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Dostoyevsky's penetrating study of a man for whom the distinction between right and wrong disappears, and a riveting portrait of guilt and retribution.
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December 31, 2003
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Excerpt from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The twenty-four-year-old Dostoevsky, his head in a whirl, had just left the house of the famous critic, Vissarion Belinsky, a man whose favorable opinion any young author would have prized in the Russia of those days. He had been listening to Belinsky's praise of the manuscript of his first story, Poor Folk. "This is the truth of art!" the enraptured critic had exclaimed as he concluded his comments on the tale. "This is the artist's service to truth! To you, as an artist, truth is revealed and declared; it came to you as a gift. Treasure, then, your gift, be faithful to it, and you will become a great writer."
The youthful Dostoevsky stopped at the corner of the critic's house, looked at the sky, at the bright day, and at the passers-by. With Belinsky's words still running through his head, he asked himself in a state of timid ecstasy: "Am I in truth so great ... Oh, I shall prove worthy of this praise." Recalling the moment more than thirty years later, he wrote: "Thereafter I never could forget it. This was the most delightful minute in my whole life. When I was serving my term of hard labor it fortified me spiritually every time I recalled it." *
Belinsky's prophecy was to be amply fulfilled. In fact, the young Dostoevsky knocked his head against the stars of success with this first published work, Poor Folk (1846). Most of the critics echoed Belinsky's lavish encomiums. They even compared him to Gogol, who was already among the immortals. A little spoiled by the adulation, Dostoevsky wrote his brother Mikhail at this time: "They find in me a new and original spirit in that I proceed by analysis and not by synthesis, that is, I plunge into the depths, and, while analyzing every atom, I search out the whole; Gogol takes a direct path and hence is not so profound as I. Read and see for yourself. Brother, I have a most brilliant future before me!"
Bumptious as this self-glorification may be, the youthful Dostoevsky had some reason to feel proud, for in Poor Folk, the story of an impoverished copying clerk, he had introduced an entirely new approach in Russian fiction. He was primarily interested in the soul of his hero. And this psychological concentration on the feelings and emotions, on the inner world of men and women, was the method he was to develop in his succeeding works.