it. So Raskolnikov calls Svidrigailov base due to his disgust for Svidrigailov’s particular vice. But Raskolnikov has his own vices–pride, indulgence of sadism, etc.

And, really, think of the interactions that go on in Sonia and Svidrigailov’s building. Svidrigailov makes it quite clear that Dounia is completely at his mercy. In fact, he comes right out and declares his intent to assault her then and there, noting that his physical strength is much greater than hers. It’s certainly true that Raskolnikov would never do anything of that sort. But think of the way he treats Sonia in her room. Doesn’t he seem to come there just remind her how helpless she is? Make her feel trapped? Doesn’t he come to there outrage and horrify her?

And as hostile as we might feel toward Svidrigailov due to the nature of his threats, consider this–all Svidrigailov’s anecdotes point to his psychological power to seduce. He knows exactly what his target is thinking, he understands what governs their behavior, and he knows how to manipulate people. During the bar conversation, Svidrigailov claims to have had a woman completely convinced that she was innocent of any wrongdoing throughout an affair, only to tell her afterward that he believed her to be just as eager as he. Now, Dounia couldn’t sacrifice her purity willingly–he knows that she is too chaste. And he truly believed that they had shared some kind of chemistry back when she was his governess. What Svidrigailov was doing was attempting to seduce Dounia by giving her a way out, a guilt-free way to give in to her feelings for him without hating herself. When Svidrigailov saw from the look in her eyes that she was completely cold to him, he quickly let her go on her way. He’s never wanted to have any woman against her will, and especially not Dounia. He gets off on consent. He likes to manipulate his way there, true, but he wants to be wanted back.

And I think that Svidrigailov felt differently toward Dounia than he did toward other extramarital prospects, I really do. I mean…

PAUSE FOR SPOILER ALERT. Do not read on if you aren’t finished with the book.





…he does kill himself afterwards, and how many other women have there been and could there be int the future? Dounia was special. (I think there was another reason he killed himself as well, since he showed his suicidal intent before being rejected by Dounia. But I’m just saying. He doesn’t do it until after seeing if she’ll have him.) Just as Raskolnikov is not as bad at heart as he seems, neither is Svidrigailov. It’s proven in other ways, too.

Think of Svidrigailov’s last night. If Raskolnikov was rich, couldn’t you see him doing the same thing? Giving away everything he had, spending a feverish night dreaming of children with lost innocence, hallucinating that he is helping people only to find them turning on him…tell me that isn’t Raskolnikov through and through.

The difference is that Svidrigailov is bored. He can afford to be bored because he is comfortable. He’s past his more youthful days where he might be more inclined to brood, rage against the system and try to find his identity through testing theories. And he wasn’t starving and sick. Imagine Raskolnikov growing up more comfortable than he is, marrying into wealth, and trying to adjust to life from there. He’s not much inclined toward sensuality, but surely he’d become lost in another passion in order to keep himself from dying of sheer boredom. It’s a world with too little to offer such a mind. Svidrigailov is terminally bored. He says so several times. And he doesn’t really care for the money. He just gives it all away. I think Svidrigailov is just what Raskolnikov would have become if he had developed under different circumstances and was fifteen years older. He’s maybe not the mirror image, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities.

Crime and Punishment: The One Against Whom Raskolnikov Has No Chance

Porfiry, Part II!

You know, I think Raskolnikov could have gotten away just fine with fainting at the police station. That wasn’t what started it all, as far as the police suspecting him. He’s clearly sick and weak when he goes to the station (and perhaps even a little off his rocker, one might assume).

If you’ve read the book, you know that Raskolnikov does a number of things throughout the book that make you scream, “Why!? Why are you saying this? No one suspects you!” And that, in itself, is another discussion*. But there was one big, initial mistake that really doomed him, as far as getting caught. And it wasn’t fainting at the police station.

That big mistake was his ridiculously ill-advised discussion with Zametov in the restaurant. Raskolnikov purposely steers the conversation toward the police blotter (or whatever the 19th-century Russian equivalent to the police blotter is). He proceeds to makes Zametov very uneasy, forcing his companion to consider the possibility that the murderer sits before him. But this isn’t a big mistake because it made Zametov suspect Raskolnikov. Zametov isn’t really a very good detective. He’s too young and too easily shaken, and he doesn’t trust himself. He very easily could have convinced himself that Raskolnikov was just in need of serious mental and physical help. After all, what guilty person would ever act like that? That’s the talk of a crazy, not a criminal.

