At the end of “,” which was completed in 1866, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s hero, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, has a dream that so closely reflects the roilings of our own pandemic one almost shrinks from its power. Here’s part of it, in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s rendering:

欧洲杯投注软件He had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, 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, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate.

What is this passage doing there, a few pages before the novel concludes? Recall what leads up to the dream. Raskolnikov, a twenty-three-year-old law-school dropout, tall, blond, and “remarkably good-looking,” lives in a “cupboard” in St. Petersburg and depends on handouts from his mother and sister. Looking for money, he plans and executes the murder of an old pawnbroker, a “useless, nasty, pernicious louse,” as he calls her; and then kills her half sister, who stumbles onto the murder scene. He makes off with the pawnbroker’s purse, but then, mysteriously, buries it in an empty courtyard.

Is it really money that he wants? His motives are less mercenary than, one might say, experimental. He has apparently been reading Hegel on “world-historical” figures. Great men like Napoleon, he believes, commit all sorts of crimes in their ascent to power; once they have attained eminence, they are hailed as benefactors to mankind, and no one holds them responsible for their early deeds. Could he be such a man?

In the days after the crime, Raskolnikov vacillates between exhilaration and fits of guilty behavior, spilling his soul in dreams and hallucinations. Under the guidance of an eighteen-year-old prostitute, Sonya, who embodies what Raskolnikov sees as “insatiable欧洲杯投注软件 compassion,” he eventually confesses the crime, and is sent to a prison in Siberia. As she waits for him in a nearby village, he falls ill and has that feverish dream.

For us, the dream poses a teasing question: Is it just a morbidly eccentric summation of the novel, or is it also an unwitting prediction of where we are going? Dostoyevsky was a genius obsessed with social disintegration in his own time. He wrote so forcefully that Raskolnikov’s dream, encountered now, expresses what we are, and what we fear we might become.

I first read “Crime and Punishment” in 1961, when I was a freshman at Columbia University, as part of Literature Humanities, or Lit Hum, as everyone calls it, a required yearlong course for entering students. In small classes, the freshmen traverse such formidable peaks as Homer’s and Virgil’s epics, Greek tragedies, scriptural texts, Augustine and Dante, Montaigne and Shakespeare; Jane Austen entered the list in 1985, and Sappho, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison followed. I took the course again in 1991, writing a long report on the experience. In the fall of 2019, at the border of old age—I was seventy-six—I began taking it for the third time, and for entirely selfish reasons. In your mid-seventies, you need a jolt now and then, and works like “” give you a jolt. What I hadn’t expected, however, was to encounter catastrophe not just in the pages of our reading assignments but far beyond them.

In April, when the class began eight hours of discussion about “Crime and Punishment,” the campus had been shut down for four weeks. The students had arrived in New York the previous fall from a wide range of places and backgrounds, and now they had returned to them, scattering across the country, and the globe—to the Bronx, to Charlottesville, to southern Florida, to Sacramento, to Shanghai. My wife and I stayed where we were, in our apartment, a couple of subway stops south of the university, sequestered, empty of purpose, waiting for something to happen. I trailed listlessly around the apartment, and found it hard to sleep after a long day’s inactivity. I loitered in the kitchen in front of a small TV screen, like a supplicant awaiting favor from his sovereign. Ritual, the religious say, expresses spiritual necessity. At 7 P.M.欧洲杯投注软件, I stood at the window, just past the TV, and banged on a pot with a wooden spoon, in the city’s salute to front-line workers in the pandemic. Raskolnikov has been holed up in his room for a month at the beginning of “Crime and Punishment.” Thirty days, give or take, was how long I had been cut off from life when I began reading the book again.


On Tuesdays and Thursdays, instead of making my way across College Walk and up the stairs to a seminar room in Hamilton Hall, I logged on to our class from home. The greetings at the beginning of each class were like sighs—not defeated, exactly, but wan. Our teacher, as always, was Nicholas Dames, a fixture in Columbia’s English Department. Professor Dames is a compact man in his late forties, with dark, deep-set eyes and a touch of dark mustache and dark beard around the edge of his jaw. He has been teaching Lit Hum, on and off, for two decades. He has one of those practiced teacher’s voices, a little dry but penetrating, and the irreplaceable gift of never being boring. At the beginning of the class, his face shadowed by two glaring windows on either side of him, he would struggle for a moment with Zoom. “This doesn’t feel like the experience we all signed up for,” he said. He couldn’t hear the students breathe, or feel them shift in their chairs, or watch them take notes or drift off. But his voice broke through the murk.

