Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
“A hundred suspicions don't make a proof.”
What kind of society breeds a murderer? Is suffering necessary for salvation? Does the law really provide justice, or just an illusion of justice? What happens to a society where the justice system is not trusted? These questions form the central themes of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s timeless classic, Crime and Punishment. It is a book that every person aspiring to be a lawyer should read, not only because the novel is unparalleled in its psychological depth, but it is also a reflection of jurisprudence in a society. Crime and Punishment has made legal contributions outside the world of fiction, which must be appreciated and analysed.
The protagonist of Crime and Punishment is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a law student living in abject poverty in Saint Petersburg. He lives in a rented attic, rarely eats and is on the verge of being forced to leave his legal education due to paucity of money. He is extremely intelligent and also handsome, devoted to his family consisting of his mother and sister. Letters from his mother reveal that his sister named Dunya is going to enter into a loveless marriage with a tyrannical man in order to save his family from destitution and enable Raskolnikov to finish his education. Raskolnikov is distraught at this prospect, he does not want his lovely sister to have a wedlock where she is altruistically prostituting herself. He walks to the house of a pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna to pawn away a watch, the last of his belongings. Thereafter, he begins to plot her murder. Alyona Ivanovna has been painted in a negative light in the novel, she is a cantankerous old lady resented by the entire neighbourhood. She is cruel, deceitful and has enslaved her own dim-witted niece named Lizaveta, who she physically beats. The pawnbroker is unscrupulous and selfish, she also cheats the poor people out of their money. A reader of crime and punishment will slowly begin to hate this character. Raskolnikov rationalizes his reasons for killing Alyona Ivanovna. He would be ridding the world of a horrible soul, freeing the captive niece, take her wealth and with that save his sister from a loveless marriage, his friend Marmeladov from doom and finish law school. In chapter VII, Raskolnikov commits the premeditated murder of Alyona Ivanovna, slaying her with an axe. He also has to spontaneously kill Lizaveta who accidentally walks in to see her aunt lying in a pool of blood and Raskolnikov holding the blood-stained axe. What follows is the downward psychological spiral of the protagonist and his rational reasons for committing the murder not coming to fruition.
The novel is not a murder mystery, as the readers know Raskolnikov is the murderer, the question that keeps the reader on tenterhooks is whether or not will Raskolnikov be imprisoned. This is where the question of law comes in because evidence, which is sufficiently against him cannot put Raskolnikov behind bars. The law requires a confession to the crime, which means Raskolnikov has to willingly confess to the twin murders for a successful conviction. Extracting the confession becomes the responsibility of Porfiry Petrovich, the examining magistrate. It might seem absurd to base a criminal conviction solely on the basis of the confession of the accused, but this was actually the legal requirement in Russia when Crime and Punishment was published. Crime and Punishment is a reflection of reality of law, it reflects the broken legal system of 1860s Russia.
Dostoyevsky was not a lawyer, but he spent four years in a Siberian labour camp. His juridical conscience is rooted in this personal experience. The character of Raskolnikov created by Dostoyevsky , mirrors the author himself. Raskolnikov is a singular figment of fiction, yet there is a universal empathy for the character. As a reader, one may not relate to his actions, but the suffering caused by the actions is very much relatable. The murder, which is only devoted a few pages in the novel, is only a means to an end. The murder sets up the stage for the law to dance upon. Raskolnikov echoes the ideas of the German philosopher, Hegel who concluded that if the end is noble, then whatever means used to reach that noble end are justified (Burnham, 1231). And since the end is noble, the law should not punish the one indulging in the illicit means. This creates the conflict of morality and law. It also poses the question, how to determine what act constitutes a crime? A crime is always an act that the society deems unacceptable. But as societies evolve, so do the definitions of crime. And the society also consists of individuals possessing radical notions such as being above the law. What's important is not the existence of such individuals in a society, but the existence of a society where such individuals are born and bred. Law for such individuals like Raskolnikov is an illusion.
Law tends to discredit the motive behind a crime. Stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving man is still considered as theft by law. So, killing of Alyona Ivanovna, irrespective of her wretched character and cruelty, would still be punishable homicide. Raskolnikov's decision to murder is also based on the idea of the ‘extraordinary’ man. In 1865, a book called The Life of Julius Caesar was made available in Russian which finds mention in the novel (Burnham, 1230). As Porfiry Petrovich, the magistrate investigating Raskolnikov explained, “people are divided into two classes, 'ordinary' and the 'extraordinary'. The ordinary ones must live in submission and have no right to transgress the laws, because, you see, they are ordinary. And the extraordinary have the right to commit any crime and break every kind of law just because they're extraordinary” (Dostoyevsky, 219). The idea that some people are above the law, hence untouchable has existed for a long time. Although it is said that everyone is equal before the law, in reality the equality becomes a fiction. Justice is often inaccessible to the poor, for women justice is filtered through the lens of patriarchy and for those with power it becomes possible to evade justice.
As stated earlier, at the time when Crime and Punishment was published, conviction depended upon confession. The question is why? To understand why, it is important to delve into the existing legal realities of that time. Russia was a monarchy under the reign of Peter the Great when Crime and Punishment was published (Burnham,1232). Peter the Great stripped the judges of the power of adjudication (Burnham,1232). There was no real power given to judges to decide a case and provide justice. Instead, a complicated system of evidence was created, where as for a conviction sovershennye doka zatel'stva, meaning complete proof, was required(Burnham,1232). A complete proof was recognized by the court in the form of a confession given by the accused to a judicial officer. This forms an element of thrill in the novel with Porfiry Petrovich devising novel ways in order to ensure that Raskolnikov confesses. This also shows that Russian society mistrusted the judges, whose cardinal role is that of impartiality. As history unfolded, this society where justice was not unprejudiced, ultimately paved the path for Russian revolution and the abolition of monarchy.
Crime and Punishment portrays the transformation of the protagonist Raskolnikov. Murder, which he thought would solve all his problems, rips his soul apart. He is tormented, anguished and longing for love. Ultimately, he does confess, not from the fear of punishment but for the peace of penitence. The reader does not get to see what happens to Raskolnikov after all his suffering and salvation. The ending feels poignantly hopeful yet incomplete. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote the quintessential crime novel, but one cannot simply skim through this masterpiece, as it does evoke questions regarding the nature of law, morality and finally the objective of punishment.
Burnham, William, and Feodor Dostoevsky. “The Legal Context and Contributions of Dostoyevsky ‘Crime and Punishment.’” Michigan Law Review, vol. 100, no. 6, 2002, p.1227., doi:10.2307/1290440.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Modern Library, 1950.
Author Details: Aadya Malik is a student at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal University.