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Clues to the Crime

The Notebooks for Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky, edited and translated by Edward Wasiolek
University of Chicago, 246 pp., $6.95

While he was at work on his major novels, Dostoevsky jotted down in small notebooks various thoughts about the meaning and structure, the incidents and characters of his projected works. These were unsystematic scribblings, intended for himself alone, and not at all for publication. His widow, however, had the good sense to realize their importance; she numbered them, briefly described the content of each, and presented them to the State Archives of the USSR, “In 1921,” as Professor Wasiolek now tells us, “a representative of the Soviet government in the presence of A. V. Lunacharsky, Assistant Commissar of Education, opened a white tin case,” which contained them. There were fifteen notebooks in all, “hard-covered copybooks, about nine by ten inches in size, bound in faded darkish maroon cloth.” They were presently published in Russia and later, in translation, in France. Now, happily, an English version has been undertaken. The first three notebooks, which we have here, concern Crime and Punishment.

For readers to whom Dostoevsky has seemed a careless writer they will be a revelation, so much are they taken up with the “tone,” the most appropriate, or most effective, way of saying this or that. Originally, Dostoevsky thought of writing his novel in the first person, in the form of a confession or a diary, as he had already done in Notes from Underground, but after many pages in this form, he jotted down, underlining the words: “the story must be narrated by the author and not by the hero,” and a few entries later: “Another Plan. Narration from the point of view of the author, sort of invisible and omniscient being who doesn’t leave his hero for a moment…” By this decision the narrative gains immeasurably in dramatic power, without sacrificing the inward intimacy of the first person. The “invisible, omniscient” author can now record his hero’s doings and words not as a memory, but at the very moment of action and utterance; he can feel his emotions and see his dreams, and observe others when the hero is not there. It was not, to be sure, technical experiment for its own sake that interested Dostoevsky. All he ever wanted was the right vehicle for his idea, and his numerous “Nota Benes,” and headings marked “Fundamental,” “Most Fundamental,” “Main Idea,” “Important,” “Most Important,” and so on, refer to the meaning of his work which he was attempting to clarify to himself.

THE CHARACTERISTIC QUALITY of his writing, that tension, as of a taut string stretched to the breaking point, is true even of his laconic notes—proof, if proof were needed, that his special tone was not a planned maneuver or well-practiced device, but an echo of the structure itself of his experience, of the manner in which he thought and felt. It was doubtless this inherent intensity that dictated the differences between notebooks and novel, for it is evident, when we compare the two, that his changes are mostly simplifications: episodes are cut out, the natures of secondary personages and their relations to one another are made less complicated, with the result that the central character is thrown into sharp relief and dominates the whole. Sonia, for example, was in the notebooks a more complex person than she is in the novel, more articulate and more proud and self-regarding, and so was Dunia, Raskolnikov’s sister:

The sister becomes Sonia’s worst enemy; she sets Razumikhin against her; gets him to insult her; and afterward when Razumikhin goes over to Sonia’s side, she quarrels with him. And then she herself goes to have things out with Sonia; at first she insults her, and then she falls at her feet.

Nothing of the kind happens in this novel, though later, in The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, such insults and enmities do occur, where they are more in keeping with the theme. In Crime and Punishment everything is centered on Raskolnikov, and no one is important except as a reflection of him or an influence on him. It cannot matter, therefore, how Dunia or Razumikhin or Luzhin (Dunia’s fiancé who plays a dastardly trick on Sonia and in the notebooks is supposed to have fallen in love with her) feels about Sonia. Without these unnecessary involvements, Sonia’s capacity for love, her simple wisdom, her purity and depth stand out, unshadowed and uncluttered, to work their effect on Raskolnikov.

IN A FAMOUS LETTER to his publisher, of which the notebooks contain a rough draft, Dostoevsky gives his theme as “a psychological account of a crime,” committed by a young man “living in most extreme poverty,” who, “obsessed with badly thought out ideas which happen to be in the air,” decides “out of lightheartedness and instability of thinking to extricate himself from his deplorable situation with one bold stroke.” In the final version this early scheme remains only as the buried seed out of which a whole forest of meanings has sprouted. The “psychological account of a crime” has become a drama on the nature of man; the “badly thought out ideas” have turned into a discourse on economic and social theories, as well as on the perils of reason itself; and the “extreme poverty” has been reduced to an unimportant element in an elaborate tissue of conscious and unconscious motivation. Why Raskolnikov murders and why he himself cannot explain his motives is the crux of the novel, and the notebooks show how the problem developed as Dostoevsky looked deeper and deeper into his hero. “The Chief Anatomy of the Novel,” he writes at one point. “After the illness, etc. It is absolutely necessary to establish the course of things firmly and clearly and to eliminate what is vague, that is, explain the whole murder one way or another, and make its charter and relations clear. Only then, start the second part of the novel: clash with reality and the logical outcome in the law of nature and duty.” And elsewhere: “At first there was danger, then fear and illness, and his whole character did not show itself, and then suddenly his whole character showed itself in its full demonic strength, and all the reasons and motives for the crime became clear.”

