Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Crime and Punishment

"If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment-as well as the prison."

From the dust cover of the Modern Library version of "Crime and Punishment" (629 pages) by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

"'Crime and Punishment has upon most readers an impact as immediate and obvious and full as the news of murder next door,' wrote critic R.P. Blackmur. 'One almost participates in the crime... it is the murder that only by some saving accident we did not ourselves commit.' In the whole literature of the ambivalent relationship between man and the crimes of which he is capable, Crime and Punishment stands supreme for its insight, compassion, and psychological fidelity. The story of the murder committed by Raskolnikov and his guilt and atonement is without a doubt the most gripping and illuminating account ever written of a crime of repugnance and despair and the consequences that inevitably arise from it. 'Dostoevsky's novels... leap out of their historical situation and confront us as if they had not yet spoken their final word,' said award-winning Russian translator Richard Pevear. And the Washington Post Book World deemed Dostoevksy 'the most compulsively readable of novelists we continue to regard as great.'"

This is my third reading of "Crime and Punishment" over the last twenty years. The novel made a profound impression upon me during my first reading in High School. Maybe the biggest literary impact of my life with maybe the exception of Shakespeare. In any event I would definitely classify the classic in my top five novels of all time.

Simply put the story mostly follows Raskolnikov through his brutal act of murder of an old pawnbroker and her sister, through his guilt and paranoia of the crime, to his ultimate redemption and spiritual rebirth. The story is also filled with numerous memorable characters and their own stories that all seemingly come together to shape Raskolnikov and the eventual outcome. What was so powerful about the story, for me at least, was the torment that the reader can't help but feel with Raskolnikov as he struggles with his crime and guilt. I literally writhed and wrung my hands along with the protagonist, truly a credit to the narrative skills of Dostoevsky.

Another interesting aspect put forth in the novel is Raskolnikov's theory of the ordinary man versus the extraordinary man. He asserts that the extraordinary man through his superiority is not responsible to the same rules of society as the ordinary man. Indeed the act of even murder can be justified for the extraordinary man if his actions will benefit a larger group of society and culture as a whole. What happens when one who thinks they fall into the extraordinary group finds through guilt and regret that he is only ordinary?

A novel I would highly recommend to any reader. The story is dark and can have a profound impact on the reader, probably it's biggest strength. On the downside, the translation and narrative from the mid 1800's can be challenging. The Russian character names and similarities between some of them could also be an impediment to the enjoyment of the story.

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