No, the problem with that conversation with Zametov is that Zametov was shaken enough to tell Porfiry about it, and Porfiry knew instantly that Raskolnikov was likely to be his man. Once that conversation with Zametov was relayed, it was just a matter of finding evidence. Porfiry, unlike Zametov, is psychologically brilliant, both in perception and in manipulation. He is seasoned and perceptive enough to have taken note of Raskolnikov’s article some time ago and filed away the author’s name in his memory, considering him someone from whom he’s not heard the last. Porfiry can tell just from the article what kind of person Raskolnikov is and what he might do to prove himself worthy of his own words.

Porfiry loves his job. I think he has a barrel of laughs catching people in his web (and I think the references to spiders throughout the book supports this nicely). But I don’t think he’s sadistic. He’s just a chess player. He enjoys the competition, he enjoys figuring out his opponent, and he loves winning. But he sees his opponents as people. While Porfiry was rather cruel, deliberately torturing Raskolnikov in their first few encounters (one at Porfiry’s house, one at the police station), the third encounter at Raskolnikov’s apartment proves that he finds Raskolnikov quite interesting, and he doesn’t want Raskolnikov’s life to be ruined by what he did. That being said, Porfiry still wants to win, and he will do what he needs to in order to be the victor. And frankly, Raskolnikov is smart, but he never had a chance against Porfiry. Even at his full strength and mental capacity, Raskolnikov is too young to have really sorted out a way to deal with life, and especially with other people. He’s plagued by the need to develop theories about where he stands in relation to others and how to divide folks into hierarchies. At the core of his struggle is how to reconcile the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. Porfiry, no matter his age, is decades ahead of Raskolnikov in his maturity, adjustment, and view of human beings.

Young people want to fight the system. As people get older, they become more interested in how to rise within or above the system instead of focusing on rejecting it entirely. Raskolnikov and Porfiry are both smart, but Porfiry wins every time in this contest.

* Ah yes, I haven’t forgotten–why does Raskolnikov continually bring himself into conversation about the murder when he could just as easily say nothing or change the subject? When no one suspects him, why does he routinely demand that people suspect him, despite his terror of being caught? There’s probably a million theories you could come up with, and I’d be delighted to hear other people’s take on this.

My own tendencies influence my thoughts on this. I’m reminded of a time I was in the car with someone, and I was doing something–drawing money out of a drive-up ATM or something. On the way out, I very slowly, and one might have though deliberately, coasted right into a mailbox. I was looking right ahead of me and I have no idea how it’s even possible for any human being to do something this dumb. (The mailbox was fine, by the way.)  I nearly died of embarrassment. I made the person in the car to swear never, never to tell anyone.

Then, the next day, I went out of my way to tell pretty much every person I knew about it.

Why did I do that? God, I don’t know. I do things like this all the time–every time I do anything I’m embarrassed about, I go out of my way to make sure everyone knows. It’s as if seeking out enough people to make fun of me diffuses the embarrassment, takes away some of its power. It’s threatening force as a terrible, shameful secret disappears. Maybe Raskolnikov cannot help but try to relieve the pressure of that swelling threat by leaking bits of his secret, conversation by conversation.

Crime and Punishment: Porfiry’s Ace in the Hole

First off, look at this.


If going on for eternity about Crime and Punishment is going to earn me magical gifts like this, I’m going back to posting per chapter.

I’m at the point in the book where Porfiry, the main detective in Crime and Punishment, has come to Raskolnikov’s room and flat out declares that Raskolnikov is the murderer. That he declares it as fact is important; he does not claim that he suspects it or that he is convinced of it. Porfiry’s own opinion does not matter, because it isn’t a suspicion. It’s simply the truth, to him. And, of course, he’s right. He gives Raskolnikov a few days to turn himself in to make it easier on himself because—and I think he’s being honest here–Porfiry claims to rather like Raskolnikov. He’s not in the least like Javert, the detective from Les Miserables, who believes so fully in good, evil, and clear-cut rules of justice that he cannot handle it when shades of gray are revealed. Porfiry knows that people are complicated. He knows Raskolnikov is more mentally unsetteled and broken than he is evil. And I think the detective feels sorry for him, in a detached sort of way. Nonetheless, the murderer must be convicted and serve his sentence.

Porfiry claims to have evidence but that he’d rather not be forced to use it. I can’t remember if this proof is revealed by the end. I’ll have to come back and adjust my thinking if this turns out to be wrong. But if I remember correctly, we never concretely learn what Porfiry’s ace in the hole is.

