SPOILER ALERT!

The psycholigical torment of a murderer

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear

While the title can be a little misleading, the actual form that the punishment takes in this novel is the psychological effect of the guilty mind. The social punishment that the protagonist, Raskolnikov, undergoes appears only in the epilogue, where he is sentenced to eight years in a penal colony in Siberia, though we are given a glimpse of some of the hardships that he undergoes. However, the true punishment that the novel explores is the unmitigated guilt that dominates Raskolnikov's mind and the physical sickness that results.

I read somewhere that the story begins with the perfect crime, however, for some reason, I can never picture an axe murder being a 'perfect crime'. Maybe it has something to do with the modern perception of axe murderers, something that does not necessarily seem to fit our protagonist. While on the outside it seems that the murder of the pawnbroker is, in a way, perfect, one thing Dostoyevsky seems to insinuate is that Raskolnikov could not escape the guilt that had come about because of his actions. Okay, he begins by attempting to justify his actions – sort of a Robin Hood scenario where he kills a rich miser with the intention of distributing her money to the poor, but as it comes out this never happens. In fact the money that he does find (and he doesn't get all that much money from her in the first place) spends the entire novel hidden under a rock. Even then, with the whole idea of a Robin Hood style crime, I sometimes wonder if we, as humans, are ever able to overcome our greed by willingly distributing our ill gotten gains.

Much of the novel involves the investigation of the murder and the detective, Porfiry Petrovich, has a hunch in relation to who the murderer is, though he does not have any solid proof. It is not so much his investigation that is the focus of the novel but rather Raskolnikov's response to the investigation. He knows he is guilty, and this guilt is burning up inside of him, but another aspect is holding him back from confessing: the fear of the social punishment that he must face if he confesses. That is the catch: while he refuses to confess he undergoes a psychological punishment which in and of itself is much greater than any social punishment he can endure. It seems that this psychological aspect even prevents Raskolnikov from killing himself.

It is clear that Dostoyevky's Christianity comes out in this book, especially with the reference to the story of Lazarus. In that story Lazarus dies and Jesus comes along and brings him back from the dead. While Lazarus died simply because he was mortal, Dostoyevsky seems to suggest that we all undergo some form of death, and while we are encased in that death we live in torment. It is only through the redemptive power of Christ that we are able to escape from that torment, as is reflective in the story when Jesus calls Lazarus back from the dead. Rostkolnikov clearly takes the role of Lazarus, and it appears that it is Sonya that is the Christ figure in the novel. Sonya is the first person to whom Roskolnikov confesses, and when he finally confesses to Petrovich and is sentenced to eight years in Siberia, Sonya travels with him as a reflection that Christ will also travel with us once he has released us from our bondage.

Anyway, that is enough of the Christian allusions in the novel because I wanted to explore something else: the idea of the guilty mind. Here Dostoyevsky connects the guilty mind with the act of murder (and a pretty gruesome murder at that) but sometimes I wonder whether he actually understands the reality of the situation. The reason I say that is because there are murderers out there that do not seem to be effected by the guilty mind, and with that I point to individuals such as Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. They seemed to be able to kill people yet feel no guilt with regards to their actions. Yet, on the other hand, we have soldiers who are given an authority to kill by their respective governments yet suffer immense psychological trauma when they attempt to return to civilian life from war. This phenomena is explored not only in Greek literature, such as Heracles Furens but also in a modern literature, such as Achilles in Vietnam (though the second book does draw upon the Illiad).

In speculating on this I do not want to go down the road of the street corner drug dealers, or those who commit property crimes such as frauds or burglaries, because those crimes do not seem to have the same effect on the psyche as a murder (though this is not necessarily always the case because I have known people who have been shoplifters and have been so overwhelmed with guilt that they have confessed to the owner of the shop). Some have suggested that a part of human nature is repulsed at the killing of another human being, which is what I suspect Dostoyevski is exploring here, because it is not so much the theft that is of concern, but the fact that Roskolnikov murdered the owner of the money with an ax.

Anyway, that is probably enough of Dostoyevski for the time being (other than the bookclub on Sunday), though I still intend on reading some of his other works, such as The Gambler, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and of course Notes from the Underground.

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1050846336