Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Of all the Russians I've read so far, Dostoyevsky is by far the most challenging, and Crime and Punishment his most difficult work. I did not at all enjoy any of it. Let me acknowledge at the outset that the fault lies not in the book but in my ability to enter fully into the Russian literary mind.
Russian literature has always been a challenge for me. Something happens to books as I move east of the Oder River and the Carpathian mountains, and it is not just that the language changes. The Russian way of thinking is different enough from ours as to seem alien to me. Their habits of speech, their manners, even the way they address one another are just a little odd. In most prose, there is a rhythm, almost a cadence that is unique to every author. I can never quite get into the flow of Dostoyevsky. Every time I try to find a rhythm to settle into, up comes an obstacle in the form of a new name for an old character, or an almost completely incongruous statement from a character that seems to stick out at right angles from the story. My train of thought is derailed almost before it leaves the station and I am left to pick up the pieces and start over again.
Even were it not for the difficulties with the Russian style, I am not sure I could ever bring myself to like Crime and Punishment. It reminds me of a story Dickens might have discarded because it is too depressing. Most everyone who is familiar with classic literature knows something about the plot. A young man who fancies himself an intellectual conceives and commits a terrible crime, mostly for the purpose of proving to himself that he can do it and get away with it. Already on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the guilt of his crime threatens to push him over the brink of insanity. Haunted by fear, stalked by strangers who seem to know more about him than he knows himself, baited by the police, he walks the precipice of self-destruction until, through the love of his friends, family, and a young woman, he is redeemed. He confesses his crime, pays his debt to society, and moves on to become a good man. Well and good, but it is not the plot that I stumble over. It is the gloom, the oppressive atmosphere that permeates nearly every page of the book.
The main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, is the anti-hero who commits the despicable crime. At no point in the book is he likable. Nothing about him is admirable. Obsessed with his own self-importance, or lack thereof, he shambles through the book in a haze of self-inflicted misery. He is surrounded by many who love and care for him, yet he rejects their advances on every side, preferring to stay wrapped in his pain.
He lives in one of the more depressed districts of Moscow, having abandoned his studies at the university and a post as a tutor to live in relative squalor. Not long after he commits the crime, his mother and sister, Pulcheria and Avdotya, move to Moscow. His sister has entered a marriage contract with a strange man in order to save the family from poverty and enable Raskolnikov to continue his studies. They do not understand the true reason he has left the university has little to do with a lack of funds. Raskolnikov objects to the match, particularly because of the willingness of his sister to sacrifice her future for his, which only increases his agitation.
In addition to his mother and sister, Raskolnikov, encounters a number of people who will seek to influence him as he struggles with the consequences of his actions. In his semi-delirium, he seeks out a fellow student, Dimitri Razhumikin, who goes to great lengths to help him get back on his feet. Raskolnikov stumbles into a bar where he encounters Semyon Marmeladov, an alcoholic with a consumptive wife, starving children, and an older daughter, Sofya, who has turned to prostitution to save their lives. Arkady Svidrigailov, a lecherous, adulterous old man who had designs on Avdotya, shows up in Moscow with a fortune in rubles and a burning desire to see Raskolnikov. And Pyotr Luzhin, the man betrothed to Avdotya, who turns on her only to begin a campaign against the seemingly doomed Sofya.
All of these characters drift into and out of the focus of Raskolnikov and are quickly divided into two camps; those who seek to manipulate him to their own ends, and those who seek his redemption. There is a great deal of development in the characters who surround Raskolnikov, but he, himself, is nearly paralyzed by the combination of their influence and his guilt. Manic in his behavior, he alternates between near catatonia and frantic action, one moment huddled on the couch in his flat, the next marching down to the police station to bait, and be baited. Emotionally he swings between radical highs based on his conviction that he has gotten away with his crime, and the despair of believing that everyone knows what he has done and is manipulating him.
Slowly, agonizingly (for me), he finds his way through the fog. In his more lucid moments, Raskolnikov and Sofya begin a tentative relationship. Against his will, he begins to love her, and she him. This love will be the catalyst for his confession and ultimate redemption. But it takes nearly 400 pages of slogging through Raskolnikov's fog to get to this point. By the time it arrived, I almost did not care. It was too little too late.
So why five stars if I disliked the book so much? Because I cannot deny its excellence and power. Crime and Punishment is a brilliant work of art. Dostoyevsky was no hack; he knew exactly what he was doing. If the main protagonist is unlikeable, it is because Dostoyevsky wished him so. But why would a writer like Dostoyevsky create such a despicable hero? Crime and Punishment is not about the crime of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. It is about grace. Raskolnikov and the grace he receives are metaphors for the unmerited favor the Christian receives from God when he repents. Despicable as he is, Raskolnikov is no different from anyone who has ever lived and fallen short of the glory of God. He is the mirror image of myself, if I am completely honest. The love that he receives from his family and friends is not unlike the love I receive from God that calls me to repentance.
Crime and Punisment is also an amazing study in contrasts and an indictment of false humility. Raskolnikov lives in poverty mostly by choice. His misery is entirely self-inflicted. At any time, he could resume his studies, receive students, and return to a meaningful, productive life. His rejection of these things is akin to the Marxist rejection of the way of life that makes his very life and rejection possible. (Though Crime and Punishment predates Zarathustra, Raskolnikov gives every appearance of being Dostoyevksy's response to the idea of the Nietzchean superman and the Marxist ideal.) Raskolnikov imagines himself as a new Napoleon of sorts, one who wants to identify with the poor. This is contrasted against the truly poor Sofya and her family. Victim of her father's alcoholism, trapped by his sudden death, left with nothing to market but her body, Sofya is the original of which Raskolnikov is the counterfeit, a fact that contributes to his mental agitation.
In spite of her circumstances, she possesses a nobility of character that is a mystery to Raskolnikov. This is another of Dostoyevsky's contrasts. Not only Sofya, but all those who are genuinely interested in his well being are possessed of noble souls. He is shamed by them, even as he tries to rise above something he considers to be as mundane as shame and nobility. Against them are set the manipulative Pyotr Luzhin and Arkady Svidrigailov, men of wealth and station for whom no act is so low that they will not stoop to it to achieve their ends.
I could go on about the ironies and contrasts, but the most overwhelming characteristic of the book is grace. The love Raskolnikov receives, the grace he is offered are burdens to him until he accepts them. Only when he does so is he fully free, even though he sits in a Siberian prison. Likewise, the love of God is a heavy burden to bear as long as I do not accept it. Like the criminal, I waste away until the time I confess, repent, and accept. Once that is done, it is finally possible, not only for Raskolnikov, but for me, to enter fully into life, regardless of my external circumstances.
For these reasons, and many more, I can recommend Crime and Punishment. It is not an enjoyable reading experience, but is one that edifies and rewards the reader.