Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Historical Context
"Crime and Punishment" is probably the most famous and most accessible of Dostoevsky's novels. Set in late Nineteenth Century Saint Petersburg, the novel contains elements of a detective story, a psychological study and metaphysical exploration.
The novel is about an impoverished young law student named Raskolnikov who examines the possibility of killing his elderly landlady and stealing her money so that he can use it to assist his family. Raskolnikov soon concludes that killing the landlady constitutes a heroic and decisive act of courage. He murders her with an axe and steals her money but soon falls under suspicion and is investigated by the police. The police inspector suspects Raskolnikov of committing the crime but does not attempt to arrest him immediately. Instead, the inspector drags out the investigation in order to give Raskolnikov the opportunity to come to terms with his own conscience. Eventually the burden on Raskolnikov's conscience and the realization that his crime will not solve his family's problems compel Raskolnikov to confess. He is subsequently arrested and sentenced to a few years imprisonment in Siberia.
Although "Crime and Punishment" is something of a thriller, it is largely a novel of ideas. When Raskolnikov rationalizes his right to kill his landlady, he assumes the role of the Nietzian superman: an individual whose state of mind and whose actions transcend good and evil. The police inspector symbolizes the counter argument to Raskolnikov's validation of the Nietzian superman by realigning Raskolnikov with his own conscience. Ultimately, this novel argues that no man is beyond good and evil and that any attempt to thwart one's conscience is bound to end in folly.
The theme of "Crime and Punishment" takes place on an individual level, but can also be applied to the historical progress of nations as well. Dostoevsky was passionately opposed to what he felt was mankind's hubris in attempting to build a paradise on Earth-an act that he felt was symbolized by the Crystal Palace (Britain's exhibit in the World's Fair). Dostoevsky believed that creating a utopian society involved the type of deliberate human sacrifice and moral realignment performed by Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky's fears appear to have been born out in the Soviet experience, in which the entire apparatus of government from the leaders of the nation to the lowest commissars slaughtered millions of Russian citizens in the name of socialism and progress.