book review

Book Review: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Classic ‘Crime and Punishment’

It’s been said about Bernard Madoff that he wanted to be caught. That knowledge of the extent of his crimes was its own burden, one relieved by those same crimes being exposed. It was impossible not to think of Madoff while reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s very sad, frequently insightful, and ultimately unputdownable classic, Crime and Punishment.

Early on in what from now on will be referred to as Crime, central character Rodion Romanych Raskolnikov commits two murders. Eager to change his and his family’s bleak financial circumstances ahead of resuming university and what he imagines will be the life of an academic, Raskolnikov murders an old female pawnbroker in pre-meditated fashion only for Alyona Ivanovna’s half-sister to arrive on the scene. He then kills her too before escaping undetected. Or was he undetected?

Allowing for the likely truth that Crime requires several reads to be reasonably well understood, almost from the time of his crimes it seems Raskolnikov has occasional yearnings to be caught so that through imprisonment and hard labor, he can relieve himself of the major burden that comes with having done something terrible. As Raskolnikov imagines soon after committing the murders, and with the police station less than a quarter of a mile from his “apartment” (his “whole room was of a size that made it possible to lift the hook [the front-door lock] without getting out of bed”), “I’ll walk in, fall on my knees, and tell them everything…”

The problem is that as the minutes and hours go by, it at least appears on the surface that Raskolnikov will escape prosecution for the murders based on his own perception that, while a murderer, people don’t see him as one. Raskolnikov is educated, particularly by 19th century Russian standards, he’s had an article published in a magazine, something his deceased father never accomplished, and some would say he has the qualities of a “gentleman” underneath his emaciated, ragged bearing. How could he be a killer?

People imagining themselves to be what they’re not is of course a major theme of the novel, and there will be more on this in a bit. The main thing is that having committed two horrid crimes, Raskolnikov can’t even seem to convince chief police clerk Zametov that he’s the killer despite aggressively alluding to it, plus later on someone not Raskolnikov actually confesses to the murders. It seems an easy way out, but then the crimes have already been committed. There’s no escaping the horrors of what he’s done, the horrors so enervating that Raskolnikov is reduced to a crazed, very sickly person, someone so wrecked internally that he didn’t even bother to quickly search the dead pawnbroker’s apartment for substantial amounts of ruble notes that were within it, nor did he pawn or spend what he did take. Crime doesn’t pay, rather the act itself suffocates us. Or at least it has suffocated Raskolnikov.

Where it gets really interesting is that Dostoevsky was plainly working to draw a bigger picture of what crime is. Communicating this view through the magazine article that the destitute Raskolnikov published before the murders, and that he’s notably owed rubles for, crime is an expansive concept, and arguably even a driver of progress.

Dostoevsky makes a case for the criminal element in the broadest of senses as the extraordinary. Quoting Porfiry Petrovich, the head of the police detail investigating the murders of Alyona Ivanovna and her half-sister, and who is attempting to describe Ralkolnikov’s argument to Raskolnikov, “The ordinary must live in obedience and have no right to transgress the law, because they are, after all, ordinary. While the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary.”

It seems Dostoevsky’s point is that crime isn’t just the killing and stealing kind, rather it’s expressions and actions that run against conventional wisdom. In other words, criminals are frequently the greats who “move the world and lead it towards a goal.” Criminals are the individuals “who are a tiny bit capable of saying something new.” And by saying something new, they “cannot fail to be criminals.” That they’re “off the beaten track” is almost tautological simply because if they were ordinary, they never would have gotten off of the track to begin with different thoughts or actions.

The criminals “are destroyers or inclined to destroy, depending on their abilities.” While the lower category, the ordinary, exist “solely for the reproduction of their own kind,” the extraordinary “have the gift or talent of speaking a new word in their environment.” One guesses Dostoevsky would see Elon Musk as criminal in the great sense, Jeff Bezos too, and surely Steve Jobs.

