Classic Book Review: Crime and Punishment

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Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky (Oxford World Classics, 1980, RRP £6.99 )

Warning- This contains epic spoilers, but everyone knows what happens anyway.

Living in a hovel, subsisting almost entirely on tea and spending days sleeping or wandering aimlessly around town is pretty much a standard part of the normal student experience. I once fainted at a Cooper Temple Cause gig after eating nothing but a toasted cheese sandwich for two days. Embarrassing as that was at the time, it has nothing on Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, excentric law student, idealist murderer and owner of the best name in literature. Raskolnikov wants to be a Napoleon, and finding himself short on funds, he hits on a cunning plan to kill a dried up, stringy old pawnbroker for cash. According to his calculations, he should feel no remorse. Napoleon would have cut down swathes of old women if they’d stood between him and glorious victory, Raskolnikov tells himself, before heading out to take another tormented turn around St Petersburg. Purely by chance, he overhears his intended victim’s sister, Lizaveta, being invited out for the evening, and decides to seize his chance. In what is probably one of the most disturbing, yet elegantly restrained murder scenes I have ever read, Raskolnikov kills the pawn broker with an axe, and also her sister, who accidentally stumbles in on the scene of the crime. This crime is the event of the novel; it affects every character, tears apart relationships, and rips Raskolnikov’s already fragile state of mind to shreds.

Of course, the reader knows fairly early on that our protagonist is not ‘a Napoleon.’ Just the bare fact that Raskolnikov feels the need to justify his crimes by telling himself he is one, totally undermines his defence. This novel is a 400 page testament of the mental disintegration of a promising, intelligent young man. The punishment of the title comes rather from Raskolnikov’s conscience, rather than the hard labour he is eventually sentenced to in Siberia.

Dostoevsky was himself imprisoned for five years in Siberia, as a result of his controversial politics. Crime and Punishment was his novel of a young man who is corrupted by half-finished ideology and is pyschologically affected by radical idealism. He also wove in the story of the impoverished Marmeladov family, whose drunken patriarch Raskolnikov befriends in a tavern. It is through Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov that Raskolnikov meets his daughter, Sonya. Sonya was driven to prostitution by her father’s drinking and the degredations suffered by her stepmother and the younger children. Sonya becomes Raskolnikov’s moral guardian, it she that he first confesses to, and she who urges him to ‘go immediately, this very moment, go and stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the ground that you’ve desecrated, and then bow to the whole world’. Sonya presents Raskolnikov with a path to redemption, through confessing to his crime and accepting punishment from society.

Raskolnikov chooses salvation, and to try and begin his life again. The novel leaves him in Siberia, with seven long years of hard labour before him, but spiritually renewed after realising his love for Sonya. He could have chosen a different path, one he considered as he stood, tormented by the river. Instead he went and confessed.  The choice was confession or death. This latter path, suicide, is taken instead by Svidrigaïlov, a character who is in many ways Raskolnikov’s double. Svidrigaïlov was the employer of Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, until he drove her away with his rapacious attentions. Suspected of the murder of his wife, amongst other things, Svidrigaïlov comes to St Petersburg to pursue Dunya. After she rejects him, he lets her go and shoots himself. Despite his many faults, he is capable of acts of random generosity, a trait he shares with Raskolnikov. However, Svidrigaïlov fails to persuade Dunya to save him, and this where he and Raskolnikov’s paths diverge.

Dostoevsky uses the squalor surrounding Raskolnikov to contrast with his insular convictions. Raskolnikov thinks that these ideals free him from the constraints of society and the ties of human relationship. However, his concern for Marmeladov’s family, and indeed for his own mother and sister, undermines this mindset. He is not self-sufficient, and in order to be renewed, and to sooth his mental anguish, Dostoevsky humbles him before god, a solution that he is suggesting not just for his embittered hero, for the whole of Russian society. Dostoevsky considered the new radicalism that was becoming prevalent as a sickness that was responsible for the Russian people forgetting their religion and their roots. Yet, perversely, in highlighting the squalor of the living conditions of Raskolnikov and Marmeladov, Dostoevsky is showing the need there was for change in nineteenth century Russia. I must confess that a lot of the intellectual politics did go over my head a little. I’m always ashamed when I don’t understand enough about history to fully appreciate a book, but I don’t think I have the stamina for that kind of research. Besides, Crime and Punishment is a difficult book, and the well-drawn characters are enough to hold the attention.

Before I read Crime and Punishment, I have to admit that I was curious how a novel about a man’s state of mind would hold my attention. However, as you can see from my woeful attempts to summarize, this novel is about way more than that. Crime and Punishment (totally resisting the urge to call it C&P right now) deserves its fame, it is so rich in detail and setiment that there were times I found myself gasping aloud. I guess I have to admit that I read Crime and Punishment because it is Crime and Punishment, and therefore one must read it. I wasn’t attracted or interested in the plot, and I can honestly say that didn’t really know what to expect. Now, when people ask, I can say I read it, but I can also say that I invested in it emotionally far more than I ever thought I would.

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