Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov from "Crime and Punishment"

A note regarding a classic look inside the criminal mind

Posted May 22, 2018

A statement by Raskolnikov at the conclusion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” dramatically illustrates features of the criminal mind.  The infallible criminal looks at himself and sees his main deficiency as his “stupidity” for being caught. Even in jail, Raskolnikov, the murderer, does not consider himself a “criminal” at all.  He looks at his fellow inmates as though they are of “a different species….What surprised him most was the terrible impossible gulf that lay between him and all the rest.” He had “so hopelessly, stupidly come to grief through some decree of blind faith.”

Over many decades, I have interviewed men and women behind bars.  Many have told me that they should not be locked up.  They profess, similarly to Raskolnikov, that they made a “simple blunder” – just a mistake.  For Raskolnikov, the “blunder” was homicide.  For a man whom I interviewed the “mistake” (as he called it) was rape.  For a young woman, the error was selling drugs to an undercover police officer.  She asserted that she did not belong in jail and had nothing in common with the other women there.  She was just a mother trying to provide for her infant daughter.  A lady who murdered her husband remarked, “I’ve paid taxes to the county for so many years.  Now that I’m here in jail, I am finally getting my money’s forth.”  Like Raskolnikov, she did not believe she had anything in common with the other inmates.  Citing her artistic endeavors, her gardening skills, and her other talents, she had no remorse for killing her husband and did not consider it to be a crime except in the eyes of the law.

Raskolnikov spoke of his “simple” act which resulted in the “idiocy of a sentence.”  Dostoevsky wrote, “It was only in that he recognized his criminality, only in the fact that he had been unsuccessful and confessed it.”  So it is with most offenders as they indicate their chief regret is not what they did or whom they injured but that they were caught.  Raskolnikov said, “My conscience is at rest……it was a legal crime, of course, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed.”  To his way of thinking, the men who succeeded were those who got away with their offense.  They “were right.”  Because he failed, Raskolnikov’s “pride had been stung to the quick” and “it was wounded pride that made him ill.”

Those who work in the area of criminal rehabilitation and related fields should heed  Dostoevsky’s warning about the scope of the task of change.  Dostoevsky speaks of “the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of man…his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”  And this is precisely what change (“habilitation”) entails – destroying a major part of oneself (cognitively speaking) as a criminal tentatively and slowly contemplates entry into an “entire new unknown life.”