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."