Crime, Punishment, Resurrection: Tolstoj vs. Dostoevskij on the Criminal in Society

J. Alexander Ogden, University of South Carolina

In considering the criminal and his place in society, Tolstoj and Dostoevskij provide opposite answers to the question of who is to blame. Raskol′nikov’s crime in Crime and Punishment is largely the result of his willingness to set himself apart from the rest of humanity as a new Napoleon. In Resurrection, Nexljudov increasingly comes to the opinion that criminals do not choose to set themselves apart; they are forced into transgressions by an unjust social order perpetuated by corrupt and complacent officials (whose crimes are in fact much greater); it is those officials who set the criminals apart as “a different and wicked race” (Part II, chapter 19). Both characters place themselves in the midst of fierce contemporary debates about criminality. As Raskol′nikov’s article and his discussions with Razumixin and Porfirij Petrovič reveal, both he and his interlocutors are well-versed in theories of the criminal mind and French Utopian Socialist conceptions of the place of crime in society. Nexljudov, as a good Tolstojan protagonist, immerses himself in literature on his idee fixe: books in Russian, German, and English, the typologies of the Italian school of criminality, etc. But (like Levin, or like Tolstoj himself in What is Art?) Nexljudov is ultimately convinced by all his reading that the most important questions have been left unanswered.

In contrasting ideas of criminality in Crime and Punishment and Resurrection, I will draw on Michel Foucault’s study of the evolving role of the criminal in the nineteenth century, as presented in Discipline and Punish. Porfirij’s fascination with and sympathy for Raskol′nikov is part of a new emphasis on the humanity and psychology of the criminal, the “‘man,’ discovered in the criminal, [who] would become the target of penal intervention, the object that it claimed to correct and transform, the domain of a whole series of ‘criminological’ sciences” (Foucault 74). Dostoevskij’s novel fits into “an enormous mass of ‘crime stories’ in which delinquency appears both as very close and quite alien, a perpetual threat to everyday life, but extremely distant in its origin and motives” (286); such stories tend to reinforce a view of criminals as a class apart. Tolstoj’s novel belongs to an opposite literary tendency, one that “assigned the origin of delinquency not to the individual criminal (he was merely the occasion or the first victim), but to society” (287). Foucault’s study of the justifications of the modern “practice of the power to punish” (23) ultimately problematizes those justifications in a way very similar to Tolstoj’s. This paper will also consider and draw upon previous studies of crime and legal issues as relevent to these two novels (Goldenveizer, Sapir, Offord).