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“Crime and Punishment”

“To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”

According to Goodreads, Fyodor Dostoyevsky came up with the idea for his 1866 novel Crime and Punishment after he gambled away most of his fortune. He wrote the book hoping that, at the very least, the sale of it could pay off his debts.

The crime is committed at the very beginning and the rest of the book depicts the perpetrator’s punishment, more mental, meted by his conscience, than physical. The book gripped me from the beginning when I first read it in high school. Even the central story of Raskolnikov and his struggle with fate keeps verging on comedy. Lots of punchy humor, and physical comedy, even in dark moments, percolate this novel.

[182b] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

crimeMost readers, especially the first-timers, would probably disagree that Crime and Punishment is humorous. Given the seriousness of its subject matter, it is most obvious that the scenes surrounding death of Marmeladov and the memorial meal following his funeral are most comical, even farcical and scandalous.

” ‘It’s all this cuckoo-bird’s fault [Katerina Ivanovna calling the German landlady]. You know who I’m talking about—her, her!’ and Katerina Ivanovna nodded towards the landlady. ‘Look at her eyes popping out! She feels we’re talking about her, but she can’t catch anything, so she’s gawking at us. Pah, what an owl! Ha, ha, ha! . . . Hem, hem, hem! Have you noticed, she keeps wanting everyone to think she’s patronizing me and doing me a great honor by her presence! I asked her, as a decent woman, to invite the better sort of people—namely, my late husband’s acquaintances—and look who she’s brought! Clowns! Sluts! Look at the one with the pimply face: some sort of snot on two legs!’ ” [383]

Even the central story of Raskolnikov and his struggle with fate keeps verging on comedy. Lots of punchy humor, and physical comedy, even in dark moments, percolate this novel. like when Raskolnikov slips around in Alyona’s blood, or when Katerina pulls Marmeladov around by his hair while he screams that he loves it. These three elements work together to creep us out while hopefully keeping us from getting too depressed. Pulcheria and Dunya crowded the room of Raskolnikov, bickering over how it’s the best way for Raskolnikov to be delivered from his illness. Luzhin’s ulterior designs on Dunya and his hoax on Sonya. Dostoevsky almost portrays these people as if they some actors in some sort of show. Are these people real?

It is essential and typical of Dostoevsky to shift his omnipresent view of the siuation of a novel. His view is constantly shifting but without losing its scope on the main plot. He may drop into horror, like a death, as we have seen in Marmeladov and later his consumptive wife, or rise into laughter at any moment. Yet this ambiguity, which is not incidental to Dostoevsky’s vision, but only most obvious in the comical sense, does not make light of suffering. On the contrary, what authors have ever revealed it so nakedly. Maybe Toni Morrison does as I’m reading Beloved. And that precisely because Dostoevsky does not allow us our usual rational or sentimental evasions. Suffering is unmitigated and there is no answer to it in this novel.

Further Reading
[182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

[182a] Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky

crime“It was dark in the corridor; they were standing near a light. For a minute they looked silently at each other. Razumikhin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and fixed look seemed to grow more intense every moment, penetrating his soul, his consciousness. All at once Razumikhin gave a start. Something strange seemed to pass between them . . . as if the hint of some idea, something horrible, hideous, flitted by and was suddenly understood on both sides . . . Razumikhin turned pale as a corpse.” [314]

Crime and Punishment is a novel told from the perspective of a murderer, Rodion Raskolnikov, who is under a temporary insanity and some morbid monomania of murder and robbery, kills a pawn-woman with an axe. The impoverished university drop-out, however, is no ordinary murderer. That he has not made use of what he has stolen and has given his last penny to a widow eliminate monetary motive of murder. Dostoevsky, in a writing style that resembles to polemic more than story-telling, delineates a picture, a psychological labyrinth, of the criminal’s illness and distress prior to committing the murder. He creates the deception that Raskolnikov has resolved on the murder as a result of his frivolous and fainthearted nature, further exasperated by hardship and failure. Readers would soon encounter the difficulty to fir Raskolnikov into the “normality theory” in which a criminal must perpetrate for personal gain.

Raskolnikov’s problem, which justifies his killing, is that he does not see it as a crime. At best it is the darkening of reason and failure of will that take hold of a man like a disaster. His hardened conscience does not find especially any terrible guilt in his past because he believes an isolated act of criminality is permissible if the main purpose is good. His theory is one according to which people are divided, into raw material (ordinary) and special people (extraordinary), people for whom, owing to their superior position, the law does not exist. Like a reborn Napoleon, a genius who disregards isolated evil and steps over it without reluctance, he assumes the role of mankind’s benefactor who rids of the louses for the sake of society. His transgression confronts him with dimensions of the world and of himself that he does not anticipate and cannot understand; because he is a neurotic with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. This justifies his not being in repentance even after he is sentenced. His reason, which exists outside of society’s rationality and which the law condemns, leads him to murder. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization. Even at the end, in penal servitude, his (wounded) pride rises up against the world that he thinks has defeated him by means of some blind mechanism.

Crime and Punishment concretizes the complex dialectic of Notes from Underground, in which an anonymous man lashes out with such sarcastic wit at the most self-evident truths of society and human reason. He recognizes that life cannot be accounted for by any laws or with any logical consistency. Whereas the underground man transgresses only inwardly and philosophically, for the sake of a truth that he clings to but fails to define, in the current novel, Raskolnikov is the actual transgressor, who even has good inclinations and kills under the influence of some strange, will-o’-the-wisp that endanger social order. The psychological account of the crime elaborates on this paradoxical claim on reason and logic, which as the inspector Porfiry has said, is unique for each case. What drive the plot forward are the three story-lines Dostoevsky juxtaposes with the cat-and-mouse game with artistry and coherence. The story of the unemployed official Marmeladov, whose acquaintance Raskolnikov makes at the beginning, his consumptive wife Katerina Ivanovna, and their family provides Raskolnikov the crucial link to Sonya, who sells herself as a prostitute for her family. A letter from Raskolnikov’s mother unfolds the entangled affairs between his sister Dunya, the official Luzhin, and the sinister Svidrigailov–both of whom have immediate intentions and designs on her. As Raskolnikov turns to Sonya, and with painfully slow steps begins to move toward a “new, hitherto completely unknown reality,” owing to Sonya’s faith and compassion, Dostoevsky grants the vision of evil, which has not been allured to directly throughout the book, to Svidrigailov at the end. Even though Raskolnikov has moved through the dense element of evil without recognition, has has resolved his life in a way that will awaken his repentance. Sonia’s persistent love finally breaks through to Raskolnikov. After nearly a year in Siberia, something comes over Raskolnikov and he falls down at Sonia’s feet. At that moment, they both realize that they love each other. It is after Easter. The story of Lazarus has taken place inside of Raskolnikov; he has been resurrected. 564pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Vintage edition. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Part (a), more to follow.