Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

Book Review: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

Arshia Shoaib Khawaja

Crime and Punishment was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1866 and is set in Tzarist Russia against the background of Marxist political uprisings and movements. The author himself was an anarco-socialist and a supporter of Marxist revolutionary ideals which also reflected in the themes of many of his books such as classical capitalism, class antagonism, decrepit living conditions, religious exploitation and one of the most celebrated works by the author reflects upon the philosophy of justice, worldly retribution and the oppressive nature of laws, of which crime and punishment is a simplistic yet intense embodiment of.

Crime and Punishment is a cause and effect relationship in legalism and legal theory. Much ink has been spilt by many jurists who have carved a niche of their own whilst dwelling upon the notions of crime and punishment setting forth new concepts against the various timelines and sociopolitical factors. One of the theories expounded and uniquely explained by the author is the theory of utilitarianism and retribution which is now both recognized as a political and legal theory post the publication of this work. Indeed, utilitarianism has been the premise of not only the Bolshevik Revolution but also the Maoist and Stalinist schools of thought and regimes. It was after this work that the concept of utilitarian killings was introduced in revolutionary political philosophy and theory.

The story depicting how a young law student is compelled to murder a Jewish money lender out of abject poverty who upon her death had intended to leave all her money to a monastery. In one of the powerful, delirious musings of Rodion Raskolnikov, the author critiques the charitable notions of the bourgeoisie which has also been called as Bourgeoisie Socialism in Marxist theory; he dynamically explains how such acts of charity reinforce capitalist structures, religion being a highly influential capitalist institution and do little to help those in need rather are just a means of reinforcing and reproducing capitalist ideals. He then yearns to distribute the wealth of the old woman amongst the proliterate especially the youth, many of whom just like him are reduced to severe penury because of capitalist state and societal institutions. However, he is unsuccessful to do so since he is incapable of breaking himself free from the structural and systemic fetters that are placed on the subjects of all capitalist states, considering the act that he has committed as an act of crime rather than a necessary act which it really is.

Utilitarianism is classically defined as the allowance or operation of only those entities which have an existential utility in their functionalities for others around. Utilitarian killings are then those killings that remove social and societal menaces or those individuals who have no social utility and are a nuisance for others around; such killings thereby are not criminal offences rather ought to be a welcome act. Alas, such acts have no place in capitalist and fascist structures as they are wrongfully labelled as crimes that have no place in “civilized” and “modern” state. Laws have always been interpreted as an oppressive tool in Marxist theory whereby they are always employed by the state machinery to oppress, repress and subjugate the actions of the subjects by inculcating in them a fear of punishment or state condoned inhuman treatment to control and restrain them. Thus, such acts of defiance and rebellion are callously and viscously labelled as crimes so as to render them socially unacceptable as they are a direct threat to the pre-established hegemony and draconian order of the bourgeoisie system. Acts of systemic oppression like instigating state condoned genocide of minority ethnic or religious communities, suppression of dissent, extra judicial killings, restriction of student movements and so on are not labelled as crimes, rather are portrayed as a necessity for the maintenance of law and order or in actuality maintaining state oppression in the land – anarchy a crime worse than any imaginable.

It is this institution of justice dispensing that has been heavily criticized and openly rejected by the author who supports and earnestly advocates for the rejection and replacement of this system which is nothing but an onerous pawn for fascism and to hold the real criminals to account who are the leaders of all such oppressive systems.

The author also calls for the redistribution of wealth amongst the masses by depriving the bourgeoisie of it or giving back to the masses what rightfully belongs to them by removing such figureheads of wealth, power and opulence from the society.

Any work of literature only survives if it conquers social and literacy relevance over time millennium and crime and punishment is as socially and politically relevant as it was in Tzarist Russia in the late nineteenth century. With simple yet gripping and intense scenarios and a heart wrenching plot line, Dostoevsky gives the reader a profound and crucial political instruction, the instruction of organization and organizational strength; reprimanding individual acts of heroism as they then fall prey to the tyrannical clutches of the capitalist system, leaving little or no impact on the pervasive brutality of the state and fails to achieve a positive outcome. He also stresses on political pragmatism and calls for individuals not to only be organized but to realistically approach and propagate political movements and to be wary of over idealizing a movement which reduces its impact and efficacy; over idealization also ends up blurring the distinction between political leftism and liberalism.

By portraying the tragic hero of the story as a student, the author craftily highlights the problems that needed rectification in the then student political movements which led to the eventual Bolshevik revolution and the fall of the Russian Tzar which no other literary piece of that time has achieved. It is because of the author’s unparalleled  literary genius that this work has till date survived and continues to be a beacon of political guidance for those who wish can truly identify the work’s timeless relevance and power.

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