Friday, February 06, 2009

Crime and Punishment | Fyodor Dostoevsky

[My apologies for the formatting. This review contains spoilers].

The worst thing to do when you have a bad memory, is to test it publicly. Since it has been a couple of weeks since I finished this novel, and at least a month since I started it, I figured I would give a brief synopsis and leave the rest of the work to Dostoevsky himself.

"Crime and Punishment" is a haunting story of an idea which twists and infects the mind of Raskolnikov, a poor young man living in Russia. As Raskolnikov becomes more reclusive, his thoughts betray him until ultimately he decides that he must test out his theory - is he a man or is he a louse? He brutally kills an old moneylender and an innocent young woman who stumbles upon him at the scene of the crime. Raskolnikov gets away, but his own thoughts drive him to a state of madness.

He is convinced that there are a select few people who have original ideas:

"Generally speaking, there are extremely few people, strangely few, born, who have a new idea, or are even capable of saying anything at all new." 262

And he is upset that society has become complacent:

"We have been content to rub along on other people's ideas." 203

As such, he writes an article in a periodical about crime. The police chief investigating the murder of the moneylender finds this article, and they have a brilliant discussion about it. So begins the cat and mouse game, where the story really gets fascinating:

"It began with the Socialists' view. You know what that is: crime is a protest against the unnatural structure of society - and only that, nothing more, and no other causes are admissible - and that's all! ...they explain everything by the 'deleterious influence of the environment: and that's all! Their favorite cliche... From that it follows that if society is properly organized, all crimes will instantly disappear, since there will be nothing to protest against, and everybody will immediately become law-abiding. Nature is not taken into account, nature is banished, nature is not supposed to exist! In their philosophy, it is not humanity, following the path of historical, living, development to the end, that will finally evolve into the perfect society, but on the contrary, a social system devised by some mathematician's brain, will instantly reorganize humanity, make it righteous and innocent in a flash, with greater speed than any living process, and without the aid of living historical development!" 255-256

The encounter reaches a climax, when Raskolnikov states that some men should not have to follow the laws of society, because they are on the earth for a greater purpose:

"there are persons who are able, or rather, not who are able but who have every right, to commit any wrong or crime, and that laws, so to say, are not made for them." 258

Later, when he bumps into the woman he loves (Sonya), he confesses all including his desire to be one of these men who are above society's laws and prove himself as a man:
"I wanted to make myself a Napoleon..."

"...The point is this: on one occasion, I put this question to myself, what if, for example, Napoleon had found himself in my shoes, with no Toulon, no Egypt, no crossing of Mont Blanc, to give his career a start, but instead of those monumental and glorious things, with simply one ridiculous old woman, who must be killed to get money from her trunk (for that career of his, you understand?) - well, would he have made up his mind to do it if there was no other way? Would he have shrunk from it, because it was so unmonumental and... and so sinful? Well, I tell you I tormented myself over that 'problem' for a terribly long time, and I was terribly ashamed when at last I realized (quite suddenly) that not only would he not shrink, but the idea would never even enter his head that it was not monumental... and he would be quite unable to understand what there was to shrink from. And if there had been no other way open to him, he would have strangled her, without giving her a chance to squeak, and without a moment's hesitation!" 415
"I did not commit murder in order to use the profit and power I gained to make myself a benefactor to humanity. Rubbish! I simply murdered; I murdered for myself, for myself alone, and whether I became a benefactor to anybody else, or like a spider, spent the rest of my life catching everybody in my web and sucking the lifeblood out of them, should have been a matter of complete indifference to me at that moment! ...And, most important, it was not money that I needed, Sonya, when I killed; it was not money, so much as something else... I know all this now... Understand me; perhaps, were I to pursue the same course, I should not commit murder again. I needed to experience something different, something else was pushing me along; what I needed to find out then, and find out as soon as possible, was whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man." 419-420

Sonya, a woman who's belief in redemption is paramount (partly due to her own lifestyle and religious beliefs), believes Raskolnikov can be saved and falls in love with the one man who has treated her kindly despite her way of life (prostitution to keep her family alive):

