By Ed Marks and Dan Cummings, revised by Joe Phelan
In the spring of 1849, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) faced a Russian firing squad. He had been accused of the political crime of promoting utopian socialism, a popular ideology that threatened the deeply conservative government of Czar Nicholas I. Just as the order was being given to the firing squad to shoot, a messenger appeared with an edict from the Czar commuting the sentence to four years of hard labor in Siberia.
Students examine the theory Man vs. Superman as it is revealed in several scenes within the novel and tackle the larger questions it bring up: Are humans really divided into two distinct categories, the ordinary and the extraordinary? Is this division a figment created by an overactive intellect? What did Dostoevsky think? Then they learn the theory differs radically from Dostoyevsky’s fictional reality—and reader’s—uncover yet another split in the world of the novel, one between intellect and emotion/instinct.
Students examine the novel’s societal setting, which is also fraught with division. Crime and Punishment is more than just a demonstration of the idea that crime does not pay, it is a vivid depiction of societal injustice. For example, Dostoyevsky’s mid-nineteenth century Russia offered women narrowly circumscribed roles, most often resulting in their dependence on men and/or a life of poverty. The negative effects of several other societal divisions raise additional questions.
Students examine the divided nature of Raskolnikov’s character and personality. Then they uncover the divided natures of other characters—a fact that becomes increasingly evident as the novel progresses to go beyond character analysis to comprehend Dostoyevsky’s underlying themes. What does the novel imply about human nature? Dostoevsky clearly perceived that people are neither simple nor easily classified; they are often torn in opposite directions by forces both inside of and outside of themselves, sometimes with catastrophic results.