Crime and Punishmentis a plot driven novel, however its themes are only partially developed through narrative action. Extensive monologue is used to explore the central thematic questions of the novel which are related to the psychosis of guilt, the redemptive power of suffering, and man’s delicate relationship to reality. Honesty finds its way into each of these themes as an undercurrent; a charged background. Though this virtue is not directly discussed as theories of guilt, crime, suffering, and wit certainly are, honesty remains the fulcrum on which the story pivots.
Each of the novel’s thematic questions is brought to light through a unique structuring of the novel.
The most interesting facets of the novel are the character pairings that form this structure. In a novel without an obvious narrative structure, Dostoyevsky manages to develop an ideological structure with the characters, pairing them up to create a kind of dialectic or sub-surface conversation.
The general style of the writing is very direct. Psychological exposition is given rather directly and bluntly. The main themes are often given direct discussion in the narrative in the form of monologues.
As far as withheld information goes, it seems to be mainly limited to the two characters who keep information from Roskolnikov the murderer because they want to mess with him, and because what Roskolnikov doesn’t know creates suspense.
Beyond this convention of suspense, the story feels like it’s all on the surface, laid out in plain sight. But it’s not. Not all of it. There is a deeper conversation that reifies the themes of haunting regret & guilt, insanity and suffering.
The fact that the characters in each pair are similar is interesting in itself, but the pairings are really gripping because they are philosophically oriented pairings.
We have characters who share existential traits as opposed to material ones. The young female characters importantly share a penchant for religious suffering. Beyond this they are completely different. Their perspective on suffering puts them in the same position in the book as we see each compelled to serve as the facilitator to someone else’s salvation.
Two men in the novel are murderers. Both deny this identity. One runs off and commits suicide after failing to convince himself that he can find happiness by running away. The other admits to his act, staunchly denies that the act was a crime, but holds no hope for future happiness.
These men cannot repent. They are mad, the two of them, Roskolnikov and Svidrigaylov, and they come together in a bizarre conference of the guilty to reject the notion of guilt yet and suffer without redemption.
Perhaps the most important concept put forward in the world of this novel is that of suffering as redemption. Through the acceptance of suffering and the accompanying submission of ego the soul can be reborn.
The murderers dissolve in the absence of any ability to submit. They dissolve and the fever festers in their hearts. They are literally sickened in their denial of the truth of what they have done.
Each of them would like to be “better” than other men. Each of them would like to be the superior person and live life by a new set of rules. Each of them falls far short of achieving the goal of supremacy.
The character pairings as I see them are as follows: Roskolnikov/Svidrigaylov; Sonia/Dunya; Mrs. Roskolnikov/Mrs. Marmeledov; Razumhkin/Porfiry.
These characters each fit the same existential stations in the novel as well has filing similar practical roles in narrative.
Roskolnikov and Svidrigaylov both experience a psychic schism in their fundamental denial of their actions-as-crimes. Perhaps the term to describe their mental state regarding the murders they have committed would be “cognitive dissonance”. In addition to the complex psychological state shared by these two men, each is also subject of many (true) rumors and is condemned by the public long before either can come to a decision as to how to realign themselves with truth and justice and god. Each man discusses theories that are not shared by those he speaks to. Each is seen as impossible to deal with. Each man uses his own secret knowledge to manipulate others and protect himself while all the time sinking further into a state of paralysis induced by his guilt.
Sonia and Dunya are the Christian sufferers who are the “moral center” of the novel. These two young women are also subject to (untrue) rumors but bear themselves with dignity and indeed are delivered from ignominy by their integrity and their great faith in living in the truth, so to speak. Dunya suffers for her mother and brother and accepts a fate laid out for her by her impoverished situation. Sonia suffers for her father, mother, siblings and finally Roskolnikov and accepts the fate that her dire straits have laid out for her.
In the most inexplicable decision of the novel, she automatically accepts Roskolnikov to her heart when he admits his crime and she pledges to follow him to prison camp in Siberia. The only rationale implied in the text is Sonia’s religious belief in the redemptive power of suffering. She needs to be redeemed from her “fallen state” as a professional sexual partner and, here’s the stretch, she wants to find her own redemption in Roskolnikov’s redemption. For this, she hopes to convince him to turn himself in.
These are the two characters involved with the question of the use of suffering, the sublimity of suffering, and the nature of redemption. Where Roskolnikov and Svidrigaylov are involved in a push-and-pull between uncertainty and guilt, lies and admission of truth, Sonia and Dunya are never at a loss for purity of faith.
The mother characters engage in the last philosophical question of the novel which is “man’s relationship to truth”. Each mother – Mrs. Marmeledov and Mrs. Raskolnikov – suffers the loss of a husband and a loss of sanity. They are both very hopeful, but the world defeats their hopes. This brings each of them to a decision about whether to accept reality as it is or to turn away from it and choose dementia. They both choose dementia.
As much as the murderers are involved in a internal dilemma of honesty versus dishonesty to admit to their actions as crimes, the mothers are equally caught up in the question of acceptance of truth. We see in them the dangers of dishonesty and the permanent psychosis Dostoyevsky envisioned as the result of living in a “pretend” world.
The pairing of the interrogators Razumhkin and Porfiry represent the secular world to which the murderers seek to flee in refuge. Both Razumhkin and Porfiry lead more-or-less moral lives while taking no risks. They are talkers. They talk. And they talk. And they get on alright discussing various theories and never acting on them. For all his running around, Razumhkin never really does anything. Their inactivity is the root of their morality. They do nothing wrong because they do nothing.
However, this inert moral nature confuses and tantalizes the murderers. After their crimes, the two of them make attempts to once again enter the realm of theory and discussion, where nothing happens. It is as if they believe that they can forget anything happened and that people died.
For these interrogators, life is a discussion. They are in touch with their own reality. The reality of Porfiry does not describe or resemble that of Raskolnikov in any but the most superficial respects. If the novel took place in a theater, the murderers would have their own stage, visited by the young women, and both the interrogators and the mothers would have separate stages – so far are the worlds of these characters separated.
Crime and Punishment, one of the world’s most renowned novels, has been extensively written about. For a key to the door, see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_and_Punishment and follow their external links.