Of course, it could be a tactic. It would be more likely that Raskolnikov would confess and the case could be closed if he was pressured to do so by evidence, and whether or not the evidence existed would be ancillary if all Porfiry was aiming for was a conviction. But Porfiry, during this encounter, is quite blunt with Raskolnikov.  He admits to not knowing where Raskolnikov’s buried the stolen items, which I doubt he would do if he was bluffing. (That would likely be some of the best evidence of all, considering the stupid conversation with Zametov where Raskolnikov stated how he would hide the goods if he were the murderer.) And, after reading the chapter, I think I know what the evidence is. It’s confusing. But I can’t see any other way.

During this encounter, Porfiry drops several phrases that are exact references to past conversations Raskolnikov has had with other people. He talks about “taking his suffering”–an odd turn of phrase for someone who can see clearly that Raskolnikov is already suffering enough and who does not, I think, believe in the religious value of suffering for sins. Porfiry has echoed Sonia’s words exactly, and in the same context explains redemption through confession. It’s quite inconsistent with Porfiry’s character, and the exact turn of phrase repeated seems an unlikely coincidence. If there were better technology back in those days, I’d have said Sonia’s room was bugged. But since that’s impossible, that means Porfiry’s evidence is likely a witnesses to this conversation, of which there are two: Sonia, and the metaphorical-popcorn-eating eavesdropper next door, Svidrigailov. The next hint tells us which of the two is the source of the evidence.

Porfiry also quotes the exact advice Svidrigailov gives Raskolnikov about fresh air. It’s eerie, and that phrase never passed between Sonia and Raskolnikov. So Svidrigailov has to be the man–he must have talked to Porfiry already about the conversation, or he is otherwise the source of what Porfiry knows.

It’s so hard to see either of them talking to Porfiry. On Sonia’s end, what redemption can their be for Raskolnikov’s soul if he goes to his suffering unwillingly? And Raskolnikov himself seems convinced there’s no way Svidrigailov has talked, and it’s hard not to agree. One, it doesn’t seem to be in his character. Two, what has he to hold over Dounia’s head if he has already talked to the police on the matter?

Porfiry definitely has heard conversations that have passed between Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, and Sonia. How he got wind of those conversations…it’s hard to tell. Perhaps he’s done some eavesdropping of his own.

More about Porfiry in another post. He’s a rare intellect and a very interesting character. Raskolnikov’s biggest mistake was ever getting on such a man’s radar, if we’re talking purely in terms of getting caught.

Crime and Punishment: Svidrigailov as Raskolnikov’s Doppleganger

Well, I’m far beyond posting for every chapter now. I am exactly 62% through the book (the glory of having a Kindle is that I know this) and I am disheartened; there’s now so much I want to say that I’m not even sure where to begin.  So before I get into my main topic, just a few updates on wrong assumptions.

1. I don’t think Raskolnikov’s mother is manipulative after all. I think that, if we can trust anyone, we can trust the omniscient narrator. These are the facts that Dostoyevsky wants to share with us about his plot.  And omniscience says that Pulcheria “had only that morning thought rupture with Luzhin a terrible misfortune” before the family gives him the boot at dinner.  So Pulcheria, I believe, really is just a hand-wringing babbler who wears her heart on her sleeve. She did, in fact want the marriage to Luzhin to happen.

2. The reoccurring theme of power vs powerlessness manifests itself with the discussion in Sonia’s room.  Raskolnikov fluctuates wildly, first bowing to all the suffering of humanity/kissing Sonia’s feet and then scorning her immense sacrifices, which provide no real solution at all to her family’s problems. Sonia is still unable to alter her family’s destiny, and Raskolnikov rubs her helplessness in her face. Once again, it’s the pull of two Raskolnikovs–one that wants to give every last penny away as he starves (like Sonia) and one that is like his father that advises avoiding trying to help others because, well, what can he do? Indeed, what can Sonia do?

3. I was wrong in assuming the men in the bar just planted the thought of murdering with the excuse of justice in Raskolnikov’s brain. I had forgotten about one of the most important parts of Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov’s article that was of such interest to Porfiry. Raskolnikov had the idea of justified killing far before it was suggested at that bar, so it really was as if circumstance was eerily setting up the murder of the pawnbroker and poor Lizaveta. Oh, I have so much to say about that article he wrote…oh well, another time.

And now for the topic at hand: Raskolnikov’s rather sinister but more suave twin, Svidrigailov.

The first time I read this book, I thought Svidrigailov was pure evil. I especially thought that after the rather dramatic scene with Dounia near the end. He was conniving, devious, a little rapey, terrifying…what isn’t pointing to evil? But every re-read, I have liked Svidrigailov more and more (and Luzhin less and less). Certainly I’d noticed that Svidrigailov had said he and Raskolnikov were alike before, but only this time do I realize how right he his.

