Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Crime and Punishment

My own experience with Russian literature is somewhat limited, primarily to such dry and often dreary tomes as War and Peace, so I was expecting Crime and Punishment to be along the same lines. I can't say it wasn't dreary, but I was pleasantly surprised to find how interested I was in the story. I read the introduction before beginning the book, and I'm glad I did, because it really put everything into perspective. Of course, it also gave away the basic plot of the story, but that didn't keep me from wanting to read it. What fascinated me the most was that this book is basically a psychological thriller, and I didn't anticipate that when I pulled it off the library shelves. I actually found myself struggling with tension the entire time I was reading it, just knowing that Raskolnikov had committed a crime and that he wasn't going to get away with it--and most of all, that I couldn't stand him trying to get away with it. Even when things started looking up for him (as when that nutty fellow confessed), and Raskolnikov thought he was home free, I would still have that awful feeling at the pit of my stomach; he had something hanging over him, and he couldn't escape it.

There's been some debate among scholars about Dostoevsky's purpose in writing the book. Apparently, he lived during an era in which the "progressive" thinking was to rationalize all behavior in terms of its impact on society. In other words, Raskolnikov's killing the old woman could be justified because she was just a useless crone that nobody cared about anyway. Obviously, Raskolnikov (I'm getting sick of typing his name now) was carrying out an experiment, thinking that he might be a Napoleon who could do a small evil for a greater good. (There was a similar kind of idea that was ultimately rejected in that movie Kingdom of Heaven, if anyone saw it.) Some fool over at Amazon tried to claim that Dostoevsky believed in this rationalization and was trying to prove that Raskolnikov didn't necessarily do anything wrong in his action. But then again, why would it be Crime and Punishment...? Anyway, most scholars now agree that Dostoevsky's own life shows just the opposite, that he was instead strongly opposed to such thinking. He spent some time in prison for unwisely associating with the progressive set in his youth, and this book was born out of his moral reformation while serving his time.

Some scholars do find the ending a bit cheap, though, thinking that it tries to wrap everything up too nicely after Raskolnikov goes to Siberia. I'm not sure if I agree or disagree with this. It did happen a little quickly, but I think that was Dostoevsky's idea. For the entire length of the book, Raskolnikov fought his conscience. He knew he couldn't get away with his crime. He really only confessed because he knew the police were onto him. But he rejected any idea that the old woman was valuable--simply as a human being--until the end. I don't think the book would be quite as satisfactory without it.

I loved the character Sonia. I love that Dostoevsky chose a woman who would be at the very bottom of society, maligned by everyone for her lifestyle, and still found something beautiful and human about her. In a way, she's a contrast for the old woman. Raskolnikov found the old woman worthless, but everyone else would have seen Sonia the same way. I think Dostoevsky is trying to remind us that human value should remain in God's eyes alone. We can't be too quick to start dealing out death and judgment (did I just quote Gandalf?), because we see with biased eyes.

All that to say, I loved the book. I think it should be required reading for every high school student because of its strong position on the importance of human life. This could lead to a great discussion about abortion and the way that people justify it in the modern world. All in all, this one is a keeper for me.


At 10:29 AM, Blogger Sky said...

Well B. anything I say about the book will sound simple next your lovely review (which I thouroughly enjoyed!) but here are my thoughts;

I did not expect to like this book, I guess because so many "well knowns" have disappointed me immensely, but after reading a brief biography about Dostiyevsky and an introduction to Crime and Punishment I was reluctantly intrigued. I can't say that I enjoyed it but I was fascinated by it, the writing and depth of emotion grabbed me and pulled me into the story.

I was glad that the "for the greater good" theory wasn't shown as a way to help society. Rather, it showed that the cost of human life is great and no one should take lightly the responsibility of taking someone's life. As in everything that we do it will effect ourselves and those we love. Hence the whole "Do unto your neighbor as you would have him to unto you" rule.

I appreciated Sonya's part, she was the one who convinced Raskolnikov that what he had done was murder pure and simple, and once you have sinned against one you have sinned against all.

The walk through the streets to the police bureau in the end is so climatic and then he gets to the police bureau and walks out after a tremendously silly conversation! I felt such profound relief when R. finally confessed, he could start dealing with the things he wrestled with, because with justice there must be a certain amount of peace knowing that wrong has been accounted for.

All in all I am glad I read it and I should read it again someday to get even more out of it!
Thanks for expanding my literary horizan B!

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Carrie said...

I, too, will have little to add.

Having worked in a District Attorney's office, the title alone was intriguing. However, the classification of "Russian lit" was rather intimidating and I wasn't sure what Bonnie had gotten us all into!

I was hooked by chapter 2. I could tell it was something of a psychological thriller, and I honestly wasn't sure it was a good idea for me to keep reading! I knew I would become entirely wrapped up in the story. That is exactly what happened.

The part of the story that I found the most intriguing was Raskolnikov's published work re: the criminal act being accompanied by sickness/disease. I cannot fathom what the criminal mind must deal with after committing a crime. Esp. a murder. However, I can imagine that one would go slowly insane as one would then have to spend the remainder of their life with a regret that cannot be undone. I think Dostoevsky explained the inner workings of Raskolniikov's mind by the presentation of R's published work.

I was captivated by the story until the very end. I was disappointed in the way that Dostoevsky ended the story. I wouldn't have minded a couple extra chapters of explanation.

I don't think I agree with either Bonnie or Sky that Dostoevsky made a strong point through the character of either Dunya or Sonia of the value of human life. They both made it clear to Raskolnikov that they believed the act which he committed was a murder. They both recoiled at the idea that the old woman was worth "nothing." This is true. However, again, having worked at a District Attorney's office, I was put off by the lack of punishment in the end which, for me, erased anything that they might have said leading up to his time of "hard labor."

Certainly, there are mitigating factors which any defendant can mention to decrease his sentence. But previously saving a person from a burning building or taking care of a dying man doesn't really qualify. The only real defense Raskolnikov could have presented in order to have his sentence reduced as it was, was to plead insanity. Although his circle of friends and acquaintances certainly suspected him of it, it didn't seem to be an issue raised in the few paragraphs dedicated to his trial. Therefore a part of me was left dissatisfied with the outcome of the book and left me feeling generally cranky.

There was only one sentence that would have befitted Raskolnikov. Death. In this case I suppose the only way I can argue that this book has a good ending is to suggest that in the last few pages, when R is in prison and he pulls out the gospels, he discovers God's grace. If you argued from an angle that this book was about God's grace and forgiveness you might get somewhere -- however you'd still be ignoring His sense of justice.

So yes, after being enthralled the entire story, I ended up with a bad taste in my mouth at the very, very end. Still, I'd heartily recommend it. It IS a fascinating story.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Sky said...

I see what you mean about the death penalty Carrie, I agree with you. That is justice. It doesn't fix anything he did but it would be just.


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