In the nineteenth century, the western world moved away from the romanticism found in the works of Pushkin in Russia, Goethe in Germany, Hawthorne and Poe in America, and Wordsworth in England and moved in toward a modern realistic approach to literature. While the world was still reading popular romantic novels and love poems, Russia was leading a movement into the new realistic approach to literature. Dostoevsky was one of the forerunners of this movement, along with Gustave Flaubert in France and Mark Twain in America.
This movement can be seen in many ways, some from a very philosophical way and some in the most simple way. For example, in the romantic writings, the writer was concerned with the mysterious, the strange, and the bizarre. Edgar Allan Poe's famous short stories, such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" could be located in New England, Scotland, or many other places, and the story would be the same. Romantic literature seldom had any distinct landmarks and no reference to any external matters. In contrast, Dostoevsky is very careful to ground his novels in actual places. In Crime and Punishment, he is very exact in identifying the names of the streets, the bridge where Raskolnikov sees a woman attempting suicide, and so on. Students and editors have measured the number of feet between Raskolnikov's tiny room and the old pawnbroker's apartment and have discovered that Raskolnikov had made an accurate account of the distance — that is, he walked 730 paces in order to reach the old pawnbroker's apartment to commit the murder.
Dostoevsky was not only a chronicler of the exact physical surrounding, he was also writing subjects of modern concern. During the time that Dostoevsky was writing and publishing, the American public was reading about the romantic adventures of Hiawatha and Evangeline by Longfellow, stories that were set in some unrealistic and romantic distant past, or else the bizarre stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Dostoevsky established one of the precepts of modern realism was to present life as it actually was lived. This is exactly what Dostoevsky did from his earliest novels to his final masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.
Dostoevsky was a prodigious reader and was well informed about the newest ideas and the most recent philosophical concepts of his time. His characters are driven by inner emotions that were just being investigated towards the end of his life. Sigmund Freud's investigations of the psychological states of one's mind were being published only after Dostoevsky had written many of his studies of the mental forces that drive a person to commit certain acts. Porfiry's investigations into the motives behind a crime and of the mental state of the criminal would not become an acceptable manner of investigation until sometime in the twentieth century. As a psychologist, Dostoevsky was well ahead of Freud. His descriptions of the inner emotions are psychologically realistic and true. Some are based on fact: for example, due to his involvement with writing and printing censored material, and subsequently, being condemned to death, Dostoevsky would often write about man's absolute despair.
Just prior to the publication of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky had published his short masterpiece Notes from Underground. A knowledge and understanding of this short novel is central to understanding most of Dostoevsky's novels. The Underground man (he is never named) begins his story by saying: "I am a sick man. . .I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man." This dirty, spiteful, human "louse" is still a human being, and it is Dostoevsky's first introduction to a human as a louse — such a one as Raskolnikov kills in Crime and Punishment.
The ideas expressed in Notes from Underground become central to all of Dostoevsky's later novels. As expressed in the Commentaries, Dostoevsky was writing partly about man's sense of freedom, the freedom to choose, to be able to have the right to step over obstacles. The right of man to have freedom and to be able to reject security in favor of the freedom to choose has its greatest expression in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. In the scene where the Grand inquisitor confronts Jesus and says to Jesus that man prefers security to the freedom to choose that Jesus offers man, we have the greatest culmination of Dostoevsky's ideas upon freedom versus security.
At one point the Underground Man says that twice two makes four, this is a scientific fact, but man does not always function merely by scientific fact. For Dostoevsky, the rational part of a man's being is only one part of his makeup. That is, man is composed both of the rational (two times two does make four) and the irrational — "it would be nice to think sometimes that twice two makes five." This would be, in Dostoevsky's words, "a very charming idea also." The point is that if man functions solely as a rational being, then man's actions are always predictable. Thus, Dostoevsky's point is that man's actions are NOT predictable. Raskolnikov will rationally stop a young dandy from having his way with a young girl and then suddenly decide it is none of his business, or he will tell his sister that he forbids her marriage and then contradict himself by saying "Marry whom you please." Likewise, there are men who are only happy when they suffer; thus, the man who falsely confesses to the murder of the old pawnbroker wants to suffer, particularly to suffer at the hands of authority.
One of the great ideas throughout all of Dostoevsky's fiction is that through suffering man can expiate all his sins and become more closely attuned with the basic elements of humanity. Thus in Crime and Punishment, we have Dostoevsky bowing down to Sonya because she represents the sufferings of all humanity. Both Sonya and his sister Dunya feel that when Raskolnikov takes up his suffering, he will be purified. Also, a person of great conscience will suffer from his transgressions, and as soon as the crime is committed, Raskolnikov suffers so greatly that he does become physically ill and is in a semi-coma for days.
Raskolnikov, both in his published article about crime and in his own actions, was involved in determining the mental states that affect the criminal. The concepts of psychology and even some of its later terminology were used by Raskolnikov and Porfiry. Examples abound as to Dostoevsky's use of modern psychological concepts. Porfiry's entire investigative technique involves his use of psychology to trap his victim, and Raskolnikov recognizes this and refers to it as a cat and mouse game.
In terms of world literature, Dostoevsky stands out as the greatest master of the realistic psychological novel and has yet to be equaled by any modern masters.