Why You Should Read Crime and Punishment: An Animated Introduction to Dostoevsky’s Moral Thriller

A desperately poor law student kills a pawnbroker. There we have the story, maximally distilled, of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and PunishmentOr at least we have the central event, to which everything in Dostoevsky’s best-known novel leads and from which everything else follows. But as with so many 19th-century Russian novels, there’s much more to it than that; some Dostoevsky enthusiasts see the book as not just the story of a murder’s meditation and aftermath but an incisive portrayal of the eternal moral condition of humanity. But since such grand-sounding claims no doubt put off as many readers as they bring in, we’d do better to ask a simpler question: Why should you read Crime and Punishment?

The animated TED-Ed lesson by Alex Gendler above answers that question in four and a half animated minutes. “Though the novel is sometimes cited as one of the first psychological thrillers,” Gendler says, its scope reaches far beyond the inner turmoil of the student-turned-killer Raskolnikov. “From dank taverns to dilapidated apartments and claustrophobic police stations, the underbelly of 19th-century Saint Petersburg is brought to life by Dostoyevsky’s searing prose.”

With its large cast of fully realized and often not-quite-savory inhabitants, this “bleak portrait of Russian society reflects the author’s own complex life experiences and evolving ideas” — experiences that included four years in a Siberian labor camp as punishment for his participation in intellectual discussions of banned socialist texts.

You might assume that such a background would produce a bitter writer concerned only with revenge against the state, but Dostoevsky’s social critique, Gendler says, “cuts far deeper. Raskolnikov rationalizes that his own advancement at the cost of the exploitative pawnbroker’s death would be a net benefit to society,” which “echoes the doctrines of egoism and utilitarianism embraced by many of Dostoyevsky’s contemporary intellectuals.” And all of us, not just intellectuals and political leaders, have the potential to cut ourselves off from our own humanity as Raskolnikov does. Some of us face punishment for the crimes we commit, but many of us don’t — or not official, externally applied punishment, in any case, but “Dostoyevsky’s gripping account of social and psychological turmoil” still shows us how the harshest punishment comes from within.

Related Content:

The Digital Dostoevsky: Download Free eBooks & Audio Books of the Russian Novelist’s Major Works

Dostoevsky Draws Doodles of Raskolnikov and Other Characters in the Manuscript of Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Life & Literature Introduced in a Monty Python-Style Animation

The Animated Dostoevsky: Two Finely Crafted Short Films Bring the Russian Novelist’s Work to Life

Batman Stars in an Unusual Cartoon Adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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  • Gerald Washington says:

    Excellent summary of Crime and Punishment. The Brothers Karamazov is another book that should be read an studied many times.Joseph Frank’s bio:A Writer in His Time is highly recommended.

  • LyleDunn Jr says:

    That book impacted and changed my life….THE BEST THING I EVER READ

  • Sean Nelson says:

    It was a good book. I think it is one of his weaker ones after Brothers Karamazov, the Possessed, and the Idiot. Those are all more complete books. The Possessed and Brothers Karamazov are purer versions of one theme of Crime and Punishment. I think the Possessed is probably his masterpiece. Although the Idiot is a close second.

  • Ellen Ruth says:

    You lost me at “has drank.”

  • Marian Schwartz says:

    You name the person who reads the book but say nothing about which translation is used–a factor of much greater significance to the quality of the experience. So, who is the translator?

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