There are certain characters in the canon of Western literature that are instantly recognizable by mention of their surname. The names of Crusoe, Nemo, Copperfield, Ahab, Sawyer—all evoke the setting and aura that their respective authors intended for them. But if Ahab evokes a whale, and Sawyer a picket fence, what in the world does the name Raskolnikov bring to mind?
The protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov conjures up a cacophony of paranoia, guilt conceit, and—to some extent—redemption. Rodion Raskolnikov is a student, who in an act of sheer will-to-power, murders an elderly moneylender (sorry for the mild spoiler, but it doesn’t take long to get to the murder). Raskolnikov rationalizes his action as moral because he considers himself of greater worth than the old woman he killed.
It is from this point that an investigation ensues—but rather than a mere detective story, Dostoevsky in his psychological brilliance gives us an investigation into the mind of the criminal. Only Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” comes close to portraying the pangs of conscience as well as is done with Raskolnikov.
On many levels Raskolnikov is in denial. He is poor–just as poor as the poor people he encounters on the streets of St. Petersburg. However, in Raskolnikov’s mind he is better than them because he is a “student”—a sentiment not lost on many a college student today. As his walls of self-denial crumble, so too do the walls of association with others much different from himself.
Dissertation upon dissertation (in the areas of psychology, philosophy, and literature) could be written of Crime and Punishment, yet it remains as Dostoevsky’s most readable works. There’s scarcely a dull section—which is a lot to say for a nineteenth century Russian novel.
The haunting of Crime and Punishment comes when one juxtaposes oneself with murderous Raskolnikov. The way Dostoevsky writes him makes readers wonder just how far removed they are from becoming Raskolnikovs themselves. In a culture where conscience has all but been eradicated, we need to read Crime and Punishment now more than ever.