Catching the criminal: thoughts on Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich

What is it that so many of us find so appealing about detective stories? Is it the idea of a complex mystery, full of tantalising clues needing to be connected together? Perhaps it is the thrill of a duel of minds between a sophisticated criminal mastermind and a wily, dogged investigator. Maybe it is a sense of awe and horror at audaciously choreographed crimes, as if the perpetrator is trying to make an art form out of murder. Or maybe it is the reassuring feeling that no matter how far evil reaches, the reach of the law will always extend further.

Dostoevsky subverts many of these expectations for the modern lover of detective fiction. We already know who the criminal is and how he committed his crime. To compensate for this, Dostoevsky provides us with other mysteries, such as the unknown artisan in the street who seeks out Raskolnikov in order to call him a murderer; or the decorator Mikolka who falsely confesses to the crime. Why these things happen is left largely unresolved, but they have the effect of showing Raskolnikov and the reader that he was not, could never have been, fully in control of the circumstances of his act.

What seems less certain is why Raskolnikov murdered Alyona the pawn broker and her sister Lizaveta. But uncovering the motive is not the main preoccupation of the investigator, Porfiry Petrovich: it is left to Raskolnikov himself, in his interactions with Porfiry, with his friend Razumikhin, his mother and sister and ultimately Sonya, to penetrate beneath his layers of self-justification to understand profoundly why he killed.

Instead Porfiry’s role is to let Raskolnikov know he is a suspect, to keep reminding him of this fact despite having little concrete evidence, and to wait patiently until he is ready to turn himself in. In the end it is Sonya, representing God’s law, rather than Porfiry, who is the catalyst for Raskolnikov’s confession, which rather leaves the impression that earthly law is somewhat ineffectual. But I believe it is part of Dostoevsky’s purpose that Porfiry does not ‘catch’ Raskolnikov in the stereotypical detective fashion.

Because we see the story from Raskolnikov’s point of view, we are able to empathise with him, and this prevents us from demonising evil as something ‘other’, as something with which we have nothing in common. It is convenient, and comfortable, to categorise criminals as ‘monsters’ or ‘beasts’, and therefore to see the job of the law as to hunt them down and confine them. But Dostoevsky shows us a likeable, if troubled, young man, loved by his family and friends, struggling to make sense of his own thoughts and feelings. Porfiry sees this too. He seems to have a genuine sympathy for Raskolnikov, and rather than trapping him in an incontestable circle of evidence, he allows Raskolnikov the space to begin coming back to himself. Porfiry is an important part of the novel’s message that evil is a potential within everyone, and overcoming it also comes from within.

Thoughts on Part I of Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov’s responsibility

I remember when I first read Crime and Punishment, as a student in the early 1990s. The novel seemed to take over my life: I immersed myself in reading it almost to the exclusion of my other studies, because it felt like I couldn’t argue with it, it left me no choice. Whenever I left my room, I felt hunted and kept looking over my shoulder, and the world around me seemed bleak and ugly.

Raskolnikov too finds his world bleak and ugly, and as he moves towards committing his crime, he feels increasingly like he has no choice. Events, like the urgency of his sister’s impending marriage, the fortuitous discovery of when the pawnbroker will be home alone, arrange themselves to suggest he is fated to carry out his murder, until he feels as if his clothes have got caught in the flywheel of a machine and he is being pulled inexorably into it (Chapter 6).

But though he is keenly aware of signs which seem to impel him towards murder, he is less aware of the alternatives that present themselves to him. Without thinking, almost without noticing, he commits two acts of charity: firstly towards the Marmeladov family (Chapter 2) , and secondly towards the vulnerable girl on the street (Chapter 4). He has a choice of how to respond to the ugly, fragmenting society, involving compassion rather than violence. Raskolnikov dismisses these moments as taking the wrong, indeed an irrational, decision – but at least he recognizes his freedom of choice in these moments. On the other hand, he justifies his impending crime as a removal of his free will.

Many critics and commentators discuss why it is important to read Dostoevsky today. For me personally, perhaps his value is to remind us that we cannot say we do not have a choice.