If there was a list of books that people want to read but never got around to doing it, I suspect this one would feature in a large number of them. I decided to take the plunge and finally got it off my list. And I am glad, I did. I have earlier tried and failed to get through ‘War and Peace’ and settled for the televised version. With that in mind, I decided to start my Dostoyevsky journey with Crime and Punishment rather than ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ which seems a lot more formidable.
I read the version translated by David Duff in the 1990s and now the most popular and readily accessible version. Crime and Punishment has a very simple plot: A man commits a seemingly random crime and then comes to terms with it through a sequence of justification, disillusionment and reconciliation. Set in 18th century St Petersburg, Rodion Raskolnikov is a university dropout (way before university dropouts were cool) who lurches between student poverty and living up to his mothers/societal expectations – while also fighting off existential angst. He fashions himself as a Napolean and feels obliged to act and use this ‘talents’ for the greater good. He initially justifies the murder through this obligation. Even as he repeatedly presents this justification to himself and to those around him, he is caught in self doubt and suffers greatly from fear, revulsion, remorse – probably a punishment much greater than what society will impose upon him.
As with most classics, the characters are developed beautifully. Apart from the protogonist, the key characters are his mother and sister, his friend Razumikhin, the prostitute Sonia Marmeladov, the investigator Porfiry Petrovich and wealthy but depraved Svidrigailov. The story also has a series of minor characters and sub plots but it all comes together in one cohesive narrative. Within a a very simple storyline, what stands out is how the writer uses conversations, letters, reflections, dreams and sub plots to espouse a philosophy and a world view.
A good example is the letter from his mother in the early part of the book and his emotional response to it. The writer not only develops the storyline through this letter but tells us about the huge gulf between his mother’s expectations and his own worldview. Even while he was imagining his random crime for a while, this letter pushes him to the edge. There are several such examples but the three that will remain in my memory are- his first meeting with a drunken Marmeladov (Sonia’s father), his confession and justification to Sonia and his interrogation by Petrovich. This last one is incredibly intense and would fit right into any psycho-thriller.
The book brings out class system of old Russia in stark detail. The perpetuation of privilege when the system works and putting up pretences when it fails is a theme often seen in English literature through old masters like Thackeray and Trollope. In this book, Luzhin and Svidrigailov represent the privileged, feudal class of Russia. One difference in Russia seems to be the significant presence of the civil servant class – represented by Marmeladov and Petrovich.
The key philosophical theme is Raskolnikov’s belief in his own superiority and ‘right to crime’ in pursuit of what he considers the greater good. This is often described as misguided morality. The novel traces the development of this theme to its ultimate breakdown in the face of individual suffering, fear, remorse and acceptance of punishment as penance.
I enjoyed Crime and Punishment for its style and intensity. The story flows easily, interspersed with very profound and intense passages. I am very convinced I must have missed some of the symbolism and must not have understood all the philosophical messaging in a single reading. A single reading will have to do though – there are too many books on my list.