Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ first appeared in 1866 in a Russian magazine. Revolving around Romanovich Raskolnikov, a Russian law student who lives in destitution and utmost poverty who decides through contradictory theories, including utilitarian morality and the belief that extraordinary people have the “perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes” and ultimately murders Alyona Ivanovna, an elderly pawnbroker. One murder leads him to another, descending him into a downward spiral of psychosis.
Dostoevsky’s hero is an arrogant, egoistic, self-centered, condescending and a highly unlikeable smug individual, who thinks of his crime as not a murder but as riddance of a lower life form and as a favor to everyone and himself to be the savior. Today, we would recognize this person as having serious mental illness (and the book would be called inability to form criminal intent and involuntary commitment instead of Crime and Punishment). I saw in Rodion’s character multiple shades and the duality of his character never failed to baffle me; sometimes he would appear to be a poverty ridden, dejected young man whose lack of human interaction has submerged him utterly, completely in sorrow. Other times, there was an evil glint to his character that overpowered any ounce of goodness. His aura of dominance and established narcissism fostered the collapse of relationships and eventually led him to completely losing his sanity. I imagine if the book was written in the following 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.
Rodion’s guilty conscience ushers him to delirium and he vacillates between exhilaration and fits of guilty behavior, spilling his soul in dreams and hallucinations. Some of his madness is displayed through the seemingly-endless self-scrutinizing inner monologues and the hazy, philosophical flow of his thoughts. Is this what it’s like to be a crazy person? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s effective in the way that it induces in the reader a nauseating feeling of experiencing psychosis and a vivid jump between illusion and disillusion.
Another outrageous and baffling sphere in the novel includes female sacrifice and child prostitution, a prevalent tradition during the late 19th century. Raskolnikov befriends an alcoholic man, Marmeladov, whose daughter Sonya (who has a heart of gold!) has been forced into prostitution to support the family. Sonya, throughout the story is an idealized symbol of pure Christian goodness, her character perfectly juxtaposing that of Raskolnikov who is of the belief that being an “extraordinary man” he holds the right to transgress. Another thread deals with Donya, Raskolnikov’s sister who is set upon marrying Luzhin; a rich businessman with a keen eye for beautiful, vulnerable women, in order to ensure a better future for her brother and mother. To Dostoevsky’s credit, all these characters intertwine, and all the stories pay off with plot contrivances piled atop plot contrivances.One rather queer revelation I had whilst reading the book was that I don’t get Russians. Not only was it rather exhausting to grasp their social hierarchy, their interactions too were beyond confusing. They get mad for reasons I can’t comprehend and feel insulted for the tiniest of causes. In Dostoevsky’s hands, Russians are hopelessly operatic, incapable of having a subtle or nuanced reaction to anything. You get Donya trying to shoot Svidrigailov one second and then tearfully embracing him the next. Characters fall on their knees before each other, laugh at inappropriate times and have opaque motivations. Believing this a worthwhile hill to climb, however, I didn’t give up, even though I could’ve finished five other books in the time it took me to slog through this one. The narrative’s feverish compelling tone and its moving depiction of the recovery of a diseased spirit contributed to its status as a masterpiece and Raskolnikov perfectly embodies the author’s belief that salvation is possible only through atonement. Crime and Punishment will always be somewhere in my headspace forever, a vague recollection of mustachioed women, strong emotional reactions and a know-it-all with an axe.