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Narrative Change in "Crime & Punishment"


"Crime and Punishment" is a major work of 19th century Russian literature by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Published in 1866 while Dostoevsky experienced extreme poverty in czarist Russia, the book follows an impoverished intellectual called Raskolnikov -- sometimes spelled Raskolnikoff -- whose anger over his lot in life leads to the brutal murders of a hated pawnbroker named Alena Ivanovna and her younger, more innocent sister Elizabeth. The story is narrated from a third person omniscient, or all-knowing, perspective, but mainly focuses on Raskolnikov's state of mind.

Raskolnikov's Perspective

Although "Crime and Punishment" is written entirely in third person, critics have commented that the narrative sometimes shifts abruptly and without explanation. That is, most of the novel focuses on revealing the depths of Raskolnikov's alienation and existential pain. This allows Dostoevsky to contend with the magnitude of Raskolnikov's sins and his need for personal redemption. Even though the book is written in third person, its primary focus on Raskolnikov sometimes makes the book feel as if it is written in first person.

Omniscient Third Person

Technically the book unfolds in an omniscient third person voice that can see into the minds of the characters. However, the narrative is mainly interested in Raskolnikov's inner life. The sense that "Crime and Punishment" is almost a first person narrative in Raskolnikov's voice is not an accident. Dostoevsky began writing the first draft of the novel in first person, intending to write the entire narrative this way. This was changed, but the overwhelming focus on Raskolnikov's psychology remained.

The Shifting Perspective

The eventual change to third person allowed Dostoevsky to introduce the inner lives of other characters when it suited the story. This resulted in a shifting narrative that sometimes seems to pop quickly back and forth between Raskolnikov's perspective and that of a few others as needed. The choppy shifts can be confusing for first-time readers unaware that this happens without warning or clear transition.

It's All About Raskolnikov

Even when the point of view shifts, the focus of the novel is always Raskolnikov. That is, other characters' perspectives are only introduced to provide more insight into Raskolnikov's psyche. The characters whose perspectives are briefly revealed include Raskolnikov's sister Dunya, his friend Razumikhin and Dunya's abusive former employer Svidrigailov. The kind and virtuous Dunya functions as Raskolnikov's foil, while his distance from his friend Razumikhin reveals the extent of his alienation. The entitlement of users like Svidrigailov meanwhile serves as the basis of Raskolnikov's anger.

About the Author

Christina Lee began writing in 2004. Her co-authored essay is included in the edited volume, "Discipline and Punishment in Global Affairs." Lee holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and politics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a Master of Arts in global affairs from American University and a Master of Arts in philosophy from Penn State University.

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