I thought that I would get a jump start on highlighting That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for December 2008. But I wasn’t exactly sure which story I should pick first. Should I pick a holiday story? A happy, uplifting, and spiritual story that would lend itself well to the holiday spirit? Or a sad, depressing, spiraling-out-of-control story that mirrors our descent into winter? So I decided to go with my gut instinct and to just pick my favorite book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Best. Book. Ever. Allow me to explain.
Crime and Punishment is one of those books that you rarely read by choice. Rather, it’s one of the books that you roll your eyes and groan at when you see it on your AP English syllabus. Or, it’s one of the books that you roll your eyes and groan at when you look back on high school. I even remember that my AP English class and I would often say, “It’s a crime and a punishment to read this book.” You just can’t deny that it’s a behemoth book. But that’s what I loved so much about it. It wasn’t fluff or mind candy. It was epic and real. (I will confess, however, that I didn’t appreciate how long the book was, or even how long each individual chapter and section was, but I learned to suck it up and get over it.)
This book follows the story of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a down-and-out university drop-out living in an impoverished Saint Petersburg, Russia during the nineteenth century. Although that sounds like a harsh description of Dostoevsky’s infamous protagonist, it is by no means insulting. The harsh times in which Raskolnikov lives keep everyone but the upper crust of society completely poor, forcing the impoverished to fight against and betray each other to survive. This leads him to take the life of the pawnbroker (another poor Russian, like himself) who he feels keeps him poor by cheating him out of money for the few items he has to sell. The murder is completely premeditated and worked out extensively to ensure that it is the “perfect crime.” But to execute this perfect murder, he must kill the pawnbroker’s sister who walks in and sees the guilty Raskolnikov and her dead sister. This rash and impulsive murder, as opposed to the premeditated murder of the pawnbroker, is what causes Raskolnikov’s descent into madness, though he refuses to admit it to himself or anyone else.
Raskolnikov is a firm believer of Übermensch, and that extraordinary men (such as himself) should not be held to the same moral code as everyday people. It is their duty, to themselves and to society, to be great men, and to be great they have to break the rules. He applies this theory to his murder of the pawnbroker, since he blames her for keeping him (and much of Saint Petersburg) poor. By killing this woman, he is ridding the world of her cruelty. He uses his position as a self-appointed extraordinary man to murder the pawnbroker and thus achieve greatness, free from his own guilt or punishment from society. But when his conscience starts to get the better of him, and he starts to become physically and mentally ill, and the local police seem to be coming at him from every direction, he realizes that there is no perfect crime and that he might not be as extraordinary a man as he thought. Perhaps he must succumb to a social code after all.
I don’t deny that this was a tough book to read. In fact, it was the most difficult book that I ever read (except for Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I read in eighth grade, something I don’t advise). But it wasn’t that the language was too elevated or the syntax too complicated or even that the setting couldn’t be farther from what I’m used to. Actually, the difficulty came from sticking it out with Raskolnikov, waiting to see whether he’ll recognize his guilt or not, whether he’ll confess to the crime or not. And watching him succumb to madness as a result of burying his guilt is extremely difficult to read. The psychology of the book is what is so hard to grasp, but is nevertheless what keeps you reading.
Dostoevsky does a fantastic job of delving into the mind of a murderer, but not a cold-blooded murderer. Really, Raskolnikov means well. He’s a morally ambiguous character, like most of the other characters, including the pure-hearted and spiritually-driven prostitute, Sonia (Sonya). Whether or not he feels guilt for his crime (thus exhibiting a conscience) would determine if he is an evil, malevolent murderer. And that’s what keeps us reading, to discover if he’ll ever give in to guilt, if he’ll ever confess, and if he’ll ever have an epiphany. Because, honestly, we have no idea what he’ll do next. His mental instability keeps him from making consistent decisions or even from thinking consistently. We have no idea how the book will end or what will become of the protagonist. So we keep reading, partly out of curiosity, and partly because we find Raskolnikov mind-blowingly fascinating.
So even though this might be a dark, depressing book to curl up with at five o’clock in the evening when it’s pitch-black outside, I think that now’s as good a time as any to read or re-read this supreme work of classic fiction. It’s a great time to just stay indoors, since there isn’t much to do outside anyway, and read this book. If nothing else, it will get you to think about your own ideas about murder, morality, and commonly-accepted standards of social conduct. Is Raskolnikov crazy, logical, or something else entirely? Pick up Crime and Punishment and see for yourself. I guarantee that no matter what you think of him when you pick up the book, that you will soon come to respect Raskolnikov and his philosophy and, on a greater level, Dostoevsky’s superhuman achievement with this novel. Like I said before: Best. Book. Ever.