We’ll be discussing the second half of Crime and Punishment on Wednesday, NOVEMBER 6th, so I’m posting some of our discussion from the first half here today.
Crime and Punishment Discussion Questions. Most of these questions–especially the “why?” questions–have multiple possible answers none of which are patently “right”. I’m interested in all answers.
1. Punishment – What sorts of punishments does Raskolnikov endure for his crime(s)? When do they start?
Isolation, fear, illness, paranoia, laughter (mockery), anguish, forgetfulness, scorn.
Some punishments like illness and mental fuzziness start at least as early as during the crime, but others like isolation and paranoia begin even before the crime.
Surprisingly no one says guilt. In the first three parts of the novel, he feels horror at what he might do or has done (his thoughts after the horse dream, for instance), but he does not talk about regretting the crime morally. Not even the killing of Lizaveta. Does this make him sociopathic? Or a superman?
2. Predestination – Raskolnikov says when he considered the matter later, he felt like the murder was predestined. What coincidences were evidence to him that he was predestined to commit the murder? Why would he want to think the murder was predestined? Are there other supernatural coincidences?
Overhearing the conversation in the tavern after his first visit. Overhearing the conversation at the market. Finding the glint of the ax in the shed. The door being ajar in the painters’ apartment. Finding the perfect stone in the garden with no windows looking onto it. Promissory note arrives just in time so that he ends up in police station overhearing the discussion. Even his mother’s letter that reveals how desperately they need money to avoid the marriage with Luzhin arrives on the eve before he overhears the conversation at the Haymarket. Note also: Svidrigailov inwardly remarks on the amazing coincidence that he ends up renting the apartment adjacent to Sonya’s apartment.
When he determines to commit the murder, Raskolnikov feels as though he’s being pulled like his clothes were caught in the gears of a machine. The notion of preordination absolves him of some of the responsibility. It may also seem evidence to him of his exceptionalism like fate is underwriting his Ubermensch authority.
3. Yellow – What objects in the novel are yellow? How are they related?
Yellow ticket. Yellow wallpaper in his house, in the crone’s house. Yellow water in a yellow glass after he faints in the police station.
In an effort to curb the epidemic of venereal disease in Petersburg, the police started registering prostitutes by replacing their identification papers with yellow papers which became known as “the yellow ticket”. No one wants to work as a prostitute, but many women did it for money while they tried to find other employment. The problem with the yellow ticket is that it made finding any other kind of employment nearly impossible. In that sense, the yellow ticket was like a death sentence. There are no old retired prostitutes living off their pensions. If you survive the beatings, you would continue working as a prostitute until you contracted TB (consumption) or sifilis, or were no longer able to get clients.
The yellow ticket is associated with venereal disease. The yellow glass of yellow water is offered to Raskolnikov just as he feints at the beginning of his delirium. Raskolnikov focuses on the yellow wallpaper in his room when he is recovering from his delerium and still presumed disturbed. The sallowed faces of the drunkards show their illness. Yellow is a symbol of physical and mental illness, and the yellow wallpaper in the crone’s house may be interpreted as an indication that his visits there started him down the path of mental illness.
4. Thresholds – The word crime in Russian means to transgress or to step over. Raskolnikov’s article says a select few extraordinary men who are capable of moving society forward or saying a “new word” are authorized and even obligated to “step over obstacles” including shedding blood to advance their cause. Stepping over obstacles is like stepping over thresholds. What scenes take place on thresholds? Are there ways in which the manner of crossing threshholds reveals something about the character crossing?
Raskolnikov, almost pulls the crone out onto the landing across the threshold in his urgency then forces his way in the door. He is rough and unwisely forceful in crossing the threshhold. When Marmeladov lays dying, Sonya stands meekly at her father’s door step not daring to cross, then crosses with shame. Luzhin when he first appears stands at Rask’s door dumbfounded and uncertain looking for someone else’s cues to tell him how to proceed. Svidrigailov walks right in and sits down in Rask’s room. In Marmeladov’s apartment (a cross-through apartment), and later in Rask’s second dream, people are laughing in the stairwells. The laughter of their neighbors assaults them from the threshholds.
5. Ax edge – How was the axe used in the two murders? How are the two murders different? Why does Raskolnikov suffer almost exclusively for the first murder? Why do the other characters hardly mention the second murder?
The crone is killed with the blunt end of the ax which takes several swings to kill her. Lizaveta is killed with the sharp edge. The sharp edge may mean that killing Lizaveta is more sinister, more wrong. Lizaveta’s death represents that killing the meek and innocent is collateral damage of moving society forward. Is it worth it? This theme is taken up again in Brothers Karamazov.
Also, the conversation Rask hears in the bar which sets him down the path hints that Lizaveta is repeatedly impregnated by the guys who have her over to “mend their shirts”. Later it is revealed Lizaveta had “mended Raskolnikov’s shirts”.
If the killing of Lizaveta is “sharper” than the crone, why do neither the public nor Raskolnikov talk more about it? Is it merely that the other seems to be premeditated, so that is the main crime?
