Reading the great Russian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries can feel like being slapped in the face. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for one, repeatedly smacks his readers with astonishing prophecies of ideological terror and social insanity.

Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student and the protagonist of Crime and Punishment (1866), divides human beings into two categories: the ordinary many and the extraordinary few, who have the right to “step over blood” in the pursuit of “the New Jerusalem.” Raskolnikov’s argument rationalizes his own violent crimes in a way that eerily anticipates the exponentially greater ones of the Soviet Union more than half a century later. Not for nothing was Dostoyevsky banned under the Soviets.

Over six Sunday sessions, fellows will closely study Dostoyevsky’s first great novel, written after his return from ten years of exile in Siberia.

Image: Mykola Yaroshenko, The Prisoner (1878)

Jacob Howland on reading in the modern world

Faculty

Jacob Howland

Jacob Howland is Chief Academic Officer and Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX. His research focuses on ancient Greek philosophy, history, epic, and tragedy; the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud; Kierkegaard; and literary and philosophical responses to the Holocaust and Soviet totalitarianism.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

  • Foreword (vii–xvii)
  • Translator’s Note (see especially the etymologies of the names Raskolnikov and Razumikhin on p. xx)
  • Part One (pp. 3–86)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the moral and physical conditions of life in St. Petersburg, both in general and for Raskolnikov? Do these conditions help to explain his mental state? How does laughter figure into Dostoevsky’s picture of urban existence? What kind of laughter is prevalent?
  2. Does Marmeladov’s story reflect Raskolnikov’s situation? Are his references to Scripture significant? Does the family’s response to poverty and moral squalor echo elements of Raskolnikov’s psychology? Why does he give them money and then regret it (cf. 46–50)?
  3. Why does Raskolnikov’s mother write to him? Does her letter have unstated (perhaps even unconscious) aims? Why does her news upset Raskolnikov, and what does his response say about him? How different is he from Dunya, or Sonya?
  4. What is the meaning of Raskolnikov’s dream? How is his psychological state reflected in its characters and events? Is the religious setting significant? Should we identify Raskolnikov with the boy? His father? Mikolka? The laughing peasants? The horse?
  5. Why does Raskolnikov commit murder? Consider the possible roles of fate, chance, moral “arithmetic” (cf. 62–66), altruism, egocentrism, mental breakdown: do any or all of these influences suffice to explain the murder? If not, what is its ultimate ground?

Readings:

  • Part Two (pp. 89–193)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Raskolnikov suffer in the days after the murder? Is he no longer “a human being” (cf. 129)? How does the comedy at the police station underscore his alienation? What light does Dostoevsky shed on writing (including his own) in this scene?
  2. How does Raskolnikov’s dream about Lt. Gunpowder and the landlady reveal his internal struggle? Dreams in this book are highly significant, perhaps more so than wakeful, conscious thoughts. What are the implications of this fact for self-knowledge?
  3. Why is Raskolnikov drawn to Razumikhin? What sort of man is he (cf. 51–52)? How does he differ from Raskolnikov? Do the two versions of his name illuminate Dostoevsky’s understanding of reason? Does his character have philosophical or Biblical precedents?
  4. What sort of man is Luzhin? What does his conversation with Razumikhin reveal about his character, his “progressive” ideas, and their appeal to a man like him? How does the scene function as a deep critique of progressive ideology, both then and now?
  5. Why does Raskolnikov leap to Marmeladov’s aid? How does Katerina Ivanovna deal with the misery of her life? Does Raskolnikov resemble her in any way? Why is he filled with new hope, even with “something like happiness,” after helping her family?

