Why Did Dostoyevsky Write Crime and Punishment?

He had no choice.

Black and white image of Dostoyevsky sitting with clasped hands with illustrated white cage over his head on red background
Illustration by Gabriela Pesqueira. Source: Universal History Archive / Getty

Jesus meets Dostoyevsky. He takes one look at him, peers for a diagnostic instant into those tunnels-of-torment eyes, and performs an immediate exorcism. Brisk and bouncerly, no fuss, in the Jesus style: Party’s over, little devil. Out you go. A slight buzzing sound, and it’s done. And Dostoyevsky, with the infernal reveler ejected, is relieved that second of his hemorrhoids, his gambling habit, his seizures, his fevers, his depression, his hypochondria, his appalling futuristic intuitions and obsessions. He is freed from the cell of his own skull. And he writes no more books, ever.

The Sinner and the Saint, Kevin Birmingham’s inspired account of the genesis—philosophical and neurological—of Crime and Punishment, will leave you of two minds about Dostoyevsky, rather as the great Russian was of (at least) two minds about himself. On the one hand, you’ll be in awe of his writerly stamina, his dedication to the depths of experience, his artistic fidelity, his fragility/durability, his unprotected imagination, and so on. On the other, you’ll be wondering if a good chunk of Crime and Punishment—a baggy, sweaty book; a sprawl, a trial, as even its admirers will concede—might not be pure pathology.

You can scarcely call it a plot: The entirety of Crime and Punishment turns on one minute of violence. Raskolnikov, a haughty and penniless student flitting about the slums of St. Petersburg, brutally murders a nasty old lady—a pawnbroker—and her blameless, just-happened-to-be-there sister. Why does he do it? Why does he lift the ax? Not for money, not for kicks, and not for passion either, unless it be the cold passion of ideas, because Raskolnikov—in addition to being functionally insane—is kind of a philosopher: He ruminates upon the value (or not) of a single human life; the fallibility of criminals; and the power of an act, a decisive stroke, to transform reality. His disconnection from society, and from the matrix of human goodness, is complete. He’s a troll, a lone wolf. In other words, to quote Iggy Pop, he’s just a modern guy. He presents like a derelict out of Beckett; he prowls his own consciousness like someone from Kafka; he mutters to himself like Travis Bickle.

“To see only the cruel covering under which the universe languishes,” wrote Dostoyevsky, pre–Crime and Punishment, in a letter to his brother Mikhail, “to know that a single explosion of will is enough to smash it and merge with eternity, to know and be like the last creature … is awful!” But was he the last creature, or one of the first of a new age?

His biography is a sequence of events for which only the adjective Dostoyevskian will really do. The Geist seems to pursue him; the Hegelian world-spirit seems to have a cruel, experimental interest in him. His mother dies of tuberculosis when he is 15. Two years later, his father perishes mysteriously, probably murdered by restive serfs. Eking out a literary career in smelly St. Petersburg, the young Dostoyevsky falls into debt and personal squalor. Also into reformist politics, which are bubbling up all over ancien-régime Russia: secret meetings, ardent manifestos. In 1849 he is arrested in a sweep by the Czarist intelligence services and arraigned for sedition, conspiracy, the works. Hauled before a firing squad on the Semenovsky Parade Ground, in front of a large crowd, Dostoyevsky and his fellow freethinkers are theatrically reprieved (drumrolls, horsemen) by a last-minute gesture from Czar Nicholas I himself. With despotic generosity, with fierce absurdity, their sentence is commuted. Not death but exile: Siberia. Dostoyevsky does four years of hard labor in the Omsk prison camp, and another five as a soldier in the Siberian army.

And then, at age 38, he comes back to St. Petersburg. Birmingham is superb, in The Sinner and the Saint, on the intellectual environment, the vibrational stew, that greets him there. Nihilism, egoism, materialism … The human is being reconceived. A physiologist publishes an influential book called Reflexes of the Brain. Based on his experiments with a number of unfortunate frogs, he is prepared to say that mental activity is all reflexes. “Animation, passion, mockery, sorrow, joy, etc., are merely results of a greater or lesser contraction of definite groups of muscles.” Dostoyevsky sees where this is all going: the individual, trapped in his head, at the mercy of his neurons.

Meanwhile his own brain continues to give him seizures—temporal lobe epilepsy, what Dostoyevsky calls his “falling sickness.” And there’s something else. He’s been reading about the murder trial, in France, of a man named Pierre-François Lacenaire. Lacenaire is smooth, dandyish, unrepentant; he reads Rousseau; he writes poetry. He is a florid sociopath, a new kind of man. When they put him in the guillotine, he twists his torso around so he can watch the blade come down. Dostoyevsky publishes a 50-page essay, translated from the French, about Lacenaire—“a remarkable personality”—in his literary journal Vremya. Murder trials, he writes in an introductory note, are “more exciting than all possible novels because they light up the dark sides of the human soul that art does not like to approach.”

All of this, chaotically, courageously, goes into Crime and Punishment, which Dostoyevsky begins in September 1865 while half-starved and sleepless in a hotel in Wiesbaden, having lost all his money at the roulette table. It’s a novel of warrenlike buildings, sooty doors, small rooms that smell of mice and leather. Hallucinations nibble at the edge of reality. Drunken degenerates say limpid and beautiful things. Interior monologues become audible. Above all it’s a novel of subjectivity: the oppression of it, the turgid wrangle of it, the screaming loneliness of it. “Completely unneeded and unexpected details must leap out at every moment in the middle of the story,” wrote Dostoyevsky in his notebook. Raskolnikov’s motives, his redemption or lack thereof, the twists and turns of the plot—red herrings, in the end. Crime and Punishment is about your brain, your poor brain, being the seat of modern consciousness. It’s about how that actually, really, feels.

“What is Hell?” Father Zosima asks in The Brothers Karamazov. “I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” Seeking deliverance from terminal you-ness, from utter cranial confinement, you can either get your head chopped off like Lacenaire or abandon yourself to love—as Raskolnikov does in the not-very-convincing epilogue to Crime and Punishment. The love of his wife, Sonya, reaches him at last, redeems him, and his mind is transformed: “Now he was not deciding anything consciously; he was only feeling. Instead of the dialectic, life itself had arrived, and in his consciousness something altogether different had to be worked out.” As is generally the case with Dostoyevsky, Jesus is in here somewhere—smiling, cryptic. Raskolnikov has the Gospels under his pillow, and he remembers how Sonya once read him the story of Lazarus. Love, you lunatic. Love, and be raised from the death-state.

And if you don’t? In that same epilogue, Raskolnikov, lying in a Siberian prison hospital, has a fever dream: He sees a great plague coming “out of the depths of Asia.” But wait—it’s a mental plague. “People who were affected immediately became possessed and insane. But never, never did these people consider themselves so intelligent and so infallible about the truth as when they were infected.” Individualism has reached its apex; the atomization is total. “Everyone was anxious, no one understood anyone else, each one thought that truth resided in him alone and, regarding all the others, suffered, beat his chest, wept, and wrung his hands.”

This article appears in the November 2021 print edition with the headline “Why Did Dostoyevsky Write Crime and Punishment?