The way Raskolnikov reacts to Svidrigailov when they first speak is quite like how others react to Raskolnikov (specifically, “He is a madman” and “‘You are certainly mad'”). Svidrigailov has the same awkward laughter, as if he has inside jokes with himself. He daydreams aloud without thinking, alarming those around him (think of Raskolnikov scaring off the friendly stranger after handing money to the young girl singing at the market).  He’s significantly introspective and forces people into conversations that make them uncomfortable.  He believes he sees ghosts, just as Raskolnikov sees things in delirium. He speaks of being ill, and he imagines that eternity might be one little corner filled with spiders (this tiny space to inhabit is a reoccurring theme in Raskolnikov’s thoughts, though the spiders seem to be lacking in his version, thankfully). Raskolnikov cries about the justice of Svidrigailov’s described eternity, but really only one manifestation of Raskolnikov is concerned with justice–the little boy that wants to kiss the dead horse and come to blows with its owner. The other manifestation of Raskolnikov believes Sonia’s stepsiblings will be left helpless and all her sacrifices will be for nothing, and he has no trouble confronting the injustice head on. This version of Raskolnikov, to me, sounds very much like the cynic who would picture a corner of eternity with spiders.

Svidrigailov “rarely lies,” and he’s so blunt I’m prepared to believe him. Think of the sentence “‘What do I mean? I really don’t know…’ Svidrigailov muttered ingenuously, as though he, too, were puzzled.” 1. It’s quite clear that he is honest, and perhaps too muddled in the brain to be otherwise, and 2. wow, how easily could that line be coming from Raskolnikov? But, while being honest, Svidrigailov avoids full disclosure.  He must. So his speech is full of phrases that he knows bear a heavy significance to him and him only, and, understanding others cannot know what is in his mind, he playfully hints at a larger picture. An example of this is Svidrigailov’s abstractly described “journey” (proving, in my mind, he has planned to kill himself before even getting to St. Petersburg).  Raskolnikov does this constantly as well–he loves to talk about the murder with people and chuckle and hint at things of great significance, but only for his own personal enjoyment–or masochism.

His own enjoyment or masochism. That’s the clincher. That’s why Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov are the most alike.  And it’s why I think I like Svidrigailov no matter what a knave he is. They never bother to think about what others think of them. They simply do not care an iota. They’re so lost in their own psyche that other people only play a fringe role. Sure, Raskolnikov cares if the police know what he’s done–when they’re around, and only because it concerns his future.  What he never thought of until recently in the book is what Razumihin will think when he finds out. And Razumihin has furiously defended Raskolnikov throughout the book, so it’s rather a surprise to think Raskolnikov never had a moment of “if only you knew!” Likewise, Svidrigailov says “I am certainly idle and depraved” and makes no apology for it or show any concern that Raskolnikov thinks it. In fact, he plainly says, “I am not particularly interested in anyone’s opinion” when Raskolnikov talks about how others view him, and from the bluntness of the entire conversation, it’s hard for me to think he isn’t telling the truth.

For someone trying prove he is Napoleon, Raskolnikov sure cares little about how others see him. He is possible the least self-conscious character I’ve read, at least as far as his awareness of how he comes off to others and his concern as such. It’s all about proving his thoughts internally harmonious–with proving himself to himself. He is the opposite of Luzhin, seeking affirmation and flattery everywhere he goes. So Svidrigailov is the opposite of Luzhin, too. It’s what I like about Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov–in that way, as well as others, they are very alike.

Crime and Punishment: Power vs Helplessness

Consider with me the contents of chapters four and five of Crime and Punishment. (See, I’m not going to do a post per chapter after all.)

Short summary: Raskolnikov goes wandering and musing, as he is apt to do. He thinks about his mother’s letter and of his murderous plans and becomes extremely upset, as he is apt to become. He then sees a young girl with her clothes torn, completely drunk and unaware of her surroundings, and he perceives that a man following her has designs on her in this state. Raskolnikov attacks the man, determined to save this young girl from any further trauma, and he gives a policeman a great deal of his remaining money to get her a ride home. Then, as quickly as it came, his sympathy dissolves and he laughingly tells the policeman to just let the man do as he will. No use interfering with fate. The policeman thinks he’s crazy. He’s probably right.

