One result of this is a multiplicity of action. There was never so much talk in any other novels, and there was never so much action. Even the talk is of actions more than of ideas. Dostoevsky’s characters describe the execution of a criminal, the whipping of an ass, the torture of a child. He sows violent deeds, not with the hand, but with the sack. Even Prince Myshkin, the Christ-like sufferer in The Idiot, narrates atrocities, though he perpetrates none. Here, for example, is a characteristic Dostoevsky story put in the Prince’s mouth:
In the evening I stopped for the night at a provincial hotel, and a murder had been committed there the night before.... Two peasants, middle-aged men, friends who had known each other for a long time and were not drunk, had had tea and were meaning to go to bed in the same room. But one had noticed during those last two days that the other was wearing a silver watch on a yellow bead chain, which he seems not to have seen on him before. The man was not a thief; he was an honest man, in fact, and by a peasant’s standard by no means poor. But he was so taken with that watch and so fascinated by it that at last he could not restrain himself. He took a knife, and when his friend had turned away, he approached him cautiously from behind, took aim, turned his eyes heavenwards, crossed himself, and praying fervently “God forgive me, for Christ’s sake!” he cut his friend’s throat at one stroke like a sheep and took his watch.
One would not accept that incident from any Western author. One would not even accept it from Tolstoi or Turgenev. It is too abnormal, too obviously tainted with madness. Yet to Dostoevsky such aberrations of conduct make a continuous and overwhelming appeal. The crimes in his books seem to spring, not from more or less rational causes, but from some seed of lunacy.
He never paints Everyman; he always projects Dostoevsky, or a nightmare of Dostoevsky. That is why Crime and Punishment belongs to a lower range of fiction than Anna Karenina or Fathers and Sons. Raskolnikov’s crime is the cold-blooded crime of a diseased mind. It interests us like a story from Suetonius or like Bluebeard. But there is no communicable passion in it such as we find in Agamemnon or Othello. We sympathize, indeed, with the fears, the bravado, the despair that succeed the crime. But when all is said, the central figure of the book is born out of fantasy. He is a grotesque made alive by sheer imaginative intensity and passion. He is as distantly related to the humanity we know in life and the humanity we know in literature as the sober peasant who cut his friend’s throat, saying, “God forgive me, for Christ’s sake!”
One does not grudge an artist an abnormal character or two. Dostoevsky, however, has created a whole flock of these abnormal characters and watches over them as a hen over her chickens. He invents vicious grotesques as Dickens invents comic grotesques. In The Brothers Karamazov he reveals the malignance of Smerdyakov by telling us that he was one who, in his childhood,