But it is one of the great things in the novel that the motives do not become clear, either to Raskolnikov or to us, for it is in their nature to be unclear, compounded as they are of unconscious drives and of reasonings, which, while apparently conscious, are but rationalizations of hidden impulses and desires. Raskolnikov’s character Dostoevsky envisages in both notebooks and novel as proud and of “demonic strength.” Yet in the final version his “demonism” becomes the obverse of an innate nobility, of a pride that craves submission, of a scorn mixed with pity. The theory he elaborates, whereby human beings are divided into the ordinary majority who must submit to laws, and the small minority of the extraordinary to whom transgressions, for the sake of humanity, may be permitted, is a demonic one. The terrible task he imposes on himself, to see where he stands in his infernal scheme, proves to be his undoing, not, as he thinks, because he has made a mistake about his status, but because he has not fully appreciated his own nature: it is not that the murder has proved him “ordinary” and therefore inadequate to the enterprises of the “extraordinary,” but that he himself—as he cannot see—is innately nobler than his theory. His very name, which in Russian derives from the word “schism,” “raskol,” has a duel connotation: Raskolnikov is divided from humanity and is split within himself. Is it, as Professor Wasiolek thinks, that his desire to benefit mankind through transgression is a conscious dressing up of deep-seated hatreds or, on the contrary, as it seems to me, that it is an intellectual perversion of genuine human sympathy, not a prettification of hatreds but a debasing of love? Both interpretations are possible, and although the notebooks do not settle the controversy, they provide added arguments for debate.

RASKOLNIKOV, like other major characters of Dostoevsky’s fiction, contains within himself contradictory qualities that are distributed among other personages and embodied in them. Every reader of the novel must be aware of this, and now his observation is confirmed by Dostoevsky himself in the last entry of these notebooks:

Svidrigaylov is despair, the most cynical. Sonia is hope, the most unrealizable. Raskolnikov himself should express this. He becomes passionately attached to both.

Some time earlier Dostoevsky wrote:



The Orthodox point of view; what Orthodoxy consists of.

There is no happiness in comfort; happiness is bought with suffering.

Man is not born for happiness. Man earns his happiness, and always by suffering. There’s no injustice here, because the knowledge of life and consciousness (that is, that which is felt immediately with your body and spirit, that is, through the whole vital process of life) is acquired by experience pro and contra, which one must take upon one’s self. (By suffering, such is the law of our planet, but this immediate awareness, felt with the life process, is such a great joy that one gladly pays with years of suffering for it.)


In his portrait the thought of immeasurable pride, arrogance, and contempt for society is expressed in the novel. His idea: assume power over society…Despotism is his characteristic trait….

Crime and Punishment is a subtle and intricate dramatization of this “idea,” this conception of Orthodoxy as not so much a religious doctrine as the embodiment of a psychological law which makes happiness impossible, except through suffering that is necessarily involved in an experience of life, of the pro and contra of our planet, its extremities of good and evil.—Both the despair and cynicism of Svidrigaylov and the “unrealizable” hope of Sonia. Raskolnikov, however real, is a mythical figure. He is the intelligent, proud man of modern society, who dares to act and think for himself in tragic independence, and who is better than his representation of himself, greater than his will to despotism, nobler than his theories. His inhumanity is punished by such suffering as a lesser man would not encounter, the torment of sensing himself cut off from people, of having to live entirely alone, of never being able to speak to anyone again, even though he thinks he hates people and refuses to acknowledge that he is guilty. The torment is clearer in the novel, the hatred more pronounced in the notes, which are filled with such remarks as: “I’m a despot; I hate every one,” “How disgusting people are!” “How low and vile people are….” “How painful it is…for me to talk with people. Stupidities! Strange, I so loved them from afar, and yet close to them it’s as if I don’t love them.” Along with these remarks, however, there are others that seem to be the opposite: “N.B. Oh, why aren’t all happy? Picture of the golden age. It is already carried in our minds and hearts.” “He goes to console her, tears; no you can’t live without people! Again new sufferings. Again he calms down and approves of himself. Dream.” Raskolnikov is ambivalent in both his feelings and his thoughts. In spite of his hatreds, he loves life, “the whole vital process of life,” and that is why he chooses Sonia’s way rather than Svidrigaylov’s, suffering rather than self-annihilation.

Professor Wasiolek has supplied his translation with an excellent Introduction and brief critical comments to the sections into which he has divided the notebooks. What he says is always pertinent and provocative, and although in my opinion he sometimes teeters on the brink of the fantastic subtleties to which students of Dostoevsky are invariably lured, he is kept from toppling over by his respect for scholarship and his common sense. It is good to know, as the jacket announces, that the Notebooks for The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov are “also to be published under his direction.”

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