Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment takes it’s self very seriously. It is not an undertaking to be embarked upon lightly. That being said, I did enjoy the change of pace. This is a book I was supposed to read in high school. Needless to say, that pretty much means that it was totally new to me.

Crime and Punishment was a 500-page comment on the effects of social alienation and poverty. What extent can you excuse a person’s actions because they were “pushed too far” or “couldn’t control themselves?” This theme is mostly seen in Raskolnikov, the main character and “protagonist.” Raskolnikov is a former student who has fallen on hard times. For no evident reason, he is fixated on the idea of killing an old pawnbroker he has a slight acquaintance with. He may be motivated by money, but that doesn't seem to be his primary goal. Eventually, he surprises himself by carrying out the murder, but ends up having to kill the pawnbroker’s sister when she comes in and witnesses the crime. Raskolnikov experiences intense mood swings throughout the whole book. One moment he is elated and happy about his crime, the next he is wracked with such guilt that he sinks into deep, overwhelming depression. It’s pretty obvious that he is experiencing a mental break, which would explain the need to murder in the first place. Eventually, Raskolnikov turns himself into the police. Where he (happily) spends his remaining days in jail.

The reason Raskolnikov is such an extraordinary character is because he presents a real problem to the reader. He is a murder, a lunatic, but yet somehow we end up rooting for him. There isn’t actually anything likable about Raskolnikov, but I found myself sympathizing with him. He felt out of control, hopeless, alone. I think everyone feels like that sometimes. An interesting comment is that the name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word raskolnik, which means divided. Divided is a perfect way to describe Raskolnikov’s feelings and actions. 

Crime and Punishment is perhaps the first book I read that so completely switches the role of protagonist and antagonist. Raskolnikov is the protagonist and Porfiry Petrovitch the antagonist. Raskolnikov is a first-degree murderer and Porfiry is the hard working detective who wants justice. Porfiry even goes so far as to apologize for first suspecting Raskolnikov. How does Dostoyevsky so convincingly make the case for Raskolnikov? I’m not really sure. I think it’s because of the bleakness of the book. St. Petersburg is painted as such a dirty, dismal place, and Raskolnikov so destitute and depressed, that somehow unthinkable choices seem more reasonable. 

Raskolnikov’s actions can also be viewed in another way. Immediately after the murder he felt elated, and invincible. It takes a while for him to spiral down into all consuming depression. In the beginning of the novel he viewed himself as above the rules, and better than general society. It takes him a while to realize he is merely another man.  As he feels the affects of guilt, Raskolnikov realizes that he is bound by the same moral code as any other man. He can’t commit murder because he is just like everyone else, and therefore bound by the same rules. This "superman" theory is a popular interpretation of Crime and Punishment. This is the one thing I remember my teacher talking about it high school. Now I see where he was coming from.

Sonia and Raskolnikov represent interesting parallels. They are both sinners, but she sacrifices herself for her family while he sins for his own selfish (and irrational) gains. When Raskolnikov first meets Sonia he assumes that she would understand his motivations because she is living in sin as well. Surprisingly, she does react very well when he admits the murder to her. But it is not because she agrees with what he has done, but because she can find the good in everyone. This ties in the theme of poverty. Sonia is basically an angel by personality but pushed into prostitution and social alienation by poverty.

The whole novel is written in a bleak, depressing tone. I could almost feel the dirt from the streets crawling over my skin. I think Dostoyevsk’s skill as a writer kept me focuses when I would have otherwise grown board of the density of Crime and Punishment. Yet even though it is not necessarily a fun read it’s very interesting. It illustrates the gritty side of humanity all too well. 

No comments:

Post a Comment