Matt's Reviews > Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Jan 03, 11

Read from February 04 to March 07, 2010

The problem with being a high school student with average intelligence is that you can get fairly good grades with fairly minimal effort. It is an invitation to cut corners and utilize only one half your ass. This happened to me in English class. I'd sit back, take good notes, and bluff my way through various tests (this was back in the day before Google, when my family only had an AOL dial-up connection and all the answers, right and wrong, were on the internet). For these sins, I am now fated to read the classics long after I was supposed to read them.

On the plus side, coming to the classics on my own volition gives me a better appreciation than having to read them with a figurative gun to the head. This has allowed me to enjoy certain works to a higher degree.

However, I don't think any number of years will allow me to appreciate or enjoy or even suffer Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

First published in 1866, Crime and Punishment is the excruciatingly-detailed psycho-epic about the murder of a pawn shop owner (and her sister). The murderer is named Raskolnikov. He is a former student living in a wretched little closet apartment. He is utterly unlikable: smug, arrogant, temperamental, condescending and self-delusional. Today, we would recognize this person as having a serious mental illness (and the book would be called Inability To Form Criminal Intent and Involuntary Commitment instead of Crime and Punishment). Dostoevsky, though, presents Raskolnikov's malady as spiritual, rather than mental. In a way, he is just like every grad student you've ever met: shiftless; over-educated and under-employed; haughty, yet prone to bouts of self-loathing. I imagine if this book was written in the next century, Raskolnikov would have shaggy sideburns, wear a t-shirt emblazoned with Che's image, and have a well-hidden addiction to prescription pain pills.

Raskolnikov has some interesting theories. He's a Nietzsche-inspired pre-Nazi who believes that the world can be divided into two classes: an elite, Napoleonic class, free to do what they wish; and a second class comprised of everyone else. This former class, because of their elevated standing, don't have to follow the rules.

Armed with this self-serving worldview, Raskolnikov, in need of money, determines that the pawn broker Alyona Ivanovna is a louse who deserves to die. So he takes his axe and a fake pledge to her apartment and bashes her head in. The crime is suitably graphic:

He took the axe all the way out, swung it with both hands, scarcely aware of himself, and almost without effort...brought the butt-end down on her head...Because she was short, the blow happened to land right on the crown of her head. She cried out, but very faintly, and her whole body suddenly sank to the floor, though she still managed to raise both hands to her head...Then he struck her again and yet again with all his strength...Blood poured out as from an overturned glass...


Once the murder is complete, very early in the novel, the long, slow, excruciating psychological unraveling begins. Some of Raskolnikov's madness is displayed through seemingly-endless internal monologues. Is this what it's like to be a crazy person? Maybe, maybe not. But it's effective in its way, because it drove me insane reading it.

Raskolnikov's deterioration is also presented via his relationships. Despite being an utter jackass, he has a lot of friends and family who care for him. Among them is the doting Natasha, a housekeeper at Raskolnikov's apartment; a doctor named Zossimov; and Raskolnikov's "best friend" Razumikhin. Razumikhin reminds me of a more-refined Milhouse from The Simpsons. He looks after Raskolnikov, tries to get him a job, and suffers all Raskolnikov's verbal abuse with unflagging patience. I couldn't decide what annoyed me more: Raskolnikov's monomania or Razumikhin's spinelessness.

Complicating this picture are several uninteresting plot threads that eventually, finally, after hundreds of pages, merge. One thread deals with Marmeladov, a wrecked old drunk whose daughter, Sonia, is a prostitute (with a heart of gold!). Raskolnikov is eventually redeemed by Sonia and Sonia's faith. A second thread has to do with Raskolnikov's mother and sister. His sister, Dunya, has come to St. Petersburg under a cloud, though things are looking brighter for her and the family, as she is engaged to Luzhin. Luzhin has money, and a keen eye for beautiful, vulnerable women. Raskolnikov rightly senses Luzhin's ill intent, and the animosity between the two men does not help Raskolnikov's troubled mind.

