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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

    "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.


Grade: (C)


See also:

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

    -Fyodor (Mikhaylovich) Dostoevsky (1821-1881) (kirjasto)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wes Marlan, )
    -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)
    -VIDEO: The Grand Inquisitor - John Gielgud (A rare version 1975 of The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov produced by the Open University.)
-PODCAST: How Dostoevsky’s Exile in Siberia Led to Four of the Greatest Novels in Literature: Kevin Birmingham Guests on the Book Dreams Podcast (Book Dreams, April 14, 2022)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky’s Dangerous Gambit: The divine hiddenness at the core of a masterpiece. (Ryan Kemp, 12/08/23, Hedgehog Review)
    -ESSAY: Why Does God Allow the Innocent to Suffer?: Not all of life’s questions can be answered rationally. Dostoyevsky points to another way. (Peter Wehner, NOVEMBER 3, 2023, Plough)
    -ESSAY: Ivan Karamazov’s Meth Lab: Dostoevsky’s Theology in Breaking Bad (Sophia Belloncle, 10/27/23, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: Notes From the Underground Shines a Light on The Genealogy of Morals (Richard Cocks, 4/01/23, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: The Grand Inquisitor and the Voice of Freedom: Dostoevsky's tale reveals the perennial value of freedom, set against the perverse claims of social engineering. (Mihail Neamtu, 3/03/23, Law & Liberty))
    -ESSAY: Dear Vladimir Putin: If You’ve Read Dostoevsky, You’ve Tragically Misunderstood Him: Austin Ratner on Russian Imperialism and Misreading The Brothers Karamazov (Austin Ratner, 10/20/22, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky and the Pleasure of Taking Offense (Anthony Eagan, June 17, 2022, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: The Master of Petersburg and the Martyr of Style: Dostoevsky and Flaubert should be studied together as progenitors of the modern novel. (John G. Rodden, 11 Feb 2022, American Purpose)
    -ESSAY: Youthful Cynicism and Dostoevsky’s Case for Hope: Why do we choose to believe in a framework where suffering and violence are the most fundamental reality of the world? How can pain and grief coexist with the small joys that we experience daily? (KATERINA LEVINSON, 2/15/22, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky’s 200th Birthday and His Living Legacy (Sainowaki Keiko, 1/24/22, Nippon)
    -ESSAY: Encountering the Spirit of Revolutionary Negation: Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons continues to illuminate a path forward amidst our debilitating contemporary crisis. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 1/03/22, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: The Grand Inquisitor: On Dostoyevsky’s immersive polyphony and neologisms (JULIA KRISTEVA, 1/03/22, BookForum)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky at 200: An Idea of Evil: Radical yet reactionary, the Russian literary giant remains a bundle of paradoxes. (CATHY YOUNG, DECEMBER 31, 2021, The Bulwark)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky’s Favorite Murder: The author of “Crime and Punishment” had a love-hate relationship with the true-crime obsessions of his era. (Jennifer Wilson/December 28, 2021, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Crime, Punishment, and Columbo (Thomas Hibbs, December 22, 2021, Pundicity)
    -PODCAST: Kevin Birmingham on How Dostoevsky Came to Write Crime and Punishment: In Conversation with Andrew Keen on Keen On (Keen On, November 18, 2021)
    -ESSAY: 5 books Dostoevsky considered masterpieces (VALERIA PAIKOVA, 4/09/21, Russia Beyobd)
    -ESSAY: Fyodor Dostoevsky: philosopher of freedom (Gary Saul Morson, January 2021, New Criterion)
    -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)
    -ESSAY: Encountering Dostoevsky (Jessica Hooten Wilson, 2/20/20, Law & Liberty)
    -INTRODUCTION: Dostoyevsky Stricken: A God-possessed man reacts to suffering. : From the foreword to The Gospel in Dostoyevsky: Selections from His Works (Malcolm Muggeridge, Plough)
    -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
-ESSAY: Of Course True Crime Fans Are Guilty: For Fyodor Dostoevsky, that was the point (KEVIN BIRMINGHAM, NOV 24, 2021, Slate)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Eyes of Another: Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, ‘Crime and Punishment,’ offers a radical reinterpretation of guilt and redemption. (Marilyn Simon, 31 Jan 2023, Quillette)
-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)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Encountering Dostoevsky (jessica hooten wilson, 2/20/20, Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears by László F. Földényi (James Wood, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW of The Idiot (Clancy Martin, Book Forum)
    -REVIEW: of Lectures on Dostoesvky | Joseph Frank (Heidi White, Forma)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life By Alex Christofi (Donald Rayfield, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky in Love (Albert Wald, University Bookman)
-REVIEW: of The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece by Kevin Birmingham (David Stromberg, American Scholar)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Ian Thomson, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Maureen Corrigan, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of The Sinner and The saint (Jennifer Wilson, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Jake Bittle, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Christopher Sandford, Hedgehog Review)
-REVIEW ESSAY: A Spouse Divided: Two new biographies delve into Dostoyevsky’s relationship with his long-suffering wife (REBECCA PANOVKA, 12/17/21, BookForum)

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

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