Fyodor Dostoevsky is best known for four novels: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov. Despite the fourteen-year gap between when he wrote the first, Crime and Punishment, and the last, The Brothers Karamazov, the similar themes in Dostoevsky’s writings remain constant. The themes that exist in both these novels are very alike and undeniably characteristic of Dostoevsky. The parallel themes in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov include murder, the suffering of children, and the power of money. Furthermore, both novels display Dostoevsky’s use of multiple voices or polyphony. This paper will examine and explore the recurring themes that Dostoevsky employs in both, as well as their basically fundamental character.
The Role of Murder
The act of murder is a central focus in both novels. In Crime and Punishment, Alyona, the pawnbroker, and her sister are murdered. Raskolnikov’s original plan did not involve the death of Lizaveta; his intentions were only to rid society of Alyona, ” the louse.” Raskolnikov tries to convince himself and others that killing Alyona was a positive action because he was contributing to the betterment of society. The death of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov happens in a similar context. While Smerdyakov’s motives for murdering Fyodor may not have been the same ones that Raskolnikov had for killing Alyona, Smerdyakov is accomplishing the same thing. For the most part no one suffered or felt badly at the news of Fyodor’s death. Fyodor had been a drunk, a poor father, and a general disruption to society and for these reasons the news of his death likely came as a relief to at least some. While it is interesting to note that both of these murders are portrayed in some way to be beneficial, it would not be correct to say that Dostoevsky is promoting murder. In both novels the murderers, as well as any people connected to the act, are punished for their crimes.
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov admits his crime and is sent to prison. However, his real punishment takes place long before this in the form of mental anguish; he ends up suffering more by trying to avoid being caught than he does when he turns himself in. Dostoevsky focuses a great deal on the psychological aspects of crime. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan does not kill Fyodor, but he does feel that he paved the way for Smerdyakov and thus is guilty by association. As a result he is mentally tormented. The combination of this guilt with alcoholism eventually causes Ivan to suffer delirium tremens and a nervous breakdown. Ivan’s brother, Dmitry also suffers terribly. Dmitry is not guilty of Fyodor’s murder either, but he does feel that he is guilty of other sins. Smerdyakov also must have suffered a certain amount of guilt since he took his own life. It seems that Dostoevsky believed that all crimes go punished even if the perpetrators are not sent to prison. In all of these cases, whether the sin committed was murder or some other, none of the sinners can escape the punishment they put on themselves. Dostoevsky’s most convincing example in these two novels is that even Svidrigailov, as despicable as he may be, realizes the severe error of his ways and takes his own life. The fact that even somebody like Svidrigailov suffers psychologically strengthens the idea that no one can escape the torments that their own mind is able to produce; therefore, every man is punished for his sins in some way.
In both novels psychological suffering follows murder and other sins, and this suffering can be viewed as punishment; however, this mental agony can also be seen as a means of redemption. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitry suffers through realizing his own evil before he is able to realize his goodness. Raskolnikov also suffers before he is able to redeem himself. In both novels women lead the men into redemption; Grushenka helps Dmitry to be a better person, and Sonya aids Raskolnikov on the pathway to a new life. It seems that Dostoevsky is saying that for one to be redeemed one must first suffer, and often one cannot find redemption alone.
Yet another theory as to why Dostoevsky’s novels focused on murder so much comes from the neurologist Sigmund Freud. In his book The Collected Papers, Sigmund Freud wrote:
A criminal is to him [Dostoevsky] almost a Redeemer, who has taken on himself the guilt, which must else have been borne by others. There is no longer any need for one to murder, since he has already murdered; and one must be grateful to him, for, except for him, one would have been obliged oneself to murder…This may perhaps be quite generally the mechanism of kindly sympathy with other people, a mechanism which one can discern with especial ease in the extreme case of the guilt ridden novelist. There is no doubt that this sympathy by identification was a decisive factor in determining Dostoevsky’s choice of material. (43)
Freud also goes on to suggest that Dostoevsky had a very strong destructive instinct, and was both a sadist and a criminal, which is why he would have chosen to focus his novel on the crime of murder (41).
The Suffering of Children
The suffering of children is intertwined throughout both novels. In The Brothers Karamazov, the poor disposition of children can be seen in Ilyusha, and also through incidents brought up in Ivan’s poema, ” The Grand Inquisitor.” Crime and Punishment displays sufferings in the children of Marmeladov. The unfortunate lives that these children have to bear are a commentary on the poor state of society many believed existed at that time. Lack of parenting and poverty often forced children to be more mature than their age would normally require. When the reader is introduced to Marmeladov’s children, they are poor, cold, and hungry and it is the ten-year-old Polenka who must step out of her role as child in order to help her mother take care of all the daily chores. The plight of the Marmeladov children is continuous, and when the reader leaves them they are homeless, singing and dancing on the street for money and at the mercy of their deranged mother. Ilyusha is also forced to act more maturely when he stands up for his father, Snegiryov, who has badly beaten Dmitry. This incident causes Ilyusha pain because he is ashamed of his father and is also teased by other schoolboys.
