Crime and Punishment at 150


Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s seminal crime novel about an impoverished student who commits a murder and struggles with his ensuing moral anguish, was published 150 years ago.

To celebrate its anniversary, UBC Professor Katherine Bowers (Slavic Studies) and her colleague Kate Holland (University of Toronto) have launched a SSHRC-funded public outreach program to get the general public reading and discussing the 1866 novel. The project includes an online reading group, virtual film festival and creative Twitter project. Their main event is an international conference taking place at UBC October 20-22, 2016 which brings together scholars, students and members of the public.

We spoke to Dr. Bowers about why Crime and Punishment continues to resonate with readers 150 years after it was first published.

 1) Why does Crime and Punishment still resonate today?

Crime and Punishment is a precursor of modern crime fiction, and today’s readers will recognize the trope of the detective in the inspector Porfiry Petrovich. The novel is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. The form and content, radical for 1866, are familiar territory today, but the killer is known from the start; this is, rather, a novel that focuses on uncovering his motive. And this harrowing narrative path is what resonates today. How often do we read about someone killing for an idea in the news? This is a constant theme in today’s world. Dostoevsky’s novel gives us a view into understanding extreme mindsets. At one point, Porfiry Petrovich calls the murder “a fantastical, dark deed, a modern deed, a deed of our time.”

Raskolnikov’s crime and ensuing moral dilemma may have been a product of 1860s Russia, but there’s a universality to the questions Dostoevsky is asking through the medium of the novel; they are questions that we continue to ask today. Is there any act so dark it cannot be forgiven? Is any one more worthy or deserving than others? Is the suffering or death of any living creature justified for the greater good? Will any ideological system solve the problems in society? In addressing these questions head on, Crime and Punishment explores the psychology behind ideologically motivated violence and terrorism.

2) What can the public gain from reading this book? 

Reading Crime and Punishment places the reader directly into the mind of a criminal, but also into the mind of other characters affected by his crime; in so doing, it puts the moral onus on us to choose what wins out, human compassion or an ideological system. Reading Dostoevsky today, readers are confronted with suffering that results from illness, violence, abuse, addiction, and poverty, but also with love, kindness, compassion, and joy that transcends these hardships and tragedies and speaks to the best parts of our human nature. A more holistic view of what makes us human is the biggest take away from reading Crime and Punishment.

3) Your digital outreach program includes tweeting the novel from Raskolnikov’s viewpoint via @RodionTweets. Tell us about this experience.

The project raised unexpected questions. Among the team, we had fascinating discussions about how to transpose certain aspects of Dostoevsky’s text into Twitter. For example, would Raskolnikov live-tweet the murder? What do you do with conversations? And how do you treat events that Raskolnikov doesn’t participate in or know about in the novel? Discussing these questions has been a true pleasure, and led me to a better understanding of Dostoevsky’s craftsmanship. We all enjoyed these discussions so much, we actually wrote a series of blog posts on them, one for each part of the novel, which can be viewed on The Bloggers Karamazov, the North American Dostoevsky Society blog.

But, I think, the best part of the project was getting to know Raskolnikov in a way I have never done the many times I have read and taught the novel. Having Raskolnikov’s voice pop up in my Twitter feed over the past two weeks has been a joy. Before the project I read Raskolnikov as a Dostoevskian character type, but through Twitter he was brought to life as a fellow human for me, and this has made the experience of reading the novel even more intense, even more real.

Dr. Katherine Bowers specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture. Currently she is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism.

Dr. Katherine Bowers specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian literature and culture. Currently she is working on a book about the influence of gothic fiction on Russian realism.

4) The C&P at 150 conference will revisit the novel by exploring “new modes of reading” – what do you mean by that?

In the digital age we live in, reading means many things. We read not just physical books, but also etexts. We read on devices, or read online. I’ve had students in my classes reading thick Russian novels on their phones! That’s not a practice I’d recommend, but I can see how it would be handy for catching up on reading on the bus. In addition to this, we are inundated with information constantly. You’re reading this online now, and you may have come across it from another site that linked to it, and maybe you’ll follow a link from it and read something else. In this environment, how does the experience of reading Crime and Punishment change? That is the question Kate Holland and I are asking at our conference.

To learn more about the events and presentations included in the Oct 20-22 conference, visit the website.