Raskolnikov falls asleep in the bushes and has a terrible dream about being a child walking with his father and watching a helpless old horse be beat to death. It’s one of the worst parts of the book, but it’s so important. Then he walks home, swearing off all murderous thoughts and feeling better for having made the decision. He takes a long route home and stumbles upon the pawnbroker’s sister, Lizaveta, in conversation. He learns Lizaveta will be away from the house tomorrow evening, and he, in despair, decides this opportunity to catch the pawnbroker alone means that his fate is sealed. He must kill the old woman.

End summary.

Here come the contradictions that make Raskolnikov so human and so interesting. He believes that, if he doesn’t make a decision about the murder, he must resign himself to an entire life of helplessness. “He must decide on something, or else…’Or throw up life altogether!’ he cried, suddenly in a frenzy–‘accept one’s lot humbly, as it is, once and for all…'” Raskolnikov will later claim that the murder was an assertion of power, an expression of his supremacy and control.  Yet, when he makes a decision in chapter five–a decision not to kill–it seems to him as though fate then takes away this ability to make decisions and assert his agency. Killing the pawnbroker means powerlessness to Raskolnikov in this moment, not power.

After he decided to renounce his “dream,” as he calls it, of killing the pawnbroker, his meanderings bring him through the haymarket, which he claims to like to visit. Despite that the chapter gives a reason for him to be there–he likes it there–he thinks of the detour from the route home as a cruel magnetic pull of fate and nothing else. To him, it is as if some bizarre circumstance for which no one could possibly account cursed him and sent him to that place, sealing his future actions without his permission. Dostoyevsky says Raskolnikov felt “superstitiously impressed” that this route was the “predestined turning point of his fate,” and it was “as though it had been lying in wait for him on purpose.” He hears of Lizaveta’s impending absence and “he felt suddenly in his whole being that he had no more freedom of thought, no will, and that everything was suddenly and irrevocably decided.”

It’s strange because it takes much more choice to actually go out and kill someone, or even to take a different route home because you like the area.  Yet these are the things that strip Raskolnikov of his feelings of agency. Deciding to take no action against the pawnbroker–to let fate decide her path and to not intervene–made Raskolnikov feel free. After dreaming of the horse’s violent death and hearing his father say “it’s not our business” and encouraging Raskolnikov to take no action, you would think that it would be the opposite–that it would be action that gave Raskolnikov relief. He could certainly (outwardly) justify killing the pawnbroker. Doesn’t she act as a symbol of all the abusive and greedy monsters Raskolnikov has encountered in life? Isn’t she like the fat woman, rich and gluttonous, cracking nuts and laughing as the poor horse is struck with an axe? (Well, no, but that’s another post. I’m saying he could certainly convince himself that this is righteous vigilantism.)

He has such intense bouts of empathy for others, and he very much wants to intervene. The situation with the young girl and the horse are completely parallel. Something helpless is in trouble and Raskolnikov will do anything for them: fight for them, give them every last penny. In his dream, his father encourages him not to interfere in these injustices. With the young girl, you can almost see the father figure rise up and overcome child-Raskolnikov as he turns 180 degrees, claiming no one should intervene–it isn’t anyone’s business what happens but the girl’s and her stalker’s.

What Raskolnikov seeks is power, but all he sees–and some of this is probably self-imposed martyrdom–is his helplessness at every turn. This is Raskolnikov’s struggle. He wants to do something good in a world that makes him feel powerless to do good. Or he wants to at least avoid the pain of trying to change things and being helpless to make a difference. He can’t make either one happen.

Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov’s Mother

Chapter three. It continues.

I had always thought of Raskolnikov’s mother as simply sincere, sentimental (to a fault), and a little batty. But after reading her letter to Raskolnikov, I’ve decided to explore a new theory and see how much water it holds for the rest of the novel.

Perhaps Raskolnikov’s mother is more deliberate than I’ve given her credit to be. In her letter, she describes an existence where Dounia and she are constantly thinking of him and would do anything for him–in fact, everything they currently do is for him.  She seems so much in earnest, to the point of blathering, in her letter, so it seems like an outpouring of love. But for the first time, I’m entertaining the idea that Raskolnikov is not her favorite child after all.  That puts quite a different spin on things.

Her is the narrative of the letter in one light–the light in which I’ve always read the letter in before:

  • I haven’t written because I couldn’t–you would come marching up here with guns blazing to defend your sister*
  • Dounia has undergone terrible suffering and slander but now everything is going to be great!
  • Her future husband will take care of the whole family, get you a job, etc. He’s kinda pompous, but please don’t judge him–give him a chance, because all our hopes are with him, and I’m sure he’s really a great guy.
  • Heck, when they get married, maybe I’ll even try to strike out on my own! Me, an independent woman–picture that!

