Closer Readings Commentary

Crime and Punishment turns 150!

All is in a man's hands and he lets it all slip from cowardice, that's an axiom. It would be interesting to know what it is men are most afraid of. Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what they fear most.—Fydor Dostoyevsky

Dostoevsky began writing the story, which would become Crime and Punishment, in the summer of 1865 under the title, The Drunkards. The plot that emerged was much more complex than that original title would suggest, and while drunkenness had been an early theme, by his final version the focus had changed entirely. Finding a publisher proved difficult. After a number of rejections, Dostoyevsky wrote a most persuasive letter to the editor of a conservative journal, The Russian Messenger, who accepted it and despite an editorial clash, it went to print in January 1866.

The first segment of the novel Crime and Punishment appeared in the January issue of the Messenger in serial form, followed by additional chapters in regular monthly installments over the course of that year. Crime and Punishment was an immediate success with the public; however, it garnered a largely unfavorable reaction from the liberal press.

This complex story involves a riveting and troubling story line, which pays witness to the downfall a young protagonist who steps outside the boundaries of legality and decency. Raskolnikov, whose name derives from the Russian word for "schism", is torn apart by his philosophical beliefs and his inherent morality. Dostoyevsky had returned from exile in Siberia 11 years earlier, so his firsthand knowledge of what Raskolnikov would have experienced there is reflected in the novel.

This is a superb text for college-bound juniors and seniors, especially those in Advanced Placement, honors, and International Baccalaureate programs as well as life-long learners. Crime and Punishment is a Common Core State Standards exemplar for grades 11–CCR.

Teaching Crime and Punishment

Schisms and Divisions in Crime and Punishment: A Common Core Exemplar stresses the polarizations and divisions that dominate the novel—characters torn by opposing tendencies; theories that identify ordinary and extraordinary people as separate; disconnects between intellect and emotion; societal divisions in Russia that would ferment and lead to revolution half a century later. [Aligns with Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize key supporting details and ideas.]

Lesson 1: Dualistic Portrayal of Characters considers how Dostoyevsky develops the divided nature of his main character, Raskolnikov, to reflect his views of the schisms inherent in human nature. It also looks at the divisions that are present in the other characters. Students discover 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. [Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RL 11-12.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.]

Lesson 2: Man and Superman tackles large questions: Are humans really divided into two distinct categories, the ordinary and the extraordinary, or is this division a figment created by an overactive intellect? Students come to see how the Man vs. Superman theory differs radically from Dostoyevsky’s fictional reality, and they uncover yet another major split—one between intellect and emotion/instinct. [Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.]

Lesson 3: Societal Schisms and Divisions examines individual and societal divisions that underpin the central themes of the novel. More than just a demonstration that crime does not pay, Crime and Punishment is a vivid depiction of societal injustice. Students examine additional societal divisions— wealth and poverty; men and women; religion and skepticism; connection and alienations—to see how they cause negative consequences for Raskolnikov and other characters in the novel. [Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6: Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).]

Crime and Punishment demonstrates Dostoevsky's keen insight into 19th-century Russian society. He saw the chasm between the many have-nots and the few wealthy. He also recognized the tensions between the Westernizers who wanted Russia to become more European and the Slavophiles who thought the best path for the country was a return to its Slavic roots.

Dostoevsky saw increasing radicalism among youth in Russia, including the rise of "nihilism", which was based on utilitarian thinking and rejection of religious faith. In its most radical form, Russian nihilism rejected all institutions and laws—a complete abrogation of everything that Russians had believed for centuries. The novel reflects both the appeal and the limitations of this way of thinking by showing us the tremendous injustice in that society, while also suggesting that to reject every aspect of this social structure is not the way to create justice.