Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 34

Crime and Punishment

This was the time, when, all things tending fast

To depravation, speculative schemes—

That promised to abstract the hopes of Man

Out of his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth

For ever in a purer element—

Found ready welcome. Tempting region that

For Zeal to enter and refresh herself,

Where passions had the privilege to work,

And never hear the sound of their own names.

—William Wordsworth, The Prelude

Crime and Punishment (Prestuplenie i nakazanie) is the first of the truly great novels of Dostoevsky's mature period. The psychology of Raskolnikov is placed squarely at the center of the work and is carefully interwoven with the ideas ultimately responsible for his fatal transgression. Every other feature as well illuminates the agonizing dilemma in which Raskolnikov is caught, with its inextricable mixture of tormenting passions and lofty rationalizations. The main character is surrounded by others who serve as oblique reflectors of his inner conflicts, and even the subplots serve as implicit thematic commentary. The development of the plot-action is organized to guide the reader toward a proper grasp of the significance of Raskolnikov's crime. Every element of the book thus contributes to an enrichment of its theme and to a resolution of the deepest issues that are posed. At the center of the plot-action is the suspense created by Raskolnikov's inner oscillations and the duel between him and Porfiry Petrovich, but this must be placed in the context of all those “reverberations” generated by the novel's extraordinarily tight-knit ideological-thematic texture. No detail or event seems casual or irrelevant.

It is not surprising that the radicals refused to recognize themselves in his pages, since Dostoevsky portrayed Nihilist ideas not on the level at which they were ordinarily advocated, but rather as they were refashioned by his eschatological imagination and taken to their most extreme consequences. The aim of

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