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    If there is no God, everything is permitted.
            -Ivan Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Like James Joyce's Ulysses (see review), this is a novel that has been so influential on other writers that ultimately its status as a masterpiece is independent of the actual quality of the text.  That said, the novel is so seriously flawed in terms of both tone and message that it calls into question whether this is truly a good book and whether Dostoevsky is a great novelist or merely an influential polemicist.

The first fatal flaw is the fevered pitch of the narration.  Every single word of the novel is conveyed in a breathless, near hysterical manner.  None of the characters ever seems to have to do any work; instead, they sit around picking at psychological scabs and obsessing over the moral implications of their every action.  I have seen Dostoevsky referred to as an Existentialist and this characteristic is symptomatic of that philosophy.  After all, if there are no moral absolutes to guide your actions and decide moral dilemmas, then such questions do become insoluble and are likely to become obsessive concerns.  But for the reader, this constant frantic pitch becomes pretty tiring after 500 pages.  Not to mention the fact that if you don't accept the Existential presumption, all of that dithering over cut and dried moral questions seems truly bizarre.  Who would adopt a philosophy that forces you to live life this way?

The second problem is also a function of Existentialism.  The Existential philosophers (Kierkegaard, Camus, etc.) blithely set about disposing of God on the assumption that postGod man will be as concerned as they are with constructing a new basis for morality.  They also mistakenly assume that it is possible to create such a foundation for morality in the absence of the idea of God and the premise of the absolute.  Thus, Raskolnikov posits the following individualistic morality:

    Porfiry Petrovitch:   ... it was not that part of your article that interested me so much, but an idea at
    the end of the article which I regret to say you merely suggested without working it out clearly.
    There is, if you recollect, a suggestion that there are certain persons who can... that is, not precisely
    are able to, but have a perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes, and that the law is
    not for them."

    Raskolnikov smiled at the exaggerated and intentional distortion of his idea.

    "What? What do you mean? A right to crime? But not because of the influence of environment?"
    Razumihin inquired with some alarm even.  "No, not exactly because of it," answered Porfiry. "In
    his article all men are divided into 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary.' Ordinary men have to live in
    submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don't you see, they are ordinary. But
    extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way,  just
    because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?"

    "What do you mean? That can't be right?" Razumihin muttered in bewilderment.

    Raskolnikov smiled again. He saw the point at once, and knew where they wanted to drive him. He
    decided to take up the challenge.  "That wasn't quite my contention," he began simply and
    modestly.

    "Yet I admit that you have stated it almost correctly; perhaps, if you like, perfectly so." (It almost
    gave him pleasure to admit this.) "The only difference is that I don't contend that extraordinary
    people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such
    an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an 'extraordinary' man has the right... that is
    not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep... certain
    obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes,
    perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity). You say that my article isn't definite; I am ready to
    make it as clear as I can. Perhaps I am right in thinking you want me to; very well. I maintain that
    if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the
    lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed
    have been in duty bound... to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his
    discoveries known to the whole of humanity. But it does not follow from that that Newton had a
    right to murder people right and left and to steal every day in the market. Then, I remember, I
    maintain in my article that all... well, legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon,
    Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that,
    making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held
    sacred by the people, and they did not stop short at bloodshed either, if that bloodshed- often of
    innocent persons fighting bravely in defence of ancient law- were of use to their cause. It's
    remarkable, in fact, that the majority, indeed, of these benefactors and leaders of humanity were
    guilty of terrible carnage.  In short, I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the
    common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals-
    more or less, of course.  Otherwise it's hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain
    in the common rut is what they can't submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they
    ought not, indeed, to submit to it. You see that there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same
    thing has been printed and read a thousand times before. As for my division of people into ordinary
    and extraordinary, I acknowledge that it's somewhat arbitrary, but I don't insist upon exact
    numbers. I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into
    two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind,
    and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. There are, of course, innumerable
    sub-divisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are fairly well marked. The first
    category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under
    control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that's their
    vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law;
    they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these
    men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the
    destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his
    idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his
    conscience, a sanction for wading through blood- that depends on the idea and its dimensions, note
    that. It's only in that sense I speak of their right to crime in my article (you remember it began with
    the legal question). There's no need for such anxiety, however; the masses will scarcely ever admit
    this right, they punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfil quite justly their
    conservative vocation. But the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation
    and worship them (more or less). The first category is always the man of the present, the second
    the man of the future. The first preserve the world and people it, the second move the world and
    lead it to its goal. Each class has an equal right to exist. In fact, all have equal rights with me- and
    vive la guerre eternelle-till the New Jerusalem, of course!"

