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Synopsis: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
« on: October 14, 2008, 05:49:32 PM »
Written at the same time as The Gambler, Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment) describes a young intellectual, Raskolnikov, willing to gamble on ideas. He decides to solve all his problems at a stroke by murdering an old pawnbroker woman. Contradictory motives and theories all draw him to the crime. Utilitarian morality suggests that killing her is a positive good because her money could be used to help many others. On the other hand, Raskolnikov reasons that belief in good and evil is itself sheer prejudice, a mere relic of religion, and that, morally speaking, there is no such thing as crime. Nevertheless, Raskolnikov, despite his denial of morality, sympathizes with the unfortunate and so wants to kill the pawnbroker just because she is an oppressor of the weak. His most famous theory justifying murder divides the world into extraordinary people, such as Solon, Caesar, and Napoleon, and ordinary people, who simply serve to propagate the species. Extraordinary people, he theorizes, must have “the right to transgress,” or progress would be impossible. Nothing could be further from Dostoyevsky's own morality, based on the infinite worth of each human soul, than this Napoleonic theory, which Dostoyevsky viewed as the real content of the intelligentsia's belief in its superior wisdom.

After committing the crime, Raskolnikov unaccountably finds himself gripped by “mystic terror” and a horrible sense of isolation. The detective Porfiry Petrovich, who guesses Raskolnikov's guilt but cannot prove it, plays psychological games with him until the murderer at last confesses. Meanwhile, Raskolnikov tries to discover the real motive for his crime but never arrives at a single answer. In a famous commentary, Tolstoy argued that there was no single motive but rather a series of “tiny, tiny alterations” of mood and mental habits. Dostoyevsky's brilliance in part lies in his complex rethinking of such concepts as motive and intention.

Crime and Punishment also offers remarkable psychological portraits of a drunkard, Marmeladov, and of a vicious amoralist haunted by hallucinations, Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov's friend Razumikhin voices the author's distaste for an ideological approach to life; Razumikhin's own life exemplifies how one can solve problems neither by grand ideas nor by dramatic gambles but by slow, steady, hard work.

Quite deliberately, Dostoyevsky made the heroine of the story, Sonya Marmeladova, an unrealistic symbol of pure Christian goodness. Having become a prostitute to support her family, she later persuades Raskolnikov to confess and then follows him to Siberia. In the novel's epilogue, the prisoner Raskolnikov, who has confessed not out of remorse but out of emotional stress, at first continues to maintain his amoral theories but at last is brought to true repentance by a revelatory dream and by Sonya's goodness. Critical opinion is divided over whether the epilogue is artistically successful. - source: Britannica Encyclopedia

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