In both novels the link between these suffering children is often a poor father figure who is an alcoholic. Marmeladov is a drunk who wastes all his money on liquor, and in the end dies because of it. The Second Grade Captain, Snegiryov, loves his son Ilyusha, but this does not stop Snegiryov from disappointing him. In Ilyusha’s eyes, his drunken father is an embarrassment after Snegiryov is beaten by Dmitry. Also, while the focus on Dmitry, Ivan, and Alyosha is during their adulthood, it is evident that a lot of their childhood was spent in suffering because of Fyodor’s lack of care for them, especially for Dmitry. Fyodor Pavlovich, like Snegiryov and Marmeladov, was also a drunk. Dostoevsky must have viewed drinking as a serious social issue, and had even originally entitled Crime and Punishment, The Drunkards. In a letter to his friend, A.A. Krayevsky, Dostoevsky wrote,
My novel is called The Drunkards and will be tied in with the current issue of drunkenness. Not only is the problem of Drunkenness analyzed, but all its ramifications are shown, especially scenes of family life and the education of children in such conditions.” (Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky, 65)
A contemporary of Dostoevsky’s, Leo Tolstoy, voiced his opinion on the disastrous consequences of alcohol in his essay ” Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” in which, Tolstoy reminds the reader that the things accomplished in one’s life are not achieved by physical means but by one’s consciousness. While he discourages it, Tolstoy recognizes that people ” deliberately make use of substances that disturb the proper working of their consciousness” (66).
The Power of Money
The role of money is addressed in both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The most obvious function of money is as a motive for murder. While Dmitry does not actually kill Fyodor, he is found guilty because he had a very good motive to murder him: money. Similarly, in Crime and Punishment one of the reasons that Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker is money. Geoffrey Kabat, author of Ideology and Imagination, says that, ” murder is an attempt to annihilate a symbol of the oppressive forces of a society in which money gives one power over other people’s lives and in which lack of money means dependence on others” (124). By having money, both Alyona and Fyodor had power over other peoples’ lives, and both abused this power.
Another likely reason for the constant focus on money in many of Dostoevsky’s novels including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov is a biographical reason. Dostoevsky spent much of his life in financial trouble. In 1864 Mikhail, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s brother, died. According to the section “Financial Struggles Continue” from Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky, shortly before his death Mikhail had received permission to start a new magazine, The Epoch, to which Fyodor Dostoevsky contributed greatly. Dostoevsky was unable to keep the magazine alive without his brother’s management skills, and was obliged to pay off the magazine’s debt when it failed. Dostoevsky also felt he was financially responsible for the family that Mikhail left behind. Often Dostoevsky borrowed money from friends and family, but their generosity did not help much. On top of the financial obligations that Dostoevsky had taken on after his brothers death was Dostoevsky’s gambling problem. Gambling had a very negative effect on Dostoevsky’s life, causing him to lose the little amounts of money he had (“Financial Struggles Continue,” 25). While money tends to play a large role in everyone’s lives, it seems that for Dostoevsky it was even more important since he never had enough of it. It seems likely that the reason there is so much focus on money in these novels, whether it is on having money or the lack of it, results from Dostoevsky’s own constant struggle with money in his life.
Dostoevsky’s feelings towards those who did have money may have also permeated these novels. In both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov all the characters that have money are portrayed negatively. In Crime and Punishment the reader is first introduced to Alyona, who is continually referred to as ” a louse.” Also present in this novel are Luzhin and Svidrigailov. Luzhin is not incredibly rich but he has more money than Raskolnikov’s family. While Luzhin is not as despicable as Svidrigailov, he is not an admirable man, and he uses his money to wield power over Dunya and her mother. Svidrigailov is very well off and is of heinous character, having murdered, raped, and used his money to bribe. Svidrigailov uses his money to try to control Dunya, and he also uses money as a way to become engaged to a young teenager. Fyodor Pavlovich from The Brothers Karamazov is a man who has money and is a contemptible person. Fyodor also uses his wealth to wield power over others, especially his son, Dmitry. Money is often linked to power, but in these novels, Dostoevsky associates money with the power to abuse. It seems that through his characters Dostoevsky is communicating a belief that those who have power will abuse it.
