Ever felt totally ashamed, or angry, or bored ? if so, read on….,
I just finished reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a book that I had started reading on 2 previous occasions but failed to get beyond the first 100 pages.
I am ever so thankful that I got past the first 100 pages this time. The book is an incredible, multi-layered, tour de force of the human condition. It operates at psychological, cultural, political and philosophical levels, drawing out the many complexities that all of us experience at both conscious and subconscious levels every day. However, Dostoyevsky manages to write this in clear and unambiguous prose which is easy to follow, and accessible.
How do you deal with the shame after you’ve done, or said, something that you shouldn’t have ? Maybe you try rationalisation, or sublimation, or repression, or denial, distraction or even reaction formation ? Raskolnikov tries all of these, and more. He’s not even sure that he should feel ashamed, he’s a very complicated character.
There are many beautiful aspects of Crime & Punishment (I’m no literary critic, so I’m sure that I have missed, or misunderstood many of the ‘literary points’), however I loved how Dostoyevsky establishes a context of moral ambiguity. Nobody in the novel is wholly good, nor wholly bad (excepting Sonya – I think she is wholly good, if naive). The morality of the characters very much depends upon the point in time at which they are sampled, and the position that the reader takes as judge (e.g. Humanist Psychologist as judge of Porfiry may find him morally good, whereas Raskolnikov’s Mother as judge of Porfiry would find him immoral).
The early plot of the book explicitly and implicitly mirrors the changing political situation in late 19th Century Russia. The explicit discussion concerning politics that the characters have is often satirical (e.g. a beautiful discussion on whether crime exists), whilst the implicit reflection of the political situation sits beside the narrative throughout the novel. The gender politics of the novel develop as the story develops, again Dostoyevsky seems to paint an ambiguous picture as to the lived gender reality within the structural patriarchy of his society.
The book has one central story, with maybe 10 other stories intertwined around the central theme. These stories are wonderfully entertaining, bringing us many ‘larger than life’ characters, using characterisation which is very similar to Dickens and Eca de Queiroz. There are twists and turns as the narrative develops, there are climaxes throughout, and many ‘what next ?’ moments. Structures very much arising from the original monthly publication format. Raskolinikov is a fascinating character – isolated from others, with moments of great insight alongside a sometimes infuriating lack of direction or sense. I walked with him in the same way that I walked with Holden Caulfield on my first reading of Catcher in the Rye.
In summary – Crime & Punishment is a must for anyone interested in human psychology, the nature of existence or morality. I know that I will come back to this book over and over again. For the moment however, it’s gone straight into my ‘top 3 books of all time’, and has given me a taste for the Russian Classics – next Tolstoy awaits !