Crime and Punishment Introduction
In A Nutshell
Welcome to the novel whose title sounds like a cross between a game show and an episode of Law & Order: SVU...but is actually one of the most read, most studied, and most (in)famous works of literature in the world.
No pressure, right?
Actually, the best way to read Crime and Punishment is to not only feel all that pressure but to revel in it. This is a novel all about the vice grip of intense pressures: the pressures of society, of class, of psychology, of morality, of Christianity, and of what it means to be a human in the world.
Easy? Ha. Rewarding? Oh, heck yes...if only because you'll get to say, "Oh, Crime and Punishment? Yeah, I've read that one."
Fyodor Dostoevsky first published Crime and Punishment in 1866 in 12 monthly installments in a conservative journal, Russian Messenger (Russkiy Vestnik). The novel has always been popular, though reactions to it can fall just about anywhere along the spectrum.
Which is yet another reason to devour this book like your little cousin's Halloween candy stash, in our opinion. Ain't no Russian novel like a controversial Russian novel...because you just know that a controversial Russian novel is extra delicious, messed up, and challenging.
It's also extra psychological. Crime and Punishment—like most Dostoevsky joints—is incredibly fluid and open to a wide variety of interpretations. As Simon Karlinsky suggests in his essay "Dostoevsky as Rorschach Test," (cool essay title or coolest essay title?) how we interpret Crime and Punishment might be a reflection of our own psychology. (Source)
It's kind of like a BuzzFeed quiz...but instead of telling you what Disney villain you are, it lets you know where you fall on the spectrum of "axe murderer" to "saint."
But don't worry: Crime and Punishment's hero/antihero—Raskolnikov—is both a little bit saint and a lot bit axe murderer. This novel chronicles his journey from depressed ex-student to depressed would-be do-gooder to depressed killer of older women to (slightly less) depressed man in love.
Does that sound boring? Thought not. But in case you need convincing, you also get a tour of the seedy underbelly of St. Petersburg: we're talking drunks, prostitutes, and scuzzbags of all stripes. It sounds like a VICE documentary. But, in reality, it's even better because with Dostoevsky writing this thing, the scummiest of characters is a little bit angelic, and the most angelic of characters is a little bit scummy.
In short: the characterization in this novel is flat-out genius.
After all, it's written by Dostoevsky: a brilliant fiction writer, journalist, and publisher. He also had a gambling problem, suffered from epilepsy, and had constant financial issues. Like the hero of our novel, he spent time in prison in Siberia. He wasn't imprisoned for murder, though, but for being a member of a progressive literary group called the Petrashevsky Circle. (Source)
Yeah. Dostoevsky was imprisoned, in part, for being a literary dude who thought outside the box. And Crime and Punishment is proof positive that that accusation is 100 percent true: you don't get more intense, psychologically rich, and structurally innovative than good ol' C & P.
Why Should I Care?
We're going to say something that sounds, on its surface, incredibly cheeseball:
You should care about Crime and Punishment because you're a human individual.
Yuck, right? We know: it sounds as if we just called you a special snowflake and assured you that Crime and Punishment will be more beneficial to your special snowflakiness than reading every Chicken Soup for the Soul essay collection ever written.
What we mean to say is this: after getting through Crime and Punishment, you're going to need a few inspirational Chicken Soup essays. You're going to need a few dozen baby sloth YouTube videos. You're going to need that sleeve of Pillsbury cookie dough that's chilling in your fridge.
Because Crime and Punishment is going to make you look deep within your human, individual being. And chances are good that you're not going to 100 percent love what you see.
(How bleakly Russian do we sound right now, by the way?)
To quote The New York Times—you know, the most respected newspaper in America—"The impact that Dostoevsky produces on some readers at time verges on the apocalyptic." (Source)
Here's why: Dostoevsky is not a writer who's big on the whole subtlety thing. But, he is big on the whole moral gray area thing—his characters inhabit both the worst and best aspects of humanity...usually at the same time. In Crime and Punishment, you meet a cold-blooded killer with a desire to help the unfortunate. You meet a child molester who nevertheless does some pretty good things. You meet a lonely old woman who's also completely hateful. You meet the long-suffering wife of a drunk who forces her daughter into prostitution so the family can eat.
Basically, in C & P, you're forced to confront humans at their worst...and at their best. You're going to vacillate between hating them, feeling for them, liking them, and empathizing with them. Yeah: you're going to empathize with an axe murderer and a woman who beats her kids.
The end result? A long, hard look in the mirror. Because what you feel toward these characters will show you the extent and breadth of human action. It's heavy stuff, no doubt about it. But at the end, we guarantee you'll feel more charitable toward humanity, more wary toward humanity, and more human yourself.
Just make sure you have some of those cute baby sloth videos cued up for when you finish.