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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
When Fyodor Dostoevsky was twenty-eight, he was arrested by the Czar's secret police and sentenced to death, along with other members of a group that supported revolutionary political and social ideas. (His particular crime was publishing illegal articles advocating changes in Russian society.) When the prisoners were bound and waiting to be shot, and as the Czar's firing squad readied for the execution, a royal messenger dramatically announced a reprieve. The men's lives were spared.
The spectacular salvation had been prearranged. The Czar had merely wanted to frighten the men and demonstrate his power. Dostoevsky got the message. More important, his escape from death-followed by four years of imprisonment in Siberia-had an enormous impact on his life and work.
When you read Dostoevsky's novels, it's easy to see how his experiences influenced his choice of theme and character. This is especially true of Crime and Punishment, published in 1867, which tells the story of a brilliant but emotionally tortured young man whose theories about human behavior make him think he is above the law. At the end of Part Two of the novel, for example, Raskolnikov, the main character, suddenly feels "a boundlessly full and powerful life welling up in him." He compares the emotion to the reaction of "a man condemned to death and unexpectedly reprieved." The source and significance of that image are overwhelmingly clear.
Dostoevsky's prison experience provoked his interest in the causes of crime. It also made him wonder about the usefulness of punishment. In a letter describing his plan to write Crime and Punishment, he said, "Punishment meted out by the law to the criminal deters the criminal far less than the lawgivers think...." He believed that in order for punishment to work, it had to make the criminal accept his own guilt. His ideas about rehabilitating criminals were far ahead of the accepted attitudes of his time.
Another of Dostoevsky's innovative attitudes about crime and punishment was his emphasis on the emotional or psychological reasons why people commit crimes. In his time social scientists had only begun to use emotional factors as an explanation for changes in people's behavior. The field of criminology, which studies the various causes of crime, was not clearly formulated until about 1910.
There are other experiences in Dostoevsky's life that are important to understanding Crime and Punishment. At seventeen he left home to study engineering in a military school in St. Petersburg (now called Leningrad). He was miserable there, partly because he was really more interested in literature than in science. Also, incredible poverty plagued his student life. Often he went hungry, and he knew all about pawnbrokers as a poor man's only source of money. He frequented taverns and was acquainted with the seedy part of life in the city. The stifling, poverty-stricken slums and the teeming, drunken crowds in the Haymarket Square section of St. Petersburg are so vividly described in Crime and Punishment because he knew them from personal experience. From the beginning Dostoevsky's fiction depicted desperately poor men and women.
Dostoevsky's fascination with doubling-the psychological term to describe dual personalities-is one of the reasons he's often described as one of the first modern novelists. Characters with double personalities exist in many old legends and tales, but his analysis of such characters as emotionally, and often mentally, disturbed was provocative and influential. In fact, Crime and Punishment is still used in psychology lectures to illustrate the phenomenon of split personalities.
You can understand even more about the ideas that obsessed Dostoevsky if you know what happened to his father. At about the time Dostoevsky moved to St. Petersburg, his father, with whom he'd never been close, was murdered by the outraged serfs on his country estate. Many readers, searching for ways to explain some of the emotional instability in the author's own life, point to this murder as a key influence. Fathers aren't ever depicted very positively in his work; in Crime and Punishment the only father we see is a bad one.
Scholars who've written about Dostoevsky often suggest a connection between the epileptic seizures that began to plague him in the 1840s and his father's death. In Crime and Punishment the novelist himself suggests a connection between emotional problems and physical illness; it would be fascinating to know if he saw his own illness as psychologically based.
The period of Russian history in which Dostoevsky lived and wrote was tumultuous. New ideas for change were in the air, as his own early political ideas illustrate. Russian serfs were freed in 1861. Many Russian thinkers believed that their nation should forge closer ties with Western Europe and become "modern," an idea Dostoevsky rejected.