12 Facts about Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, a former student named Raskolnikov plans and perpetrates a savage murder in order to test his theory that he is an extraordinary man. His subsequent descent into guilt-ridden anguish and spiritual turmoil has led many to regard Crime and Punishment as one of fiction’s more profound psychological works.

1. DOSTOEVSKY GAVE UP A MILITARY CAREER.

The future author's father, a retired surgeon with a stern and rigid personality, arranged for his son to train for a career as a military engineer. Dostoevsky, however, had always been drawn to gothic and Romantic literature and longed to try his hand as a writer. Despite graduating from the Academy of Military Engineering in St. Petersburg in 1834 and achieving the rank of sublieutenant, Dostoevsky resigned to devote himself completely to his craft.

2. HIS EARLY WORK WAS PRAISED FOR ITS PSYCHOLOGICAL INSIGHT.

In 1846, Dostoevsky published his first novella, Poor Folk. Told through letters that a poor clerk exchanges with his love, an equally poor girl who has agreed to marry a worthless but rich suitor, the story describes the grinding psychological strain of poverty. Dostoevsky gave a copy to a friend, who showed it to the poet Nikolay Nekrasov. Both were floored by the volume's depth and emotional pull, and immediately brought the book to the attention of Vissarion Belinsky, Russia's leading literary critic. Belinsky anointed Dostoevsky as the next great Russian talent.

3. DOSTOEVSKY SERVED TIME IN PRISON.

Around the time that he wrote Poor Folk, Dostoevsky began attending discussions with other young intellectuals about socialism, politics, and serfdom, the Russian system that kept rural laborers under the control of rich landowners. In 1849, Dostoevsky and other members of the discussion group were arrested on suspicion of revolutionary activity. He spent months in a wretched prison, and then was taken out to a public square to be shot. At the last moment, a pardon was delivered from the Tsar; the whole charade had been part of the punishment. The experience had a profound effect on him, reaffirming his deep religious beliefs and inspiring the moral questions raised in Crime and Punishment.

4. ORIGINALLY, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT HAD A FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR.

Dostoevsky had intended Crime and Punishment to be a first-person narrative and confessional. He ultimately switched to a third-person omniscient voice that plunges the reader right into the protagonist’s tormented psyche.

5. THE BOOK'S PROTAGONIST, RASKOLNIKOV, WASN’T THE ONLY ONE WITH MONEY TROUBLES.

His creator, Dostoevsky, contended with an ongoing addiction to gambling that often compelled him to write hastily so he could pay off his gambling debts. Shortly after Crime and Punishment was published, Dostoevsky published a semiautobiographical short novel, The Gambler.

6. RASKOLNIKOV USES AN AXE—THE TRADITIONAL WEAPON OF THE RUSSIAN PEASANT.

More than a century before Patrick Bateman went American Psycho, Raskolnikov used an axe to kill the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna, a miserly but defenseless old woman, and her hapless younger sister Lizaveta Ivanovna. According to James Billington's The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, the axe represents the foundational tool of Russian civilization—the means by which man conquers the forest and the symbol of labor. Thus, Raskolnikov’s choice of weapon is later derided by the peasant criminals with whom he serves his sentence of murder in Siberia. Because Raskolnikov is an educated thinker, they tell him, “You are a gentleman! You shouldn’t have gone to work with an axe; it’s not at all the thing for a gentleman.”

7. RASKOLNIKOV IS DIVIDED BY NAME.

Raskol means “split” or “schism.” It refers to dissension that took place within the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. Dostoevsky was an ardent Christian who took care to plant Orthodox symbols in his work; the name “Raskolnikov” is also an apt choice for a split personality that could manifest itself as hypersensitive intellectual or axe-swinging maniac.

8. RASKOLNIKOV IS A CONTRADICTION OF MORAL AND IMMORAL IMPULSES.

Capable of both generosity and heroism, Rakolnikov falls prey to his own ideology. He becomes intoxicated with the notion that he can commit a particular murder with moral impunity because the financial proceeds he derives from it will enable him to use his superior talents to benefit mankind—thereby justifying his violent crime. Yet, at his murder trial, details surface about how he had provided extensive assistance to a fellow university student stricken with tuberculosis. When the consumptive student died, Raskolnikov assisted the young man’s destitute father and then, when he died as well, paid for his funeral.

9. RASKOLNIKOV GETS A LIGHT SENTENCE.

In the early part of the 19th century, corporal punishment (such as being flogged with tree branches) for serious crimes was typical, but by the time Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, a movement towards reform was gaining steam. Exile in Siberia for a certain number of years, sometimes with a sentence of hard labor, became a common punishment for premeditated murder. Raskolnikov's relatively light sentence of eight years may have been prompted by the benevolent character traits that surfaced at his trial. Raskolnikov is helped by other factors: He confessed voluntarily, he “made no use of what he had stolen,” and it was decided he suffered from an “abnormal mental condition” when he committed the crime.

10. THE REVIEWS WERE MIXED.

Crime and Punishment, which first appeared in magazine installments, received immediate widespread attention. Not everyone was a fan, though; among those less than reverent were politically radical students, who seemed to feel the novel had attributed homicidal inclinations to them. One critic asked the following rhetorical question: “Has there ever been a case of a student committing murder for the sake of robbery?”

11. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO MORE THAN 25 FILMS ...

The 1923 silent film Raskolnikow, helmed by German director Robert Wiene (who also directed the expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), debuted in 1923 as one of the first movie adaptations of the novel. Many more film and TV versions have followed, including American, Japanese, Finnish, Indian, Soviet, and British productions.

12. ... BUT NOT BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK.

It wasn’t because Hitchcock thought the novel was beneath his talents. As Jonathan Coe wrote in The Guardian, the filmmaker François Truffaut once asked Hitchcock why he'd never make a film version of Crime and Punishment. "In Dostoevsky's novel there are many, many words and all of them have a function," Hitchcock replied. "To really convey that in cinematic terms, substituting the language of the camera for the written word, one would have to make a six- to 10-hour film. Otherwise, it won't be any good."

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

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2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

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3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

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Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

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4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

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This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

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5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

Little A/Amazon

In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

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6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

CrateJoy

Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

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7. In Cold Blood; $10

Vintage/Amazon

Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

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8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

Forge Books/Amazon

Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

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9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

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This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

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10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

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Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. Here are 10 facts about the celebrated author.

1. Louisa May Alcott had many famous friends.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller.

Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. Louisa May Alcott's first nom de plume was Flora Fairfield.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. Louisa May Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. Louisa May Alcott wrote about her experience as a Civil War nurse.

In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. Louisa May Alcott suffered from mercury poisoning.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women to help her father.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. Louisa May Alcott was an early suffragette.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in an 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. Louisa May Alcott pretended to be her own servant to trick her fans.

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. Louisa May Alcott never had children, but she cared for her niece.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she had named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. Fans can visit Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women . Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.