*Question: Would he have, though?  Would Raskolnikov have really come in a fury to defend Dounia’s honor? Maybe. He’s such a moody guy that I’d say it depends on the day.

Now, here is the narrative of the letter in a new light, reading between the lines:

  • I haven’t written because I couldn’t–you would come marching up here with guns blazing, or at least I’d like to make it clear that that’s my expectation of your character and I’m hoping you’ll take the hint and match those expectations, should future circumstances like this arrive and we need you.
  • Dounia has undergone terrible suffering, and it’s all for you, really.
  • She’s done all this and now she’s about to marry a self-important, insulting, disgusting person she doesn’t even like, and guess why–FOR YOU.
  • If you let her marry this guy for your own benefit, God have mercy on your soul.
  • Also, I don’t think that he’s going to make me feel welcome in their house and I’m too poor too make it alone

Does this new reading hold water? Well, I’ll look for it as I read on. But I noticed this time around that she says things she certainly knows will prejudice him against Luhzin (like “it did strike me as very rude,” or “Of course, there is no great love either on his side, or on hers…but Dounia…will make it her duty to make her husband happy,” or “it must be admitted the matter has been arranged in great haste,” or “he seems a little conceited”). And she certainly makes it clear that Dounia (her favorite, perhaps?) is making endless sacrifices for him (she isn’t sleeping, she’s in a fever over dreams of what this connection could mean for her brother, etc.).

I always thought that Raskolnikov’s mother was just overly chatty and says whatever comes into her mind without thinking to censor herself. But writing vs speaking is very different. Mom has a chance to really think about what she’s saying, and she can always throw out a paper on which she’s written things too hastily. She knows her son. She knows how he will read all the things she’s said, how he’ll interpret all of her words.

On a broader scale, this could be an author technique to prejudice the reader in certain ways as well, and I’m just being overly, umm, invested. Perhaps my initial reads of Mom are accurate. But I’m going to explore the manipulation angle this read-around, just for fun.

Crime and Punishment: Marmeladov’s Masochism–But Only to a Point…

Chapter II, and it’s time for another post. I promise to not post on every chapter in Crime and Punishment.


I promise to maybe not post on every chapter in Crime and Punishment. I think that’s fair.

Here’s the story behind the topic of today’s post. Marmeladov has lost his job. He and his family live in crushing poverty. He loves them terribly. Things are very bad. His wife is coughing up blood, His children are starving. His oldest daughter, a tiny, pious thing, has been forced into prostitution, which takes an enormous psychological toll on her. But Marmeladov gets his job back. Everything is going to be okay. He comes home with money from work that night. The family is feverishly manic with hope. He talks of the amazing transformation in the atmosphere of the apartment, of the real cream they’ve gotten for his coffee. That night, Marmeladov takes the money he has earned, sells his work uniform, and goes on a five day bender. The only reason he is still able to drink after spending all the money is because he went to his daughter and begged her to give her all she had, which she did. And there he is, at the end of his last pint (which he almost proudly said was bought with her money), telling his story to Raskolnikov at the bar.

There is an elephant-in-room-sized question here. Marmeladov never says why he snuck off in the night to drink instead of going back to work. He has plenty of self-loathing to vocalize, but he never says why he did it. Instead he just says that he stole his wife’s key in the night, took the money, and has been drinking for five days. Raskolnikov never asks why, and, frankly, I never thought to ask either until now.

Just about everyone in Crime and Punishment has a delusion of some sort. I used to think the Marmeladov family all had different delusions, but I realized today that they are all just different flavors of the same delusion. Or maybe delusion is the wrong word for it because of how unverified by experience and fact delusions are, ipso facto. It’s perhaps more that the family has coping mechanisms that reflect Marmeladov’s delusion–for make no mistake, his way of thinking is certainly a delusion. They all express faith that God will understand their sin and misery and forgive them for it, and their justification for all the things poverty drives them to do is that their suffering will be redeem them from their sin. The only one who wavers from this hope for a moment (in my favorite line of the novel) is Marmeladov’s wife Katerina, saying that if God doesn’t forgive her, she doesn’t care. But the quintessential Marmeladov family delusion is that suffering = redemption in the afterlife. They have to believe it–they don’t have much more to hold onto.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad or harmful way of thinking for everyone. I think that Sonia’s (Marmeladov’s daughter’s) faith that God sees her intentions and not her actions is the only thing that stops her from falling into the kind of despair we see in Raskolnikov–the kind of despair that drives him to madness. But Marmeladov…his beliefs are delusions to the core. He claims he drinks his family’s money away because he seeks the suffering at the bottom of the glass. He wants to feel the weight of all he’s done, he wants his wife to pull his hair and beat him (which he claims is an absolute pleasure to him). He wants to be “judged” and “crucified,” daydreaming about how God will say that though his sins are many, he has loved much, and that it’s Marmeladov’s very knowledge that he is unworthy that will cause God to receive him. 

