The last complete novel written by Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection is a tale of redemption that clocks just over 500 pages. It was written in 1899, and like many classic novels, covers timeless themes related to what it is to be human. I read Redemption not long after finishing Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky), but also a portion of The Gulag Archipelago (Solzhenitsyn). I suspect this gives me a bit of a bias when focusing on particular themes. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed this novel and am very likely to read it again. I put Resurrection on my list because it was Tolstoy. I was not disappointed.

Synopses claim that Resurrection is about a prince, Dmitry Nekhlydov. His actions have led to the downfall of his childhood love, Katerina Maslova. The majority of the novel follows Nekhlydov in his attempt to find repentance. This of course is the driving action of the plot, though I would say the piece is actually about responsibility, fairness, and ethics. In Crime and Punishment, it is presented that it is the nature of society which prescribes what acts are considered criminal. In Resurrection, the reader is asked to consider whom is responsible when crimes are committed. The main example is Maslova herself. Nekhyldov impregnates her. The resources available to her as a maiden are rescinded the moment she is discovered to be pregnant, yet this situation is not by her choice. Resurrection asks: Is Maslova responsible for what becomes of her, or is Nekhlydov?

I enjoyed the way that Tolstoy portrayed the ways that we affect each other. The prince makes his selfish, irresponsible choice and it is Maslova that suffers. Maslova no longer has access to her original support structure, and so must make concessions to adapt in order to survive. She ends up becoming a prostitute. This affects the people around her, which affects the people around them, which in turn affects society. Here is one of my favorite quotes from the entire novel, which may better illustrate this idea of one person creating ripples in the life of another:

“People are like rivers: the water in all of them is the same and everywhere identical, but each river has its narrows and rapids, its broad stretches and gentle currents, sections that are clear or cold, others that are muddy or warm. So it is with people. Each person carries within him the germ of all human qualities, showing some of them one moment, others the next, and sometimes acting right out of character, while always remaining the same.”

This idea that we are rivers is poignant in that we can not change or alter where we have come from. When we make mistakes, these felled branches, boulders, and sudden drops in the way of our waters characterize who we become. There is a sense of finality in that to move forward, we must accept that where we have been is an irremovable aspect to ourselves. I felt that Nekhlydov failed to understand this. His character continually tried to get back to the people he and Katerina were before the rape. Only once their paths divert does he see some other future for himself.

I also thought that Nekhlydov was continually making the error of defining himself by the expectations of others. In the beginning of the novel, he is awaiting a message from his mistress on whether or not she’ll release him from their affair. He wears the clothes he feels is befit a prince, surrounded by the servants and property he thinks is owed his station. He looks down upon others and feels socially justified for his behavior. Even as the novel progresses and he begins to use his position to assist others of lesser fortunes, Nekhlydov continues to make excuses for himself. He advantages his privilege as a noble on several occasions. The prevailing thought is more akin to “I’m a good person if I do good things,” vs. “I should do good things because they are good.” It was my feeling that he never deviated from narcissism. I thought that he wanted less to do for other people than to feel good about himself.

In this way, the path Resurrection takes was a little surprising for me. I anticipated when I was introduced to Nekhlydov that he would reinvent himself by the end of the story. I figured there would be a direct path from the realization of wrongdoing to becoming a better person for this prince. Instead, the peripheral characters better express the core theme. Katerina, or Katusha as the prince refers to her, becomes the heroine. (Herein we see another example of how Nekhlydov is trying to move backwards. He constantly uses Katerina’s diminutive -aka family pet name- insinuating that he has a closer relationship to her adult self than he actually does.) Katerina’s path seems pretty straightforward at first, but then turns into something new and rather inspired. She’s one-of-a-kind insofar as all the classics I’ve read.

This is not to say that following along with Nekhlydov through his efforts is altogether uneventful. One part that was particularly memorable to me was when the prince was trying to explain to the serfs whom worked his properties that he wanted to turn his land over to them. The difficulty they had in conceptualizing this significant change in their fortune expressed just how difficult it is for some of us to see how our lives can be different. Once a particular way of life is established, it can be quite difficult to see other opportunities. How does one break out of normal habit? Are the traditions we keep worth maintaining? Even positive change requires effort and disruption, while some will cling to what they’re used to no matter how painful it is.

Beyond this, the accompanied discussion of how to create equality when disseminating resources was interesting as well. No one person is entirely equal to another when considering physical ability, mental ability, heart, experience, or aptitude. How then do we decide what is fair? Is it possible for a group of people come to a singular agreement? Where does the balance lie between creating possibilities for the weak without inviting corruption among the strong? Though there are clear overtures to godliness and providing for the meek, I felt that it was realistic of Tolstoy to acknowledge that real people are not perfectly charitable.

What I enjoyed best about this novel was whom Katusha became. While continuing to hold relationships with other people, she grew into someone who was wholly herself despite the influences that the actions, thoughts, and motivations of others attempted upon her. I liked how she seemed to find herself.

