I’m leading the discussion of Crime and Punishment tonight, so I thought now was the right time to give some of my notes and discussion questions. I’ll give my own (and other people’s) answers later, but please feel free to comment here on one or more of these questions.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky – Background
Doctor’s son. Sent to military engineering institute where he felt out of place among his aristocratic classmates. Small, pale, sickly-looking (and often ill), hot-headed, religious, defender of the weak, proud, described as an introverted dreamer. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15. After graduation, worked as an engineer, translated books to earn extra money. In his mid 20s wrote first novel “Poor Folk” tryign to make money. A few years later he fell in with the Petrashevsky Circle, a society of liberal utopians as well as a literary discussion group that advocated peaceful social reforms and the abolition of serfdom. Age 28, he and the Petrashevsky Circle were arrested for treason and conspiracy and condemned to death by firing squad. The men were taken before the firing squad, split into groups of three. Dostoevsky was third in the second row. At the last minute a note from the Tsar delivered to the firing squad commuted his sentence to 4 years hard labor in Siberia and military service after. Epilepsy worsened in prison. After hard labor, forced conscription into the military before being discharged for ill health.
After military discharge, became a journalist, started gambling–an addiction he struggled with throughout his life which lost him multiple fortunes and reduced him to a beggar.
Married unhappily once. Married his secretary the second time. He had planned to write two novels, The Gambler and The Drunkards simultaneously. He wrote the Gambler in 26 days. The Drunkards was going to be about Marmeladov and others, but the Raskolnikov plot took over the novel. Crime and Punishment was hugely popular. Earned 7,000 rubles from Crime and Punishment but he was in debt more than that. Sold his wife’s things to go on a European honeymoon. Had a baby named Sonya. She died of pneumonia at age 3m. Said to have wept and sobbed like a woman.
His novels made him a huge celebrity in his lifetime. He was invited by Tsar Alexander II to visit him in the palace and teach his sons. He moved in high Petersburg society circles even though he always handled money badly. He died at age 60. Between 40,000 to 100,000 mourners came to the funeral.
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?
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?
3. Yellow – What objects in the novel are yellow? How are they related?
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?
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?
6. Sonya/Lizaveta – How are they alike?
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?
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?
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?
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?
11. Marmeladov – How are Raskolnikov and Marmeladov alike?
12. Suffering — Why does Marmeladov submit to Katerina Ivanovna’s abuse and call it a delight? Are their similar instances?
13. Confession – Why does Marmeladov talk to Raskolnikov? Even during the crime, Raskolnikov has thoughts of turning himself in. What are his confession attempts so far? Does he want to be found out? Why would he want to confess?
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?