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Genre of Crime and Punishment Novel

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Crime and Punishment has been read as a realist novel as well as a psychological novel. Do you think the two genres overlap?

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment hangs on a delicate balance between realism and psychology. On one hand is the sense of disconnection to reality evident in the novel’s protagonist Raskolnikov; on the other is the ‘realistic’ description of the human psyche. However, the novel manages to make the genres of realism and psychological novel overlap and interact through its internalization of the tenets of realism.

Realism as a genre tries to imitate life such that the sign and the signifier mirror each other in such a manner that the mirror image produced in the prose (the dominant form in which realism is used) should not waiver in the slightest to the reality it re-presents. In order to look truly realist, the re-presentation needs to eliminate the sense of imitation or verisimilitude. For this purpose, Dostoevsky employs painstaking detailing into his novel. Not only does he mention the number of steps Raskolnikov takes to reach Alyona’s apartment, he ventures in depth into the mind of Raskolnikov during his act of climbing these steps, to enumerate one out of many instances.

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The novel is replete with lengthy monologues letting its readers into the minds of the characters. This marks an overlap between the terrains of the psychological and real. Not only is the detailed description a signature characteristic of a realist novel but this detailing of the internal posits the novel into the domain of the psychological.

The stereotypical resolution of the Realist novel is the re-establishment of harmony in order to affirm the author’s and the reader’s faith in the socio-cultural conventions of their time. The primary conflict within the novel is Raskolnikov’s alienation from the society because of his sense of superiority over the rest of the human race and his hatred towards it. This conflict finds its resolution in Raskolnikov’s acceptance of Sonya and his love for her which replaces his repugnance of humankind. However, both the conflict and its resolution are psychological and internal rather than physical.

The same can be said about the plot of the novel. In terms of plot, there is very little action throughout because Dostoevsky deals with the inner working of the mind rather than the external working of the body. This dichotomy between the mind / body with an emphasis on the mind rather than the body pulls the novel into the psychological arena.

At the same time, Dostoevsky paints an accurate picture of the time and age that it (Crime and Punishment) is set in. St. Petersburg, (the economic epicenter and also the capital of Russia, also the place where majority of the novel is set in) is a den of drunkards, beggars, vagabonds, and poverty and disease in St. Petersburg is rampant. Thus, Dostoevsky endeavors to depict a Russia that is realistic and true to its time.

In his protagonist – Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky brings to the readers the psychological ordeal of an ‘ordinary’ (keeping in view Raskolnikov’s theory of the extraordinary and ordinary men, and otherwise) man. Like in a traditional realist novel, the protagonist has to face off an antagonist and emerge out of this face off with a greater knowledge of the self. In this case however, the antagonist happens to be Raskolnikov’s own psychological shortcomings that he needs to deal with in order to gain a greater understanding of his self.

The character of Raskolnikov (and in the latter half of the novel, Svidrigailov) also marks an important point of departure from the very notion of realism. While in the grip of guilt, the two begin hallucinating and hence weave their own reality or their perceived notion of realities. Dostoevsky subtly comments on the very notion of realism which can be individualistic and/ or social (i.e. collectively held by the society). Dostoevsky, even within the bounds of realism, questions realism as a genre and echoes Barthes in portraying how reality is a human made construct to echo the sentiments of a few. He (Dostoevsky) draws a divide between the psychological reality and the corporeal reality.

Hence, through the intermingling of the two genres, Dostoevsky exemplifies how the two genres of realist novel and psychological novel overlap and intertwine as Crime and Punishment is a realist novel in its form and a psychological novel in its content.

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