Usually at this point I make recommendations on who would benefit from this novel, even these 123 years later. I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure how to approach this one. For as much as Nekhlydov thought he’d changed, I didn’t agree. I didn’t expect to see much from Maslova, and then she became my favorite character. I did have to compare what a character was claiming vs. their actual actions. I had to evaluate behaviors and choices (among the possible options) it seemed that any given character actually had. Resurrection took quite a bit of thought and consideration to mull over as I read through, while I doubt I caught all of Tolstoy’s cheekiness on the first read. He was quite the sociologist.

I’d say that if you have any interest in this novel, to give it a try. It does go slow in parts. You will get a feel for Russian culture along the way, through not to the same degree as War and Peace or even Anna Karenina. I think Resurrection is entirely fitting as the last complete novel of a deeply venerated author with decades of studying people and who they think they are.

Notes from Underground

First published in 1864 by Feodor Dostoevsky, this novel is approximately 130 pages long. Though short and simple insofar as the story revolves around the innermost thoughts of but one major character, it is also dense. I was constantly trying to figure out what kind of person the narrator was. I was distracted by his outlook and opinions, while I was evaluating whether I believed him to be right, while considering my own thoughts about his thoughts, as I was busy relating (or failing to relate) to what he was saying based on my own experiences. If this is something you intend on reading yourself, then be forewarned: Notes from Underground may provide you with several veritable rabbit holes for deep distracted thought.

The narrator in this novel is unnamed. At first, my impression was that I should imagine the voice to be of Dostoevsky himself. I am familiar with several of his characters from reading other novels, and it seems he was quite adept at developing personalities for his books whose mental and emotional states were often quite extreme. I thought that, maybe, the author was in crisis one day and had to “get it all out”. There is another way to look at it though. Perhaps Dostoevsky left the narrator unnamed not to absolve himself of the beliefs an opinions shared, but to imply that humans in general are routinely preoccupied by thoughts that are simply filtered before we share them with society. Interestingly, even though the novel exists, the narrator claims that he has no intended audience in mind.

So what is Notes from Underground about? It is a bit of a rant. The narrator references narcissism, self-hatred, jealousy, anger, paranoia, and inequalities of class structure. There are themes of superiority vs. inferiority, intelligence vs. stupidity, and camaraderie vs. isolation. The text is rife with contradictions, though it is presented in a way that is paradoxical and realistic. For instance, there is one scene where the protagonist is at a lunch table eating with friends, but his mind is so distant from being present with them that he is only arguably part of the group.

The narrator refers to feeling invisible, “like a fly.” It seems a simple metaphor until the thought is repeated. “They must despise me,” he thinks, “[I] did not expect [my friends] despising me.” The reader has no reason to think that the narrators’ friends do despise him. After all, they have invited him to the lunch and are having quite a time chatting and laughing all around him. Meanwhile, the narrator calls himself an “insect” and grows irritated that they are not annoyed at his insulting them. It is all impervious fun to them, whom apparently do not realize he’s being serious. (But maybe he’s a ‘sensitive soul’, and his friends are a raunchy collective of men who seek humor by demeaning their brothers all in ‘good fun’? Maybe he has a right to be annoyed.)

I was initially inclined to think of the narrator as quite normal. Awhile into the novel, I changed my mind and decided that he was disturbed. Certain details seemed to imply this. For instance, in the beginning of the novel, he talks of a man he passed in the street whom he stepped aside for. (The narrator’s choices were to step aside, collide into the man, or expect the other man to step aside.) The narrator’s choice to move was internalized as an act of self-deprecation, which he then obsesses about. To him, it matters that it was he whom got “out of the way”. The narrator works himself up to give it another go, crosses paths with the same man in the same way, and then he suffers grievously after having stepped aside yet again. This then festers in him for over a decade. ‘Why should it matter whom stepped aside’ I figured, ‘He must be irrational’. (Then again, I remember things that happened to me over twenty years ago which occasionally resurface, and certainly many people seek therapy for similar things.)

I believe that it is too simple to say that the narrator’s mind is diseased. Perhaps he is depressed. Schizophrenic? Just brutally honest with himself? There seems to be a disconnect between the thoughts he has and his ability to question whether his perceptions are true. And, with each negative thought he has, it appears to push him further towards a capacity for malignant behavior. Even when his girlfriend tries to reason with him and explain that he is “upsetting [himself] about nothing”, he struggles to hear her through his own tirade of thoughts. (Though, we know nothing of his girlfriend outside the narrator’s perceptions of her. We know he feels drawn to her, but does he have actual reasons to mistrust her? What has their relationship been beyond that one shared discussion?)

