Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Crime and Punishment

I cannot think of a better way to begin my blog than with my favorite book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I have never read a book so thoroughly as I have with this particular novel.  Not only have I read it in its entirety three times, but I have also read sections of it to create three different analytical essays, one of which was a long, detailed, researched thesis.  As you can imagine, I have a lot to say about this novel, but I will restrain myself and pull out the main reasons I love it.

1. The Uncriminalized Criminal
I am so fascinated by the character of Raskolnikov.  By all rights, the readers should hate him.  Within the first couple chapters, he brutally murders two unsuspecting women with an ax.  Dostoevsky does not spare his readers the gory details, but he fills our minds with the bloody mess Raskolnikov created in this scene.  Moreover, Raskolnikov's motive for this crime is very unclear, (and the inspiration for hundreds of essays, articles, and classroom discussions), which keeps us from mentally justifying what he did.  If, for example, the women had killed his fiance or stolen his life savings, we might be inclined to forgive him for this reaction.  However, Dostoevsky offers no such easy answers.  And yet - somehow! - I can love and identify with Raskolnikov.  Throughout the novel, he baffles us with a series of good deeds, selfless actions, and admirable friends.  We start to imagine him as a good man who made a mistake rather than identifying him merely with the word "murderer."  I think it is common for people to limit murderers to this title, both in fiction and in real life.  I am thus drawn to Crime and Punishment because it resists this categorization and creates a likable hero out of someone who could have been a villain.  By the end of the novel, I always find myself rooting for Raskolnikov, longing for his redemption, and hoping for a light sentence.  I don't think I'm the only reader who experiences this reaction, and I think it's the beauty of the complex character Dostoevsky created.

2. The Power of the Conscience
The title of the novel is directly related to this next aspect I love about it.  The "crime" is fairly obvious and takes up a tiny portion of the text: Raskolnikov murders two women.  The "punishment," on the other hand, could be interpreted in a number of ways, but it lasts throughout the rest of the novel.  I believe that the "punishment" Dostoevsky refers to in his title is the inner punishment Raskolnikov experiences, that is, the torture of his guilty conscience.  I find this idea equally fascinating.  Raskolnikov's guilt is so powerful that it even causes him to become physically ill, suffering fever, delirium, and hallucinations immediately following the crime.  It breaks him down from a confident, intelligent academic to a weak, whimpering man.  He wrestles with this kind of punishment for the majority of the book, agonizing over the fear and indecision that plague him.  In fact, through the character of Sonia, Dostoevsky presents an actual, judicial punishment as the relief for his internal punishment.  For me, following Raskolnikov's inner torment is positively gripping.  I can feel it with him as he struggles within himself, and I love that Dostoevsky enables readers to share in this kind of personal struggle.  It's like I've gained access to someone's secret world and am captivated by what I find.

3. Dostoevsky's Interpretation of Existential Crisis
This, as you may have guessed, was the subject of my aforementioned thesis.  I find this element of Crime and Punishment to be what makes it totally unique.  Argue with me if you will, but I believe that Raskolnikov experiences what we have come to understand as an existential crisis before he commits murder, and his confession does not sufficiently help him overcome it.  There exists a deeper layer to his motive and inner torment than the crime would initially suggest.  Dostoevsky even leads the readers to believe that it could have the fairly simple solution Sonia proposes: "...bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, 'I am a murderer!'"  Yet this proposition requires more than confessing his deed; it requires acknowledging his guilt.  The latter part of this was a much greater struggle for Raskolnikov.  At the end, Dostoevsky establishes two possible outcomes for a person who is deep in existential crisis - suicide or redemption.  Raskolnikov learns to release his dependence on pure reason, accept social morality, and synthesize himself with Something greater than himself (love, God, etc.) in order to heal the fissure in his identity and self-perception.  In my opinion, this is what makes Crime and Punishment a work of genius.  There are many, many layers and philosophies throughout the novel to unpack and consider, and I could happily explore them in much more detail.

To avoid completely turning into Polonius and making this much more than the short list of reasons I promised, I will end my summary on this note.  But this is one book I never tire reading or discussing.

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