Genre: Fiction, Psychological Fiction, Philosophical Fiction
Publication Year: 1866
Translator: Constance Garnett
Edition Read: Konemann, 1999. Discount pocket hardcover, moderately annotated
First Read: Yes
Crime and Punishment, the classic work of psychological fiction from one of the great Russian literary masters Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Reading and finishing this novel is a feat, and upon reflection, the question is not whether or not you enjoyed it, but did you get it. The challenges are numerous: it’s quite long, has challenging characters, the narration is very deliberate, and it’s unflinchingly steeped in complex philosophy. Last but not least, like very many works of 19th century Russian literature, it is horribly depressing. Dostoyevsky is merciless with his characters; it is realism in its most crushing form.
This novel is a slow read; it took me 19 days to finish it. The edition I read was 602 pages with medium print; it would not normally take me that long to finish a 600-pager, but I could only handle 30-35 pages at a sitting whereas I can usually get through about 50-60 pages at a time. I would think this is a common problem for people reading this book. This is not a criticism, but a reality. If you read Dostoyevsky quickly, you will miss much of the psychology and philosophy that permeates his writing.
So now to the story itself… The title Crime and Punishment can be misleading, at least superficially. I don’t see the story being about the notions of crime and punishment as I do about morality. This is, above all else, an existentialist novel. Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov sees nothing inherently valuable in human life, at least initially; the ending is arguably more ambiguous. He coldly and brutally murders two people and he intellectualizes it – he killed the pawnbroker because she was a scourge on humanity, and his other victim was simply collateral damage. His ultimate downfall is not that he broke the law, but that his moral compass does not gel with those of those he cares about – namely his sister and Sonia.
Raskolnikov is a fascinating character. On the surface, he is a cold intellectualizing sociopath, but he cares deeply for a very select group of people; he feels great remorse when Marmeladova is killed; he commits great acts of charity; and is very concerned that her mother is shielded from the truth of his actions. He’s a difficult character to pigeon-hole. In the end though, he tries to rationalize his existence, but, like the rest of us, he is subject to societal norms and the same rules of crime and punishment as everyone else.
There’s something magical about 19th century novels. The genre really came into its own during this century in the same way theatre did in the Renaissance. I deeply believe that the way novels were structured from around 1785 up until WWI was the high point in the evolution of this art form: take one character and follow him (in the gender neutral sense), explore him, subject him to experiences inconceivable to the average person, use him as a microcosm for some greater truth, and, if necessary, kill him. Crime and Punishment is a masterpiece of European fiction and a testament to this period of writing. A must read for any serious student of literature. And finally, a challenge for the most savvy of readers.