Readings:

  • Part Three (pp. 197–278)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Razumikhin respond to Dunya and her mother, and vice-versa? Why do they all feel so strongly? He says that lying (or “erring”) is man’s unique privilege, and leads to “the truth.” How so? What kind of truth? Does he possess—or exemplify—this truth?
  2. Raskolnikov says of Dunya and his mother “They love, and it comes out like hate… Oh, how I … hate them all!” Why is their love hateful to him? How are love and hate related in his psychology? Is he unable to love as well as to receive love? Is Dunya (cf. 216)?
  3. What does Raskolnikov say about crime in his article? How does he differ from the socialists? Can his argument withstand critical scrutiny? How might one refute his theory? What is at stake in this debate at Porfiry’s, both in general and for Raskolnikov?
  4. What is the significance of Raskolnikov’s dream at the end of Part Three? Why does he have this dream now? Is it connected with the discussion at Porfiry’s and his subsequent reflections on the murder?

Readings:

  • Part Four (pp. 281–358)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What kind of man is Svidrigailov? Why is he interested in Raskolnikov? Why is he haunted by Marfa Petrovna’s ghost, and what does his haunting presence mean to Raskolnikov? What does Raskolnikov stand to learn from him?
  2. What does money mean to Luzhin, Svidrigailov, and Raskolnikov? How do they use or abuse it? What is revealed about the moral character of Dunya, Raskolnikov, and Pulcheria through their interactions with Luzhin?
  3. What draws Raskolnikov to Sonya? How does she compare to Razumikhin, to whom he was also mysteriously drawn (and from whom he has just parted, as if for good)? How does her faith manifest itself in speech and deed? Why is Raskolnikov so cruel to her?
  4. How well does Porfiry understand Raskolnikov? Does he inwardly resemble him? Why does he speak of “people of the neuter kind, like us”? Porfiry is “old” at 35, and somehow “womanish” (cf. 250): is his indeterminacy a sign of wholeness, or even wisdom?
  5. We learn in Part Two that Razumikhin is translating a book called Is Woman a Human Being? How does the situation of women in Crime and Punishment differ from that of men? Does the way Raskolnikov treats women resemble that of Luzhin or Svidrigailov?

Readings:

  • Part Five (pp. 361–436)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What progressive ideas does Lebezyatnikov promote in conversation with Luzhin? What light does this conversation shed on these ideas? Luzhin previously endorsed some of these ideas; why does he mock them now? Why does he hate, or fear, Lebezyatnikov?
  2. Why is the memorial meal so important to Katerina? What qualities or tendencies stand out in her words and deeds at this meal? Why does Dostoevsky portray this event so comically? Is comedy somehow essential to our understanding of tragic realities?
  3. How does the public exposure of Luzhin’s vileness reveal the characters of all involved, as well as the status of justice and truth in Russian society? What realization about Sonya’s situation is brought home to her—and to the reader—by Luzhin’s actions?
  4. Why does Raskolnikov confess to Sonya now? How does he lie to himself and Sonya about the murder? Does he nevertheless achieve some self-knowledge? Is the moment of confession, and Sonya’s compassionate reception of the news, religiously significant?
  5. Why does Dostoevsky juxtapose Raskolnikov’s distress with the pathos of Katerina’s insanity and death? How does the scene on the street reflect the moral conditions of life in Petersburg? What is the purpose of Svidrigailov’s “philanthropizing”?

Readings:

  • Part Six and Epilogue (pp. 439–551)

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Porfiry’s final meeting with Raskolnikov reverse the normal denouement of a detective novel? How well does he understand Raskolnikov? What wisdom does he share with him? How does the story of the raskolnik Mikolka compare to Raskolnikov’s?
  2. What position does Svidrigailov put Dunya in during their final encounter? What does Dunya’s refusal mean to Svidrigailov? How does this scene’s physical setting (including the familiar motif of locked doors) amplify its psychological and spiritual power?
  3. How do Svidrigailov’s final dreams shed light on his moral condition and predicament? How are the images that appear in these dreams significant? Are there any revealing resonances with Raskolnikov’s dreams?
  4. Why does Svidrigailov commit suicide? What keeps Raskolnikov from following in his footsteps?
  5. What is the meaning of Raskolnikov’s dream? Does it seem prophetic today? How does the dream prepare for, and expand the meaning of, his conversion? How do the details of the conversion scene endow the moment with broad historical and religious meaning?

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