I read Crime and Punishment my senior year in high school. It drastically changed my perspective on writing and literature. I will open this series with a brief biography of Dostoevsky and the events is his life which led to the writing of Crime and Punishment.
Crime and Punishment is a powerful psychological study, a terrifying murder mystery, a fascinating detective thriller, all tied together with the infusion of a powerful Christian religious commentary. The author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, is said to be the greatest Russian novelist of the nineteenth century and rivaled only by Tolstoy in terms of achievement and influence. In 1921 he was born into a world of a semi-feudal serfdom. Peasants who were numbering in the many millions were bought, sold, punished, or conscripted at their master’s whim. The injustice of this situation gradually sapped the strength of Russia and its imperial dreams. Riots and revolts for reform were occurring during Dostoevsky childhood and into his teenage years. By 1949 he had actively involved himself in reform and was arrested and convicted for alleged political crimes. He was sentenced to death, but due to a last-minute reprieve, was instead sentenced to an indefinite term of hard labor in Siberia. It was at this time that Dostoevsky found his most influential inspiration. During the four years of Dostoevsky’s imprisonment at Omsk in Siberia, “the New Testament was the sole book allowed him. If we willfully close our eyes to these facts, then we deliberately ignore literary evidence of the most significant kind” (Cox 8). Dostoevsky’s religious experiences and values are reflected in the themes of Crime and Punishment which are centered on the spiritual growth of the protagonist Raskolnikov.
“One of the most frequently reiterated motifs in his work is precisely that of a blind and passionate commitment to a belief in a supreme value” (Frank 3). It is this belief that leads to an instinctive and unquenchable love of life which no unhappy experiences could ever shake or undermine. “Crime and punishment is a landmark for those looking for evidence of Dostoevsky’s religious development” (Gibson 32). When he sent a draft of the novel to his editors, they were embarrassed at the inclusion of scripture from the Bible. However, Dostoevsky pleaded; “and now I most earnestly entreat you: for the sake of Christ let everything stand as it is” (Mochulsky 87). He understood God called everyone to do his work in different ways. He didn’t consider himself to be the source of his talent, he knew God was to thank for everything he was given. On writing Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky said to his publisher that “with the help of God, this novel can be the most splendid thing” (Frank 46).
Dostoevsky was brought up immersed in a religious household and learned about the Bible from his mother. He acquired a deep abiding faith at his mother’s knee which involved knowledge of the lives of saints as well as regular family prayers. “The single most important lesson Dostoevsky learned in his boyhood was belief in a compassionate and loving Christ, the savior of the world” (Freeborn 12). Dostoevsky’s religious experiences and values start from this young age to parallel to Raskolnikov’s in Crime and Punishment.
Cox, Roger L. Between Earth and Heaven, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and the Meaning of Christian Tragedy, New York: Holt, 1969.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky, The Miraculous Years, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Freeborn, Richard. Dostoevsky, London: Haus Publishing, 2003.
Gibson, Boyce A. The Religion of Dostoevsky, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973.
Mochulsky, Konstantine. Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.