6. Sonya/Lizaveta – How are they alike? I’ll leave this for later.
7. Raskolnikov’s dream about the horse – What happens in the dream about the horse? What does the horse represent? What do the tavern and wagon represent? What does the cemetery represent? (Keep these details in mind throughout the novel.) How does the dream make Raskolnikov feel? Why does he have that dream? How can he commit the murder after that dream?
Important details from the dream to keep in mind as you read the rest of the novel:
- Raskolnikov is a child going to visit the church with its cemetary. He must pass the tavern to get to the church.
- He is going to kiss the graves of his dead grandmother and his brother who died in infancy (an old woman and a child).
- He carries a ceremonial bread with raisins pushed into it in the shape of a cross.
The tavern represents society, and the wagon represents progress, moving forward. Mikolka says he’ll carry everyone forward with the old mare just as Raskolnikov thinks he may be a superman with a new word who just needs the murder of the old woman to start him on his mission. The cemetary represents holiness, rest, and family connection.
Who is Raskolnikov in the dream? He is both Mikolka and the child. His inner schism is revealed that he is at once the ruthless, bold, violent Mikolka beating the poor old mare (old crone) to death, and the innocent, horrified child trying to stop him and crying over the mare’s death. Does Raskolnikov ever weep and mourn the death of his victims the way he does as a child in this dream?
The dream fills Raskolnikov with revulsion. It seems like he may call the whole thing off. It is precisely because he is still Mikolka as well as the child that he proceeds to murder despite knowing how horrific it will be. Or perhaps, he truly felt powerless before fate to avoid the murder.
8. Motivation – More than a whodunnit, Crime and Punishment is a whydunnit? Why did Raskolnikov kill the pawnbroker? Does your answer change as you read? Does Raskolnikov’s own answer change?
In the first couple of parts, it seems Raskolnikov is committing the murder because he needs the money. There is some mention of the Robin Hood theory, that the money will be better used in better hands and he will be doing a service to rid society of the old woman. Only in part three does the superman theory of the crime appear: that he may have been trying to prove to himself he is an Ubermensch. He may have killed her to start his campaign. Alternately, he may have killed her to test the major theory of his article that crime is always accompanied by mental disarray akin to illness. He may also have been simply mentally ill. He knows he’s ill. And he also felt the universe was telling him to kill her almost like a schizophrenic hearing voices.
9. Savior – Like Razhumikhin, Raskolnikov is generous in his poverty and repeatedly attempts to save people or alleviate their suffering. Who are the people that he tries to save and how does he do it? Why does he give away all his money when he needs it so badly himself?
He tries to save Marmeladov’s family (particularly Sonya) with money. He offers to marry his landlady’s sick daughter. The tries to protect the raped teenager from the scoundrel who is following her by giving money to a policeman. He freely gives some of his money to the street performer and the whore in the street. He offers money for a doctor to try to save Marmeladov. Failing that, he gives the bulk of his money to Katerina Ivanovna who in her pride, spends it on a funeral dinner.
He tries to save the poor, the unprotected, and the downtrodden primarily through money. He is marginally successful.
Maybe he gives the money away because he really doesn’t think he’s going to make it through this without killing himself or getting caught. Maybe he feels unworthy of the money others have given him. Remember him casting away the money a woman gave him when he was almost run over in the street after visiting Razumikhin? He doesn’t feel worthy of help. He wishes to suffer, to inflict further suffering on himself to balance the suffering he’s caused.
He’s also just a softy. That’s the Razumikhin in him. He can’t help but try to help others.
10. Suicide – What are the instances of suicide in the novel so far and how are they related? Why do people commit/attempt suicide? Do you think that Raskolnikov will kill himself in the end?
Mitka tries to hang himself out of fear of suspicion. Rask walks in the middle of the road and is almost run over. He doesn’t move though yelled at and whipped. Marmeladov is trodden and killed in a similar fashion. Were those suicide attempts? Rask goes to the bridge on the day he says will end it all (either by killing himself or confessing). Another woman jumps attempting suicide and fails. Only Marmeladov is successful in killing himself, if indeed it was intentional. The implication may be that suicide doesn’t work. The suicide attempts are out of fear or humiliation or grief. Raskolnikov seems to look to suicide not out of guilt, but as a way to END the punishments he’s enduring. The discussion group gave Raskolnikov a 50/50 chance of killing himself in the end.
11. Marmeladov – How are Raskolnikov and Marmeladov alike?
They both have an addiction/obsession. Self-destructive behavior. Both want respect. Raskolnikov’s crime has some similarities to Marmeladov’s big crime of throwing away his second chance. On the night before their crimes they both have dreams. Marm has high hopes and dreams for what he’ll do for his family with this job. Rask has the horse dream. Marmeladov steals the money from KI’s box just as Raskolnikov stole the items from the crone’s chest. Marmeladov’s crime cuts him off from his family so that he feels unable to face them since he’s let them down and taken advantage of them. Raskolnikov’s crime makes him incapable of speaking honestly with his family when they arrive such that he cannot even raise his arms to embrace them.