The Polyphonic Novel
Mikhail Bakhtin originally introduced the idea of the polyphonic novel in his book The Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art. Later, this book was republished and expanded as Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Bakhtin described the polyphonic novel as one in which many different voices can be heard, and each voice represents a different view of the truth. In his book, Pro and Contra: Notes on Dostoevsky, Viktor Shklovsky summed up Bakhtin’s conception of the polyphonic novel by saying:
In Dostoevsky, the voices have equal right; they are not refuted. There is, in his dialogues, no Socrates who leads the argument to his own conclusion. The dialogue does not end. The argument is explicated in his novels by virtue of the fact that there is no (single) conclusion which he would be able to validate artistically. (13)
Bakhtin’s notion of the polyphonic novel is born both out of The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, as well as Dostoevsky’s other works. Both novels contain so many instances of what Bakhtin would have referred to as polyphonic that it is impossible to say that one is more ‘polyphonic’ than the other. One of the many examples is the scene in chapter five of book three in Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov, Porfiry, Razumikhin, and Zamyotov are discussing the ideas in Raskolnikov’s article about the “superman.” In this scene multiple voices can be heard, some conflicting, in reference to Raskolnikov’s article. Bakhtin also comments on the variety of voices that express Ivan Karamazov’s idea that ” everything is permissible” as long as the soul is not immortal. Throughout his book, Bakhtin stresses that Dostoevsky’s ability to incorporate these multiple voices in his writings is what makes his writing truly unique and ingenious. Bakhtin comments specifically on both The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment by saying:
Both of these ideas (Raskolnikov’s and Ivan Karamazov’s) reflect other ideas, just as in painting a certain color, because of the reflections of the surrounding colors, loses its abstract purity, but in return begins to live a truly colorful life. If one were to withdraw these ideas from the dialogical sphere of their lives and give them a monologically completed theoretical form, what cachetic and easily-refuted ideological constructions would result! (80)
Since Bakhtin’s study on the polyphonic novel focuses mainly on The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, to conclude that the notion was born equally from both novels would be logical.
Bakhtin also comments on the sources of the several voices that appear in Dostoevsky’s writing by saying,
As an artist Dostoevsky did not create his ideas in the same way that philosophers and scholars create theirs- he created living images of the ideas which he found, detected, or sometimes divined in reality itself, i.e. images of already living ideas, ideas already existing as idea-forces.” (81)
For instance, the prototypes of Raskolnikov’s ideas came from Max Sterner’s “Der Einzige und sein Eigentum,” as well as ideas from Napolean III’s Histoire de Jules Cesar (Bakhtin, 81) whereas many of the prototypes for the voices in The Brothers Karamazov were influenced by Dostoevsky’s personal life. The voice of Father Zosima is likely to have been influenced by the monk that Dostoevsky visited upon the death of his child, Alyosha (” Life With Anna,” 28). Also, while in prison, Dostoevsky met a man who had been wrongly imprisoned for parricide. Most likely the prototype for Dmitry came from this man (“Convict and Exile,” 22). It is evident that Dostoevsky drew from many different aspects of life for the many voices that appear in his novels.
The themes that are present in Crime and Punishment reappear in The Brothers Karamazov, despite the fourteen-year gap between when the two novels were published. Often these themes, which include murder, the power of money, and the suffering of children, as well as the use of polyphony, may be connected with Dostoevsky’s own life. Both novels are permeated by events similar to those that took place during Dostoevsky’s life, as well by his own feelings and social critique of those events. Despite the fact that the two novels contain different stories, there are many similarities and a resonance between them, because they both grow out of a core of powerful questions and themes that Dostoevsky was preoccupied with throughout his career.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Trans. R.W. Rostel. Readings on Crime and Punishment. Ed. Derek C. Maus. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2000. 72-83.
“Convict and Exile.” Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ed. Tamara Johnson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 22.
“Financial Struggles Continue.” Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ed. Tamara Johnson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 25.
Freud, Sigmund. “Dostoevsky and Parricide” from The Collected Papers. Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ed. Tamara Johnson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 40-43.
Kabat, Geoffrey. Ideology and Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. 124.
“Life With Anna.” Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ed. Tamara Johnson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 28.
Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ed. Tamara Johnson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 65.
Shklovsky, Viktor. Pro and Contra: Notes on Dostoevsky. Critical Essays on Dostoevsky. Ed. Robert Lecker and Robin Feuer Miller. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co,1986. 13.
Tolstoy, Leo. “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?” Readings on Fyodor Dostoevsky. Ed. Tamara Johnson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 63-66.