Crime and Punishment.

Author:Burnham, William

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. By Feodor Dostoevsky. New York: W.W. Norton. 1989. Pp. 694. $12.95.

Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is of more than average interest to lawyers. (1) The title perhaps says it all in terms of content. The chief protagonist, the murderer Raskolnikov, is a law student on a break from his studies. And the pursuer of the murderer is a lawyer, an examining magistrate. But the more subtle and more important legal aspects of Crime and Punishment concern the time period in Russian legal history in which the novel was written and is set. The 1860s in Russia were a time of tremendous legal change. (2) Among other things, an 1861 decree emancipated the serfs and monumental reform of the court system took place in 1864.

Dostoevsky was not a lawyer, nor did he have any formal legal training. Still, law played a major role in his life. Dostoevsky spent a great deal of time watching trials and had contact with some of the greatest lawyers of his time. (3) Whether from some innate fascination with the human condition as revealed in criminal cases or from his own personal run-ins with the law, the real cases of his day inspired much of Dostoevsky's work and he was painstaking in his efforts to reflect the legal context of those cases accurately. (4) Dostoevsky, of course, had the "benefit" of experiencing the criminal justice system first-hand from the wrong side of it, personally traversing most of its stages as a criminal defendant. In 1849, after achieving considerable notoriety as a novelist, (5) he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death for treason. After eight months is prison, he and his fellow conspirators were marched out to a public square to be shot. They were tied to execution posts in threes before a firing squad. Just before the order to fire, however, the soldiers received a sudden command to disperse and Dostoevsky and his fellow prisoners had their death sentences commuted to terms of imprisonment at hard labor and exile in Siberia, by order of Nicholas I. (6) Dostoevsky served his full term, only being permitted to return to European Russia and then to St. Petersburg in 1859. (7)

Dostoevsky was not quite the hardened criminal or revolutionary the gravity of his offense and sentence might indicate. In fact, the factual basis for the charges was "taking part in conversations against the censorship, of reading a letter from Byelinsky to Gogol, and of knowing of the intention to set up a printing press." (8) He simply had the misfortune of broadening his reading tastes at an inopportune time--in the wake of antimonarchist developments in Western Europe and on the stern watch of the autocratic Nicholas I, against whom the coup d'etat attempt of the Decembrists had been directed. (9) Nonetheless, the experience in Siberia threw Dostoevsky together for several years with a wide variety of ordinary and political offenders. This experience undoubtedly informed him well and piqued his curiosity about the nature of both crime and its punishment.

Following his return to St. Petersburg in 1859, Dostoevsky showed continued interest in the law. He followed closely the important 1864 legal reforms of Nicholas I's successor, Alexander II. Later in his career, as those legal reforms played out, his monthly journal, begun in 1875, The Diary of a Writer, devoted around a third of its coverage to issues of law. (10) Much of its content set out Dostoevsky's observations and rather strong opinions about prominent trials of the day. In a case of life imitating art, in one jury case on retrial following appellate reversal of a conviction that Dostoevsky had bitterly criticized, Dostoevsky attended the retrial. The prosecutor felt constrained in his closing argument to inveigh the jury--unsuccessfully as it turned out--"not to yield to the influence of `certain talented writers.'" (11)

The novel that followed the Diary and flowed directly from it was The Brothers Karamazov. The law and legal procedures occupy a place far more prominent in that novel than in Crime and Punishment. The final and climactic Book XII is an entire jury trial, which follows on Book IX, "The Preliminary Investigation," a complete description of the quasi-judicial pretrial investigation that is the prelude to a criminal trial. By comparison, Crime and Punishment barely mentions law or the legal system explicitly. Perhaps part of the reason for this greater focus on the legal system in his later writings is a result of the banality of the legal system before the 1864 reforms. As outlined below, its formalistic nature and outmoded institutions made its processes quaint and predictable. In this respect, the pre-reform tsarist system had a great deal in common with the Soviet system before the reforms following the 1991 "second Russian revolution." And it was precisely these sorts of characteristics of the Russian legal system under Soviet power that made it of limited interest to legal scholars.

