Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
AUTHOR'S STYLE AND USE OF LANGUAGE
Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a landmark in the annals of Russian fiction. It marks the beginning of a new trend in the writing of both Russian and world literature. It can be considered a pioneering work in the realm of psychological fiction, as well as an important piece of realistic sociological criticism. On the one hand, the novel reflects its author's anguish at the immensity of human suffering in language that steers clear of the trappings of sophistication or sentimentalism. On the other hand, Dostoevsky delves deeply and into the most complex workings of the human psyche. He probes the obscure motives and subtle shifts of mood in the mind of a criminal. Hence, a large part of the 'action' of the novel takes place in the criminal's mind. At such moments, the style adopted by Dostoevsky may be compared to that of a great dramatic monologue.
This great Russian novelist not only shows the tortured psyche of the criminal, Raskolnikov, but also attempts to lay bare the ideological struggles and social conflicts that give rise to individuals who resort to crime. His integrity as a writer forces Dostoevsky to explore the diverse roots of crime in a society where exploitation of the many by the few is the established norm. For such an ambitious novel, the style used is rather simple, direct and unpretentious. It has a remarkable precision both in its narrative and analytical sections. With almost uncanny intuition, Dostoevsky displays a keen understanding of the human psyche, which subsequent developments in modern psychology have substantiated.
Dostoevsky's powers of fictional narration leave the reader fully absorbed in the complex and subtle shifts of thought in Raskolnikov's mind. To depict his dark and obscure motives for the crime, the novelist explores different theories of crime. To capture the sordid depths of the criminal mind, Dostoevsky employs dreams and nightmares, and other images, like the tiny attic and its contrasting symbol of "fresh air." Other symbols, like Svidrigailov's whip, correspond to the flogging to death of a horse in Raskolnikov's dream and suggest great cruelty. The sight and smell of blood and fresh paint are cleverly used as recurrent symbols of Raskolnikov's guilt after the murder.
Thus, by clever and controlled use of symbols and imagery, Dostoevsky sets forth a graphic picture of the interior of the murderer's mind. Apart from this ability to plumb the depths of the human soul, Dostoevsky also excels in capturing mid-19th century Russian society in all its realistic detail. The social conditions that then prevailed also had some effect on the way individuals thought, felt and behaved. From the agonizing scenes of desperate solitude and grinding poverty that fill the pages of this novel, the novelist is able to portray the grief and misery that has tormented humankind all through the ages. The squalor and humiliation of social degradation is seen clearly in the plights of Sonia, her stepmother, Katerina, and in Dounia's near disgrace by Luzhin and Svidrigailov. Very few authors capture human suffering as movingly as Dostoevsky.
Life in mid-19th century St. Petersburg was not that different from the squalid conditions that still prevail in many an urban ghetto today, both in highly industrialized and in developing countries. It is a tribute to Dostoevsky's skill as a writer that he is able to recreate with graphic realism this universally relevant picture of social injustice. Although he does not indulge in the naturalist's delight in depicting the sordid or seamier side of life, some of his scenes do make for somewhat disturbing or unpleasant reading at times. A quality of his genius is that, with his grimly realistic style, he is able to explore and expose man's soul with all its imperfections.
With slight and almost imperceptible shifts of focus, Dostoevsky often gives forceful glimpses into the terrifying chasms of both human and social reality. On the vast canvas of his monumental novel, Crime and Punishment, he depicts with profound psychological insight his intimate understanding of characters like Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, Luzhin, Marmeladov, Sonia, Dounia and the rest of his large range of characters. He also displays a wide range of social conditions that reduce man to his sufferings and his weaknesses. In the scene of Marmeladov's death, he provides a telling instance of people's morbid sense of curiosity when neighbors gather to see this victim of a fatal road accident.
Dostoevsky's prose, even in translation from the Russian, has the power to stir the reader deeply by its simplicity and directness. In his writing style, he aimed to discard all the artificiality and adornments of the earlier Russian writers of the Romantic era who used a more elegant style. As he himself reveals in this work and in most of his other novels, his deep interest in psychoanalysis offered exciting possibilities for his realistic art.