On top of all this, there is a clever, Dickensian police inspector named Porfiry Petrovich. He knows immediately that Raskolnikov is the murderer, yet insists on playing a lame game of cat-and-mouse. One of the few enjoyments I got from this novel was the cold irony of a Russian police officer patiently waiting for his suspect to confess. In Dostoevsky's Russia, the law is clever, intelligent, and implacable. Of course, just a few decades later, the NKVD and KGB would be breaking down doors in the middle of the night and hustling people off to Siberia for no reason at all.

To Dostoevsky's credit, all these characters intertwine, and all the stories pay off, such as it is. In order to do so, however, there are plot contrivances piled atop plot contrivances. Dostoevsky relies heavily on characters overhearing important bits of information.

The only Russian novels I've read have been by Tolstoy, so I don't have much to compare this to. I'm not fit to analyze Crime and Punishment against other works of Russian literature, or even against Dostoevsky's other books. All I know was that this was a drag to read. There are paragraphs that go on for pages, and the density - unleavened by any action - is numbing.

One of the most common complaints when reading Russian literature is the names. It's almost become a cliche. Well, in this case, it's true. At least Tolstoy gave his characters American nicknames. Here, you have to deal with both the patronymics and identical-sounding or near-identically-named characters. The easiest task you have is not mixing up Raskolnikov with Razumikhin. It gets a little harder trying to keep Alyona Ivanovna (the pawnbroker), Katerina Ivanovna (Sonia's mother) and Amalia Ivanovna (Sonia's mother's landlord) straight. Also remember that Dunya goes by the name Dunechka or Avdotya Romanovna (but that Porfiry Petrovich is not the same as Ilya Petrovich).

More confusing than the names is the culture shock. When I first tried to read Crime and Punishment in high school, I chalked my confusion up to a poor translation. Well, this time around, the translation is in the incredibly capable hands of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They managed, in Anna Karenina and War and Peace to be both faithful and readable.

Here, again, I have no complaints with the translation; but I also had a revelation: I don't get Russians. I don't fully grasp their social hierarchy; I don't get why they like mustaches on women; and I certainly don't understand their interactions. They get mad for reasons I can't comprehend; they are insulted for reasons I do not fathom. In Dostoevsky's hands, Russians are a bunch of operatic drama queens, incapable of having a subtle or nuanced reaction to anything. Every emotion has an exclamation mark. You get Dunya trying to shoot Svidrigailov one second, and then tearfully embracing him the next. Characters fall on their knees before each other, and laugh at inappropriate times, and have opaque motivations. I say this with all cultural sensitivity: Russians are a bunch of weirdos.

Despite all its length and detail, I found Dostoevsky's psychology simplistic, and the ending pat. And I say this fully realizing I might come across as a Philistine.

Of course, there are enjoyable moments, including a classic set-piece following Marmeladov's funeral (imagine a Russian version of Clue, in which accusations are followed by counter-accusations, and everyone is shouting and fainting).

Surprisingly, there is also a good bit of humor, such as this interaction between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov regarding the morality of eavesdropping:

In that case, go and tell the authorities; say thus and so, I've had this mishap: there was a little mistake in my theory. But if you're convinced that one cannot eavesdrop at doors, but can go around whacking old crones with whatever comes to hand, to your heart's content, then leave quickly for America somewhere!


Or Svidrigailov on women:

Depravity! Well, listen to that! However, for the sake of order, I'll answer you first about women in general; you know, I'm inclined to be talkative. Tell me, why should I restrain myself? Why should I give up women, if I'm fond of them? At least it's an occupation.


Indeed!

Finally, there is a certain precision in the character observations that transcends their unfamiliar interactions. The characters - in their thoughts, beliefs, and self-delusions - are admirably rendered and universally recognizable.


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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Bram (last edited May 03, 2010 01:01PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Bram Nice review, Matt. While I enjoyed this book a bit more than you, you've perfectly described my biggest problem with Dostoevsky:

In Dostoevsky's hands, Russians are a bunch of operatic drama queens, incapable of having a subtle or nuanced reaction to anything. Every emotion has an exclamation mark.

