Ideas That Plague Us: Reading Crime and Punishment During the Pandemic

by Irina Erman

Before we learn that Rodion Raskolnikov is uncommonly handsome, homicidal, and dressed with a shabbiness so ostentatious that it signals a desire for attention rather than inconspicuousness, we find out that he is something of a hypochondriac. To be more precise, “for some time he had been in an irritable and tense state resembling hypochondria.” (5) [1] Dostoevsky uses this term to describe a more ambiguously unhealthy mental state (akin to the Russian khandra or British spleen) than an obsessive focus on imagined bodily ailments. However, in Raskolnikov’s case, hypochondria’s contemporary meaning turns out to be remarkably suitable. Raskolnikov is often sick, and he is also singularly obsessed with illness. In fact, it is central to Raskolnikov’s theory of crime, in which the “extraordinary man” is identified primarily via his resistance to the symptoms that accompany the transgressions of regular criminals. Further, the motif of illness runs through the entire novel, and accompanies key developments and themes to such an extent that Crime and Punishment merits a reading as a plague narrative. The lasting power of plague narratives comes from their examination of disease in order to diagnose the body politic. The plague that strikes Thebes in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is paradigmatic in this sense: the ruler’s crime contaminates the community and societal ill manifests as literal pestilence. By comparison, the crime in Crime and Punishment presents as a symptom, rather than the cause of the infection. Deadly, half-baked ideas spread like viruses through the miasmatic summer air of Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, and Raskolnikov’s frequent physical symptoms underscore his susceptibility to this much more dangerous form of contagion. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky brilliantly mixes metaphors of biological and ideological infection, diagnosing ailments that still plague us to this day.

Illness accompanies every movement of Raskolnikov’s soul, including his potential resurrection at the end of the novel. But the most direct reference to a wide-scale epidemic appears in Raskolnikov’s fever-induced nightmare in the Epilogue: “In his illness he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unseen and unknown pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia…. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies.” As usual, Dostoevsky is quite topical in drawing from contemporary newspapers, which began to discuss trichinae and the symptoms they caused in late 1865. But Dostoevsky does not follow the symptomatology of trichinosis, and instead shows us Raskolnikov’s disease on a large scale. This disease does not kill the infected directly. Rather, the trichinae’s victims become possessed by their own convictions,

But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone… (419-420)

The deadly plague turns out to be blind devotion to one’s own version of “truth” over objective reality, and the extreme polarization that accompanies such blindness. Failing to recognize their shared humanity, “people killed each other in some kind of meaningles spite.” The prescient horror of Raskolnikov’s nightmare is particularly striking to read during the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, the people who become infected because a segment of the population views wearing a face covering as a test of party loyalty, rather than a simple act of respect for others, will be the victims of Dostoevsky’s trichinae of discord.

The conclusion of Raskolnikov’s dream is more in line with a zombie apocalypse blockbuster (I’m thinking of the “rage” virus in 28 Days Later, for instance), than the ending of a 19th century realist novel. The world descends into madness, and the possessed lose their humanity, killing and even “eating each other.” We are not quite at the zombie apocalypse stage of our national pandemic nightmare, but you might think otherwise if you pay attention to figures who profit from the rage-ification of American public discourse. As quarantine measures were being enacted in the spring of 2020, Alex Jones predicted food shortages and swift societal collapse on his InfoWars show. From there, it was just a skip and a jump to cannibalism, as Jones threatened to kill and eat his neighbors when the pandemic grew worse. “I’ll do it!” he screamed, “My children aren’t going hungry. I will eat your ass! And that’s what I want the globalists to know—I will eat your ass first.”

If I hope to be forgiven for this brief foray into the fringe corner of the internet, it is because from Notes from the Undergound onward Dostoevsky’s novels become spectacular vehicles for manifesting extremes and demonstrating the destructiveness of half-baked ideas imbibed in dark corners and taken to their ultimate conclusions. Raskolnikov’s vivid nightmare crystallizes Crime and Punishment’s examination of polarization and extremism, in that the infected cannot abide difference and dehumanize everyone they disagree with. It is notable in this context that Alex Jones uses the term “globalists” to label his edible enemies. Alt-right figures like Jones use “globalist” – conveniently a long-standing anti-Semitic slur – to refer to some elite, nefarious cabal that conspires to undermine the United States. One man’s “globalist” is another man’s “louse,” for when Raskolnikov is not referring to his murder victim as an “old crone,” he calls her a “louse” that needs to be eliminated for the benefit of society. Her moneylending business also invites anti-Semitic connotations, which become explicit when Raskolnikov overhears that she is “as rich as a Jew” while he eavesdrops on a conversation in a tavern. (53)

