Monday, 21 June 2010

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Once again, big thanks to Trish who hosts the Classics Challenge every year. I like reading classics, but because of the challenge, I read more than I might otherwise and I can challenge myself to read some I probably would never read without a bit of a push. Crime and Punishment definitely belongs to this last category. I have tried repeatedly read it but could never get past the horrible murder scene. I even once tried to watch the BBC adaptation, but, again, couldn’t get past the murder scene. I’ve always found the story disturbing and uncomfortable to read. The only thing that could make it any more disturbing is if I enjoyed reading it, because that would truly worry me.

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a young student in St. Petersburg who has dropped out of his courses and finds life difficult in all respects. At the beginning, he seems a little odd and slightly unstable. This quickly progresses to serious flirtation with insanity. He feels pressured from society, his family and himself in regards to finances and in the end talks himself into murdering an old pawnbroker and her sister, ostensibly to enable him to steal their fortune from them. He works himself up into quite a state in order to go through with it, so much so that he bungles the robbery, takes only a small amount of what was available and then uses none of it for his own benefit. Indeed his financial situation goes from bad to worse as the creditors move in and start to demand money from him. The stress of the robbery, his sister’s impending marriage to a man he feels is unworthy of her and the continual hounding by a policeman who suspects him of the murders but has no evidence weighs heavily on Raskolnikov in the following days. He becomes trapped in his own, no longer quite sane, mind and cannot judge how to act or react to the life which goes on around him. It’s as though he is living in a continual, delirious fever which makes him see life in a distorting mirror, completely preventing him from rational behaviour. He could pay his debts with the money he stole, but somehow doesn’t seem rational enough to do so. Even the money his mother borrowed to give to him goes on the funeral of a friend instead of towards his own comfort. Raskolnikov seems to be torn between his own social conscience, i.e. the need and goodness of helping other less fortunate people and his own need to survive. His initial intention was to steal to help himself, yet his conscience forces him to help others to the point of his own destitution.

Raskolnikov finally finds himself in a very difficult position. He knows they will never be able to prove he murdered and robbed the women, but neither can he stand the pressure. What to do? Dostoevsky compels the reader to ask himself what he would do himself in that situation. Knowing that the police would never be able to prove the slightest guilt seems to make the decision a given, but seeing Raskolnikov’s rapid decline forces the consideration of conscience and guilt. Would it really be so easy to ignore your own conscience or would it force you to yearn for penitence? After learning Raskolikov’s fate, it’s evident that Dostoevsky believes punishment is unavoidable. Either Raskolnikov will punish himself through his own conscience, or he will have to confess and receive formal punishment. It is also clear that Dostoevsky considers that (self) forgiveness and redemption can only be obtained through official punishment. The confession is necessary for true redemption of soul.

As I said, I found the whole book rather disturbing and uncomfortable. I suppose you could say that Dostoevsky achieved his goal by simply making the whole ordeal a worthless waste of life and sanity. That aside, I can see why this book is considered a classic and is still read today. Dostoevsky provides lots of material for discussion and food for thought with this work as despite the early 19th century setting, it still reflects modern social conflicts such as materialism vs. social conscience and the purposes or effectiveness of punishment. Did I like it? A resounding No to that. Did I find it a worthwhile read? Definitely, although I’m glad I won’t ever have to read it again. 5 out of 5 for being a great classic book.

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