In Notes from Underground, the reader is there to follow along as the narrator spirals downward. (Or does he?) We are witness to each unabashed thought he has along the way, while I found it to be interesting and a bit terrifying. It is charged with emotion and uncertainty. I thought I had the narrator pegged, but now I’m unsure. Maybe what has happened to him started out as a small thing, and then developed into an illness the more isolated he felt. Maybe he is like many of us, terrorized by thoughts we never dare to share with others. Maybe he’s normal. Maybe normal is abnormal.

I didn’t necessarily enjoy Notes from Underground, though I would call it quintessential Dostoevsky. It may seem disconnected and erratic for someone whom has not read his works before. (It may seem disconnected and erratic for someone who has…) What I liked best about it is also what I found the most frustrating: I’m not really sure what I read, even though I’ve thought quite a bit about it.

Crime and Punishment

First published on 1 January 1866 by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment is one of the most pivotal pieces of classic Russian literature. There are few titles that are more well known in this genre, perhaps save War and Peace or Anna Karenina. If you are like me though, you heard the name Dostoevsky before you were able to name anything he had written.

I read Crime and Punishment for the first time about two years ago. I finished it for the second time just last month. Currently there are 28 people on Goodreads who claim to be reading it, and 350 who intend on picking it up. Compare this to the currently re-popularized Dune with 115K readers, or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time book Eye of the World (which was made into a television series whose first season just finished airing on Amazon Prime) with 38.6K readers. Crime and Punishment is grossly unloved.

Surely this is not because the themes and material is no longer relevant. Instead, I would propose it has more to do with the fact that this approximately 670 page romp through psychopathy and ethics is somewhat imposing to those who would see it as belonging only to lovers of classic lit. I would challenge this inclination. Given our peculiar intrigue with sociopaths and criminal drama, the antics of protagonist Raskolnikov would probably interest a larger populace than the average reader may think.

It begins with a thought. Raskolnikov wonders what it would feel like to have killed somebody. There is no other motive. It does not matter who. He even has little concern for how, though he’d prefer not to get caught. This crucial lack of planning creates a dynamic situation where the most astonishing thing is that Raskolnikov manages to not only perform his crime, but escapes the scene. It’s all a bit of macabre luck which leads to a tumult of thoughts that then oscillates between rationalizations and doubt. Could it be that his community is “better off” without the murdered individual? Should he turn himself in? Maybe he was meant to get away, and that is why happenstance allowed him to flee.

As the novel progresses, the depth of thought regarding acts outside of the social norm begs a more serious question: what is crime? Who decides what is construed as criminal? From the moment Raskolnikov committed his ‘experiment’, he is plagued by worries of being found out and the desire to confess. Was he ever again a free man, or merely a prisoner of his own mind?

Posing questions like these is one thing that I think Dostoevsky does very well. Characters throughout his novels exhibit extremes in emotion that is at some times manic, but always drives the plot. For instance, Raskolnikov falls ill to his anxiety at one point in Crime and Punishment, and the reader is paused to consider whether to feel bad for him. Okay, if we cannot feel sympathy towards him, then what about his well-meaning friend? His sister? His mother? Raskolnikov is still capable of offering a positive impact upon people around him not much later in the novel. Is he redeemable? Do we excuse his foray as a sociopath, if otherwise innocent individuals can benefit from his remaining in society?

Where exactly do we draw the line between behavior that is preferable, from that which is acceptable, vs. dubiously excusable? How much do the ties of family, friendship, and love bias us? Are the monikers of good and evil appropriate labels for certain people, or simply their actions? And, should we fall prey to our impulses, how should retributions and restorations be defined?

The Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia

The rabbit hole of considerations dives deep, though not too swiftly. Kindly enough, Fyodor starts his reader out with contemplation of simpler vices. The very first example we’re given is of a man who has exchanged the money his family needed for food in favor of drink. While inebriated, he laments of his own shortcomings and wails of how unfortunate it is that his obsession with vodka is ruining their lives. Another vignette demonstrates the folly of over-inflated expectations and the cruelty that can ensue from blindly following the crowd.

For those less inclined to self-medicate or are particularly gifted with willpower, there are questions still. How much effort should we put towards salvaging people from the situations they create for themselves? Is it right for the noble among us to suffer on behalf of the selfish and depraved? Even if it isn’t right, does the act of shouldering those impositions not somehow define the “goodness” of those types of people?

I will easily admit that Crime and Punishment is not a simple novel, nor a pretty one. There are a few scenes that I’d say are somewhat grotesque. I’ll say that I doubt our dear Dostoevsky was a very stable man, but also, that his works comprise about 30% of the Russian literature on my radar. The Idiot, The Double, and Notes from Underground are still on my ‘to read’ list, while I’ve been through Brothers Karamazov, The Gambler, and White Nights at least once.

Crime and Punishment is insightful and thought-provoking. Though it may not be considered very light reading, it is nevertheless a worthwhile novel whose reflections of the human soul elicit truths that are often depressing, sometimes maddening, and even a bit horrific. I would recommend it to anyone not shy of looking deep within, and asking themselves who they would be if not for the constraints of the society in which they live.