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

Criticisms and Interpretations. I. By Emile Melchior, Vicomte de Vogüé

THE SUBJECT is very simple. A man conceives the idea of committing a crime; he matures it, commits the deed, defends himself for some time from being arrested, and finally gives himself up to the expiation of it. For once, this Russian artist has adopted the European idea of unity of action; the drama, purely psychological, is made up of the combat between the man and his own project. The accessory characters and facts are of no consequence, except in regard to this influence upon the criminal’s plans. The first part, in which are described the birth and growth of the criminal idea, is written with consummate skill and a truth and subtlety of analysis beyond all praise. The student Raskolnikov, a nihilist in the true sense of the word, intelligent, unprincipled, unscrupulous, reduced to extreme poverty, dreams of a happier condition. On returning home from going to pawn a jewel at an old pawnbroker’s shop, this vague thought crosses his brain without his attaching much importance to it:

“An intelligent man who had that old woman’s money could accomplish anything he liked; it is only necessary to get rid of the useless, hateful old hag.”

This was but one of those fleeting thoughts which cross the brain like a nightmare, and which only assume a distinct from through the assent of the will. This idea becomes fixed in the man’s brain, growing and increasing on every page, until he is perfectly possessed by it. Every hard experience of his outward life appears to him to bear some relation to his project; and by a mysterious power of reasoning, to work into his plan and urge him on to the crime. The influence exercised upon this man is brought out into such distinct relief that it seems to us itself like a living actor in the drama, guiding the criminal’s hand to the murderous weapon. The horrible deed is accomplished; and the unfortunate man wrestles with the recollection of it as he did with the original design. The relations of the world to the murderer are all changed, through the irreparable fact of his having suppressed a human life. Everything takes on a new physiognomy, and a new meaning to him, excluding from him the possibility of feeling and reasoning like other people, or of finding his own place in life. His whole soul is metamorphosed and in constant discord with the life around him. This is not remorse in the true sense of the word. Dostoevsky exerts himself to distinguish and explain the difference. His hero will feel no remorse until the day of expiation; but it is a complex and perverse feeling which possesses him; the vexation at having derived no satisfaction from an act so successfully carried out; the revolting against the unexpected moral consequences of that act; the shame of finding himself so weak and helpless; for the foundation of Raskolnikov’s character is pride. Only one single interest in life is left to him: to deceive and elude the police. He seeks their company, their friendship, by an attraction analogous to that which draws us to the extreme edge of a dizzy precipice; the murderer keeps up interminable interviews with his friends at the police office, and even leads on the conversation to that point, when a single word would betray him; every moment we fear he will utter the word; but he escapes and continues the terrible game as if it were a pleasure.

The magistrate Porphyre has guessed the student’s secret; he plays with him like a tiger with its prey, sure of his game. Then Raskolnikov knows he is discovered; and through several chapters a long fantastic dialogue is kept up between the two adversaries; a double dialogue, that of the lips, which smile and wilfully ignore; and that of the eyes which know and betray all. At last when the author has tortured us sufficiently in this way, he introduces the salutary influence which is to break down the culprit’s pride and reconcile him to the expiation of his crime. Raskolnikov loves a poor street-walker. The author’s clairvoyance divines that even the sentiment of love was destined in him to be modified like every other, to be changed into a dull despair.

Sonia is a humble creature, who has sold herself to escape starvation, and is almost unconscious of her dishonor, enduring it as a malady she cannot prevent. She wears her ignominy as a cross, with pious resignation. She is attached to the only man who has not treated her with contempt; she sees that he is tortured by some secret, and tries to draw it from him. After a long struggle the avowal is made, but not in words. In a mute interview which is tragic in the extreme, Sonia reads the terrible truth in her friend’s eyes. The poor girl is stunned for a moment, but recovers herself quickly. She knows the remedy; her stricken heart cries out:

“We must suffer, and suffer together; … we must pray and atone; … let us go to prison!…”

Thus are we led back to Dostoevsky’s favorite idea, to the Russian’s fundamental conception of Christianity: the efficacy of atonement, of suffering, and its being the only solution of all difficulties.

To express the singular relations between these two beings, that solemn pathetic bond, so foreign to every preconceived idea of love, we should make use of the word compassion in the sense in which Bossuet used it: the suffering with and through another being. When Raskolnikov falls at the feet of the girl who supports her parents by her shame, she, the despised of all, is terrified at his self-abasement, and begs him to rise. He then utters a phrase which expresses the combination of all the books we are studying: “It is not only before thee that I prostrate myself, but before all suffering humanity.” Let us here observe that our author has never yet once succeeded in representing love in any form apart from these subtleties, or the simple natural attraction of two hearts toward each other. He portrays only extreme cases; either that mystic state of sympathy and self-sacrifice for a distressed fellow-creature, of utter devotion, apart from any selfish desire; or the mad, bestial cruelty of a perverted nature. The lovers he represents are not made of flesh and blood, but of nerves and tears. Yet this realist evokes only harrowing thoughts, never disagreeable images. I defy any one to quote a single line suggestive of anything sensual, or a single instance where the woman is represented in the light of a temptress. His love scenes are absolutely chaste, and yet he seems to be incapable of portraying any creation between an angel and a beast.—From “Dostoevsky” in “The Russian Novelists,” translated by J. L. Edmands (1887).