Blurb: Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, wanders through the slums of St Petersburg and commits a random murder without remorse or regret. He imagines himself to be a great man, a Napoleon: acting for a higher purpose beyond conventional moral law. But as he embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a suspicious police investigator, Raskolnikov is pursued by the growing voice of his conscience and finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck. Only Sonya, a downtrodden prostitute, can offer the chance of redemption.
Often regarded as one of the world’s literature giants, Crime and Punishment is regarded as such with good reason, and is my biggest read thus far this year. It is a book with a simple premise, easily described in one sentence, but is complex and thorough in its analysis. What makes Crime and Punishment so difficult to review lies in the fact that the book is deeply rich. It is, all at once, social, cultural and religious commentary, an analysis of the vulnerability and rawness of humanness, the infallibility of ideas, the depth of one’s consciousness, and, of course, crime and punishment and its consequences on the psyche.
The thing that struck me with Dostoyevsky’s writing was that it dwelled. It dwelled on detail and moments, and takes its time to flesh out those moments, the people, and the air and tension of it. It took me awhile (perhaps too long) whilst reading the book to appreciate the care and attention Dostoyevsky put into the writing. Now in hindsight, I realize that I have this vivid and elaborate image of St. Petersburg in my mind. I know its smells, its people, its feeling of destitution and harshness. It is in this grim and cynical landscape where this story takes place.
Raskolnikov, the antihero and protagonist of Crime and Punishment, is the ideal subject. He is impoverished and in a state of constantly flitting in and out of delirium, but is also intelligent and proud. Raskolnikov also believes that people are divided into echelons, where the superior and ‘extraordinary’ are entitled to acts that transgress the law for the greater good. (But what is the greater good? I suppose this question is a reason why this book is a fantastic piece of subjectivism.) The belief that he is one of these extraordinary men, and following a chance moment in a tavern, this spurs Raskolnikov to commit murder, believing that this act will lead to benefit society.
What captivated me was the depth of Dostoyevsky’s exploration of the many mental and emotional states that we experience. Assuming that most of us will never commit heinous crimes in our life, Crime and Punishment thus becomes a unique reading experience. We are given an opportunity: insight through detailed, compelling narrative into Raskolnikov’s attempts to grapple with the reality of his condition (that he really isn’t all that extraordinary), and his attempts to justify the murder to preserve his sanity – both which lead to a great deal of emotional turmoil and contemplation. The portrayal is brutally honest and raw, and Dostoyevsky opens Raskolnikov’s psyche and thoughts wide open for us to see in plain view.
Unlike the many villains we see nowadays, Raskolnikov is not a sociopath or not entirely without remorse as we are led to believe. On the contrary, he is vulnerable, feels immense guilt (making him susceptible to psychosomatic fevers), and deeply conflicted – not only about the act itself, but about himself also. Add into the picture that Raskolnikov is propelled to a spontaneous moments of charity, as he pays for the funeral of a stranger (whose destiny is closely tied to his). Is this is an act of true compassion or a means to atone for a crime in which he clearly feels guilty about? Regardless of the answer, Raskolnikov is a complex character – sometimes an enigma, sometimes transparent.
Though this book may take a pessimistic and cynical air as it delves into the dark depths of one’s consciousness and mind, it is incredible how this changes in the very last page. And perhaps its closing sentences – which I shall leave for you to discover or revisit – perfectly articulate what this book is all about: it is our actions that inevitably make us. Suffice to say, I found the ending rather optimistic, and I now feel compelled to read this book again; maybe I will see it differently.
Rating: 3/5 (2017 rating adjusted)
Book Name: Crime and Punishment
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Publisher: Penguin Classics