Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translator: Constance Garnett
Publisher: Modern Library
Publishing Date: 1950
Number of Pages: 532 pages
Genre: Suspense, Psychological Fiction, Russian Literature
In the whole literature of the subtle and mysterious relationship between man and the crimes he commits, Crime and Punishment stands supreme for its insight, its compassion and its psychological fidelity. The story of the murder committed by Raskolnikov, his punishment and atonement, is the most gripping and illuminating study ever written of a crime of repugnance and despair, and the consequences which arise inevitably from it. In Dostoyevsky’s mind, crime is its own punishment and retributive justice can never be so severe at the penalty the human soul can impose on itself. By Dostoyevsky’s art, a shabby murder becomes the means of revealing some of the innermost secrets of the heart.
Indeed, Russia is one of the countries with the most established literary culture. It has produced several literary heavy weights the likes of Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, and Vladimir Nabokov. Another literary who hailed from Russia is the great Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose works are among in the most renowned in the world of literature. Crime and Punishment, one of his most popular works, is one of the books that has daunted me because of the accolades attached to the book. I am even afraid of putting my thoughts about the book into words because of its magnitude.
But I have to try at least.
“There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery. If there is a hundredth of a fraction of a false note to candor, it immediately produces dissonance, and as a result, exposure. But in flattery, even if everything is false down to the last note, it is still pleasant, and people will listen not without pleasure; with coarse pleasure, perhaps, but pleasure nevertheless. ” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
The book’s title is in itself a very straightforward summary of what the novel is all about. It relates the story of Rodion Raskalnikov, an impoverished student in St. Petersburg. To lift himself and his family from the quagmires of poverty, he designed the perfect crime. He intended to murder an unscrupulous pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, then steal her money. He was able to execute his plans but there were several complications, none the bigger than the conflict the event has stirred within him.
Crime and Punishment is a dense book dealing with a variety of dark and heavy subjects. Aside from murder, the book dealt with poverty, alcoholism, violence and even prostitution. Dostoyevsky, through his gift for words, painted a very bleak picture of Russian society during the final stretch of the Romanov’s reign. This is a far cry from the opulence and grandeur that the Czar’s family is renowned for. Maybe this dismal state of the Russian society is a prelude to the Bolshevik Revolution that happened after the book’s publication.
However, the story is more than just about a simple case of murder and theft. It extensively dealt with the psychology and motivation of the killer. Before perpetrating the murder, Raskalnikov wrote a piece about the commission of the perfect crime. He posited that under the right circumstances, it can be pulled off and the perpetrator will never get caught. He referred to his perpetrator as “superman”. He has conceived him as someone above the law. However, there was something that Raskalnikov missed out and it is something that will constantly nag him over the course of the narrative.
Through Raskolnikov’s recurring dreams, the novel presented a different texture to the story. It involves the psychology of the perpetrator. Majority of the book is grounded on the psychological aspects of human nature. Crime and Punishment is insightful and thought-provoking in these aspects. It is an engaging masterpiece in spite of its heavy and dark subject matters.
“Don’t be overwise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid – the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
On a bigger picture, the book’s focus is morality. It is Dostoyevsky’s primary intention, hence, the allusion to “Punishment” in the book’s title. The disillusioned Raskolnikov thought that the superman envisioned in his article can be personified. But his conscience is eating him up, resulting into a duality in the way he lived his personal life. He is stuck in a quandary, living in the ultimate suspense. Will he get caught? Did he give himself away? Because of these questions, a paranoia has swept him.
In its purest form, Crime and Punishment is about the wrong deeds we all commit, the premeditation behind it, and its consequences. It posits about the perfect crime but finds the equilibrium in its moral facets. Raskolnikov’s distorted logic made him commit murder believing that he is ridding the earth of one evil person. But one evil act can never be corrected by another evil at just as greed cannot be cured by murder. The key words in the novel are morality and conscience.
But what is important is how we redeem ourselves after committing our mistakes. Raskolnikov’s journey to redemption has been riddled by numerous doubts emanating from different forces, but nothing bigger than the one welling from within himself. His actions, or rather inaction led to struggles in his mind, body, soul, and beliefs. But after he had been severely punished, Raskolnikov ultimately redeemed himself.
“But that is the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world to another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”
Dostoyevsky’s prose flowed naturally even though he was dealing with a difficult subject. The highest form of his body of work was extensively showcased in Crime and Punishment. His writing is impeccable and his astute portrayal of human behavior is even more remarkable. This lofty standard if literary excellence is also showcased in Brothers Karamazov, the only other Dostoyevsky that I have read. His depiction of human nature is an intellectual endeavor that awakens the inner literati in his readers. It makes one probe deeper into one’s self.
Crime and Punishment is a shining example of what makes Russian literature tower above the its contemporaries. It is a complex work that deals with very dark subjects but all elements were woven perfectly into a cohesive story about human nature. Dostoyevsky is his masterful self in conjuring a plot as magnificent as Crime and Punishment. He navigated through the blurred lines of what is morally right and wrong with gusto and authority.
Overall, the novel is an impressive chef-d’oeuvre about the darker sides of human nature. On a microscopic level, it reflects the microcosm of our profound psyche. We all do things that we are ashamed of, just like Raskolnikov. We all commit mistakes – it is part of being human after all. But what matters most is how we make up for our actions. Our ability to voluntarily rectify our mistakes is a great opportunity to grow.
Recommended for those who are looking for books which digs deep into human behavior and psychology, those who like classical Russian works, those who enjoy literary reads, those who enjoy complex books that makes one reflect deeper into one’s self, and those who who want to understand Russian literature and Russian society in the 19th century.
Not recommended for those who are looking for light and pleasurable reads, those who don’t like books with dark subjects, and those who prefer contemporary works.
About the Author
(Image by Wikipedia) Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was born on November 11, 1821 in Moscow, Russia. At a young age, he was exposed to literature as his nanny read him heroic sagas, fairy tales and legends. Even his parents exposed him to great Russian works at an early age.
From this literary influence, Fyodor began writing in his 20s and in 1846, his first novel, Poor Folk, was published. Although he began writing at a young age, his more acclaimed works were published when he was in his forties. This list includes Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), and Brothers Karamazov (1880). In total, he wrote 11 novels, three novellas, and 17 short stories. Among his most famous novellas is Notes from Underground (1864), considered to be one of the first works in existentialist literature.
Until this day, Dostoyevsky is a highly revered figure in the Golden Age of Russian Literature. His books have been translated into 170 languages and he has influenced a bevy of philosophers and authors. He passed away on February 9, 1881.