Review: “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

fyodor dostoyevsky crime and punishment book cover goodreads
Original background cover photo credit: Photo by Natalia Ventskovskaya on Unsplash

At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S—y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K—n Bridge.

Crime and Punishment, Part 1 opening

Author: Fyodor DostoyevskyRichard Pevear (Translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (Translator)
Publication Date:  March 2nd 1993 by Vintage Classics (first published 1866)
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Genre: Classic Russian Literature
Find it on: Goodreads

Synopsis

Raskolnikov, a destitute and desperate former student, wanders through the slums of St Petersburg and commits a random murder without remorse or regret. He imagines himself to be a great man, a Napoleon: acting for a higher purpose beyond conventional moral law. But as he embarks on a dangerous game of cat and mouse with a suspicious police investigator, Raskolnikov is pursued by the growing voice of his conscience and finds the noose of his own guilt tightening around his neck. Only Sonya, a downtrodden prostitute, can offer the chance of redemption.

From Goodreads

Review

Dostoyevsky’s translated Russian work Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece portrayal of the intimate psychological state of a murderer. Main character Raskolnikov is a burgeoning student of law and philosophy on temporary leave of classes due to financial destitution. His musings on morality and objective societal ‘value’ eventually lead him to a dangerous mental model wherein everyone has a particular amount of ‘goodness’ they contribute, and murder may be justifiable in some circumstances. Driven to act by a series of coincidences and burdensome debt, Raskolnikov does the unthinkable. For the majority of the book thereafter readers witness the effects of this loathsome act on his conscience, the physical breakdown resulting from mental anguish, and a cumulative shift in how these altogether alter how he interacts with others in society.

The groundwork for Raskolnikov’s crime is laid when he comes to the controversial conclusion in his philosophical ponderings that there are ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ people. Those who are ordinary preserve the status quo of the present. In contrast, extraordinary persons are masters of the future and societal progress. He concludes based on their contributions different social laws should apply towards the dichotomous groups. Extraordinary people should have the unofficial right “…to allow his conscience to…step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea – sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind – calls for it.” (Crime and Punishment, p259) It is thus that Dostoyevsky seeds a plausible justification for murder, explaining that, for example, if Newton’s discoveries were blocked by the sacrifice of 100 or so people, would it not be for the objective good to proceed and unlock those incredible learnings? In this way Crime and Punishment poses its primary moral, philosophical question to the reader.

This book was just as good as I remembered on first read a few years back. From a psychology perspective there’s so much covered. Readers see a raw portrayal of the motives and thought process that enable one to commit a heinous crime like murder. We witness the individual and psychological impact after the fact. There’s the psychological warfare between Raskolnikov and Porfiry the investigator as they attempt to ensnare and evade one another. And finally there’s some religious overtones when sweet, downtrodden Sonya posits suffering as a purifying thing, bringing you closer to God.

On the topic of religion, there’s some obvious Catholic roots in the story, which make sense for the time. Many characters are religious, calling out and referencing God, reading the Bible, and so forth. But also to the times there’s some racial references to be aware of going in – a single analogy made to being a Black slave, and multiple references to saving money like a Jew. Calling those out for awareness to anyone sensitive to those topics.

If you’re reading the book physically, the long blocks of text on some pages during monologues can be intimidating. If you’re able to breathe it in line by line as if it were stream of consciousness the text reads more easily. Although this may make some readers hesitant it’s not terribly uncommon for this genre. It also serves a stylistic purpose, mimicking a man rhapsodizing on a topic to another, or a character sharing raw, unfiltered thoughts with the reader. As the mind naturally wanders, so does the text, filled with self-interjections, tandems, and the like. Some readers may find this tedious, but I enjoyed the way Dostoyevsky attempted to mirror real conversation. It seemed to lend a sense of earnestness to the characters you don’t see often in writing these days. The style also reads a bit like a quality production – there’s some inherent drama in their exclamations and the halting way they speak to one another.

Character-wise my favorite of course is Raskolnikov, our intelligent but troubled student. Following his musings and struggles is very engaging, whether you agree with him or not. Sonya is a lovely contrast to his turmoil in the book whom I also enjoyed. Although she’s portrayed as sweet and pure, she’s nevertheless downtrodden and soiled by circumstance in attempt to support her family. A young, unselfish woman, she’s been crushed by society and forced to roam the streets. In Sonya we’re meant to see a pure soul weighted down by society. The final character that makes the top of my list is Razumikhin, Raskolnikov’s former classmate. Razumikhin is an honest man and devoted friend who goes above and beyond to care for Raskolnikov while he is sick and struggling. Their brotherly bond is endlessly endearing to read.

I could go on and on about this book, but in essence reading this is like coming home for me. When I first read this ten or so years ago I was instantly drawn to the cast of characters, the philosophical questions Dostoyevsky posed, and his powerful writing style. It takes incredible talent to craft a story such as this and have it read so naturally – a complex undertaking showcasing…

  • what constitutes or justifies crime objectively; the question of overall goodness to society
  • what (if anything) punishment really proves for someone who commits an act they are logically convinced was justifiable
  • a psychological study on the mental -> phsyical ties between stress and a burdensome guilt
  • what situations may drive someone to crime
  • a portrayal of psychological warfare, tactics between a criminal and investigator grappling with one another metaphorically through the book

Overall this was just as good as I remembered. This will always remain one of my favorite classics, in the company of Tolstoy and Alexandre Dumas. I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys psychology or moral questions and are open to appreciating a slightly different writing style than they may be used to.

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