Nick Dames led the students through close readings of individual passages, linking them back, by the end of class, to the structure of the entire book. He is also a historicist, and has done extensive work on the social background of literature. He wanted us to know that nineteenth-century Petersburg—which Dostoyevsky miraculously rendered both as a real city and as a malevolent fantasy—was an impressive disaster. In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great had commanded an army of architects and disposable serfs to build the place as a “rational” enterprise, intended to rival the great capitals of Western Europe. But, Professor Dames said, “ecologically, it was a failure.” Prone to flooding, the city had trouble disposing of sewage, which often found its way into the drinking water; in 1831, Petersburg was devastated by a cholera epidemic, and ordinary citizens, battered by quarantines and cordons, gathered in protests that turned into riots. After 1861, when Alexander II abolished serfdom, Professor Dames said, peasants came pouring in, looking for work. It was an unhealthy place, and it “wasn’t built for the population it was starting to have.” He put a slide on the screen, with a quotation from “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), by the German sociologist Georg Simmel:

The psychological basis of the metropolitan type of individuality consists in the intensification of nervous stimulation which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli . . . the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.

“The rootlessness that Simmel writes about comes from detachment and debt,” Professor Dames said. “And it produces a constant paranoia—a texture of the illogical. And dreams become very important.”

Dostoyevsky ignores the magnificent imperial buildings, the huge public squares. He writes about street life—the voluble drunks, the lost girls, and the hungry children entertaining for kopecks. His Petersburg comes off as a carnival world without gaiety, a society that is neither capitalist nor communist but stuck in some inchoate transitional situation—an imperial city without much of a middle class. It seems to be missing the one aspect of life that insures survival: work. “With very few exceptions, everybody in the novel rents,” Professor Dames observed. “They are constantly moving among apartments that they can’t afford.” Social ties were frayed. “And the absence of social structure destroys families,” he said. “To the extent that families exist, they are really porous.”

Cast in this light, Raskolnikov’s rage against the pawnbroker looked quite different. He and a few of the other characters are barely clinging to remnants of status or wealth: a dubious connection with a provincial nobleman; a tenuous prospect of a meaningless job; or a semi-valuable possession, like an old watch. No wonder they hate the pawnbroker who helps keep them afloat, Alyona Ivanovna, “a tiny, dried-up old crone, about sixty, with sharp spiteful little eyes.” Raskolnikov is in a wrath of dispossession.

The city that Dostoyevsky experienced and Raskolnikov inhabited had long been a hothouse of reformist and radical ideas. In 1825, Petersburg was the center of the Decembrist Revolt, in which a group of officers led three thousand men against Nicholas I, who had just assumed the throne. The Tsar broke the revolt with artillery fire. In the late eighteen-forties, Dostoyevsky, then in his twenties, was a member of the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of literary men who met regularly to discuss reorganizing Russian society (which, for some members, included the overthrow of the tsarist regime). He was arrested, subjected to a terrifying mock execution, and sent off to Siberia, where he pored over the New Testament. By the time he returned to Petersburg, in 1859, he believed in Mother Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, and hated both radicalism and bourgeois liberalism. He put his ideological shift to supreme advantage: he was now the master of both radical and reactionary temperaments. “Crime and Punishment” is a religious writer’s notion of what happens to an unstable young man possessed by utopian thinking. Dostoyevsky certainly knew what was simmering below the surface: in March, 1881, a month after the novelist died, two bomb-throwers from a revolutionary group assassinated the reformist Tsar Alexander II in Petersburg. Thirty-six years later, Lenin returned to the city from exile and led the Bolsheviks to power. Raskolnikov was a failed yet spiritually significant spectre haunting the ongoing disaster.

The lively discussions around our seminar table earlier in the year were hard to sustain among so many screens; the students were often silent in their separate enclosures. But, as Professor Dames sorted through the form of the novel and the many contradictions of Raskolnikov, one student, whom I’ll call Antonio, burst out of the dead space.