Marmeladov is stuck in a wretched cycle. He has to do things that make him worthy of punishment so that he can be punished and feel redeemed. The more terrible the thing, the deeper the punishment that will be inflicted upon him, as he sees it. The “crucified” implies that he might see himself as a martyr, and it is guilt that is his primary source of suffering. So what must he do? Things that make him feel guilty. I think that’s why he didn’t return to the job and instead spent the money on a five-day drinking spree instead of, say, helping his children not starve to death. But there are problems with this. There are some forms of suffering he chooses to avoid.  

If Marmeladov truly wanted to suffer, he would dwell on his daughter’s occupation. This is clearly what troubles him the most. He explains enough of it to make Raskolnikov understand that she has had to become a prostitute, but often the conversation, when it turns to her, wanders on to other topics.

Take this:

“She has a room at the Kapernaumovs’ the tailors, she lodges with them; Kapernaumov is a lame man with a cleft palate and all of his numerous family have cleft palates too. And his wife, too, has a cleft palate. They all live in one room, but Sonia has her own, partitioned off…. Hm… yes… very poor people and all with cleft palates… yes.”

And that’s the end of Sonia talk. 

Marmeladov’s theory–that he is such a wretch and so thoroughly, wonderfully punished for it that God can’t help but have pity on him–falls short, I think. He believes emphatically that he suffers as much as one possibly can, yet he avoids thinking for long on what hurts him the most about what he’s done. He revels in the rest of his sins, feeling as terrible about it all as he possibly can, but he falters when he thinks on Sonia for too long.

The other explanation is that he’s an alcoholic, which is probably also true. (However, I’d like to point out that he stopped drinking when he married Katerina. That isn’t to say alcoholics can’t stop drinking for a time. But he’d done it once, meaning he could probably do it again. But perhaps he’d reached the point where he figured he would always return to drinking and no longer had the will to fight it.)

Anyway, Marmeladov’s masochism and the world of sin-cycle he’s built his life theories upon are heartily felt and thoroughly believed. But, like any delusion, there are holes in his beliefs.

Crime and Punishment, Love of My Literary Life

I’ve had reason to return to the book that embodies everything I love about literature, and I’m so happy to come home.

Though I’ve read the book countless times, it’s been years since I picked it up. A friend (greetings, Mark!) had expressed interest in reading it after I had spent a ridiculous amount of time verbally swooning over the mastery of Dostoyevsky at his best. I think the experience of reading Crime and Punishment can be enhanced if some considerations are floating around as you read, so I went to draw a few food-for-thought questions up for him.  (At the end of my Crime and Punishment posts, I’ll copy those here for interweb posterity.) But I realized, as I was typing out my “things to think about” list, that I was writing from too great a distance. A few of the names were fuzzy, and I’m sure there were huge passages that I wasn’t even considering. So I thought I’d break it out again. And I am in heaven. Well, in as much heaven as you can be in while reading a heartwrenching book.

I’m barely in, and I already have so much to write about that I had to narrow it down to one topic. Knowing where Dostoyevsky is going with the book makes me notice so many more things. The replay value on a book like this is incredible.

But my topic today is prejudicial language, and if you could humor me and decouple the pejorative nature of the phrase’s contemporary usage for one second, I think I can convince you why prejudicial language is a glorious thing.

One of my food-for-thought Crime and Punishment questions, as you’ll see when I post my list, is this: If prompted to argue that Raskolnikov is a good person or a bad person, why you could make a pretty decent case for either scenario? And I think what I’m really asking about in that question goes back to the complexity of the novel. Crime and Punishment masters complexity–it pretty much owns the rights to the word and, if it weren’t public domain, someone could be suing me right now. And reading just the first few pages, I can see how Dostoyevsky is setting it all up.

There are a few crimes that most everyone, save deviants, can agree on as fundamentally repulsive. Murder turns most people off pretty reliably, from a moral standpoint. If you read a news brief titled, “Young Man Kills Old, Helpless Woman and Waifish, Charitable Sister with Axe,” wouldn’t you immediately be inclined to engage in polarized thinking? One party in the right and one in the wrong, one good and one evil? So Dostoyevsky has to fight the natural prejudice, which is for us to be inclined against Raskolnikov, with counter-prejudicial language to make the story complex. More on why that matters later.

