CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Now this is where you start with Dostoevsky! I may have erred on the side of anticipation in first reading THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, but CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is really where I’d recommend one to start with the Russian Master. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is fantastic for a slew of reasons, not the least of which is its compulsive readability. I don’t mean at all to say that the translation was trite (and it isn’t–Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are renowned for their true-to-form Dostoevsky translations) or the concepts simplistic, this is just a case of one experiencing intrigue with a book of great ideas and insights.
The premise of the book is nothing less than the examination of what drives and shapes an intellectual murderer. Dostoevsky begins his “novel in six parts with epilogue” with an examination of the killer’s state of mind before the criminal act. The reader meets Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov one day before the act occurs and examines his motivations. We first learn that he harbors a self-centered opinion of the world around him. In nearly every interaction he believes himself to be the motivation. An example of this occurs early on when Raskolnikov reads a letter from his mother and deigns that both her decisions as well as his sister, Dunya’s, are motivated by the desire to bolster his well being. A second aspect of Raskolnikov, and probably the most notable, is his inability to connect with others. Raskolnikov craves a connection with humanity but always finds himself at an arm’s length, never fully capable of true companionship. The greatest driving force behind this disconnect is Raskolnikov’s belief that he is an intellectual rung above the masses. In most interactions Raskolnikov is forced to reckon with what he believes is the fact that he has a greater capacity to understand the world than his fellow man. As a result, he is never fully able to connect.
The first part of the novel concludes with the consummation of Raskolnikov’s crime: the murders of Alyona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta. It is slowly revealed, primarily through a published article entitled “On Crime,” that Raskolnikov’s world view consists of the notion that there exists two types of people in the world: the ordinary and the extraordinary. The ordinary people, according to Raskolnikov, exist merely to procreate and abide by the rules the extraordinary set. The extraordinary people do just that, interpret the world and set the rules and regulations by which the rest of the population live. As a result, Raskolnikov determines that the extraordinary set is thereby “exempt” from the laws of society for the sake of their world changing ideas. Desperately, Raskolnikov envisions himself a member of this latter set. In order to effectuate his notion, he decides to kill Alyona Ivanovna, an old “crone” who is essentially a shyster pawnbroker, in order to rob her. As a result, Raskolnikov believes that he will be eliminating a louse in order to benefit others. Terminologically speaking, he wishes to accomplish an act of utilitarianism, his great contribution to the world.
As the novel progresses, however, Raskolnikov comes to the realization that he may not be a member of his purported “extraordinary set.” Instead of feeling bolstered with purpose, Raskolnikov is burdened with paranoia and suppressed with guilt after the murders take place. He not only tortures himself with his guilt, but at the same time plays a tormented game of cat-and-mouse with the police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, who sees through his psychosis early on. Ultimately, and through Dostoevsky’s great skill for suspenseful writing, Raskolnikov’s works himself toward his ultimate confession of the crime.
Motivating Raskolnikov’s confession and assumed redemption is Sonya, the daughter of the peripheral but pivotal character Marmelodiov, a girl who has sacrificed herself to a life of prostitution in order to support her family. Sonya is motivated by her religion and love for her fellow human being: notably Raskolnikov. Through the companionship she demonstrates throughout the novel and epilogue Raskolnikov is able to come to terms with his need for human comraderie and submits to his love for Sonya. His ultimate submission gives the reader hope that Raskolnikov not only feels actual remorse for his crime, but will actually atone for it as well.
Raskolnikov’s story is wrought with insight into the human condition, which is in fact, the decisive lure of this book. Dostoevsky has such an excellent grasp of what motivates a person to do the unthinkable act of murder that the reader cannot help but be intrigued. The text is ample with characters that each act according to the code that the human condition requires, rendering the text originally published in Russian in 1866 timeless and universal. For anyone interested in deepening his/her understanding of the human condition I would certainly recommend beginning with CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.