I can't fully engage with his characters because of this, and it can be frustrating even while I'm enjoying a well-spun tale. I'm genuinely surprised that more readers don't take issue with this.


Matt Thanks.

Though I didn't like Crime and Punishment as much as I'd hoped, I'm gearing myself to have another go with Dostoevksy.

I'm starting to wonder if my problem is I don't really understand Russian cultural norms. It's quite possible that in Russia it's appropriate to react excessively in social situations. I should look into this before I tackle The Brothers Karamozov.


Bram I'd be tempted to go along with that theory if Tolstoy (and Chekhov) didn't craft characters so well--people who actually seem like real people. I think it's just a Dostoevsky stylistic thing. It actually bugged me more in The Brothers Karamazov, although in every other sense I think that's a great book.


Sandy b Read this book in 1970, and must confess,it was a titanic struggle
I wish my teachers had your insight,as I feel that with some guidance,doors open,and one can appreciate and learn much
I appreciate the time and effort you invest to share your views with us
YOU Are awesome
Thank,and have an awesome 2011


Matt Sandy b wrote: "Read this book in 1970, and must confess,it was a titanic struggle
I wish my teachers had your insight,as I feel that with some guidance,doors open,and one can appreciate and learn much
I appreciat..."


Thanks, Sandy! I don't know how much insight I have. The best I can do is to try to avoid simply saying "it's boring."


message 6: by John (new) - added it

John David As much as I liked "Brothers Karamazov," one of the drawbacks for me was that the people didn't seem like individuals at all, but rather abstract, universal ideas; the people are just stand-ins for larger symbols. And I realize that all great novels have symbols, but this really was stultifying for me, so much so that the "people" get lost in the mix, if they're ever fully hashed out in the first place.

If this sounds like a nightmare to you (or at least highly short of enjoyable), you might not like "Brothers" that much. But even while it was somewhat distracting, I would never want to stop someone from reading it. It's just That Good.


message 7: by Kathy (new) - added it

Kathy Thanks for the great review. I, like you, have begun to revisit the classics so have been reading what others have to say before picking one to start with. Your comments were quite helpful, but I still am not sure I want to delve into Russian literature quite yet!


Bookamante Great review. I'm reading the classics that I avoided in high school too. I also have the same reaction to the Russians as Dostoevsky portrays them: all drama.


Bookworm Bram wrote: "Nice review, Matt. While I enjoyed this book a bit more than you, you've perfectly described my biggest problem with Dostoevsky:

In Dostoevsky's hands, Russians are a bunch of operatic drama quee..."


I am one of those who likes eccentricities in characters, so unsurprisingly enough, I ended up immensely liking most of the characters in this novel, and same goes for all the scenes involving character interactions.


Margaret Matt I thoroughly enjoyed your review. It made me laugh and also nod my head in agreement with pretty much everything you said.

Now here: "Of course, there are enjoyable moments, including a classic set-piece following Marmeladov's funeral (imagine a Russian version of Clue, in which accusations are followed by counter-accusations, and everyone is shouting and fainting)."

I forgot about that scene when I wrote my review!!! Yes! I remember that but I guess that was overshadowed by the next to the last scene with Katarina that really made me howl with laughter. Her little street show intermingled with beating her kids into performing (oh come on, they were fictional kids!) got me good!

I have one suggestion for you where the Russian names are concerned: Do like I do and take take the first syllable (like "Rask") and run with it. LOL

I also want to add for an "average intelligence" that you mentioned you sure have seemed to come a long way.


message 11: by M (new) - rated it 2 stars

M Great review- I didn't like it either. I found Rascal completely unlikable, all the women irritating, and the gentlemen unfathomable.


message 12: by Jill (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jill Humorous and well-written review. I'm about 1/2 through it and find it a pretty heavy book but interesting.


message 13: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail I am just starting the book; like you I took short cuts in high school and now am reading books that were supposed to have been read. I think your review is a very interesting one (and honestly stated). I suspect that I may share many of your views on completion of the book.


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