After three months of picking it up and putting it down, I have finally finished ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Dostoevsky. My thoughts on the novel were mixed.
Reading it took this much time in part because of the amount of work and exploring that I was doing, but also because it is not an easy book to read. It is lengthy, with the author choosing to write paragraphs when he could have written a simple sentence, and giving the characters long monologues and introspective descriptions. In fact, when I realised at the end of the novel that the main action had taken place within the time span of a few weeks, I was very surprised.
Of course, the need to elaborately explain each thought and action is partially the style of writing at the time, and partially (or so Russians like to tell me) a reflection of the culture’s obsession with the self, inner emotions, and emotional and moral development. The lengthy writing style is also related with the main theme of the book- the fall of man, and his ‘recovery’ or return to religion, which takes time.
Interestingly, the crime itself is committed at the beginning of the novel, and although the book could have been written like a detective story, the crime comes across as almost insignificant. More interesting for the author is exploring why the main character chose to murder- and did so rationally, and in full possession of his senses, a discussion which is never fully concluded. Some of the arguments presented centre on the idea that his actions were good for society, and that he, as a more highly developed individual had the right to take lives in order to build a better world. At least this is what he likes to tell himself. While the narration leads us to believe that he has convinced himself that he is not guilty of any crime, plot developments begin to show the cracks in his refusal of guilt. As the story develops we see that the point of the novel is to explore the reactions of a criminal under stress, to show the development of a moral conscience through the recovery of faith.
Key in this development was the help of caring, boring female figures, acceptance of the act as condemned in society, and the acceptance of the prescribed punishment. The punishment takes place in three forms, all leading to his religious rebirth- firstly a physical illness and mental derangement which plagues him for several weeks, secondly the torture of others he loves through sharing the burden of his crime, refusing them contact and acting despicably towards them (which causes further self-contempt), and finally a state punishment in Siberia, in which he meekly accepts his role as below society and finally, below God.
By the end of the novel I was thoroughly irritated by the main character, bored of his internal reflection, his refusal of those who loved them as a way of torturing himself, and his prideful ‘bearing of his punishment’. This boredom was highlighted through my annoyance that the three main females presented in the text were simply there as moral compasses, the guiding lights for men. While it is perhaps interesting and worthy of discussion that Dostoyevsky describes both the chaste, concerned sister and the ‘down-on-her-luck-whore’ as equals, their purpose as caring nurses and figures of moral righteousness irritated me.
Again, though, this panders into the times and the culture’s perspective on women, which hold them as naturally better or more moral than men. Their willingness to accept punishment for men, and their role in bettering men earns them respect. Which leaves me wondering- there are so many re-writings of classics, such as Jane Eyre (Rebecca, Wide Sargasso Sea), Robinson Crusoe (Defoe), etc.- does anyone know of anything similar for this classic?
Any other book recommendations are also, of course, very welcome!