Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Foreword by Richard Pevear
“I’m convinced that many people in Petersburg talk to themselves as they walk. This is a city of half-crazy people. If we had any science, then physicians, lawyers, and philosophers could do the most valuable research on Petersburg, each in his own field. One seldom finds a place where there are so many gloomy, sharp, and strange influences on the soul of man as in Petersburg. The climatic influences alone are already worth something! And at the same time this is the administrative center of the whole of Russia, and its character must be reflected in everything.”
-Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment is about a natural disaster, a massive, thunderous clash roaring in the skies above, and streets below, the hallowed city of St. Petersburg; it is about the clash between two worlds, the world of Dostoevsky’s inhuman masterpiece the Underground Man and the world of the city of St. Petersburg.
“I even gave up, for a while, stopping by the window of the room to look out at the lights and deep, illuminated streets. That’s a form of dying, that losing contact with the city like that.”
-Philp K. Dick, We Can Build You. Found in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station
St. Petersburg, more commonly known as Petersburg, was an important symbol in Notes from Underground; it was a city that had been completely planned, an utterly unnatural organism, but an organism nonetheless. How such a city lives was, in fact, a wonderment central to the previous book, as central as the man/mouse duality that Underground Man (still one of my favourite characters in all of fiction) talks about in this passage:
if, for example, one takes the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of heightened consciousness, who came, of course, not from the bosom of nature but from a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect that, too), this retort man sometimes folds before his antithesis so far that he honestly regards himself, with all his heightened consciousness, as a mouse and not a man. A highly conscious mouse, perhaps, but a mouse all the same, whereas here we have a man, and consequently . . . and so on . . . And, above all, it is he, he himself, who regards himself as a mouse; no one asks him to; and that is an important point.
One of the central conceits of C&P is basically that these two concerns are in reality one and the same, that the breaching of one of the concerns (the edict againt action) results in a breach of the other (Petersburg).
All my readers, I’m guessing, know – or at least have a vague idea – that the story tells of the murder that a young man called Rodyon Romanovych Raskolnikov commits, and its aftermath.
The book, on the other hand, tells of tensions; tensions between four of the five central characters, tensions born not out of everyday mundanities such as plot but out of ideologies, which one might even without much hesitation call philosophies (and they have been called as such by others, under various names, like nihilism, existentialism and objectivism), tensions so complex that any attempt to recount them will double, maybe even triple, the length of this essay.
The first thing that struck me as I started reading the book was that Raskolnikov was, in fact, Underground Man. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong, but then I couldn’t have been more right either. See, Raskolnikov is the man Underground Man once was, and the book is nothing but the tale of his transformation into that which Underground Man could have been, if only he had acted.
For, truly, if Notes from Underground was along the lines of a tragic morality play in which the central puzzle for the reader was to but name our character, Crime and Punishment is the play which an angry viewer wrote in criticism, yet admiration, of the original writer; in admiration of the vision of the first writer, but in angry, scared, criticism of the fate to which the vision is assigned.
There is so much more I would like to say about this marvellous, but that, as I’ve already mentioned, will exponentially increase the size of this essay. And that is why, dear readers, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment will be the subject of my first blog series, in which spoilers will truly abound, as I discuss each aspect of the story in minute, loving detail. Call it an essay in six parts and an epilogue, with an attached foreword.