Now this philosophy raises a host of problems, we'll just mention a few.  The first is, who is to say that Raskolnikov is wrong?  What, absent an absolute moral standard derived from God, makes one person's moral whims right or wrong?   Second, one supposes that Dostoevsky does not subscribe to this philosophy, but it is presented in full and is powerfully argued.  Even Raskolnikov's guilt and self torment only prove that he is not one of the ubermen, not that the philosophy itself is wrong for such beings.  There is, of course, the brief epilogue where Raskolnikov seems to be redeemed by the love of and the Christian example set by Sonia, but it comes as an afterthought and as the author says, "That might be the subject of a new story...".  He was clearly more interested in the ramifications of the new philosophy and so it is treated as the serious idea worthy of exploration, despite its obvious malignancy and disastrous results.  And this is often, perhaps inevitably, the case with the Existentialists--their arguments against God are more powerful than, and thus overwhelm, their attempts to erect new moral structures in his place.

There can be no doubt that this is an important novel, one that every culturally literate person should read.  But an honest assessment requires the acknowledgment that it is seriously flawed as to both premise and execution.  I recommend it, but can't imagine anyone actually enjoying it very much.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C)

  

Websites:

See also:

Fyodor Dostoevsky (2 books reviewed)
Classics
Russian Literature
Fyodor Dostoevsky Links:

    -Fyodor (Mikhaylovich) Dostoevsky (1821-1881) (kirjasto)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wes Marlan, FyodorDostoevsky.com )
    -FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY (1821-1881) (Guardian)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 - 1881) (little blue light)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 - 1881) (the Internet Public Library Online Literary Criticism Collection)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wikipedia)
    -CARICATURE: Fyodor Dostoevsky (David Levine, NY Review of Books)
    -International Dostoevsky Society
    -ETEXT: Notes from the Underground
    -ETEXT: Crime and Punishment
    -ETEXTS: Works by Fyodor Dostoevsky (CCEL)
    -ESSAY: A God-Possessed Man: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) (Malcolm Muggeridge, A Third Testament)
    -ESSAY: Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake (Ralph C. Wood, December 2002, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Kant's Aesthetics in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (David A. Goldfarb, Mid-Atlantic Slavic Conference)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky's nihilism (RAVI VYAS, 9/02/01, The Hindu)
    -ESSAY: Awakening from Nihilism: The Templeton Prize Address (Michael Novak, August/September 1994, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Tragic and Comic Visions in the Brothers Karamazov (Joyce Carol Oates)
    -Christiaan Stange's DOSTOEVSKY RESEARCH STATION
    -ESSAY: Fyodor Dostoevsky (Katharena Eiermann, Realm of Existentialism)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Notes from Underground (Spark Notes)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Middlebury's Notes from the Underground Study Guide (Jen Marder, Mike Meyer, and Fred Wyshak)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Study Guide for Notes from the Underground (Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Dostoevsky: Notes from the Underground (Professor George Mitrevski, Department of Foreign Languages at Auburn University)
    -LECTURE: Lecture on Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (Dr. Gary R. Jahn)
    -Researching The Brothers Karamazov (Dartmouth College)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Middlebury's Brother Karamzov Study Guide
    -ARCHIVES: dostoevsky (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (Allen Barra, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (Peter Heinegg, America)
    -REVIEW: of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by David McDuff (A.S. Byatt, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky, The Miraculous Years 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank (A S Byatt, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky. By René Girard. Translated by James G. Williams (Andrew J. McKenna, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of DOSTOEVSKY: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 By Joseph Frank (MICHAEL SCAMMELL, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-81 by Joseph Frank (Michael Wood, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank (J.M. Coetzee, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear, and translated by Larissa Volokhonsky (John Bayley, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 by Joseph Frank (V.S. Pritchett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 by Joseph Frank (V.S. Pritchett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: V.S. Pritchett: The Dostoevsky Labyrinth (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: Reminiscences by Anna Dostoevsky, translated and edited by Beatrice Stillman, and with an introduction by Helen Muchnic (V. S. Pritchett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: John Bayley: Idealism and Its Critic (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of An Existentialist Ethics by Hazel E. Barnes (Philippa Foot, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor M. Dostoevsky,  Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction by Edward Wasiolek (Helen Muchnic, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky's Occasional Writings selected, translated, and introduced by David Magarshack (Helen Muchnic, NY Review of Books)

FILM:
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (IMDB.com)
    -FILM SITE: Notes from Underground (directed by Gary Walkow)

Book-related and General Links:

Comments:

Orrin, I enjoy your reviews, but I can't help but think you've misread Dostoevsky here. Firstly, as a novel it certainly "works", whatever one thinks of Dostoevsky's execution (he wrote at a feverish pace), hence the novel's well deserved reputation. Admittedly, the conclusion is rather half-baked, and Dostoevsky admitted as much, acknowledging that it was much more difficult artistically to portray good than it was to portray evil. But behind the novel what is is intended to be a critique of moral relativism. In this sense it is very much a prophetic novel.Perhaps, to fully undertand this novel it needs to be read as part of Dostoevsky's total ouvre. Have you read Steiner?

