Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Crime and Punishment

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"Good God!" he cried, "can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open... that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, blood... with the axe... Good God, can it be?"
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. 5

Dostoevsky second major novel (after "Notes from Underground") "Crime and Punishment" (1865) follows a poor St. Petersburg student , Rodin Romanovich Raskolnikov, and how he is at times elated and other times tormented in the aftermath of killing a woman pawnbroker and her sister in their apartment. Raskolnikov believes at times that the murders were justified, that the money he steals can be of benefit to many, he even gives some away to a struggling family of a drunken ex-civil servant.

At times he sees himself as a great man--another Napoleon, a proto embodiment of Frederic Nietzsche's "Ubermensch" -- believing his actions somehow are just because he is beyond good and evil and transcends morality by a twisted self-affirmation.

But at other times he is brought to despair and the impulse to confess his terrible crime. It is this duality in human nature that Dostoyevsky exploits so well---the currents of reason and irrational (or rational) fear that over takes us and makes either cowards or killers or fools or heroes if they are placed in a situation where they are driven beyond the borders of mundane life.

"But what can I tell you? I have known Rodion for a year and a half; he is moody, melancholy, proud, and haughty; recently (and perhaps for much longer than I know) he has been morbidly depressed and over-anxious aboud his health. He is kind and generous. He doesn't like to display his feelings, and would rather seem heartless than talk about them. Sometimes, however, he is not hypochondriacal at all, but simply inhumanly cold and unfeeling. Really, it is as if he had two separate personalities, each dominating him alternately."--Dimitri Prokofych Razumihin, on his friend Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment Part 3, Chapter 2.

Rereading the book after many years I was struck by how the author drives home this dichotomy of his main character. Like Shakespeare's Hamlet, he is torn between conscience and cold-bloodedness; between flights of egotistical haughtiness and anti-social behavior to acts of crippling doubt and a desire for simple understanding and forgiveness.

Dostoevsky desire for spiritual redemption is also at the heart of the story, not only for Rosolnikov but also for Sonia, the prostitute who also represents an ultimate victory of sorts over the depravity of the modern urban world through the Image of Christ. It is to modern minds an idealistic drive indeed, an avoidance of the great waves of technology and political theories that were so popular in Western Europe and so wrong for Russia (or so the author thought.)

Still, the story is great not for what it says about Russia's political or spiritual world that the author occupied, but for the keen insights into human behavior through characters that occupy a fully dimensional and all-too recognizable landscape. It is no wonder that Dostoevsky writings continue to be studied and admired.


  1. Thanks for your review of Crime and Punishment Doug. It is a book I started many years ago, but never finished it.

    There are a few books like that, which for whatever reason I never read right through, I travelled somewhere, or lost the book or something happened and I never reached the end of it.

    I found it almost impossible to pick those books up again in the short term, they were somehow spoiled goods in mind, they had lost their appeal in some way (symbols of failure perhaps?).

    But your review has inspired me to re-read and hopefully complete reading Crime and Punishment this time now that the decades have passed and I can again approach it 'as new', so to speak.

    Thanks for your observations here Doug, another book is added to my reading list.

    Cheers AA

  2. That certainly got my attention in my inbox! Not an author I have ever read, perhaps I should give this one a go.

  3. I didn't finish this one the first time I started either AA. The number of books I've started but never finished make an outstanding reading list for any lit major. It helped that the Barnes and Noble edition I picked up had so much good background and analysis I had not encountered previously.

  4. You're welcome Mike. Glad to pass it along.

  5. I found he's a rather intense writer, Iri Ani, though his scenes are generally not as bloody as in that passage.

  6. Read this ages ago. Powerful writing, very in-depth studies of the human character.

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. One of the best and most unstinting looks at the human character I've come across as well, Frank.

  8. Ah yes Crime and Punishment. I picked this up for a song in a secondhand bookshop. The person who owned it before me seemed somewhat frustrated and had underlined passages with question and exclamation marks. I too started this book and didn't finish it first time. I then took it on holiday where I picked it up again on a rainy day. Brilliant.

    Thank you Doug.

  9. Hahhaha--yes, I 've got a few second-hand paperbacks like that in the study. I've a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays that someone went to town on--concluding one essay on travelling in England. R.W. comments on the class system or customs of the classes or something, and then, my predecessor remarks with heavy underlining --"This is why Emerson's is full of ****!" ;-) I suspect he might have been a fellow countryman of yours.

    I glad I got around to reading "C & P" again this time--I got a lot more out of it than when I had in my university years. I was first blown away by this author with "Notes from the Underground" in my 10th grade lit class. This writer and Kurt Vonnegut were my favorite literary authors back then.