Song of the Day: ‘Heart’s A Mess’ by Gotye
We are back to the book reviews. It has certainly been a long time since I last wrote one despite how long my list of books has grown. Let’s not even bring up the movie list. One day at a time. Today’s topic of discussion is Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s landmark novel, Crime and Punishment. And what an undertaking!
The first time I ever heard of Dostoyevsky was whilst in Pakistan as a teenager. One of my hostels mates gave me Crime and Punishment, which she had borrowed from her brother. I found the names confusing (it was my first exposure to Russian names), especially with the constant switch between diminutives and patronymics so it was hard to keep track of what was going on. Once I had figured out a system to keep the names straight, I stumbled upon another problem: the lengthy, nineteenth-century Russian style of writing that felt as though one were reading a philosophical treatise or something. However, the more I read, I found it to be a smoothly flowing and fascinating story of a young man who succumbs to the most base of desires and the impact it has on him psychologically on him and those around him. I loved it! Years late, reading Dr. Jekyll and Hyde for a critical theory class, I asked my professor if I could reference Crime and Punishment.
Anyways, I re-read it for the purposes of this review. I fell in love with it once again. I certainly appreciate it even more. Many things that I had overlooked then make more sense. Probably because I now have a more informed knowledge of nineteenth-century Russian society and the hotbed of contradictory ideas it was. If anything, it re-affirmed why Dostoyevsky remains one of my favourite authors of all time.
Crime and Punishment comprises of six parts set in Saint Petersburg, a mostly monochrome, rank smelling city beset with poverty, drunkenness and debauchery; and an epilogue set in Siberia, the scene of our protagonist’s redemption. In Part I it’s poverty-stricken protagonist, Raskolnikov, carries out his long-held plan to kill Alyona Ivanovna, a mean old pawnbroker. He compounds his crime by killing her half-sister, a harmless, downtrodden drudge, who appears unexpectedly as Raskolnikov is ransacking the house. Part II to VI deal with Raskolnikov’s mental anguish as his belief in the justification of his action does battle with his fear of being caught and his stirring conscience. And finally, the epilogue deals with Raskolnikov’s trial, sentencing and imprisonment in Siberia.
The novel is populated with memorable characters. And what a diverse group of characters! Each is fleshed out, each is marvellously complex. Svidrigailov, a nihilist on par with Shakespeare’s Iago and Edmund, who when his advances are spurned by Raskolnikov’s self-sacrificing sister, Dunia, commits suicide. Razumikhin is the talkative, gregarious, good-hearted, insecure and destitute student. Sonia Marmedalov, the tragic child-prostitute driven into prostitution by her indigent stepmother, who watches Raskolnikov on his downward spiral into mental anguish and paranoia, and having fallen in love with him, urges him, and gives him moral strength he needs, to confess his crime, which he does at the end of Part VI. Petrovich is the self-important, self-made man, completely out of touch with his own humanity. And so many others. Each feels like we know them because we have met people like them. They fit within our understanding of the way human beings are.
The protagonist (more anti-hero) Raskolnikov is one of the most interesting characters written in fiction. He is a walking contradiction. On one hand, he appears to be a very cold, indignant, scornful man who feels superior to others as per his intelligence – an ‘extraordinary’ man embodied in an article he published a few months to his crime. The investigative detective, Porfiry, challenges what he sees as Raskolnikov’s contention in that article that there are ‘certain individuals who are able … or rather not so much able as fully entitled … to commit all manner of outrageous and criminal acts, and that they are, as it were, above the law.’ Raskolnikov, however, rejects, this interpretation and explains ‘that an “extraordinary” has the right … to permit his conscience to step over … certain obstacles, but if and only if the fulfilment of his idea (one that may even bring salvation to all humanity) demands it.’ In short, for ‘extraordinary’ people, the end justifies the means. On the other, he is a generous and self-sacrificing man driven by his emotional impulses. He is moved by love, sympathy, altruism, and the desire to aid, heal and comfort suffering.
And no better commentary has ever been written on Crime and Punishment than the passage in The Prelude where Wordsworth explains how abstract reason dupes itself in its dialectic with the irrational:
This was the time, when, all things tending fast
To deprivation, speculative schemes –
That promised to abstract the hopes of Man
Out of his feelings, to be fixed thenceforth
For ever in a purer element –
Found ready welcome. Tempting region that
For Zeal to enter and refresh herself,
Where passions had the privilege to work,
And never hear the sound of their names.
The last two lines of this passage define the theme of Crime and Punishment with far more exactitude than the mountain of critical theory on Dostoyevsky.
While the rational ‘extraordinary’ Raskolnikov is the inspiration for Nietzsche’s Superman and the prototype of the existentialist anti-hero, Dostoyevsky’s characters are, in the main, multi-dimensional. The interplay among them, their complex psychology and the many philosophical questions they raise contribute greatly to the novel’s enduring renown.
There is so much more to talk about: the character of Raskolnikov, which is meticulously and carefully revealed; the sense of isolation which descends on him after committing his crime; the cat and mouse game played on him by the police detective. I could go on and on. This is not even the place to discuss the historical and social context in which it takes place. Suffice it to say, this is a very rich book.
Sit down. Relax. Take your time. Savour it. It will be a very rewarding experience. I can’t recommend it enough.
Till Next Post!
PS: Read Frank’s essay ‘The World of Raskolnikov’ for the historical context and philosophical ideologies at play in this novel.
PPS: I’ve never really been much of a stamp collector but this one I want. The sentimental value is simply priceless!