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

Criticisms and Interpretations. II. By Kazimierz Waliszewski

RASKOLNIKOV, the student who claims the right to murder and steal by virtue of his ill-applied scientific theories, is not a figure the invention of which can be claimed by the Russian novelist. It is probable that before or after reading the works of Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky had perused those of Bulwer Lytton. Eugene Aram, the English novelist’s hero, is a criminal of a very different order, and of a superior species. When he commits his crime, he not only thinks, like Raskolnikov, of a rapid means of attaining fortune, but also, and more nobly, of a great and solemn sacrifice to science, of which he feels himself to be the high priest. Like Raskolnikov, he draws no benefit from his booty. Like him, too, he hides it, and like him, he is pursued, not by remorse, but by regret—haunted by the painful thought that men now have the advantage over him, and that he no longer stands above their curiosity and their spite—tortured by his consciousness of the total change in his relations with the world. In both cases, the subject and the story, save for the voluntary expiation at the close, appear identical in their essential lines. This features stands apart. Yet, properly speaking, it does not belong to Dostoevsky. In Turgenev’s “The Tavern” (Postoïalyï Dvor), the peasant Akime, whom his wife has driven into crime, punishes himself by going out to beg, in all gentleness and humble submission Some students, indeed, have chosen to transform both subject and character, and have looked on Raskolnikov as a political criminal, disguised after the same fashion as Dostoevsky himself may have been, in his “Memories of the House of the Dead.” But this version appears to me to arise out of another error. A few days before the book appeared, a crime almost identical with that related in it, and committed under the apparent influence of Nihilist teaching, though without any mixture of the political element, took place at St. Petersburg. These doctrines, as personified by Turgenev in Bazarov, are, in fact, general in their scope. They contain the germs of every order of criminal attempt, whether public or private; and Dostoevsky’s great merit lies in the fact that he has demonstrated the likelihood that the development of this germ in one solitary intelligence may foster a social malady. In the domain of social psychology and pathology, the great novelist owes nothing to anybody; and his powers in this direction suffice to compensate for such imperfections as I shall have to indicate in his work.

The “first cause” in this book, psychologically speaking, is that individualism which the Slavophil School has chosen to erect into a principle of the national life—an unbounded selfishness, in other words, which, when crossed by circumstances, takes refuge in violent and monstrous reaction. And indeed, Raskolnikov, like Bazarov, is so full of contradictions, some of them grossly improbable, that one is almost driven to inquire whether the author has not intended to depict a condition of madness. We see this selfish being spending his last coins to bury Marmeladov, a drunkard picked up in the street, whom he had seen for the first time in his life only a few hours previously. From this point of view Eugene Aram has more psychological consistency, and a great deal more moral dignity. Raskolnikov is nothing but a poor half-crazed creature, soft in temperament, confused in intellect, who carries about a big ideas in a head that is too small to hold it. He becomes aware of this after he has committed his crime, when he is haunted by hallucinations and wild terrors, which convince him that his pretension to rank as a man of power was nothing but a dream. Then the ruling idea which has lured him to murder and to theft gives place to another—that of confessing his crime. And even here his courage and frankness fail him; he cannot run a straight course, and, after wandering round and round the police station, he carries his confession to Sonia.

This figure of Sonia is a very ordinary Russian type, and strangely chosen for the purpose of teaching Raskolnikov the virtue of expiation. She is a woman of the town, chaste in mind though not in deed, and is redeemed by one really original feature, her absolute humility. It may be inquired whether this element of moral redemption, in so far as it differs from those which so constantly occur to the imagination of the author of “Manon Lescaut,” and to that of all Dostoevsky’s literary forerunners, is more truthful than the rest, and whether it must not be admitted that certain moral, like certain physical conditions, necessarily result in an organic and quite incurable deformation of character. Sonia is like an angel who rolls in the gutter every night and whitens her wings each morning by perusing the Holy Gospels. We may just as well fancy that a coal-heaver could straighten the back bowed by the weight of countless sacks of charcoal by practising Swedish gymnastic!

The author’s power of evocation, and his gift for analysing feeling, and the impressions which produce it, are very great, and the effects of terror and compassion he obtains cannot be denied. Yet, whether from the artistic or from the scientific point of view (since some of his admirers insist on this last), his method is open to numerous objections. It consists in reproducing, or very nearly, the conditions of ordinary life whereby we gain acquaintance with a particular character. Therefore, without taking the trouble of telling us who Raskolnikov is, and in what his qualities consist, the story relates a thousand little incidents out of which the personal individuality of the hero is gradually evolved. And as these incidents do not necessarily present themselves, in real life, in any logical sequence, beginning with the most instructive of the series, the novelist does not attempt to follow any such course. As early as on the second page of the book, we learn that Raskolnikov is making up his mind to murder an old woman who lends out money, and it is only at the close of the volume that we become aware of the additional fact that he has published a review article, in which he has endeavoured to set forth a theory justifying this hideous design.—From “A History of Russian Literature” (1900).