“He’s arrogant,” Antonio said. “Self-righteous.” He noted that Raskolnikov seemed unbound by the rules that bound others. “But there’s something very appealing about this great-man idea,” he ventured. “Is this possible? Could somebody incarnate ‘the world spirit’ by murdering two women with an axe and getting away with it flawlessly? That some of us are rooting for Raskolnikov is a reflection of that question. Is someone really capable of rationalizing such a horrible action? After the twentieth century, this becomes a challenging question. What kind of person would you have to be to get away with it?”

欧洲杯投注软件Antonio, from Sacramento, was slender, a runner, with large glasses and a radiant smile. He had had a good education in a Jesuit school, and, at nineteen, he was erudite and attentive, abundant in sentences that sounded as if they could have been written. Listening to him, you heard a flicker of identification with the theory-minded murderer.


欧洲杯投注软件For all Raskolnikov’s sullen self-consciousness, he has moments of fellow-feeling and righteous anger. His family and friends adore him; even the insinuating and masterly investigator, Porfiry, believes that dear Rodya is worth fighting for. In our class, Raskolnikov’s feelings about the vulnerability of women—an important issue in “Crime and Punishment”—stirred a number of students, especially one I’ll call Julia, who often returned to the theme. There was the matter of Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, a provincial beauty, extremely intelligent but almost impoverished and therefore the victim of insolent monetary bids for her hand from two despicable middle-aged suitors. The situation incenses Raskolnikov.

“He firmly believes his sister is prostituting herself,” Julia said. “He has what seems to me a very radical and even progressive thought—marriage is a form of prostitution, a form of slavery. It’s kind of Catharine MacKinnon.”

Julia, who came from a Catholic Cuban family, had been an embattled feminist in her South Florida high school, which was filled with MAGA欧洲杯投注软件 boys. In class, she hesitated for a second, but then, grinning in complicity with herself, moved swiftly through complicated feminist and social-justice ideas. Raskolnikov was a puzzle for her. “He’s using this philosophical defense to separate himself from the murder,” she said. Yet he wants to protect women, not just his sister but hapless young girls in the street. Was his interest a case of male “triumphalism”—a way of enhancing his power over women by helping them? Dostoyevsky’s writing about the subservient status of women was as outraged as anything the Brontës had produced, with the Russian additive of persistent violence. The male characters, telling stories in jocular tones, assume their right to beat women. “ ‘She’s my property,’ ” Julia mimicked. “ ‘I could have beaten her more.’ ” In the course of the novel, three different women, all given to extravagant tirades—a Dostoyevsky specialty—fall apart and die in early middle age.

欧洲杯投注软件I couldn’t escape the novel’s larger theme of decline: the incoherence of Petersburg, the breakdown of social ties, the drunkenness and violence. At that moment in April, our own city felt largely empty, but I often imagined American streets filled with jobless people, some clinging to hopes of returning to work, many without such hopes. We were halfway through the novel, halfway to the confusion and proud madness of Raskolnikov’s dream. Would we go the other half? Julia’s feminist reading, new for me, opened still another connection. The newspapers were reporting that domestic abuse had gone up among couples locked together. Women were now being punished, as the critic Jacqueline Rose would note, for the recent liberties they had achieved.

Looking for present-day resonances, I knew, was a grim and limited way of reading this work. “Crime and Punishment” is about many things—the psychology of crime, the destiny of families, the vanity and anguish of single men adrift. But, midway through the book, Dostoyevsky’s writerly exuberance allayed my worries. He’s an inspired entertainer, with his own hectic style of comedy. His characters show up reciting their troubles and lineages, their lives “hanging out on their tongues,” as the critic V. S. Pritchett put it. I was now sequestered in a welter of betrayals and loyalties, gossip and opinion: the assorted virtuous and vicious people in the book believe in manners, but they never stop talking about one another. Even the company of Dostoyevsky’s buffoons was liberating.