“Kill her and take her money” rings out as an imperative in the midst of that conversation. If we are doing contact tracing to locate the source of Raskolnikov’s infection, the tavern scene should be our first stop. The novel opens in the beginning of July. Raskolnikov is feeling feverish and ill when he recalls sitting near another student and a young officer in a tavern in mid-May. The two are talking about Alyona Ivanovna – coincidentally the same pawnbroker Raskolnikov has just visited for the first time. The student argues that her life benefits no one. In fact, she abuses her younger sister and takes advantage of the people who go to her pawnshop as a last resort. So, the young man suggests someone could, “Kill her and take her money… For one life, thousands  of lives saved from decay and corruption? One death for hundreds of lives – it’s simple arithmetic! And what does the life of this stupid, consumptive, and wicked old crone mean in the general balance?” (54)

The student has obviously just read Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? Having come away from that text with concepts like “rational self-interest” and “greater benefit,” he is now drunkedly amplifying inferences drawn from Chernyshevsky’s already simplified retelling of utilitarianism. Raskolnikov is shocked. Not, of course, by the moral quandary of sacrificing the old to ease the economic suffering of the young. Raskolnikov is struck because “exactly the same thoughts had just been conceived in his own head” (55, emphasis in the original). He has just met the pawnbroker for the first time, and so it would appear that this is the moment when Raskolnikov selects Alyona Ivanovna as his intended victim, a month and a half before he commits what ends up being a double murder.

Raskolnikov kills two women. Throughout the text, however, he perpetually “forgets” the collateral damage of killing the 60-something pawnbroker – her potentially pregnant 30-year-old half-sister who walks in during the crime. The novel’s narration lays two traps to implicate us in Raskolnikov’s shady “arithmetic.” First of all, it elides and invites us to overlook the murder of Alyona’s sister, Lizaveta. And second of all, by manipulating the way we speak about the crime as primarily the murder of the pawnbroker, it insiduously suggests that one of the deaths is more acceptable. In other words, the novel brilliantly leads its readers into falling into the same moral trap as Raskolnikov in evaluating one human life as less valuable than another. Raskolnikov is much more comfortable talking about the murder of the pawnbroker than that of her sister because of the proposal we hear articulated in the tavern scene: sacrificing older, sicker, or “unproductive” members of society for the greater economic good. Amazingly, exactly the same thoughts have resurfaced in 2020 in the rhetoric of those who advocated for reopening state economies before the coronavirus was under control. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, for example, claimed that senior citizens like himself were willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren. Pundit Ben Shapiro was even more direct, saying that “If somebody who is 81 dies of COVID-19, that is not the same thing as somebody who is 30 dying of COVID-19.” He added, “If grandma dies in a nursing home at age 81, that’s tragic and it’s terrible, also the life expectancy in the United States is 80, so that is not the same thing.” In her retelling of “Russian Literary Classics Set in 2020” Fiona Bell aptly circles this rhetoric back to Crime and Punishment: “Tired of quarantining in his oppressive garret, Raskolnikov becomes convinced that society must sacrifice the old for the greater good. He visits the old pawnbroker woman without wearing a mask.”

Raskolnikov was intrigued by the idea of categorizing people into the worthy and unworthy for some time before the tavern scene. We will find out from his conversation with Porfiry Petrovich that six months before the murder Raskolnikov dropped out of law school and wrote an article “On Crime.” The article claimed that every “extraordinary man” in history was essentially a transgressor or a criminal, since he had to go against established norms in order to enact change. From that rather unoriginal supposition, Raskolnikov deduced that great men like Napoleon and Newton have a right, nay, even an obligation to commit crimes in order to accomplish their goals. The delusional hubris is, of course, already there in the “extraordinary man” theory, but it is in the tavern scene that Raskolnikov develops the additional layer of the “arithmetic” motive, where his desire to test his superiority as a potential Napoleon through crime meets the capitalist rhetoric of economic productivity and the utilitarian logic of the greater good for the greatest number of people.

Before Dostoevsky started drafting Crime and Punishment, he had an idea for a novella called The Drunkards. The novella was ultimately swallowed by the voracious larger novel, which Dostoevsky conceptualized as the story of “A young man… having succumbed to certain strange “unfinished” ideas floating around in the air, decided to put an end to his bad situation once and for all. He decided to kill one old woman…”[2] But the tavern clearly retained its significance from The Drunkards as an overdetermined space to become the perfect setting for “super-spreader” events of such airborne infections. The casual conversation between the student and officer, which aligns so perfectly with Raskolnikov’s own thoughts, suggests that such ideas are indeed “in the air.” But, as Dostoevsky is at pains to point out, just because these ideas are circulating does not mean that they are not stupid. Crime and Punishment models the viral spread of dangerous ideas that appear to provide simple solutions to complex problems. (In fact – and Dostoevsky will explore this further in The Devils – the stupider the ideas and the uglier their form of expression, the more likely their viral spread through performativity and mimetic proliferation.)