All three through their actions called “for the destruction of the present in the name of the better.” Dostoevsky thought of the criminal element as the individuals willing to “step over blood – depending, however, on the idea and its scale,” but keep in mind that Crime was written in the 19th century. It strikes me that he would view the modern entrepreneur as someone similarly pursuing “the destruction of the present in the name of the better,” all the while walking over vanquished people and processes hopelessly stuck in the past.

Some will say Bezos just made the world better without pursuit of destruction, as did Musk and Jobs. Sure, but it’s an argument made in hindsight. It ignores that Bezos endured years of “” ridicule, and a frequently turbulent stock price, to reach the top of the business pyramid. So did Musk. With him it’s so easily forgotten that while Tesla is presently worth $736 billion, for much of its existence (including in 2023) its shares have been the most shorted in the world, by far. When Jobs took over Apple in 1997 after having previously been pushed out of what he created, Apple was staring at bankruptcy. And no, investors were not lined up to back Jobs the second time around. Absent a sizable investment by Bill Gates, it’s possible Apple goes bankrupt.

It’s worth adding that proof of just how far “off the beaten track” Musk, Bezos and Jobs were can be found in how often all three stared at failure, ruin, or both. They weren’t and aren’t feeding the future as the ordinary frequently do, they were and are creating it. That all three are now lionized is in a sense all the evidence we need to know that they were formerly ridiculed. If they’d been ordinary, their accomplishments would be so pedestrian as to not rate comment, before or after. All of which is a piece of Dostoevsky’s thinking. He writes that the ordinary “punish them and hang” the extraordinary in the figurative sense at first, but “subsequent generations” of the ordinary “place the punished ones on a pedestal and worship them (more or less).” Well, yes.

Dostoevsky says the realization of greatness is found in future generations, but the novel was yet again written in the 19th century. The bet is that if Dostoevsky were writing now, that he would point to the speed of information creation as such that the “criminals” are discovered to be great much sooner, and in time to enjoy their vindication. Put another way, Bezos, Musk, and Jobs were fortunate to have been born when they were. In the 19th century, their extraordinary ways would have most likely only won them ridicule, and yes, punishment. 

Speaking about his own article, Raskolnikov asserts that “Generally, there are remarkably few people born who have a new thought, who are capable, if only slightly, of saying anything new – strangely few, in fact.” What a treat it would be to talk economics with Dostoevsky in order to show him the monolithic thought that informs economic thinking, including the simplistic notion that the path to lower inflation is paved with unemployment and bankruptcy. In a more horrifying sense, the same economists who think that suffering is the path to reduced inflation similarly believe that the killing, maiming and wealth destruction that is war boosts economic output. The economics profession desperately requires individuals with new thoughts, but it lacks them. And then those with new thoughts are ridiculed as is. While telling a story from long, long ago, Dostoevsky was describing the present.

Thinking more expansively about Dostoevsky’s expansive definition of “crime,” it’s useful to spend a little more time on Bezos, Musk and Jobs in consideration of an observation made by Dmitri Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s eager, optimistic, and romantic friend. Razumikhin observes that “crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social set-up.” Razumikhin, like Raskolnikov, is desperately poor, and his expressed view is presumably a socialist thought that Dostoevsky is trying to convey. But it’s backwards. Think about it. Money’s sole worth in society is a function of what it can be exchanged for. The problem in 19th century St. Petersburg isn’t a lack of money, rather it’s a lack of goods and services. A lack of money is just a reflection, or measure of this reality.

Which has me commenting that if anything, “crime” as Razumikhin sees it is a protest against a lack of inequality. Individuals become wealth unequal by mass producing former luxuries. Where the unequal are is also where those with the least enjoy the greatest access to abundance.

The above is something to consider through the character of Arkady Svidrigailov, the first person in the novel to expose Raskolnikov that he is in fact a murderer. Describing himself midway through the novel, Svidrigailov observes that “I’m decently dressed, of course, and am not reckoned a poor man.” How fascinating yet again it would be to be able to talk to Dostoevsky in modern times, or transport him into modern times. Thanks to the growing number of “hands” and machines the world over cooperating in the production of everything, “everything” is increasingly accessible to everyone.

