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The greatest obstacle in literary criticism is the inability of the reader to know with certainty the mind of the author. For all we know, the author’s intentions could have been completely opposite the general analysis. For that reason, conflicting opinions abound, and controversy rages over issues that the author most likely never intended as such. In his Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky added an epilogue to conclude the novel. In the previous chapter, Raskolnikov, the protagonist, confesses and the police arrest him for murder. Many critics believe that this is an adequate ending and that the epilogue is entirely unnecessary, while others contend that the epilogue is very necessary, as it hints at Raskolnikov’s redemption and resurrection. Crime and Punishment is a Christian novel, with religious overtones and undertones throughout, such as Sonya’s reading of the story of Lazarus, which parallels Raskolnikov’s own story. However, the novel also loosely follows the structure and content of the Greek tragedy, and this coexistence of the Christian redemption and resurrection themes and the tragic Oedipus Rex themes creates a complex work that cannot be considered from only one perspective. The epilogue is extremely necessary to the conclusion of Crime and Punishment, as it allows for the further development of Raskolnikov’s character and giving him another dimension. He is not just the insane, crazed ax murderer whose guilt and depravity eat at him until he confesses. It seems that way at the end of the final chapter. But with the addition of the epilogue, Rodion Raskolnikov starts down the path of resurrection, which he hadn’t seemed inclined towards earlier in the novel. Without the epilogue, Raskolnikov would remain a less complex character, incapable of repentance.
Many critics reject the epilogue because they cannot accept the moral regeneration that it promises. According to Lev Shestov, Raskolnikov’s only crime was to believe that he was incapable of breaking the law, and that his tragedy was not his guilt and insanity but rather the “impossibility of beginning a new and different life” (71-72). The entire novel moves toward a conversion or resurrection, most notably and obviously by the appearance of the biblical story of Lazarus, read by the prostitute Sonya, who is based on Mary Magdalene. Dostoevsky did not choose Lazarus at random. He chose Lazarus because the story is a subtle reminder of Raskolnikov’s chance at redemption, to be reborn after repenting his sins. This theme of resurrection is prominent throughout the novel, and to ignore this theme is to ignore an enormous part of Dostoevsky’s meaning. Yes, this is a novel about the inner psyche of a sociopath and an exploration of guilt, but it is also about realizing one’s sins and repentance for them.
Edward Wasiolek raises a more valid argument in that he believes that Dostoevsky has failed to provide his readers with any evidence that Raskolnikov has enough spiritual awareness to contradict his theories put forth in his essay “On Crime” or to follow Sonya’s spiritual direction. This is a valid point, and it would be correct, if not for the abundance of examples of Raskolnikov starting the conversion. He is not reborn spontaneously, as Wasiolek would have you believe, but rather after a wealth of experiences that have influenced him to this end. For example, every time Raskolnikov helps the Marmelodovs, he does so because of a brief, but real, compassion. True, he regrets his charity almost instantly, but that thoughtless compassion suggests he does not feel the self-professed superiority in his heart. That resides only in his mind. As such, his consequent interactions with Sonya further this trend towards recognizing himself as a man on the same plane of existence as those he once considered lesser. Raskolnikov slowly progresses, allowing compassion to infiltrate his mind at times, beginning his conversion, his resurrection. As he realizes his own humanity, he becomes more conscious of his guilt. This indicates that he is not completely gone, that he can recover from the insanity that possessed him. Robert Louis Jackson notes that Raskolnikov’s behavior passes through two distinct phases-first showing great sympathy and compassion for those who need it and immediately, unthinkingly, takes measures to alleviate their suffering, and afterward feels disgust at having betrayed his intellectual principles, which don’t allow for sympathy towards such lesser, unworthy beings. However, that first, natural inclination to help those in need betrays Raskolnikov’s humanity. His sense of compassion “endows his actions with a magnanimity that runs counter to the malevolence of his scheme and the cruelty of his crime” (Matual, 28).
Furthermore, Raskolnikov never was a cold-blooded killer. His mind was convinced of his superiority, but in contemplating the murder, he was disgusted, repelled. He sought any excuse to forgo the task, but when what he perceived as a sign from the universe indicated that he must kill Alyona Ivanovna, he was filled with repugnance at the prospect of taking someone’s life. He never lost his doubts, nor his repugnance of the act, and it continued to eat away at him until he confessed at the end of the novel. Raskolnikov’s compassion for the poor and oppressed, his revulsion at the murder, and his memories of childhood innocence and piety provide a basis for his resurrection in the epilogue. The acts of compassion “represent only the potential for rebirth,” and “something more powerful is required to arose him from his spiritual lethargy and lead him toward the events of the epilogue” (Matual, 30). To end the novel after the confession is to leave Raskolnikov without finishing his story. His transformation was only just beginning, and only through his experiences at the Siberian prison can he continue the conversion. Only after a long spell of defiance at the prison, Raskolnikov gives in to his human side and responds to Sonya’s love. He pulls the bible out from under his pillow and reads once again of Lazarus, he who is reborn, just like him. Here Raskolnikov finally accepts his stint at the prison as his catharsis, be redeemed, and proceed to a new life. Raskolnikov is not just an evil, heartless person. His repugnance at his crime, his compassion for others, and his confession all hinted at a possible redemption. With the confession, he is only just starting down the path of conversion, and the epilogue is entirely necessary to see whether he will accept the consequences of his actions and be reborn or if he will reject them and withdraw into insanity and depravity once more.