As I’m reading just the first few pages, my sympathy for the broken, tortured Raskolnikov is immediately established, and I know why. It’s because of language like this:

“All worked painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves” (Sorry for no page numbers–Kindle citing.)
I already feel sorry for him.

“…the young man’s refined face.”
He isn’t some brute. In fact…

“He was, by the way, exceptionally handsome”
Seriously, though. We often sympathize more with people that we are attracted to than people we find hideous, and the passage that follows allows us to picture him. We now have a real human being–a good-looking one–in our heads that we can feel something toward.

“He was crushed by poverty, but the anxieties of his position has of late ceased to weigh on him…his ideas were sometimes in a tangle and…he was very weak; for two days he had scarcely tasted food. He was so badly dressed that even a man accustomed to shabbiness would have been ashamed to be seen in the street in such rags.”
So he’s handsome but not vain. And horribly poor. And possibly starving to the point of hallucination. Sympathy. But, regarding the hallucinations, Dostoyevsky’s provided window into Raskolnikov’s thought life reveals not a lunatic, but a very serious, philosophical young man whose thoughts are made disjointed by any number of things–poverty, hunger, depression or perhaps something worse.  Speaking of which…

“He had forgotten the note of that bell, and now its peculiar tinkle seemed to remind him of something and to bring it clearly before him…he started, his nerves were terribly overstrained by now”
PTSD wasn’t a term used until recently, and even before then, it was really only after soldiers returned from WWI with “shell shock” that the condition was found noteworthy. But Dostoyevsky seemed to know of its existence before it had a name (which is understandable if you know anything about his life). He seems to be hinting at symptoms of it here. Sympathy increasingly garnered.

and then…

“Raskolnikov was not used to crowds, and…he avoided society of every sort, more especially of late. But now all at once he felt a desire to be with other people…he was so weary after a whole month of concentrated wretchedness and gloomy excitement that he longed to rest, if only for a moment, in some other world, whatever it might be”
So although Raskolnikov is clearly a hermit crab, he has moments when he is filled with the desire to reach out to others, to make a human connection.

Tell me you don’t feel something for the young man in the “Kills Old, Helpless Woman with Axe” headline now. You don’t have to think what he did was okay. But you understand that it isn’t as good vs evil as it appears at first glance. And, sure, Dostoyevsky has done this on purpose. He made his character handsome, poor, tortured, frazzled.  He tries to prejudice you in Raskolnikov’s favor in many ways. But (1) if he didn’t, you would be immediately prejudiced the opposite way. And (2) he is trying to paint a picture of a complex world with complex human beings living in it.

Now, expanding to broader level…what is the value of the complexity? Why does this help make Crime and Punishment such a beautiful book? Because it’s all of us. You can get the more cheery version of this through Whitman’s passages in “Song of Myself” about containing multitudes, and I sure won’t knock one who rejoices in it and wants to have a complexity party. But what I love about Crime and Punishment is that so much that happens in this world is painful and unfair, and it causes us make weird and horrifying decisions in order to protect ourselves, punish ourselves, and prove to ourselves that the world makes sense. It makes us contradictory. It makes situations impossible to boil down to a headline like “Young Man Kills Old Woman with Axe.”

The reason I love Crime and Punishment is because it makes me feel connected with others. I understand people because I can’t possibly understand them. They contain multitudes, and sometimes those multitudes are unfathomable–an impossible-seeming combination of beautiful, terrible things. Crime and Punishment makes me love people in real life because of the complicated creatures they are. Raskolnikov embodies a world of contradictions, and it’s eerie-accurate. It’s why I love human beings. It’s why I hate them. It’s why I love me and hate me. The book just does the complexity of real people so perfectly.

This is my favorite, favorite, favorite book and I have lots of feels because of it. Because of that, this post is as mushy as you will ever see me get. Except for my other posts about Crime and Punishment…

So far, I’m halfway through chapter two. So if I were you and I hated squishy-love-hate-human-connection talk, I might tune out for the next 30 posts or so.

Before this, I blew through Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City (WOW) and John Green’s Paper Towns (very good, but not as good as Looking for Alaska). I was going to write about both, especially Emerald City. I speculate that short story writing is some form of witchcraft because I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone can do it, let alone do it like Egan. I’ll get there one day, maybe, but I sense a lot of Crime and Punishment talk in my future.