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Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881). Crime and Punishment.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

FYODOR MIKHAILOVITCH DOSTOEVSKY was born at Moscow on October 30, 1821, the son of a military surgeon. He was educated in his native city and at the School of Military Engineering at St. Petersburg, from which he graduated in 1843 with the grade of sublieutenant. The attraction of literature led him to give up the career that lay open to him, and he entered instead upon a long struggle with poverty.

His first book, “Poor Folks” (1846), though obviously influenced by Gogol, was recognized by the critics as the work of an original genius, and he became a regular contributor to a monthly magazine, “Annals of the Country.” He is said to have undertaken ten new novels at once, and was certainly working at a terrific pace when a sudden halt was called. He had joined the circle of a political agitator, Petrachevski, and had been taking part in its rather harmless discussions on political economy, when the suspicions of the police were aroused and he, with his brother and thirty comrades, was arrested in April 1849, and thrown into the fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Petersburg, where he wrote his story, “A Little Hero.” On December 22d, he and twenty-one others were conducted to the foot of a scaffold in the Simonovsky Square, and told to prepare for death. But before the sentence was executed, as they stood in their shirts in the bitter December weather, it was announced that their penalty was commuted to exile in Siberia. On Christmas Eve he started on his journey, and the next four years were spent among convicts in a prison at Omsk. He has described his experiences there in his “Memories of the House of the Dead” (1853)—experiences which, though frightful in the extreme, seem to have strengthened rather than injured him in body and mind, though they may have embittered his temper. His imprisonment was followed by three years of compulsory military service, during the last of which he became an under-officer, and married a widow, Madame Isaiev. He now resumed his literary career, publishing “The Injured and the Insulted” in 1860. In 1862 he visited western Europe, but seems to have made little use of his opportunities to study the civilization or national character of other peoples. He was a confirmed gambler, and his conduct at times reduced his wife and himself to an almost desperate situation. She died in 1863, and in the following year he lost his brother Michael, who had shared with him the management of a periodical. Left alone, he was unable to conduct the business affairs connected with it, and only the success of “Crime and Punishment” in 1866 rescued him from ruin. He had now reached the height of his powers, and the novels written after this period are generally regarded as showing an increasing lack of the proportion and restraint which had never been his to any great degree. The most important of the later works are “The Idiot” (1869), “The Possessed” (1873), “The Adult” (1875), and “The Brothers Karamazov” (1881). He married as his second wife, his stenographer, Anna Grigorevna Svitkine, a girl who, though not highly educated, was capable and devoted; and through her energy his last years were passed in comfort and comparative prosperity. He issued periodically “An Author’s Note-Book” to which he contributed an amount of autobiographical matter, and through this and other writings in magazines he exercised a good deal of influence. He came finally to have a very high position in the popular regard, and his death in February, 1881, brought forth an expression of public feeling such as St. Petersburg had seldom seen.

Though Dostoevsky did not regard himself as a martyr in his Siberian exile, and, indeed, even seems to have regarded the suffering of that time in the light of expiation—though of what crime it is hard for a non-Russian to see—he bore the marks of the experience through the rest of his life. His face looked aged and sorrow-stricken, and he became bitter, silent, and suspicious. He was subject to epilepsy, and had strange hallucinations. Probably as a consequence of his long association with criminals, he had an intense interest in abnormal and perverted types, the psychology of which he analysed with an uncanny subtlety. His books form a striking contrast to those of Turgenev in point of art, for they are diffuse, often poorly constructed and incoherent, and without charm of style. But in spite of these limitations, his power of rousing emotion, the grim intensity of his conceptions, and his command of the sources of fear and pity make him a very great writer.

“Crime and Punishment” is his acknowledged masterpiece, and it displays some of his most characteristic ideas. Chief among them is that of expiation. The crime of Raskolnikov is not so much repented of as it is regarded as being canceled by voluntary submission to Siberian exile. Sonia, the pathetic girl of the streets through whom the hero learns the lesson of purification, represents the humility and devotion which are to Dostoevsky the saving virtues which are one day to save Russia. The most striking feature of the book to the Western reader, to whom the spiritual teaching is apt to seem strange and at times even perverse, is to be found in the analytical account of the states of mind of the half-crazed criminal, who cannot keep away from the very officials who were trying to get on his track, and who cannot refrain from discussing the crime he is trying to hide. As a study in morbid psychology, “Crime and Punishment” is one of the most amazingly convincing and terrifying books in all literature.

W. A. N.