Applied to Svidrigailov’s description of himself, mass production has somewhat blurred the “gentleman” distinction that formerly was so distinct. Precisely because good clothes were once so incredibly expensive and rare as a consequence of too few hands and machines, the vanishingly few of means could distinguish themselves. No more. The profit motive has made it possible for more and more of the world’s inhabitants to dress fashionably, and at prices that continue to fall. Inequality has naturally soared as lifestyle inequality has shrunk. Yes, “crime” is a protest not against the “abnormality of the social set-up,” but instead against a lack of inequality that reveals itself most cruelly through a lack of abundance.

Of all people, Pyotr Petrovich, the evil character drawn to Raskolnikov’s beautiful younger sister Avdotya (“Dunya” or “Dunechka”) Romanovna Raskolnikov, embodies what could be for the masses in a more unequal society. “Having risen from insignificance, Pyotr Petrovich had a morbid habit of admiring himself.” The important thing is that while Petrovich wasn’t of “noble” or “aristocratic” stock, he’d acquired the means to dress as though he had been. As mentioned earlier, a major them of Crime is people trying to be what they aren’t. Petrovich can dress as though he was born to prosperity, he can potentially win the hand of “a well-behaved and poor girl (she must be poor)” who was also “well born and educated,” and possibly complete his own transformation into the noble classes. There will be no spoilers as to the entertaining outcome for Petrovich, but it should be said that whatever his character and motives, society needs more of people like him.

Better yet, Petrovich understands that production is what lifts all boats. He observes that “by acquiring solely and exclusively for myself, I am thereby precisely acquiring for everyone, as it were, and working so that my neighbor will have something more than a torn caftan, not from private, isolated generosities now, but as a result of universal prosperity.” Petrovich is evil in the novel, but the character doesn’t lack for insight. The unfortunate thing is that Dostoevsky seems write him as though his expressions are unwise.

Compare Petrovich to how Dostoevsky writes Sonya Semyonova Marmeladov, daughter of a shiftless, alcoholic, Russian official, Semyon Marmeladov. So crippling is his drinking that Sonya is reduced to prostitution in order to help keep her father and his new family afloat. Sonya’s “other” seems to be that she’ll suffer in the worst of ways for the greater good of a family, including her father’s new wife Katerina Ivanovna, she arguably the most delusional of all given her routine proclamations that she and her children from her first marriage are “of a noble, some might even say aristocratic house.”

The main thing is that while Raskolnikov might be trying to fool himself about what he’s not, he’s not fooled by Sonya. Talking to Sonya, Raskolnikov observes “Isn’t it a horror that you live in this filth which you hate so much, and at the same time know yourself (you need only open your eyes) that you’re not helping anyone by it, and not saving anyone from anything!” As he puts it seven pages later, “You laid hands on yourself, you destroyed a life…your own.” Sonya sees her horrid living conditions as a noble sacrifice for her father and his desperate family, but the underlying truth is that she’s just a prostitute.

Pyotr Petrovich believes he can do the most for others by doing the most for himself, while Sonya Marmeladov believes she can do the most for others by doing the least for herself. Petrovich is right, though the evil underlying his reserve of common sense is ultimately exposed by Sonya. And then it seems everyone in this slow-starting, but eventually hard-to-put-down novel, comes to terms with the person they actually are.

As Porfiry Petrovich so crucially and bluntly conveys it to Raskolnikov late in the novel, “it was you, Rodion Romanych, it was you, sir, there’s no one else.” And in this forced realization of his status as a murderer, Raskolnikov inched closer to the suffering and hard labor that would free him of the agony of his crimes.

What a remarkable novel Crime and Punishment is. At the same time, it’s remarkable in concert with the realization that so much might have been lost in the translation from Russian to English, so much nuance missed, and so much misunderstood in the presumption that the suffering is the crime, and suffering is the only way to relieve the suffering from crimes committed.

Republished from RealClear Markets


  • John Tamny

    John Tamny is a popular speaker and author in the U.S. and around the world. His speech topics include "Government Barriers to Economic Growth," "Why Washington and Wall Street are Better Off Living Apart," and more.

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