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FREE Barron's Booknotes-Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-Free
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5. THE POWER OF SUFFERING

Sonia and Raskolnikov think differently about suffering. She believes suffering makes a person a better human being and that it can be endured because God will reward the sufferer. She can go on living because she believes that all her misery will help her family-and Raskolnikov-and because she believes that God will not let her down.

Raskolnikov insists that suffering is wasted misery. He's impatient with self-sacrifice and intolerant of the notion that God cares. Many readers agree with his view that any good that comes of misery is coincidental, and insufficient to justify so much self-torture.

The structure of the novel proves that Dostoevsky's point of view is like Sonia's: suffering is both necessary and useful. Its efficacy is proved by Raskolnikov's redemption. But readers who find Raskolnikov's repentance unbelievable are not convinced that Dostoevsky is right.

6. THE EFFECTIVENESS OF PUNISHMENT

Can punishment rehabilitate a criminal? Dostoevsky says the answer is yes, under particular circumstances. He insists that when Raskolnikov recognizes that his alienation from mankind and his egotism are wrong, he is ready to put his crime behind him and become a new man. The fact that he is in prison, being punished by the state, seems coincidental to his new awareness of his guilt.


All of the agony he suffers after the murder is as much a punishment as the prison term. One of his most painful realizations is that he doesn't measure up to his own expectations for himself. In the final analysis his rehabilitation is possible because Sonia's love and Porfiry's willingness to wait prepare him to accept Christian ethics as his ruling principle.

The rest of the criminals and evil-doers aren't so lucky. Because they are unloved, they are doomed, according to Dostoevsky, and can't be rehabilitated. Can you think of some other reasons why Luzhin and Svidrigailov don't seem to change?

7. IS THERE AN OBJECTIVE MORALITY?

Dostoevsky makes very clear that he believes that man must live by an objective ethical standard. Things are either right or they are wrong. Ethics are not relative. According to this interpretation, Raskolnikov had no right to murder the old lady, no matter what his reasons. The novelist rejects the idea of a murder of principle.

Yet, at the same time, he suggests that immoral and even illegal behavior can be forgiven. Sonia's prostitution doesn't keep her from God; Dunya's lies to shield her mother from Raskolnikov's trial are justifiable. Even Raskolnikov is a better person after he tests himself and admits his failure and guilt. In other words, some standards of morality are more objective than others. For Dostoevsky, the unforgivable sins are an overwhelming sense of self-importance and sexual depravity.

8. A DETECTIVE STORY

Crime and Punishment is an uncoventional mystery. The crime itself is solved. In fact, you know from the beginning who is guilty. The unanswered question is what Raskolnikov's motive in killing the pawnbroker really was. He offers several reasons, but he rejects them himself, even before the reader gets a chance. The ones that seem the most logical-that he needed the money and that he was testing himself to see if he was extraordinary-are contradictory.

The detective story is unusual too because both the killer and the detective are sympathetic characters. Intellectually they are well matched, but Porfiry has the upper hand in their duels of wit because he is right and Raskolnikov is wrong. Porfiry doesn't follow the usual physical clues either, but observes Raskolnikov's behavior, which he can't keep himself from revealing. The suspense is psychological, and the detective's major aim is Raskolnikov's redemption, not his arrest.

9. THE POWER OF FATE

Fate means different things in Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov says over and over that Fate cause his actions. For instance, when he overhears that the pawnbroker will be alone, he says Fate ordains that he will kill her. Dostoevsky rejects, and wants the reader to reject, this notion of Fate as the power that predetermines events. The novel makes very clear that Raskolnikov chooses to act, despite his own eagerness to blame Fate.

But Fate also means the doom or ruin of a character as the consequence of his actions and behavior. In this way Fate does play a part in Raskolnikov's story, at least until the miraculous change in the Epilogue. He determines his own destruction by the things that he does; in other words, his Fate is to commit crime because of his arrogance, and to be punished for that crime.

Fate as the inevitable consequence of man's actions is a recurrent theme in the great classical tragedies, and many readers think that Raskolnikov resembles the tragic heroes, whose personalities doom them to disaster.

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