crime and punishment


Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)
Translator: Constance Garnett (1861 – 1946)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2000 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store


Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (sometimes spelled Dostoyevsky) is a giant of Russian literature. He and Leo Tolstoy are the most famous novelists from the Golden Age of Russian literature (the 19th century).

In the 1800s, there was a struggle between two schools of thought for influence amongst the Russian intelligentsia. One school embraced the Western European culture and philosophy that first arrived in Russia during the reign of Tsar Peter the Great (1682 – 1725). The other school, called Slavophilism, emerged in the 19th century as a rejection of Westernism in favour of traditional Russian Orthodox values. The clash between these two ideologies spilled into Russian literature of that period, for example in works by Ivan Tugenev (a Westerner) and Dostoevsky (a Slavophile).

Dostoevsky was a young and up-and-coming writer when he joined a group of social reforms in 1846. He and several members of the group were arrested, condemned to death and, apparently, subjected to a mock execution in 1849. Pardoned at the last minute, Dostoevsky was re-sentenced to 4 years of hard labor followed by a term of military service in Siberia. He was discharged from military service in 1859 for health reasons.

Dostoevsky returned from Siberia a changed man. Physically, his already frail health worsened. Mentally, he rejected Westernism and embraced Slavophilism. He had actually completed a novel while he was in Siberia and on his release resumed his writing career. He was an inveterate gambler however and only escaped financial ruin thanks to the success of Crime and Punishment (1866).

Crime and Punishment is generally considered Dostoevsky’s magnum opus and may be his most accessible novel. The novel came in at number 60 in a poll of the top 100 best-loved novels conducted by the BBC’s Big Read in 2003. Dostoevsky is also known for The Idiot (1869) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

What is the story about?

I am covered with blood.
(p 161)

The protagonist Raskolnikov killed a pawnbroker and her half sister. That was the crime. The punishment that followed immediately was both physical and psychological. Raskolnikov became ill, falling into a “feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious” (p 103). But that was nothing compared to the psychological punishment – Raskolnikov struggled between a need to understand, and justify, the reasons for his action and an urge to confess his crime to everyone.


Dostoevsky used Crime and Punishment to criticise two ideologies, namely English utilitarianism and its Russian offshoot, nihilism. Utilitarianism argued that the rightness or morality of an action is to be judged by whether it achieves the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Russian nihilism was a broad philosophical and political movement which arose in the 1860s based on utilitarianism principles. Some nihilists believed in strict rationalism and rejected familial, religious and societal bonds.

Raskolnikov justified his crime as follows:

“… men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories: inferior (ordinary), that is so to say materials that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. There are, of course, innumerable sub-divisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are fairly well marked. The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood—that depends on the idea and its dimensions, note that.”

“… an extraordinary man has the right – that is not an official right, but an inner right – to decide in his own conscience to overstep … certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps of benefit to the whole of humanity).”
(p 222)

In line with his theory of the extraordinary man, Raskolnikov tried to cut himself off from his family, friends and society at large (with varying results). Only Sonia Semyonovna Marmeladov, a fellow ‘sinner’, was able to connect with him.

Ultimately, however, Raskolnikov had to admit to himself that he was no Napoleon figure, no extraordinary man, and that his motive was not utilitarian after all:

I wanted to murder without casuistry, to murder for my own sake, for myself alone! I didn’t want to lie about it even to myself. It wasn’t to help my mother I did the murder—that’s nonsense—I didn’t do the murder to gain wealth and power and to become a benefactor of mankind. Nonsense! I simply did it; I did the murder for myself, for myself alone, and whether I became a benefactor to others, or spent my life like a spider catching men in my web and sucking the life out of men, I couldn’t have cared at that moment…. And it was not the money I wanted, Sonia, when I did it. It was not so much the money I wanted, but something else…. I know it all now…. Understand me! Perhaps I should never have committed a murder again. I wanted to find out something else; it was something else led me on. I wanted to find out then and quickly whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man. Whether I can step over barriers or not, whether I dare stoop to pick up or not, whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right.
(p 353)

Inspired by Sonia, Raskolnikov finally confessed to his crime. He ended his alienation and started on the road to redemption.

How is the book?

This is the complete and unabridged translation by Constance Garnett (1914). Constance Clara Garnett (née Black) is one of the first English translators of the great Russian novels. This edition comes with an introduction and brief notes written by Keith Carabine from University of Kent at Canterbury and also the General Adviser to the Wordsworth Classics series.

Garnett’s translation of Crime and Punishment is in the public domain. But this Wordsworth Classics edition, costing only S$3.63 net bought during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Finally …

The translation is a little dated, but readable.

Et cetera

There is a great deal of similarity between the extraordinary man described by Dostoevsky and the Übermensch conceived by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900).