REVIEW: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment tells the tragic story of Raskolnikov—a talented former student whose warped philosophical outlook drives him to commit murder. Surprised by his sense of guilt and terrified of the consequences of his actions, Raskolnikov wanders through the slums of pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg trying to escape the ever-suspicious Porfiry, the official investigating the crime.
I have reread this book quite a few times, but this time I went back because a friend of mine argued that Raskolnikov never experienced remorse for the murder he committed, not even at the very end. And I was under the very strong impression that he did, so I decided to reread the book again. It had been several years since my last reread and if I misinterpreted it so badly, then the story I loved was one I created in my mind, not the real one, because a murderer without remorse is not a fictional character I am interested in reading about.
In this novel we have a young smart guy in 19th century Russia who comes up with the idea that some people should be allowed to kill with impunity, because they are geniuses who are performing amazing deeds. Any murders which help to advance these deeds, which are for the good of all mankind, are worth the cost and should not be prosecuted. Of course, what our protagonist, Raskolnikov, came up with is not really new, and Napoleon is listed as one of the main inspirations for the thoughts he is struggling with. Raskolnikov is poor and hungry, his beloved mother and sister are living far away from him and struggling, and he is trying to decide whether he is one of those chosen few people or not. The person he is thinking of killing is an old lady who is lending people money at very high rates, and of course she is described in a very negative way.
As an aside: sometimes I think that for Dostoevsky money lenders were the worst people in the world, although I suppose those who were Jews were worse. I may sound sarcastic right now, but I’m not – I am sad. I know I forgave Dostoevsky his anti-Semitism, but every time I see an off-the-cuff remark in his book about Jews ( for example, here a character remarks when he is doing something bad that he is turning into a Jew), I feel so sad. I know how much the man suffered in his life, I consider him one of the most brilliant writers if not the most brilliant writer of all time, I know that he is a product of his times and I’m well aware of how imperial Russia treated Jewish people. But I still can’t help but wish he had been able to overcome his prejudice.
But back to the book. Raskolnikov has a theory, and he is torturing himself trying to decide whether he can be fit enough to implement his theory.
““What? How’s that? The right to commit crimes? But not because they’re ‘victims of the environment’?” Razumikhin inquired, even somewhat fearfully. “No, no, not quite because of that,” Porfiry replied. “The whole point is that in his article all people are somehow divided into the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extraordinary.’ The ordinary must live in obedience and have no right to transgress the law, because they are, after all, ordinary. While the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary. That is how you had it, unless I’m mistaken?” “But what is this? It can’t possibly be so!”
The story is really not a mystery; we all know that Raskolnikov does kill an old lady. And the kicker is that the old lady’s sweet and decent sister unexpectedly comes home when Raskolnikov is doing the deed, so he has no choice but to kill her as well.
After the murder his self–torture increases. He falls ill and often becomes delirious. He cannot decide what to do with the things and money he took. He tries to interact with the people around him without giving in to his impulse to confess to his crime. Seriously, as far as I am concerned nobody wrote angsty, tortured souls better than Dostoevskiy.
On this reread I wondered for the first time whether Dostoevskiy might have gone a little easy on Raskolnikov. Oh, I know the poor man goes through a whole lot of pain – in that regard he certainly did not get off easy, but I wonder if letting him kill the sweet, innocent sister made his eventual remorse come more easily? In my past readings I’ve always thought that killing Lisaveta was to show that even if you are a supposed super-genius and plan a murder for the good of other people, innocents are bound to get in the way. It is not easy to stick to killing only a horrible person. But if the eventual moral of the story is that only God can decide who lives and who dies, shouldn’t have Raskolnikov come to understand that he was not allowed to take away a life, no matter whose life it was, even if he only killed a greedy old lady? I don’t have an answer.
I thought that the verbal duel between Raskolnikov and Porfiriy Petrovich (the investigator) was absolutely brilliant; it was such a pleasure to read again. I still don’t know if I understand Porfiriy completely – he seemed to be a very decent guy who truly thought that Raskolnikov should not throw away his life even if his theories were not supported by facts, but I just felt so bad for Raskolnikov. Yep, part of the reason I love this book so is because it has such brilliant angst.
The supporting characters were again wonderful all around – and they are written with so much compassion. This book is obviously no romance, but it has a brief love story for the main character and it even has a somewhat hopeful ending. Of course the love story is tied to the murder investigation and Raskolnikov’s eventual confession. It is not quite a “saved by love” ending – I always read it as “saved by God” ending — but the young woman is a true believer in Christ, so in my mind they are always connected together.
And then there is Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, who actually had several suitors , two quite horrible, but she ended up with a really good man and I was very happy for both of them. It sounds soap opera-ish, but a lot of Dunya’s story is so realistically horrible, and it shows what the “little people” who were poor had to go through in Tsarist Russia.
I do think that Raskolnikov showed remorse, and that he was on the path to redemption in the epilogue. Readers, what do you think?