In a world where the quality of literature is so often said to be rapidly diminishing, it is important to draw our attention back to some of the true classics and appreciate their works from the point of view of our own time. It is important to pay attention to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, whose works have a timeless quality and which show new possibilities in our search for both wisdom and spirituality.
From the very beginning of the novel we face the difficult living conditions of the protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, the poor law student. The description of Rodion’s room, which resembles a coffin and is only five or six feet long, stirs up the feeling of depression and misery in everyone of us.
Dostoevsky depicts very skillfully the dirty yellow peeling paintwork of his confined room where any rather tall man would experience disturbance, nervousness and anxiety. His descriptions of the room make us get the distinct impression of the feelings of a person living under such appalling conditions. Undoubtedly, Raskolnikov would have to turn into a depressed and angry individual without any pleasure, hope or optimism.
Raskolnikov returns to his cramped and constricted space, to his own abyss, dungeon, gloomy thoughts and merciless life without any justice.
The idea of a murder was conceived in Rodin’s head when he visited the aged pawnbroker for the first time.
But he was not sure of the idea. However, the upcoming sequence of events forced Raskolnikov to commit the crime in spite of his inner resistance to the monstrous idea. As if Dostoevsky had been subconsciously preparing us to justify Rodin’s imminent actions and make us, the readers, realize and understand all the reasons that would obscure the thoughts of the young and poverty-stricken intellectual.
The whole novel “Crime and Punishment” is actually based on a tale of a murder. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced not only to the murderer and his murder, but also to the inner struggle of the complex protagonist. Although we know all the time who the murderer is, the story never stops to surprise us with its psychological excitement and thrill.
At first, Raskolnikov was divided within himself into the simplicity of the horrible thought and the abhorrence to the possibility of having conceived that idea at all. He carefully develops the plan although a part of him does not believe in its execution. Rakolnikov did not only want to rob and kill the aged woman. His motives were based on the idea of eradicating evil.
The aged woman – the pawnbroker, lived on other peoples’ misery and grief. And the circumstances of Rodion’s life – poverty, deprivation and humiliation he faced in society- made him commit the crime.
Raskolnikov believed that extraordinary people were allowed to purge society of all the villains who did innumerable injustices. That is why he compared himself to Napoleon, turning his crime into an idealistically committed murder. Trying to justify his motives in his struggle with the guilty consciousness, Raskolnikov believed in “higher justice” as he was “above” the conventions of society.
Having committed the crime, Raskolnikov falls into another world, the world of Svidrigailov and Sonya Marmeladov. His mother, his sister, his friend Razumikhin and the law embodied in Porfiry Petrovich remain on the other side. His internal struggle continues and his punishment results more from his conscience than from the law.
Sonya, no matter how immoral she is, remains the symbol of a pure Christian soul. It is through her voice that we hear the words which lead to salvation.
She advises Raskolnikov that it was his duty and obligation to undertake the responsibility of his crime and carry the burden until he was redeemed. With the help of her spiritual guidance he realizes that the only proper and moral way was the way of metamorphosis – the return to the world of ordinary people. Raskolnikov was trying to understand how Sonya retained, in spite of her decadence, the virtue of the soul. Her answer is God, who unmistakably leads people to honesty and righteousness and who has love, understanding and forgiveness for all.
Raskolnikov’s real punishment was not the labour camp in Siberia he was condemned to. It was the torment he endured throughout the novel. Sonya Marmeladova, the star to his wandering soul, decided to come with him and show him the way to soul redemption and to the victory of truth and love.
One of the topics of the novel is whether the means justified the end. The question tortured Dostoevsky all the time while he was writing the novel. He gave the example of Napoleon and other distinguished soldiers and emperors and asked both himself and the readers whether the great warriors have the right to kill thousands of innocent people because of an idea or general well-being. Raskolnikov had a beneficial motive and a humane idea; however, what ruined and spoiled the idea was the wrong means. He finally understood that he could not make himself happy by annihilating somebody else’s life. He concluded in the end that hate bred hate and love bred love. It is only in the epilogue that his formal punishment was realized, when he decided to confess and end his alienation.
The novel “Crime and Punishment” transcends the limits of time because of its psychological, spiritual and moral depth and significance. Nobody has so far, like Dostoevsky, succeeded in describing the innermost part of our personalities and giving, at the same time, a vivid picture of society he lived in. Dostoevsky’s works are bottomless, the more we deepen into them, the more ideas we find and more lessons we learn.
In short, Dostoevsky takes us beyond our limited experience of life and the moral blindness we live in to show us the lives of other people at other times. He stirs us intellectually and emotionally; he deepens our understanding of others and of our own individual lives. That’s why it is impossible for him to slip into the tragic oblivion of old age.