Thursday, June 06, 2013

243. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky*

Crime and Punishment (485; 1866)* by Fyodor Dostoevsky is the first book I have read by the author and the third by a Russian. It contributes towards fulfilling the Year of Russian Literature objective. A lot has been said about how great this book is; it is on almost every 'Best Books' list including my reading challenge list - the Hundred Books to be Read in Five Years. It has been reviewed so much that there possibly is nothing more to add. However, like Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, and all my reviews here on this blog, I will attempt to put down how I understood the book; not how it has generally been received.

Crime and Punishment introduced me to the oft-quoted statement or insinuation that the Russians are 'the world's hardest writers'. Perhaps one could also include the Germans. In C&P, Dostoevsky takes the reader on a mental or psychological tour of the thought-processes, the minutest details, of decision-making; of creating or establishing reasons to influence, positively or negatively, responsibility-taking; of the arduous workings of the conscience and how guilt or otherwise is established, psychologically; and how the latter could have physical effects on the victim or the perpetrator.

In addition to the above, which was treated through the life of Rodya - or Raskolnikov Romanovich, Dostoevsky discussed the essence of a crime: when is crime a crime? Is there anything like negative Iatrogenics in crime (or is a crime to a crime if it averts future crimes)? Are you a criminal if your crime goes to prevent a more devastating crime or a series of crimes whose cumulative impact would have been greater than that singular crime? What happens if you murder a person whose existence would have confined others to a life of torture? Is there any difference between an individual who kills another individual and a soldier who goes to war to kill people?

Raskolnikov is a student. He is kindhearted. All who knew him attest to his kindness. He cares not that he had not. He could and did spend his last rouble (or copeck) on complete strangers if he finds that they needed it more than he did. Yet, upon hearing of a rich old spinster who is a pawn-broker and had acquired wealth through such means in connivance with some unscrupulous individuals and through deviousness and wickedness and who mistreated her step-sister and had made a slave out of her, Rodya set out to commit a crime. This crime was to eliminate this woman, this stain. In effect, to correct a wrong. There is, however, a conundrum as to the cause for which the murder was committed.

First, Rodya has a theory about men. He believes that there are two groups of men: ordinary men and extraordinary men. Ordinary men are conservative in temperament and law-abiding and are meant to be controlled. Extraordinary men 'make new laws, transgress the law, are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities'. They have the right to commit crimes or transgress the laws if it shall lead to a better future. They go all lengths to realise their ideas and that includes transgression. These individuals live in the future. They are killed today and worshipped tomorrow, unlike the first category which lived only in the present. 
The first category is always the man of the present, the second the man of the future. The first preserves the world and the people in it, the second move the world and lead it to its goal. Each class has an equal right to exist.  [223]
Thus, the two categories are required to complement each other. However, once in a while an ordinary man attempts to behave like an extraordinary man, which leads to chaos. Thus, in the killing of the Ivanovna sisters - one planned, the other an inevitable occurrence - Rodya wanted to take power. He wanted to find out, which group he exactly belonged to. He says that 
'... power is only vouchsafed to the man who dares to stoop and pick it up. There is only one thing, one thing needful: one has only to dare!...' [352]
Thus with this, Rodya claimed that he committed the murder not for the wealth or power, he only did it for himself. One would have thought that power lies in becoming an extraordinary man who could step over moral barriers. He tells Sonia - a girl of numerous problems,
It wasn't to help my mother I did the murder - that's nonsense - I didn't do the murder to gain wealth and power and to become a benefactor of mankind. Nonsense! I simply did it; I did the murder for myself, for myself alone, and whether I became a benefactor to others, or spent my life like a spider catching men in my web and sucking the life out them, I couldn't have cared at that moment ... [353]
Prior to Rodya's confession to Sonia, he had explained to Luzhin - a man who wanted to marry Dounia (Rodya's sister) - that his explanation of the trickle-down effect of wealth, which requires that an individual should first seek his self-interest, will cause people to commit murder.
'Why, carry out logically the theory you were advocating just now, and it follows that people may be killed...' [131]
The particular reason for the crime is unresolved. Though he had argued and explained that the murder results directly from his wish to be a man - an extraordinary man - and was not for the money, during his trial he stated his poverty, his financial hopelessness, his deprivation and his zeal to provide the first steps in his life, as the causes of the murder.
To the decisive question as to what motive impelled him to the murder and the robbery, he answered very clearly with the coarsest frankness that the cause was his miserable position, his poverty and helplessness, and his desire to provide for his first steps in life with the help of the three  thousand roubles he had reckoned on finding. [450]
And was he sorry for it? On the issue of guilt, his was not expressed in the light of 'shouldn't have been'. He however, described himself a coward due to his behaviour after the crime and not because of the crime. For the crime, he cogently defended it that it will save forty sins:
'Crime? what crime?' he cried in a sudden fury. 'That I killed a vile noxious insect, an old pawnbroker woman, of use to no one!... Killing her was atonement for forty sins. She was sucking the life out of poor people. Was that a crime? I am not thinking of it and I am not thinking of expiating it, ... [436]
Further he compared his crime to soldiers who after battle receive medals. He explained that there was no difference between what he has done for which he is being crucified and what soldiers do for which they are decorated.
I fail to understand why bombarding people by regular siege is more honourable. [437]
Yet as an ordinary man, Rodya was tormented by his sin. He fell into the very mental state he had written about in an article whose publication he was oblivious of. In that article, he had explained the psychological state of criminals after they have committed a crime. These torments made him want to give himself up; he was prepared to face his just punishment and be relieved.

There was also the love-story thread between Sonia and Rodya. In his time of solitude and torture, Rodya sought solace in Sonia. To her he confessed. To her he sought salvation. And it was she who saved him. It was the persistence of her love, even when it was unrequited and shunned. It was her willingness not to demand answers, explanations, but to share in Rodya's sorrows that saved them - for she was herself described as 'a woman of questionable character' - and renewed him. In the end, love overcame all.

Just as in War and Peace, Dostoevsky - as an author - at two places or more showed himself in addressing the reader or included himself in the people. Also, like Tolstoy and other authors of classics, they quote or refer to works of fiction or non-fiction or emerging ideas in several fields of knowledge. They show their full involvement in the intellectual discourse of the times and indirectly indicate their positions. This is interesting as it can lead to a chain-reaction of learning.

Crime and Punishment is a book that is worth the read. It belongs to that category of books that provide knowledge and discuss ideas. These are my preferred books.
* This is my 700th post at ImageNations, since I began in the middle of 2009. As a milestone blogpost, I dedicate this to all my readers.
*Version by Wordsworth Classics (2000) translated by Constance Garnett.
*Some Quotes from the book


  1. I have read Crime and Punishment in school. It was a part of the Russian literature program. In very deed, there are a lot of symbolic features in the novel (names and titles for instance, which by the way can be hardly translated into English) and detailed descriptions of a true Russian temper. Great book and great Fyodor Dostoevsky indeed!

    1. Exactly Maria. this is what I was referring to when I raised that discussion on translation. A lot is lost in translation and a book is best understood, in all its elements, when read in its original language. Yet, some tradeoffs are necessary if we want to read wide and from different cultures.


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