My second book I tackled was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment. Most everyone has at least heard of Crime and Punishment and many have the view that it is some old Russian book that looks good sitting on your bookshelf. Plus when you tell people you’re reading it people quickly assume you’re an intellectual, or I like to think so and didn’t mind that stigma even if it isn’t really true. I’m here to say it’s more than just a bookshelf ornament and really can be enjoyed by anybody.
Don’t get me wrong this wasn’t my favorite book, and I didn’t love it but I really was able to appreciate a lot of aspects of it even if I was bored during chunks due to a lack of “action.” Maybe it was because I read this after reading Dumas’ Three Musketeers which was filled with swashbuckling action but there were periods of the book when I was just craving more of what happened in the first 80 pages.
The book starts with Raskolnikov avoiding his landlord who he owes months of rent and his travels through the poor city he lives in. In order to raise money to pay his rent Raskolnikov visits Alyona Ivanovna a pawn broker who represents the opposite of Raskolnikov. Whereas Raskolnikov is young, handsome, with little grasp on reality and is dead broke Ivanovna is old, ugly, alert, and practical. Their only similarity is how they present themselves through dress.
Raskolnikov visits a bar for the first time in his life and he begins to contemplate committing a crime. At first Dostoevsky doesn’t let you on to what the crime is but the longer Raskolnikov stays in the bar and becomes inebriated you get more information. You learn that it will involve the pawn broker and how Raskolnikov deals internally with the decision of the crime. Most would think it would be a moral decision but to Raskolnikov who has a Napoleonic concept to crime believing you can commit any crime so long as you as providing positively to society. Thus Raskolnikov’s dilemma is is over his desire to kill Ivanovna or the disgust of actually doing the physical deed.
As Dostoevsky leads us to the crime, Raskolnikov keeps seeing “signs” that he should commit the murder of the pawn broker. He gives money to the pathetic Marmaledov couple and rather than coming off as compassionate Raskolnikov boasts about it, he believes Lizaveta’s (the landlords daughter who lives with her) absence from the apartment is a sign as well. In reality Raskolnikov is just explaining off his responsibility in the action. Because Raskolnikov has his Napoleonic superiority complex he believes the fates have aligned for him, but when he commits the murder and Lizaveta returns and Raskolnikov is forced to kill her it throws his rationale off. Raskolnikov has been holding on to the utilitarian belief that he is doing society a favor by killing Aloyna but the murder of Lizaveta is only to save himself and is anything but utilitarian.
Part II of the novel deals with Raskolnikov’s internal struggle to turn himself in and to remain free. He continues to try to tell himself he was acting for the greater good but episodes like fainting in the police station and burying the stolen goods from Aloyna’s apartment show just how conflicted he is. You are introduced to Razumikhin another opposite figure to Razkolnikov here as well. Razumikhin is kind, outgoing and loves life and often goes out of his way to take care of his ungrateful an aloof friend. The two friends share a similar situation, being poor students but Razumikhin would never contemplate taking the actions Raskolnikov did.
Raskolnikov continues to have internal battles, and the side of confessing begins to win out. While at the Crystal Palace and while at the scene of the crime Raskolnikov begins to clue in the authorities of his guilt. Raskolnikov is then compelled to assist the Marmaledovs again but while Razumikhin aids Razkolnikov through compassion Raskolnikov is motivated by an unrelenting sense of guilt.
In Part III Raskolnikov continues to spiral, treating his sister and his mother roughly. Raskolnikov begins to take on a split personality, one trying to protect his innocence and remain free and the other teetering on the edge of recklessness almost begging to be caught. The article Raskolnikov writes “On Crime” reveals his Napoleonic views on crime and how there are some people who are above others and who can commit crimes, even murder if they choose. You also see Razumikhin’s good natured personality in his disgust over the article. Raskolnikov’s nightmare begins to chip away at his self-designated superman notion and forces him to reevaluate his worth or lack there of.
In Part IV Raskolnikov has Sonya tell him the story of Lazarus from the Gospels that Lizaveta gave her. Although Raskolnikov claims to not believe in the story, where Jesus performed his greatest miracle on Earth by brining Lazarus back from the dead, it did affect him. Raskolnikov wishes he could be “resurrected” and start with a clean slate but the weight of the crime is taking its toll on him. Possibly motivated by the story, possibly overcome by the crushing weight of his guilt (or probably both) Raskolnikov has a new motivation to confesses. While at the police station Raskolnikov again changes his mind and is confident that Porfiry Petrovich who is interrogating him has no evidence, however Petrovich uses Raskolnikov’s general unease against him. By the end of Part IV Raskolnikov seems to have developed a renewed vigor to remain free and not to confess.
In Part V Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonya who was Lizaveta’s friend. Raskolnikov also promises to go to the police, and thus begins his path to a resolution to the guilt he feels for committing the murders. It also begins to show that Raskolnikov is beginning to not believe in his superman theory. The realization he is only human is a step towards confession and shows his realization how despicable his acts were. Though Raskolnikov is far from a full confession his breaking to Sonya and her giving of sympathy begins bringing Raskolnikov back to humanity.
In Part VI Petrovich begins to twist Raskolnikov’s psyche and lays an option of confession in front of him. Further into Part VI Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya is attacked by the complex character Svidrigailov who is cunning and calculating and represents a level of immorality that surpasses all others. The conflicting stories of his servant’s and wife’s deaths and his possible connection further complicates his character. Dunya defends herself by firing a revolver two times but neither with the intention to kill and after she placed the revolver down. This shows what matters is not whether the murder leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but simply whether the individual with the gun can find it within him or herself to kill another human being. Dunya clearly cannot, which distinguishes her from Raskolnikov.
Reflecting on Svidrigailov’s suicide Raskolnikov believes suicide is below him; a vulgar act for common people, when in reality he lacks the strength to kill himself. Raskolnikov is then again compelled to confess but in order to build the strength to do so (even if it is unbeknownst to him) he visits Sonya. Sonya is the catalyst to Raskolnikov’s redemption and plays a key role in the novel. Raskolnikov ultimately confesses but Dostoevsky expertly builds suspense by having Raskolnikov walk out of the police station before he finally ends the internal torture in almost the last line.
In the epilogue we find out Raskolnikov’s punishment. The Epilogue takes on a different tone from the main body of the novel. It is more absolute and heavy handed than the rest of the novel as evidenced by the death of Raskolnikov’s mother, his love for Sonya, and his dream of a virus spreading throughout Europe. Where the main text was open-ended and left a lot for the reader to think about and interoperate the Epilogue does not. It is a blunt instrument. The Epilogue is used to finish the Lazarus-like reincarnation of Raskolnikov as he uses the New Testament to stay attached to humanity, reinforce his love for Sonya, and to tie up a theme that through faith and morality life is more enjoyable.
One thing I really liked about Crime and Punishment is that even though it was published in 1886 the themes throughout the novel of morality, internal struggles, and relationships with different people remain true today. The novel transcends the ages with themes that are not uniquely Russian, European, or 1800’s but instead these themes can be applied today. I think every person can relate to Raskolnikov, while many haven’t committed a crime to the degree of murder, and our motives may not be as utilitarian or as self centered but many of us have broken the law or a rule and experienced the guilt that goes along with it. I can definitely see why this is a classic novel and even though I was turning pages thirsting for more outright action Dostoevsky is a master of playing with the reader’s mind. This is more of a psychological thriller it helps knowing that going into reading it. It’s a heavy read and such a stark contrast to Dumas’ Muskateers, but definitely worth the read even though I don’t see myself picking it up again anytime soon.