18 March 2009

Booklog, Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment, 1866
Written by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
592 pages

Let's start by saying that this is not a full review of Crime and Punishment. The book is nearly a hundred and fifty years old, and I'm not remotely qualified enough to add to the scholarly discussion of the book. I don't really know anything about Russian history or literature, for instance, and while I'm a bit more educated in philosophy, I'm certainly not going to be able to give any kind of deep analysis of Dostoevsky based on that knowledge. No, I approach this book as I would any other book, really, in that I read it because it seemed interesting. Of course all of us in the industrialized world are aware of its significance -- I just wanted to read it for myself and see what I got out of it.

Crime and Punishment started life as two projects of Dostoevsky's. The first was a novella-length psychological portrait of a man who committed a heinous murder, and the other was a novel that would have been called The Drunkards, which would have been a kind of family-based melodrama circling around a handful of protagonists. As the projects developed, however, Dostoevsky realized that they could be merged and that the melodrama of The Drunkards would work as subtext in the other work. (I learn all of this from C&P's Wikipedia page, which was a great aid to me in reading the book, particularly in keeping some of the characters straight.)

The murderer is Raskolnikov, and the book begins as he is doing something of a trial-run to prepare for the murder. His target is a vile old money-lender, and his reasons for committing this crime are intentionally ambiguous, but seem to revolve around his Napoleon complex. Raskolnikov believes that "great men" can act outside the strictures of normal morality, indeed, that they must do so in order to become great, and that society should allow them to do so. The character is an example of the kinds of intellectual radicals then present in Russia, and Dostoevsky considered the novel to be a rejection of the kinds of rationalism espoused by those radicals. C&P is, in fact, first and foremost a story of Raskolnikov's conversion to Christianity, to the point at which his final action in the book is that of picking up and reading the Gospels.

Of course, as an atheist and a rational materialist I'm not exactly the best target for such a conversion narrative, and certainly I have a differing view of the holes in Raskolnikov's logic than Dostoevsky did. But the novel delves deeply into the psychology of the murderer, and on that level it works beautifully, showing how Raskolnikov's original moral superiority fades into guilt over time, until he finds himself at the police station confessing to the murder. A modern-day evangelical author might use the same basic structure to tell a simplistic story of a simple faith, but Dostoevsky is such an artist that even though we may disagree on his theology, we can accept his tale as the story of an individual person coming to grips with his faith.

Interspersed with the story of Raskolnikov's criminal act and the consequences thereof are vignettes focusing on the people around him. There is a large "supporting cast" that was common in Russian literature of the time, but modern tastes for this kind of material will probably find it to be a bit more melodramatic than strictly necessary. While all of the supporting material helps to enlighten the reader about the main character's motivations and background, some of it I found interesting and compelling while other sequences just seemed long and extraneous. One of the best scenes in the novel comes towards the end between Raskolnikov's sister and one of her suitors, a mysterious benefactor, but Dostoevsky certainly takes his sweet time getting there. Et cetera. (One of the reasons I suspect that the novel is assigned so often to ninth graders is because of the ease of testing basic "reading comprehension" with these sections -- it's easy to write up tests that basically ask students to summarize the familial relationships between the cast of characters.)

I'm not going to pretend that every person reading this absolutely must read Crime and Punishment. It's a long novel with lots of dull bits, although this translation has a nice section of notes detailing references that Dostoevsky makes and generally keeps the material fresh by being quite readable. It's certainly not a beach read, but neither is it quite as dense as its reputation would lead you to believe. As great literature goes, it's pretty accessible, and I think anyone interested in detailed psychological portraits who hasn't read C&P should give it a shot.

(The novel's Wikipedia page is here, and has a lot of great information about the book, including talk about its themes that I didn't include.)

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