And Dostoyevsky’s extremity—his savage inwardness, his apocalyptic feverishness—had never felt so right. How many millions were now locked in their rooms muttering vile thoughts to themselves, or wondering about the point of their existence? He wrote about the absolute rationality of evil and the absurd necessity of goodness. He taunted himself and his readers with alarming propositions: What happens to man without God and immortal life? Big questions can result in banality, but when an idea is put forward in Dostoyevsky’s fiction it goes someplace—runs up against an opposing one, or is developed and refuted two hundred pages later. Such contradictions notably exist within欧洲杯投注软件 characters. Dostoyevsky turned Raskolnikov’s unconscious into a field of action.

The students had returned to familiar surroundings (dogs barked in the background), but they had three or four other courses—not to mention all the anxieties of a precarious future—to contend with. Their college careers were messed up, their friendships interrupted, their campus activities and summer internships wiped out. As we read together in April, the university’s hospital, New York-Presbyterian, was filled with victims of the pandemic. Across the city, hundreds of them were dying every day. So many elements of our civilization had shut down: churches, schools, and universities; libraries, bookstores, research institutes, and museums; opera companies, concert organizations, and movie houses; theatre and dance groups; galleries, studios, and local arts groups of all kinds (not to mention local bars). Who knew what would perish and what would come back?

欧洲杯投注软件The students were discomfited, often quiet, almost abashed. In between classes, they sent Professor Dames their responses to the reading, and he used their notes to pull them into the conversation. As we approached the final dream and its awful picture of social breakdown, I continued searching the novel for indications of what could summon so dreadful a vision—and also of what suggested its opposite, a possibly more benevolent world that was also presaged by Dostoyevsky’s whirling contraries. In class, the conversation turned toward questions of moral indifference and sympathy. What obligations did we have to one another? Was there any redemptive value in suffering? For Americans, that last question was strange, even repellent, but in mid-April the language of hardship was all around us.

Antonio remained fascinated by the idea that one might achieve greatness by doing wrong in the service of a larger right. But during the crime itself Raskolnikov falls into an abstracted near-trance and does one stupid thing after another. Antonio had noted that Raskolnikov, standing in a police station, faints dead away when someone mentions the pawnbroker: “His body shuts off. The consequences of the act become unstoppable, even if you try to take intellectual approaches to prevent yourself from getting caught.” Antonio’s flirtation with the murderer was short-lived.

Raskolnikov blurts out many griefs and ambitions, but is never able to say exactly what propelled his actions. Dostoyevsky doesn’t want the reader to solve the mystery: he makes the crime both overdetermined and incoherently motivated. It was hard to judge a young man so intricately composed, and, when Professor Dames asked, “Do we want him to get away with it?,” he got no better than a mixed response. Raskolnikov wants, and doesn’t want, to escape punishment. His sulfurous inner monologues alternate between contempt for others and contempt for himself. Professor Dames, answering his own question, said that Dostoyevsky creates extraordinary suspense, but it’s psychological suspense: “Is he going to crack?”

Dostoyevsky intended moral suspense as well: Would Raskolnikov come to recognize that what he did was absolutely wrong? In the last third of the novel, the gentle but persistent Sonya offers a way out for him. “She’s not coming to Raskolnikov from a position of judgment,” Professor Dames said, “nor from a position of implied moral superiority. She’s saying, ‘We are two sinners.’ ” A deeply religious girl, she had taken to working the streets in a failed effort to save her crumbling family, and must endure Raskolnikov’s taunt that she has given up her happiness for nothing. In return, she presses him hard: Was he capable of acknowledging his own misery? The subsequent conversion of the snarling former student to Sonya’s doctrine—the necessity of suffering and salvation through Christ—is perhaps the most resolutely asexual seduction in all of literature. What could it mean for us?


In the next class, we were guided through the epilogue. Raskolnikov is in a prison camp, and Dostoyevsky’s narration shifts to a more removed, third-person voice. “For the first time, we’re outside Raskolnikov’s head in a sustained way,” Professor Dames said. “We’re separated from psychology, and it feels like a loss.” But Julia said she felt “relief,” and quoted the narrator’s remark about Raskolnikov: “Instead of dialectics, there was life.” By dialectics, Dostoyevsky meant all the theories plaguing the former student. A young man with a head crammed full of ideas, Raskolnikov needed “air.”

