Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (translation by Constance Garnett)
The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candlestick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book.
This is the first time I’ve read Crime and Punishment, and the second work I’ve read by Dostoevsky [The Brothers Karamazov]. Crime and Punishment is a realist novel, with existential elements; it is the third-person narrative of Rodion Raskolnikov, a troubled young intellectual, mid 19th Century, Petersburg, Russia.
This novel satisfies category #12, a Russian Classic in observance of the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, from the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
SPOILER ALERT – This following contains spoilers.
Rodion Raskolnikov is an unemployed, impoverished, former student, wasting away in near squalor in Petersburg. He is also a self-satisfied intellectual/philosopher. In my humble opinion, he thinks too much.
When the novel opens, Raskolnikov is in dire straits financially. He speaks to himself frequently, and through this, the reader becomes aware Raskolnikov is planning, but not firmly committed to some desperate act.
I mentioned the spoiler – which may be unnecessary. If you’ve ever heard of this novel, you are probably aware that it involves a murder. So, this reader at least, was fairly certain that Raskolnikov was plotting a murder/robbery. He even goes through a sort of dress rehearsal, visiting a vile old, female pawn broker, his intended victim.
He does indeed carry out his desperate plan. At first things go smoothly, until the victim’s sister shows up and he murders her as well. Raskolnikov makes off with very little, and shortly after the crime, he falls into a delirium sickness that lasts several days. This is probably due to combined effects of malnourishment and emotional shock.
The rest of the novel is Raskolnikov’s inner turmoil over his crime. This can certainly be considered a crime novel – part of the title after all – but it is different than most crime dramas. This is not about “who did it?” That is never in doubt. It is about “why”.
And Raskolnikov comes up with some pretty disturbing answers to that question. In the beginning, the reader believes it is all about getting some money to relieve a desperate condition, but as Raskolnikov wrestles with his demons we learn there was much more to it than that. A bit more about the why in a moment.
The other principals: Raskolnikov’s beautiful, devoted, and sensible sister Avdotya (Dunia), his simple, loving mother Pulkheria, and his faithful friend Dmitry Razumikhin.
Then there is Dunia’s fiancé, Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a conceited, selfish, and ambitious lawyer. The engagement will not last – one good thing Raskolnikov accomplishes in the novel.
Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov – a depraved, but unpretentious hedonist, once Dunia’s employer and aspiring lover.
Porfiry Petrovich – a police detective who suspects Raskolnikov, but has no proof.
And Sofya (Sonia) Semyonovna – a desperately poor young woman, with a drunkard father, rather stupid, ill, and abusive mother, and three young siblings. Sonia is forced into prostitution to provide for her family. She is pitiful and virtuous – glaring contradiction notwithstanding.
In the beginning, Raskolnikov is seemingly motivated by terrible financial need. He was behind in rent, had dropped out of school for want of money, and his sister was marrying a cad for money. Money seemed the only and obvious reason.
But once the deed is done, Raskolnikov begins his slow, agonizing, debate with himself…not over guilt. He didn’t believe he was truly guilty.
Raskolnikov believes that great men, like Napoleon, are above the law because they are achieving greatness. Raskolnikov, wants to test his own mettle. Killing the old woman would almost convince himself, that he was great – that he was greater than most men. (Yes, he actually compares himself to Napoleon.)
He reasons to Sonia:
I wanted to find out then and there whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man. Whether I can overstep barriers or not, whether I dare bend down to pick up or not, whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right…
To kill? Have the right to kill? Sonia clasped her hands.
And then at other times, he deludes himself that he did the world a favor.
"Crime? What crime?" He cried in sudden fury. "That I killed a vile noxious insect, and old pawnbroker woman, of no use to anyone!
. . . Killing her was an atonement for forty sins.
As I said earlier, Raskolnikov thinks too much. He was also probably quite malnourished and not of completely sound mind when he makes the rash, and yet quite deliberate decision to carry out the crime.
I’ll admit, he was pitiable at times – but never guiltless. I had no sympathy for his intellectual indignation. I don’t believe Dostoevsky intended the reader to sympathize. Indeed, someone will probably soundly refute this, but I suggest Raskolnikov represented Russian nihilism, and Dostoevsky was offering a striking indictment.
This would seem to mesh with the initially confusing image of Napoleon as an example. Certainly, Napoleon achieved extraordinary things, but I doubt many in Russia would ascribe to him greatness. Later, I felt this made better sense. If Dostoevsky meant to show the error of Raskolnikov’s ways, Napoleon – a villain by Russian reckoning – as his idol only accentuates Raskolnikov’s misguided philosophy.
If you like nice tidy endings, with satisfying closure – you probably won’t care for Dostoevsky. The ending is not entirely unsatisfying – but neither is it completely satisfying.
If you like flawed and complex characters, and moral dilemma – you will probably enjoy this novel.
That’s The Wander’s thoughts anyway. Have you read Crime and Punishment? What did you think?
The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth. ~ Raskolnikov
And now I have come simply to say (Dunia began to get up) that if you should need me or should need…all my life or anything…call me, and I’ll come. Goodbye!
Perhaps it was just because of the strength of his desires that he had considered himself a man to whom more was permissible than to others. ~ Narrative regarding Raskolnikov
But that is the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his transition from one world into another, of his initiation into a new, unknown life. ~ Narrative, second to last sentence of Crime and Punishment.