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‘Though Crime and Punishment is sometimes cited as the first psychological thriller, its scope reaches far beyond Raskolnikov’s inner turmoil. From dark taverns, dilapidated apartments and claustrophobic police stations, the underbelly of 19th century St Petersburg is brought to life by Dostoevsky’s searing prose.’ Alex Gendler
It’s a big book. It’s a famous book. But have you
read it? If not, you should. Devouring it is a remarkable experience. As with
all great literature, the setting and the period are not as important as the
ideas, dilemmas and the richness of the characters featured in the narrative
which speak to each generation and have a timeless universality to them. As one
critic observed, ‘the book illuminates the eternal conflicts of the human heart’.
Before we go any further, let us deal with a few
facts. Crime and Punishment was
written by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and was published in 1866. Dostoevsky was
a respected and celebrated novelist,
short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. His literary works explore human psychology in the
troubled political, social, and spiritual atmospheres of 19th-century Russia Dostoevsky has many great books
to his name including The House of the
Dead (1862), The Idiot, (1869),
and The Brothers Karamzov (1880). However, Crime and Punishment is regarded as his masterpiece.
central character in the novel is Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student living in St Petersburg. So desperate is he for money that he devises a plan to kill an aged female
pawnbroker. He sees her as a cruel and unscrupulous creature and he intends to
take her horde of money. This, he believes, will release him from the chains of
penury and allow him the ease and freedom which will bring him to greatness. He
convinces himself that it is justifiable to kill the old woman on the grounds
that she is a parasite, an evil in society. He believes that his superior intelligence
allows him to transcend moral taboos. The desire to commit this crime and
facilitate his escape from his miserable life becomes an obsession. In desperation he steals an axe and gains
access to the old lady’s apartment by pretending that he has an item to pawn.
Once there he attacks her with the axe, ending her life. He also kills her
half-sister, Lizaveta, who happens to stumble upon the scene of the crime.
Shaken by his actions, he only manages to steal a handful of items and a small
purse, leaving much of the pawn-broker's wealth untouched. Due to sheer good
fortune, he manages to escape the building and return to his room undetected.
has committed the crime of the title – a double murder – and now he must suffer
the punishment. However, it is not punishment of the official type. It is not
arrest and incarceration that awaits Raskolnikov but mental torture. After the
terrible deed has been done he comes not only to realise that his dream of
freedom and worldly success was built on shifting sand but also, to his surprise, he finds himself racked with confusion,
paranoia, and disgust for what he has done. His moral justifications for
murdering the old woman disintegrate completely as he struggles with guilt and
horror and is forced to confront the real-world consequences of his deed.
follows the course of his slow breakdown under the pressure of remorse. His
crumbling mental state causes him to behave in an eccentric and suspicious
manner. At this point in his life, he enters into a prolonged intellectual game
of cat and mouse with Inspector Porfiry Petrovitch with whom he first
encounters in a social context. Petrovitch is the head of the Investigation
Department in charge of solving the murders of the pawnbroker and her sister
and is convinced of Raskolnikov’s guilt.
of wits between these two is one of the riveting suspenseful aspects of the
novel. They circle each other like feral animals. Petrovitch is determined to elicit a
confession from Raskolnikov and attempts this through psychological means,
seeking to confuse and provoke the volatile murderer into giving the game away.
conceived the idea of Crime and Punishment, prompted by the case of Pierre François Lacenaire, in the summer of 1865. Lacenaire was a thief and
had committed a double murder in the course of his nefarious activities. During
his trial, he fiercely defended his crimes as a valid protest against social
injustice. He turned the judicial proceedings into a theatrical event. He made
a lasting impression upon French society and upon several writers, including Dostoevsky.
There have been over 25 film adaptations of Crime
and Punishment. The most notable
include a silent version in 1923 directed in Germany by the great Robert Weine,
famous for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
In 1935 an American adaptation appeared featuring a creepy performance by Peter
Lorre as Raskolnikov. More recently, in 2002, there
was a movie with Crispin Glover and John Hurt as the protagonists. While
sticking closely to the plot, this version moved the time frame to the early
years of the twentieth century. Also in 2002 there was a TV movie starring John Simm as Raskolnikov and Ian
McDiarmid as Porfiry Petrovich.
No doubt we shall not have to wait too long before a new version of the novel emerges. However, it is interesting to note that the director Alfred Hitchcock, the master of the suspenseful crime movie, stated in an interview with French film maker Francois Truffaut that he would never consider filming Crime and Punishment. Hitchcock explained that he could certainly make a great film out of a good book, and even (or especially) out of a mediocre book, but never a great book, because the film would always suffer by comparison. One could never quite capture that greatness on celluloid.