- Mark

- Sep-18-2006, 07:47

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Go to hell Orin!! SOmeone once said, "we can't explain dostoevsky's novels, these novels explain us." That being said, and after having read some of your other reviews and though it is probably not worth wasting my breath with a reviewer so obviously retarded, your brief analysis is completely off base. Even more laughable is your claim that he was an existentialist. Dostoevsky was a madman perhaps (he suffered from epilepsy) but he was no existentialist. Rather, all four of his great novel-tragedies (five if you include the adolescent) demonstrate his profound conservatism. in short, you sir, are most certainly an idiot.

- Jasper

- Aug-16-2006, 22:39

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Yeah; I have read a few of your reviews, and I was just wondering if you two dumb suns-of-bitches (a lineage of which I am quite sure) have any education beyond a G.E.D.! With the remotest of sincerity, Bob

- Bob

- Jun-03-2006, 00:39

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When reading Crime and Punishment, or any of Dostoevsky's works, the translation makes a great difference. I have put down a copy of Crime and Punishment and The Possessed because the translation was bland. I finished reading my copy of The Possessed that was falling apart at the seams rather than the one I bought to replace it. Kierkegaard had a deep faith in God, it was organized religion that he objected to. Hence, "the individual". At the time he believed that Christians were merely going through the motions because they were born into it. He made his "Leap of Faith" remark to explain miracles. When things occur outside the laws of science. Nietzsche said that he learned all he needed to about psychology from Dostoevsky. He did not declare God is dead from his personal experience, he really said that God was dead because the people have killed (him). It was an observation he made from the times he lived in and advances in science leaving less to superstition. Existentialism is about taking responsiblilty for your life rather than believing some things are "meant to be". Raskolnikov was hardly the superman. He was an anti social-narcissist. See DSMR-IV. He was also a train wreck. Personally I love it when Dostoevsky's characters are "in a fever". Psychological realism at it's best.

- JA

- May-28-2006, 05:08

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Hearing the majority of these comments have given me a greater faith in people in general, This review just doesn't do this work justice, he of course is entitled to his opinion ( as are people who agree who him)

- Kevin

- Apr-30-2006, 21:13

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Also, the quotation about "If God doesn't exist..." also never appears in Dostoyevsky - one of those famous lines that comes from who knows where.

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/features/2000/cortesi1.html

- Dan

- Apr-16-2006, 00:51

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I disagree with most of your criticisms on this one.

I don't find the fevered narration unbelievable or hard-to-read: Raskolnikov's under the influence of somekind of mental imbalance, and I think the dialogue is quite believable coming from an obsessive character. (I bet it was actually much like Dostoyevsky's own thought processes, as he apparently dictated alot of his work as he paced the room in a feverish sort of concentration.)

As for the "superman" argument, I think the whole book, and not just the epilogue, refutes the reasoning by showing, dramatically, what the idea does to one who takes it on, believes in it and acts on it. Whatever logic there is to it (and I don't think there is much, but I won't get into it) the seperation and contempt for others and your own nature that this idea entails kills you spiritually.

Like Ivan's argument against god in Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky works out the psychological implications adopting ideas that may fit modern ideologies, but destroy the soul.

- Dan

- Apr-16-2006, 00:47

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Worst book review ever (excepting, of course, most of the other reviews on your site).

- jav

- Mar-01-2006, 13:36

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I read the book in three 8 hour shifts while constantly being interupted by truck drivers. I am a security guard but I found many aspects of the book delightful especialy that even though the time, place and situation is different than NJ, USA 2004 the sociological/psychological aspects remain the same. The book is a little beffudling as if Dostoevsky wanted his readers to experience inner conflict and a dissociative state of mind. I felt a stong connection between this and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand where issues of the state, the individual and society are delt with to form a moral discovery. The conditions and ideals are well thought out in a subjective sense and really explore the human condition especially in the case where people explore meaning and existense instead of robotically sumbit to pleasures, vices, and blind daily toils. As for many people responses to the morality presented in Raskolnikov's arguments, well as in The Prince by Machiavelli the observation of man and the tendancies of great leaders are often very oppsite to those morals presented by religious decorum. Raskolnikov was an obvious failure as a "great" leader and realized this and went back to the comforts of love and religion just like in 1984 by George Orwell where we can all love "Big Brother" in the end.