In addition, the novel’s many facets and interlocking stories all point directly to the epilogue. Numerical motifs are prevalent, and they are left unfinished at the end of the novel, but with the inclusion of the epilogue, they are masterfully concluded. For example, the number nine recurs throughout the novel with regard to time. Crime and Punishment covers three nine-month periods: “1) from the genesis of the crime to its perpetration, 2) from the confession to the trial and the journey to Siberia, and 3) from the beginning of Raskolnikov’s exile to the moment when he embraces Sonia and a new life begins for him [… ] It takes nine months for the crime to be ‘hatched,’ nine months for the punishment to begin, and another nine months for Raskolnikov to be reborn in the epilogue” (Matual 32). Clearly, Dostoevsky was thinking of the period of birth, as each nine-month segment results in something being born. First, Raskolnikov’s terrible plot is carried out, carried to term and born, if you will. Second, Raskolnikov confesses and his transformation begins, which results in his deliverance to Siberia, where his final cycle begins. After nine months, he is reborn, allowing Sonya into his life and repenting his sins, feeling genuine regret for the atrocities he committed. Raskolnikov’s mind is born first, resulting in the murders. His body is born second, upon his deliverance to Siberia. His heart and soul are born last, reuniting his body, mind, and soul, and concluding his resurrection. Had Crime and Punishment ended with Raskolnikov’s confession, there would be a complete and utter lack of closure. Uncertainty would remain concerning his conversion and the consequences of his actions. Sometimes leaving the reader with doubt at the end of a novel is a useful and pleasing conclusion, but not with doubt as to the driving questions of the novel. Dostoevsky masterfully concluded Crime and Punishment in such a way as to answer all those questions, and yet still leaves the reader wondering what form Raskolnikov’s new life with Sonya would take.
Another point to consider is the structure of Crime and Punishment. It parallels the Greek tragedy, and it also parallels the story of Lazarus. The concept of fate, which has a pagan connotation, and the concept of God’s will are, strangely, not at odds with each other. They coexist, leaving the reader to interpret the happenings as they will, perhaps considering divine intervention, perhaps considering coincidences. Depending on the view the reader takes, interpretations can vary. For instance, considering Christianity and the story of Lazarus, the novel is quite unfinished without the inclusion of the epilogue. Raskolnikov’s true transformation would remain in doubt, and the parallels between Lazarus and Raskolnikov would end abruptly. Dostoevsky included Lazarus for a reason, and so would never leave the conclusion to Raskolnikov’s story incomplete. He planned for the epilogue to conclude this storyline, and merged Lazarus’s and Raskolnikov’s fates. The pagan fate is similar to the belief in predestination, as God already knows what will happen. Even from a pagan perspective, the epilogue is necessary to provide for the knowledge of Raskolnikov’s transformation and new life, and ultimately his fate.
Although Crime and Punishment’s epilogue strikes many critics as heavy-handed and unnecessary, it is an important component and essential conclusion to the novel. The objections raised are without a solid basis, as Raskolnikov did not spontaneously reach repentance and redemption, but rather had the potential to do so all his life. In actuality, the presence of good and compassion within him provides his character with depth and another level of complexity, making every decision that much harder. Because his mind and his heart are at odds with each other, each surface at different points of the novel, expressing disgust, revulsion, or contempt at the other. This drives him mad, and eventually his compassion beats out his superiority and drives him to confess. The epilogue provides Raskolnikov with another dimension, his capacity for good, as he repents his sins and becomes a new man. The epilogue is unavoidable, the accumulation of all the preceding events that culminate in Raskolnikov’s transformation.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Bantam Dell, A division of Random House, Inc., 1866.
Jackson, Robert Louis. “Philosophical Pro and Contra in Part One of Crime and Punishment,” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Crime and Punishment. Eaglewood Cliffs: Prentice- Hall, 1974. p. 27.
Matual, David. “In Defense of the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment.” EBSCO Publishing, 2002. 26-34.
Shestov, Lev. Dostoevsky I Nitshe. Berlin: Skify, 1923. 71-72.
Wasiolek, Edward. “On the Structure of Crime and Punishment.” PMLA 74, 1959: 135.