Unlike the rich, explicit presentation of legal procedures in The Brothers Karamazov, the legal aspects and significance of Crime and Punishment lurk in the background and are more subtle. Because of this, a legal guide to Crime and Punishment is perhaps more necessary than would be the case with more overtly law-related works, if harder to write.


    The story of Crime and Punishment fails the normal test of what one might expect of a murder mystery or crime drama by immediately letting us know "whodunit." It is Raskolnikov, a promising but impoverished law student of twenty-four, who for reasons that are not entirely clear has for the last six months cut off all contact with his previous life, including his studies and his friends and relatives. From the outset of the novel, he has been thinking of killing Alyona Ivanovna, an old woman-pawnbroker with whom he had pawned several items to get money to live. After scouting out the pawnbroker's premises, assuring himself that she will be alone, and carefully borrowing an ax from his landlady's woodshed, he goes to her apartment one evening on the pretense of pawning another item and murders her. He then murders her meek and borderline retarded sister, who has the misfortune to walk in on the crime. Raskolnikov, nervous throughout, unskillfully rifles a locked trunk (overlooking a purse around the old woman's neck), coming up with money and a few items pawned by others. He hides these items and destroys all other evidence of the crime. He would be home free except for some indiscreet statements he makes to a police clerk in a bar and the fact that everyone who had a record of pawning items with the old woman is an immediate suspect. These facts bring him to the attention of Porfiry Petrovich, the examining magistrate assigned to the case. Porfiry makes three skillful "passes" at Raskolnikov on the subject of the crime that ultimately result in his full confession to the crime. Sentenced to eight years of hard labor working in a military fortress in Siberia, he suddenly--and somewhat implausibly--finds his moral and psychological redemption one year into his sentence.

    On a psychological level, the novel is about why Raskolnikov killed and, resultingly, what explains his sudden redemption, literally on the last page of the novel. Two reasons emerge and coexist throughout the novel. The first might be called the "selfless" theory. Raskolnikov sees good people suffering all around him because they are poor--his mother and sister, the Marmeladov family and particularly Sonya Marmeladov, who must resort to prostitution to support her stepmother and younger siblings, and Razumikhin, his law student friend who must take in students and perform translations to support himself in law school. Raskolnikov figures that since the pawnbroker is old and rich from preying on human suffering, there is nothing wrong with killing her so that he can use her money to relieve suffering. (12)

    The second reason is the "selfish" or "Napoleonic" theory. This is an idea derived from Napoleon III's 1865 book, The Life of Julius Caesar, just released in a Russian edition at that time. As explained by Porfiry, the theory of the book is that

    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 are extraordinary. (p. 219) Raskolnikov sees himself as one of the extraordinary people--like Napoleon and Caesar--on his way to great things. Because of this, he, like them, can commit even mass killings to survive and prosper. (13)

    Raskolnikov gets his name from the Russian word raskol, which means a split or schism, and represents the conflict between his intellectual justifications for the crime and the moral revulsion he feels. Logically, in his mind, if he is one of the "extraordinary" people, killing the pawnbroker was "no crime" (p. 61) and he need not worry about the pangs of conscience. He finds out too late that he is not "extraordinary." Meanwhile, the conflict is so great within him that he becomes physically ill after the murder for reasons he fails to understand (he is referred to as "feverish" throughout), even passing out at the police station when called there the day after the murder on the unrelated matter of his unpaid rent. He also finds himself "say[ing] too much" (p. 282) and dropping clues here and there, something that he has already noted "ordinary" people do because, try as they might, they accept deep down the validity of the rules they are breaking (pp. 60-61).

    Even when Raskolnikov finally confesses, he remains unconvinced he has done anything wrong. It is only after a year in prison and the doting love of Sonya, who has moved to Siberia to be close to him, that he finally accepts his guilt and surrenders to the moral sense within him. At least...

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