"When a girl's heart begins to feel pity for a man, then of course she is in the greatest danger. She begins to want to 'save' him, and make him see reason, and raise him up, and put before him nobler aims and awaken him to a new life and new activities." 476-477

After turning himself in, Raskolnikov stews in his own thoughts:

"I myself wanted to benefit men, and I would have done hundreds, thousands, of good deeds, to make up for that one piece of stupidity - not even stupidity, but simple clumsiness, since the whole idea was not nearly as stupid as it seems now, when it has failed... (failure makes anything seem stupid!). " 520

"It's the form that's wrong, the form is not aesthetically satisfactory! Well, I definitely don't understand why smashing people with bombs in a regular siege is formally more respectable! Regard for aesthetic considerations is the first sign of inability to act!" 520

"Many benefactors of mankind who did not inherit power but seized it for themselves, should have been punished at their very first steps. But the first steps of those men were successfully carried out, and therefore they were right, while mine failed, which means I had no right to permit myself that step." 546

While in jail, Raskolnikov has a dream that is very telling of his own plight:

"When he began to recover he remembered the dreams that had visited him while he lay in his fever and delirium. He had dreamt in his illness that the whole world was condemned to fall victim to a terrible, unknown pestilence which was moving on Europe out of the depths of Asia. All were destined to perish, except a chosen few, a very few. ...Whole communities, whole cities and nations, were infected and went mad. All were full of anxiety, and none could understand any other; each thought he was the sole repository of the truth and was tormented when he looked at the others, beat his breast, wrung his hands, and wept... In the whole world only a few could save themselves, a chosen handful of the pure, who were destined to found a new race of men and a new life, and to renew and cleanse the earth." 548-549

The ending, according to some, was "too hollywood." I never saw it coming, and for that, I will always remember it. Whether it was good or bad, it was surely unexpected.

This novel had moments of brilliance in it, but there was a lot of dark brooding throughout that turned a lot of people off. It was definitely not a page turner, and while some feel sorry for Raskolnikov (who was a generous but tortured man who performed evil tasks), others would surely hate him and his story. All this said, the novel was worthy of a classic and one I enjoyed reading. It wasn't as haunting as "Notes from Underground" which was so chilling that I feel the effects of the short-story years later. However, despite my poor memory, "Crime and Punishment" will also remain in my thoughts for some time to come.

Other quotes:
"'Truly great men must, I think, experience great sorrow on the earth,' he added, suddenly thoughtful, as though to himself." 264

"Everybody can find some subject of conversation - the ladies, for instance, or fashionable people, people in high society, can always talk about something, c'est de rigueur, but middling people like us, thinking ones, that is, are all awkward and tongue-tied." 337


Amy said...

Hi. I have no idea if you keep up with comments on old posts, but I'll give this a shot anyway. I recently went through several book blogs (including yours!) to see their thoughts on Crime and Punishment, and I felt like I had something to add to your thoughts on Raskolnikov's moral theory. I'm not trying to self-promote, but if you're interested in another perspective of the motive for his crime, you can follow this link and let me know what you think:

Eclectic Indulgence said...

I think the concept of 'extraodinary man' and your idea are one in the same.

What it all boils down to, to me... is that Raskolnikov does not know who he is and he is trying to find out. He is lost, and sometimes when overwhelmed with too many thoughts and too many unknowns, become paralized. They cannot do anything with their life because they do not know where to start.

For instance, when I have an extra long list of actitivies to complete I get frazzled and inactive until I write them down and start to pull myself out of my hole by getting things done in a sequential matter. Imagine feeling so much about everything and wanting to change society, yourself, the world, etc... it's a lot to deal with in such big chunks.

If you thought about global warming, poverty, rising populations, food scarcity, abuse, etc all at the same time you would be paralized instead of just choosing something to focus on and going out to execute.

Raskolnikov needs to focus inwards before he focuses outwards, and in the end, this is how prison is supposed to rehabilitate. There is ample time for self reflection and not a lot of things you can control/do. It eliminates all the noise and lets you focus.

I foget the ending, so you'd have to refresh my memory so I can tell you how to fit that piece in. :)