In cop shows like Criminal Minds and Castle, there’s always a clear cause and effect scenario: someone commits a crime, and as a result, they they must go to trial and serve a sentence.
But from the inside, it’s not always as simple as it looks.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky named his famous novel Crime and Punishment, and from the outset, it would seem that the novel has the same cause and effect situation that plays out in NCIS. But there’s a question that keeps sneaking back into my mind after finishing the book: What’s the crime, and what’s the punishment?
[Spoiler alert—though really, the very name of the book hints at most of the spoilers I’m going to share.]
The main character, Rodión Románovich Raskólnikov, commits murder after writing an academic thesis on ethics. His idea is that there’s no such thing as black and white morality. Instead,
Certain people in the world…are endowed with the right to commit all sorts of crimes and excesses, and the law, as it were, was not written for them…All people are divisible into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ The ordinary must live obediently and have no right to transgress the law—because, you see, they are ordinary. The extraordinary, on the other hand, have the right to commit all kinds of crimes and to transgress the law in all kinds of ways, for the simple reason that they are extraordinary.
Raskólnikov murders an old stingy woman with the intent to steal her money and use it to finish his degree at university, then become a great benefactor to the poor and needy. He convinces himself that the good will outweigh the evil.
He decided that he personally was immune [to the panic that comes with a crime]; while he carried out his plan, his judgement and will would remain sound, for the simple reason that what he planned to do was ‘not a crime.’
So what’s the crime here? Is it the murder itself, or the bad philosophy at the root of the murder?
The murder happens only 70 pages into the 522-page novel. For most of the book, Raskólnikov wrestles with himself: should he stay silent or turn himself in? By this time, he has realized that what he did was a very bad idea, and feels guilty for his crime.
Standing in the middle of the room, with a tension that amounted to pain, he began to look around him again, at the floor, everywhere. Was there something he might still have forgotten? The conviction that everything, even his memory, even common sense, was departing, began to torment him unbearably. “What, is it beginning already, is it my penalty approaching?”
By physically escaping justice, he condemns himself to mental and emotional torment. But if he were to turn himself in, he would throw away his freedom. A song lyric from the musical version of Les Miserables comes to mind, when the main character Jean Valjean faces a similar predicament: “If I speak, I am condemned. If I say silent, I am damned.”
So what is the punishment? Is it the silent guilt Raskólnikov feels for most of the novel, or the eight-year Siberian prison sentence he receives in the epilogue?
Raskolnikov only begins to come to terms with his guilt at the very end. But even then, Dostoyevsky doesn’t tell us the story of his restoration, saying only:
This is the beginning of a new story, though; the story of a man’s gradual renewal and rebirth, of his gradual transition from one world to another, of his acquaintance with a new reality of which he had been previously completely ignorant. That would make the subject of a new story; our present story is at an end.
What do you think? What is the crime, and what is the punishment?