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Before you read Crime and Punishment, you should understand something about Russian names. Every character has a middle name called a patronymic, formed from his or her father's first name. For a man, the patronymic ends in ovich; for a woman, its ending is ovna. The patronymic is considered an important part of a name and is commonly used, unlike our own middle names.
The characters are also often identified by their nicknames, so it might take you a little while to realize that Rodya, Roddy, Rodka, and Rodenka all refer to Raskolnikov. It's a good idea to make a list, either inside the book or on an index card, of all the characters' names and their variations. Translators also use different spellings. Most of the variants are given in parentheses. The spellings used here are from David Margarshack's translation.
• RODION ROMANOVICH RASKOLNIKOV (RODYA, RODDY, RODENKA, RODKA)
Is Raskolnikov a criminal who should be severely punished for his crime- or a tortured young man who makes a terrible mistake in trying to understand himself? Because his crime is so brutal, many readers think he's a repulsive, self-centered character who escapes the punishment he deserves. In contrast, because he's tormented by his conscience and fun of pity for the needy, other readers feel that the murders were a dreadful mistake that should not ruin his life. Dostoevsky shows the reader both sides of Raskolnikov, but the structure of the novel supports the author's belief that Raskolnikov can be rehabilitated. The reader has to decide if Dostoevsky proves his point.
In choosing Raskolnikov's name, he has given one important clue to his character. The word raskol, in Russian, means "schism" or "split." Dualism is the key to Raskolnikov's character. He is torn between the desire to do evil and the desire to do good.
He wants to do evil, to commit murder, in order to test his theory that there is such a thing as a crime of principle. He believes he is brilliant and more gifted than other people and has the right to commit crime to accomplish his goals. All he needs is daring. The problem is, he's not exactly sure what his goals are.
He also wants to do good. He wants to save his sister from an unhappy marriage and his mother from sacrificing for him. He wants to help the miserable Marmeladov family. But he seems unable to motivate himself to work or to find a way to break out of the poverty that traps him.
He struggles constantly with self-doubt, questioning what he does and blaming himself for every decision he makes. He is tortured by dreams in which he must confront his own evil acts and guilty conscience. He constantly suggests new motives for his crime, and then rejects them. Dostoevsky attributes Raskolnikov's turmoil in part to his self-imposed isolation, which has warped his ability to cope with people. His friends think he is insane-or at least mentally unbalanced. But, according to how Dostoevsky finally wants us to see Raskolnikov, it is not insanity, but alienation from humanity and from Christian ethical standards that allows him to kill the pawnbroker.
After the murders, Raskolnikov's most important relationships are with Sonia Marmeladov and Porfiry Petrovich. At first he seeks out Sonia, the reluctant prostitute and devout Christian, because he can feel superior to her. To her he can confess his crime, and with her he can share his misery. Eventually she becomes his hope for salvation through her love for him.
As Sonia is his spiritual confessor, Porfiry Petrovich, the brilliant detective, is his intellectual equal. His heart seeks Sonia, but his mind seeks the challenge of sparring with Porfiry. Dostoevsky makes this pattern clear by contrasting each visit with Sonia with an interview with Porfiry. By having both of these characters more concerned with saving his soul than punishing his crime, the novelist also emphasizes the moral and religious dimensions of crime and punishment. According to Dostoevsky, the killer must recognize he has committed a sin against God and man before his punishment can work.
Raskolnikov finally does confess and is sent to prison. He has as many confused motives for confessing as he did for committing the crime in the first place. The most positive reason is that he recognizes he has done wrong and must be punished. But Dostoevsky suggests that physical and emotional exhaustion are equally a factor in his decision. The tension of constantly being on his guard finally drives him to give up. A third reason- that Svidrigailov's suicide shocks Raskolnikov into recognizing that unconfessed crime leads to despair and death-is also possible. He knows he doesn't want to die. Finally, many readers believe that Raskolnikov seeks punishment all along. That, they say, explains all the self-incriminating things he says and does after the murder, including all the times he starts to confess and is prevented from doing so.
As you read the novel, other reasons for both Raskolnikov's crime and his confession will strike you too. Be sure to note passages in the novel that support your view of Raskolnikov's character. Several different reasons can be true at the same time, and Dostoevsky makes that very clear. Complicated people can never be explained in simple ways.