欧洲杯投注软件And what was “air” in this claustrophobic novel? The word, Professor Dames said, “was an articulation of something transcendental, certainly religious.” Julia was right to steer us to the line “Instead of dialectics, there was life.” It was the most important sentence in the novel. “But what is meant by ‘life’?” Professor Dames asked. Raskolnikov tries strenuously to shape that life, but in the end transcendence comes from a surrender of individuality, not an assertion of it. “The novel is a strong rebuke to individual happiness and individual rights and autonomy,” he said. At the end of the class, Zoom froze on Professor Dames, and he remained immobile on my screen, his dark eyes staring straight ahead. We all needed air.

The final dream is lodged in the novel’s epilogue. That dream is a creepy invention, evoking the genres of science fiction and horror: “Here and there people would band together, agree among themselves to do something, swear never to part—but immediately begin something completely different from what they themselves had just suggested, begin accusing one another, fighting, stabbing.” The struggle has a sinister dénouement: the few survivors of the disease are “pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and a new life.” The dream presents a vision of society even more feral than the author’s rendering of Petersburg earlier in the novel. Surely it’s also an extreme expression of Raskolnikov’s mind: having murdered two people, he now wants to murder the multitudes. But isn’t it the opposite as well? An expression of Raskolnikov’s sympathy, a boundless pity for a collapsing world? He remains complex and contradictory to the end.

I wasn’t the only reader in April to be alarmed by the dream of an “unknown and unseen pestilence.” As Julia wrote me in an e-mail, the dream was science fiction, but political science fiction; the notion of a few special survivors suggested a master race, a new form of white male privilege. She also saw the dream as reflecting on us. “I noticed that the infected persons who are stubborn in their beliefs to the point of madness bear a striking resemblance to Americans trying to talk politics,” she wrote. “The mobs of people described by Dostoyevsky recalled photos I saw of conservative folks in Michigan protesting stay-at-home orders at the capitol. The expressions on their faces and their screams, so convinced that their moral convictions are correct.” And Antonio wrote to me that “people can’t agree on what’s right and wrong, and, in our case, we know that ambiguity concerning the future can make people restless and highly partisan when reason and compassion is what’s needed in this situation.” His hope was that “we can humble ourselves enough to realize where we’ve gone wrong, to throw ourselves at the feet of the ‘insatiable compassion’ that Sonya represents and emerge better people. If we can do that, then we won’t have to simply survive.”

欧洲杯投注软件Two months later, my classmates had survived one experiment—the strangeness of intimate reading through remote learning. But the struggle for clarity and understanding had intensified on so many fronts. I thought of all the people acting with courage and generosity, not just the front-line warriors and the outsiders who rushed to New York to help when the outbreak began but the many people who created communities of faith or art online, or sent out all manner of useful advice on how to resist despair. The marchers protesting the murder of George Floyd and all that it symbolizes risked disease to express solidarity with one another. As the summer began, Antonio, to make money, found work at a nearby country club—cleaning floors, windows, and golf carts. He told me that it was hard for him to “think about the future, because of the current situation, with the protests and the pandemic,” although he didn’t rule out a job in government. Julia was interning for a legal nonprofit, and making plans to become a human-rights lawyer, perhaps for Amnesty International.

Every day, in Trump’s America, it seemed as though we were coming closer to the annihilating turmoil—the mixed state of vexation and fear—in Raskolnikov’s dream. The disease was everywhere, and it only heightened our world’s fissures and inequities. More than a hundred thousand had died, tens of millions were unemployed, many were hungry, and, at times, the country appeared to be unravelling. Some spoke of racism as a “virus,” the American virus; and the language of disease, though it miscasts a human-made scourge as a natural phenomenon, captures just how profoundly it has infiltrated the life of the country. The President’s every statement, meanwhile, was designed to widen chaos. He spoke of the need to “dominate,” and many of us were determined not to be dominated. We would not lose our individuality, like the poor murderer in his exile. But neither could we escape responsibility for the mess we had made, a mess we had bequeathed to the students, and to all of the next generation. I kept returning to Dostoyevsky’s book, looking for signs of how collective purpose can heal social divisions and injustices, stoking hope and resolve alongside fear, anything that would overtake the desperate anomie that Raskolnikov’s dream had conjured: “In the cities, the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why.” ♦