Crime and Punishment is 150 – and its politics are more relevant than ever
It is now 150 years since the publication of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. An incredibly influential novel, Crime and Punishment also has a particularly contemporary political significance.
The plot hinges on how, one summer’s day in St Petersurg, a penniless student, Rodion Raskolnikov, murders an old woman pawnbroker. He does it partly to prove an idea that he has written about: that exceptional people, like Napoleon, can be above the law. Besides, to him the pawnbroker is a “louse” whose murder will be a net benefit to society. But during the murder, the victim’s kind and vulnerable sister walks in. Raskolnikov kills her, too, without a second thought. The reader sees how Raskonikov has become desensitised and how his ideas (influenced by his reading of Hegel and Bentham) have unintended consequences.
Raskolnikov’s name means “split in two” or “schismatic”. His split personality inspired Stevenson’s story of Jekyll and Hyde. One of the first psychological novels, Crime and Punishment is also deeply political. It reflected a wave of reaction against economic liberalism, not unlike that which has occurred during 2016. Raskolnikov is shown to be a confused hybrid, both reflecting liberal thought and rebelling against it.