12. Suffering – Why does Marmeladov submit to Katerina Ivanovna’s abuse and call it a delight? Are their similar instances?
Marmeladov feels incredibly guilty for his crimes against his family. He feels an enormous indebtedness to them. Having them punish him is a way of getting square. Suffering for suffering relieves his guilt. Raskolnikov seems to flirt with confession and legal punishment with the same hope of getting square or being in some way relieved by “paying his debt to society”.
13. Confession – Why does Marmeladov talk to Raskolnikov? Even during the crime, Raskolnikov has thoughts of turning himself in (he wants to call out when he’s hiding, he descends the stairs ready to be caught). What are his confession attempts so far? Does he want to be found out? Why would he want to confess?
Marmeladov confesses to Raskolnikov for a couple of reasons. He wants to unburden himself. He wants to be ridiculed and made a fool of to “pay his debt”. He also wants to be understood, perhaps even forgiven.
There are several reasons why Raskolnikov goes to Razumikhin’s. Maybe he wanted to cover his tracks to show he was still looking for money the day after the murder rather than flush with cash from committing the crime. Maybe he knew he needed help. Maybe he went to confess. Several times he appears on the verge of confession. He toys with confessing on the day that will “end it all”. He nearly turns himself in by visiting the crime scene and telling the people there to take him to the police station. Confession crosses his mind when he is speaking with police.
Porfiry Petrovich and Zossimov provoke him almost into confession by appealing to his pride. He almost wants to brag to them about the murder.
14. Second dream – How is Raskolnikov’s second dream different from his first? How does the dream make him feel? Why is he unable to kill the crone in this dream? What does her suppressed laughter represent, or where does that idea come from? What does the laughter from the threshold represent? What does the fly represent? Who is the tradesman?
(In the second dream, Rask goes back to the apartment where the old woman appears again. He tries to kill her, but the axe won’t kill him. He looks under her head to see he’s suppressing laughter. A crowd of people are laughing at him from the stairs.)
The big difference between the first and second dream is that the narrator doesn’t tell you when he starts dreaming. The reader and Raskolnikov experience the dream as though it were reality. This dream fills him with terror rather than revulsion.
He feels impotent in this dream and unable to kill the woman because his plan has gone awry. He knows Porfiry Petrovich was laughing at and mocking him. The laughter of the woman and the crowd on the threshhold represent the world’s mockery of his foolish ideas.
When he goes to tell Porfiry Petrovich that he had pawned things with the old woman, he intentionally teases Razumikhin to create a scene of laughter and ease. He enters the room suppressing laughter with effort. That suppressed laughter recurs in the dream as the crone laughing at him. He probably got the idea from the discussion of how the painters could not have killed the old lady since they were laughing and rough-housing immediately afterward. He wants to show the police he is light-hearted like the painters to throw off suspicion. That laughter is turned back on him in the dream as mockery and scorn.
Notice the “fly on the wall” or the tradesman who calls him “murderer” on the street appears just before Svidrigailov. In fact, as soon as Raskolnikov awakes to see Svidrigailov (with his pointed beard) watching over him with his hands and chin on his cane like the devil himself, a fly buzzes at the window in real life.
Incidentally, while I was reading this end of part three, a stink bug was buzzed at my window. Then the next evening right while we were talking about the second dream, another stink bug started buzzing around the table next to me and flying around the room. It was so disturbing, like the phone ringing right after you finish watching The Ring.
As I read Crime and Punishment for the whateverth time, I again marvel at how much it affects me. I feel so irritable, so depressed, so spiteful and distressed. Dostoevsky captures all the facets of Raskolnikov’s mental states so thoroughly and vividly that I cannot help but be sucked down into them myself. The dreams are amazing. The symbolism is brilliant, but also the mechanisms by which reality gets twisted in the dreams feels very authentic and creepy.
I’m also struck by how different the characters are from each other. Sometimes Raskolnikov seems so fully realized that I think he must actually be Dostoevsky and he’s writing himself. But then he produces the loveable, laughable Razumikhin with as much wit and charm as anything, and the dazzling Dunya! Marmeladov, Katerina Ivanovna, Sonya, Porfiry. These people seem at once so real and familiar that they must be people I know.
This month, I decided not to touch the book until the last three days because I just didn’t think I could bear walking around in Raskolnikov’s head for another solid month.
Just to repeat: Crime and Punishment was an enormous popular success and earned Dostoevsky fame and fortune (if only he hadn’t already run up unthinkable debts). He was a star in Petersburg society ever after it’s publication, and at his death some decades later, between 40,000 to 100,000 people came to his funeral. I’m in that throng. Sorry Tolstoy fans, but I prefer writing in which complex symbology isn’t overtly explicated to me. “Give the audience two and two, let them make four, and they’ll love you forever.” Sorry, Dickens fans, but I find Dostoevsky’s characters less caricatured and his morality less didactic but no less powerful.
And then there’s the irrefutable Brothers Karamazov. As a writer, I feel about Dostoevsky the way composers feel about Mozart: abashed, worshipful and infuriated he didn’t write more. So finish reading Crime and Punishment and tell me what you think.