Cormac's Reviews > Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Jul 17, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: classics
Recommended for: all who can take it
Read in January, 2000

John Henry Newman looked on conscience as the most immediate and personal proof of the existence of God. Dostoevsky, in Crime & Punishment, shows it as the biggest obstacle to holding on to genuine atheism. Like any logical atheist, Raskolnikov thinks there is no higher power which determines good and evil, right and wrong, his own mind being the ultimate arbiter of all such matters. He kills an old pawnbroking woman, not so much for her money as to prove that he is a sort of superman to whom everything is permitted, that he stands above all conventional morality, has the right to do so, and that these convictions will suffice to put down any possible remorse. They don’t.
His attempts at self justification slowly succumb to his conscience. In the end Raskolnikov is 'saved' because he lets his conscience win in the battle with his own bad ‘alter ego’ (also mirrored in Svidrigailov, whose motto is, "the best time is had by those who are best able to deceive themselves"). The argument goes back and forth. His better self insists that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and that wrong is very present in man; man’s trouble being that he "can get used to anything, the villain!" And then his worse self pipes back: "and what if I'm mistaken? What if man - the whole human race in general - isn't really a villain at all? If that's true, it means that all the rest [religion, morality, etc.] is just a load of superstition, just a lot of fears that have been put into people's head, and there are no limits, and that's how it's meant to be”. It’s a long argument and a long process, but in the end his better self wins out. The awareness of his crime almost drives him to despair but he overcomes that temptation too. He tells his sister (who now knows the whole story) that he had thought of suicide but could not bring himself to do it. She says, "That means you still believe in life; God be praised".
Dostoevsky can’t refrain from a dig at the psychological experts of his (and our?) age. When Raskolnikov confesses and is sent for trial, quite a few ‘intellectuals’ see him as exemplifying "the latest fashionable theory of temporary insanity". And they are completely disconcerted when he, in his trial, gives a perfectly rational explanation of the greed and self-centered pride motivating his crime; as for "what had prompted him to turn himself in, he replied bluntly that it had been genuine remorse. All this was almost indecent"...
Crime & Punishment ends not just with the 'conversion' of Raskolnikov, but also with the clear comment by Dostoevsky that the new life his conversion opens up to him will have to be won, and that this will not be easy. Did he have in mind another story - a sequel that was never written? Or was he hinting that this is the story each one of us has to set about writing once we sincerely face our conscience, and keep at the job of throttling our bad alter ego?
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Pantopicon One of the most thoughtful reviews of Crime and Punishment I have read.


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