- Jon

- Dec-13-2004, 05:16

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Of course, I agree. I've read it twice. Have to try the new translation. Constance Garnett don't get it done.

- oj

- May-12-2004, 17:50

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I have to agree with tim from 10/23/03. I enjoy reading your reviews even though I frequently disagree with some or all of your lines of critique (unlike a number of the posters, represented well on this page, who seem to be irrationally offended by the whole idea that anyone would write or think something with which he or she disagrees). In this case I think that a fair and thoughtful assessment of the literature has been hampered by your understandable contempt for the character of Raskolnikov thoughout all but a few pages of the book. The novel is fascinating for its (pre-Neitzsche) exploration of the notion that a man can strive to act beyond good and evil, while depicting both the societal collapse that gave birth to such a notion and the individual misery suffered by the man who engages in such hubris. You rightly point out that the coda in which Raskolnikov turns to Christian faith for salvation doesn't appear to inspire Deostoevsky nearly as much as squelching in the muck of amorality. However, the misery with which Raskolnikov's story is told coupled with his encounter with grace at the end mitigates substantially against your suggestion that the author endorsed the existential philosophy of which the character of Raskolnikov was one of the earliest symbols. Wouldn't you agree that for philosophical polemic, the novel is much more William Blake (hero changed through experience by grace) than Ayn Rand (hero was right all along, despite everybody else)? In any event, I think you would agree that as a non-epistolary Russian novel exploring ideas that still provoked American scholars and vulgarians over 100 years later, this is a rather important work of Western literature---long and overbearing as it is.

- jrm

- May-12-2004, 16:39

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K.A, you sound like an idiot.

- Camilo Diaz Pino

- Apr-23-2004, 11:43

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Crime and Punishment is one of the most depressing books I have evet read. It took me six long months to slog through because I could only stand to read about three pages a day (at work during my lunch break), and that's after TWENTY YEARS of attempting to get into it. I don't care what the messages are within the covers...because it was dull as dirt; it was agony to get through. I could never recommend this to anyone. Period.

- K.A.

- Feb-13-2004, 07:42

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I think all these people are pretty silly writing these nasty comments! Does it really make sense to attack someone's opinion, especially of something so trivial? Anyway, I think Crime and Punishment is a book with countless messages and a persons interpretation of this novel speaks a lot about them.

- does it really matter?

- Nov-12-2003, 17:36

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The whole point of the book is to show how dangerous and suicidal Raskolnikov's philosophy is. Dostoevsky explores it to the extreme because that's what is necessary to create a legitimate argument (and to write a decent novel for that matter). When he decides that his philosophy is wrong and decides it is because he is not one of the "ubermen", Raskolnikov is trying to find any possible way to hang on to his awful philosophy. And look where it gets him. The whole just keeps getting deeper and deeper. And at the end he finds religious redemption. There aren't many intellegent books more blatantly Christian than this one. I don't understand your interpretation.

- tim

- Oct-29-2003, 11:39

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How can you say Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky (two extremely devout Christians) set out to destroy God? Have you read this book?

- ar

- Oct-08-2003, 10:31

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Why would anyone put such tripe into the public domain? This reviewer is a moron who knows nothing about literature and has clearly barely skimmed through Crime and Punishment. A review where there is more quoted text than the reviewer's words is a product of lazy incompetence. This is my first visit to this site and the last. Everyone else who reads anything by this reviewer is going to do the same thing. My advice is to get ride of him pronto.

- kbc

- Sep-09-2003, 16:35

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This review has failed to say anything remotely useful. "brothersjudd delenda est" if this is the type of ignorence that you fools are going to publish. You show no knowledge of Dostoevsky, of existentialism (esp. Kierkegaard), of the purpose of the novel, of how to critically interpret anything. You should punch yourself in the face.

- arebomb

- May-28-2003, 03:41

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"But an honest assessment requires the acknowledgment that it is seriously flawed as to both premise and execution."

and precisely who are you to judge? your review was terrible. it addressed the very surface of things, dwelling too long on what deserves transient mention, and omitting completely some of the greatest triumphs of the novel. perhaps a second reading is in order, hm?

-

- May-14-2003, 05:40

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