Dostoevsky brilliantly undermines Raskolnikov’s idea by having it parroted by a drunken undergrad and by linking it with the motif of illness. It is ironic that Raskolnikov justifies selecting the old woman as his victim because she is economically unproductive and sick. Raskolnikov is himself perpetually ill, does not work, and relies on charity from the women in his life: his landlady, his landlady’s servant Nastasya, his mother, his sister, and later Sonya. He starts to feel feverish just as he recalls the tavern scene and the impression it made on him. He feels so ill that he collapses into bed and cannot get up the next morning when Nastasya comes to bring him some of her own leftover tea. Even the otherwise lighthearted Nastasya starts to worry when she realizes he can’t muster the strength to eat or drink and concludes, “Maybe he really is sick.” (55) Raskolnikov, for his part, spends most of that day in bed drifting in and out of consciousness. In fact, this illness makes him miss his window of opportunity for an uninterrupted murder.

When Raskolnikov finally gets out of bed and starts to feverishly prepare to go to the pawnbroker’s, he recalls his article “On Crime.” Perhaps the only original idea in the article was Raskolnikov’s emphasis on illness as a sort of litmus test, in which “great men” who stand outside of morality can be identified because they are not susceptible to the physical symptoms that plague regular criminals. While his focus on asymptomatic carriers is novel, Raskolnikov’s association between crime and disease draws from one of the founding metaphors of political thought, in which the political community is seen as as a body and crime – as a break-down in its normal functioning.[3] In Abnormal, Michel Foucault points out that, “According to a tradition found in Montesquieu but going back to the sixteenth century, the Middle Ages, and also to Roman law, the criminal, and especially the frequency of crimes, represents a disease of the social body.” Towards the end of the eighteenth century, however, a new conception of the relation between illness and crime develops, in which “it is not crime that is a disease of the social body but rather the criminal who as such is someone who may well be ill.”[4] Raskolnikov’s article “On Crime” is clearly drawing from this later strand of thought. As he considered the article on the eve of the murder, Raskolnikov does not “yet have the strength to resolve the question: is it the illness that begets the crime, or is it the crime itself, somehow by its own nature, that is always accompanied by something akin to illness?” (59)

It is not necessarily an either/or question, and Raskolnikov’s experience suggests that both conclusions would be valid, but the language that Dostoevsky uses makes it clear that the former is more important for the novel’s main theme. Raskolnikov’s contemplation of the crime prior to commiting it is marked by illness, and particularly by the word “likhoradka.” This is a multi-valent word that can describe both fever, as well as a state of “feverish” anxiety. Dostoevsky both highlights and takes advantage of its multiple meanings. Early in the novel, when Raskolnikov can only refer to his planned crime as “that,” the very thought of it makes him shudder and his mental turmoil manifests in physical symptoms. “His nervous shaking (нервная дрожь) turned to feverish shivering (лихорадочную) and he even started to feel chills (озноб).” (45) Exhausted and cold despite the summer heat, Raskolnikov collapses in some bushes and experiences the first of his memorable fever dreams – the nighmare vision of a horse being beaten to death by a drunken crowd that has just emerged from a tavern. He wakes up covered in sweat and certainly feeling no better. It is in this state that he remembers the other tavern scene, when he heard the words, “Kill her and take her money.” That memory is once again associated with his earlier fever and chills, which make him bedridden on the eve of the murder. (55) When Raskolnikov wakes up much later than he planned, his likhoradka turns from illness into agitation, as he feverishly bustles around to finish his preparations (“необыкновенная лихорадочная… суета”). (56) When he finally arrives at  the pawnbroker’s it is not clear whether his state is the result of fever, nerves, or both. The old woman is alarmed by the pale, trembling and sweaty man at her door, but she finally lets him in when he explains that it is just “likhoradka.” (62) She should perhaps have been more alarmed by the word choice. The term likhoradka comes from the words likho, “evil” or “ill,” and radit’, “to wish.” So, Raskolnikov’s illness is associated with “wishing ill.” However, his physical symptoms belie his hope that he can be the rare man who can “wish ill” without, in fact, becoming ill himself.


Irina Erman is Assistant Professor and Director of Russian Studies at the College of Charleston. Her primary area of expertise is 19th and early 20th century Russian literature, with a focus on marginality, performativity, and monstrosity. She is currently writing a book on Fyodor Dostoevsky and performance. Dr Erman is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Readers Advisory Board. Questions or comments about this essay can be directed to Dr. Erman at ermanim@cofc.edu.


[1] I cite page numbers in parentheses within the text from Fyodor Dostoevsky, Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii v Tridtsati Tomakh. Vol. 6 (Leningrad: Nauka, 1973). I translated some shorter passages myself as needed, particularly when noting a particular term or turn of phrase. Other quotes from Crime and Punishment are in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation.

[2] Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Letter to M. Katkov” in Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii v Tridtsati Tomakh. (Leningrad: Nauka, 1985), 28/2: 136. Many thanks to Susanne Fusso for bringing this quote to my attention. Emphasis has been added.

[3] Dostoevsky draws on this metaphor of the political community as a body most prominently in Notes from the Dead House, when the narrator describes the convicts as severed limbs.

[4] Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-1975. trans. by Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2003), 91

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