Classic Novels - as relevant as ever: Dostoevsky, Isolation, and Politics

Caroline Kelly takes a close look at Dostoyevsky's work and what we can take away from his portrayal of isolation and crime almost 200 years later.

It is tempting to look back on our lives before the Covid-19 pandemic to figure out how to feel during tumultuous periods, but art can more accurately portray the emotion and pulse of the past in comparison to a history book. Today, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is that work of art. It serves as a cornerstone of moral philosophy, as well as a claustrophobic rendering of isolation which we have all grown to know too well during this last year.

Told through a sequence of dreams, Crime and Punishment explores the psychology of crime, the untethering of reality, and the anguish of isolation—all while bridging the gap between literary value and moral-philosophical resonance. After murdering an elderly pawnbroker, Rodian Romanovitch Raskolnikov —the novel's protagonist— obsessively ruminates over his actions and consequences. Raskolnikov physically and emotionally isolates himself from the rest of the world. Subsequently, delusions, nightmares and hallucinatory woolgathering seep into a landscape where good and evil are forever sparring. The cause of this collapsing world is expressed as an "unknown and unseen pestilence."

The final dream sequence feels all too real in the present context: people would agree among themselves to make a difference and promise to stay together, but they'd soon contradict that collective identity and become violent due to hopelessness. The struggle has a macabre ending as the survivors of the disease are purified and destined to start a new life. This final dream envisions a society even more lonely than Dostoyevsky's representation of Saint Petersburg in the first chapter. 

Many wish to return to a time before we turned the first page when Dostoyevsky prodded the dormant and veiled demons inside us all and, because of these demons, forced us to rethink what "normal" means.

At the time of publication in 1866, Saint Petersburg—the city in which Crime and Punishment is set—was in complete and utter shambles. Desolation was concealed within the city, for St. Petersburg internalized both the tyranny of past Tsarist regimes and the fiery chaos they stoked. City planning was largely ignored, and repercussions followed. Prone to flooding, Saint Petersburg failed to control the sewage, which seeped into the drinking water. In 1831, Saint Petersburg was devastated by a cholera epidemic, and ordinary citizens— battered by quarantines— gathered in protests that quickly turned violent. In 2020, Covid-19 invaded nearly all cities across the globe and impacted billions of lives, with resulting "anti-mask" protests storming city streets and government buildings. 

Nowadays, everyone has their own imagined St. Petersburg. Lives took a sudden turn when the intangible "pestilence" we know as Covid-19 took over their city. Many wish to return to the time before a pandemic forced us indoors and away from others. Many wish to return to a time before we turned the first page, when Dostoyevsky prodded the dormant and veiled demons inside us all and, because of these demons, forced us to rethink what "normal" means. 

During this current lockdown, I returned to Dostoyevsky's book in search of signs proving how collective purpose can heal the torment of social isolation, as well as anything that contradicts what Raskolnikov's final dream envisioned: "In the cities, the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why."