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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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?”


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.


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."

Audible Makes Hundreds of Audiobooks Available for Free While Schools Are Closed

This gleeful teen is probably not listening to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
This gleeful teen is probably not listening to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
max-kegfire/iStock via Getty Images

To keep kids occupied and educated at home, Audible recently launched “Audible Stories,” a completely free online library with hundreds of audiobooks that’ll stay “open” for as long as schools are closed.

The stories are split into categories like “Littlest Listeners,” “Elementary,” “Tween,” and “Teen,” so parents can easily choose an age-appropriate bedtime story for their toddlers, and high-schoolers can automatically bypass titles like ABC: Learn Your Alphabet With Songs and Rhymes. And while the platform might’ve been created mainly for the benefit of housebound schoolchildren, you definitely don’t have to be a kid to appreciate the calming adventures of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. There’s even a “Literary Classics” section with audiobooks that appeal to listeners of any age, like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Some of the audiobooks even feature the familiar voices of top-notch talent from your favorite films and television series. Westworld’s Thandie Newton narrates Jane Eyre, Scarlett Johansson lends her versatile voice to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Rachel McAdams brings her own spirited spin to Anne of Green Gables. The crown jewel of the site is probably Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, read by Stephen Fry.

You don’t need an Audible account or the Audible app to access the platform. Just open "stories.audible.com" in any web browser on any device. And if you want to take a break from listening, Audible will save your spot (but only for the most recent audiobook you’ve played).

The digital library is not just for English-speaking users—there are titles narrated in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese, too, including foreign-language versions of classics like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. If you're interested in Audible's full offering, you can try out a 30-day free trial.

Looking for something to do while you listen? Here’s how to grow your own yeast for sourdough bread.

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The Top 25 Bestselling E-Books on Amazon Right Now

Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Right now, the ability to access books on your tablet or phone—without leaving your house or waiting days for an order to arrive in the mail—seems more magical than ever. With just about every book at your fingertips, however, it might be a little difficult to decide which one to choose.

You could ask for recommendations from friends and family, or use this website, which specializes in personalized reading lists based on books you’ve already read and loved. Or you could check out Amazon’s current list of bestselling e-books—updated by the hour—to see what the general population just can’t get enough of. As of this morning (March 31), Elle Marr’s highly anticipated thriller The Missing Sister sits in the number one spot; since its publication date isn’t until April 1, that means it’s gotten to the top of the list on pre-orders alone.

There are several other riveting thrillers on the list, including Dean Koontz’s latest, In the Heart of the Fire, and Christopher Greyson’s murder mystery The Girl Who Lived. Plenty of other genres are well-represented, too, from Stephen R. Covey’s classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Jory John’s charming children’s story The Bad Seed.

And, of course, it would hardly seem like a bestseller list if Harry Potter didn’t make an appearance or two. According to this data, more than a few people are spending their quarantine time reading (or re-reading) J.K. Rowling’s beloved series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are at number seven and number 17, respectively.

Look through March 31’s top 25 below:

  1. The Missing Sister by Elle Marr // $5
  1. Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis // $13
  1. Wall of Silence by Tracy Buchanan // $5
  1. The Bad Seed by Jory John // $13
  1. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms // $2
  1. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan // $5
  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey // $6
  1. When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal // $5
  1. Rough Edge by Lauren Landish // $4
  1. The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy // $1
  1. If You Tell by Gregg Olsen // $2
  1. Now, Then, and Everywhen by Rysa Walker // $5
  1. The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson // $10
  1. Rain Will Come by Thomas Holgate // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan // $5
  1. In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz // $2
  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng // $10
  1. Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by James Dean // $8
  1. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson // $15
  1. Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley // $10
  1. Lift Her Up by T.S. Joyce // $1
  1. In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn // $5

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.