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 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.