Dostoevsky's 1865 novel Crime and Punishment is the story of an expelled university student's murder of an old pawnbroker and her sister. The idealistic ex-student, Raskolnikov, is ultimately unable to live up to his own nihilistic theory of what makes a "Great Man" and, overcome by fits of morality, betrays himself to the police. Exiled to Siberia, suffering redeems the unfortunate young dreamer. Crime and Punishment is similar in many ways to Balzac's Pere Goriot, especially in respect to questions of morality. In Balzac, the master-criminal Vautrin lives by an amoral code similar to Raskolnikov's theory of Great Men--unrestrained by conscience, Vautrin holds that laws are for the weak, and those clever enough to realize this may overstep any boundaries they wish and dominate the rest of mankind. But where Balzac's characters act on this idea without repercussion, Raskolnikov makes a transgression and then begins immediately to question it. The result is a psychological inner battle between rationality and sentimental moralism which is as much a contest between Empiricism and Romanticism as it is a contest between good and evil, or God and the Devil.
The arena for this ideological contest is Petersburg, full of slums, revolutionary students and petty titular councilors. Scientifically and artificially constructed in the midst of marshland, the city itself is a symbol of the incompatibility of logical planning with humankind's natural sensibilities. The city did not grow randomly or organically, but entirely by czarist decree. Nonetheless, it is a dank and depressing place to live, at least for those in the vicinity of Haymarket Square, where the story takes place. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky's biographer, says of ...
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...where it is spent. Raskolnikov's tiny apartment is exactly such a "square yard of space," for cramped squalor and psychological tumult aside, life in Raskolnikov's room is worth living.
Dostoevsky, Feodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Jessie Coulson. Ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1989.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Balzac, Honore de. Pere Goriot. Trans. Henry Reed. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
1 "Rodya" is a nickname for Raskolnikov. It is a diminutive of Rodion, Raskolnikov's first name.
2 It is interesting to note that only positive characters are stricken by the squalor of Raskolnikov's room. Characters such as Mr. Luzhin, Svidrigaylov and Porfiry never, to my knowledge, comment on Raskolnikov's room.
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