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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

February 24, 2010

For the Alphabet in Historical Fiction Challenge at Historical Tapestry, our letter this fortnight is F for Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I won’t have time to finish this by the end of the month — I’ll complete it and write a full review later.

This is a re-read for me. I read it for the first time about 11 years ago. It is interesting returning to a classic after a decade has passed — I see the book through different eyes.

The protagonist of this novel is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who apparently inspired a character in the video game Grand Theft Auto. (I know this because I went to Google to find the correct spelling of Raskolnikov’s name.) Wherever Fyodor Dostoyevsky is now, I am sure he is deeply moved. :-/

Raskolnikov is a former student, living in abject poverty in a tiny attic room in St. Petersburg. Dostoyevsky created a vivid, bleak world in which the poorer citizens of St. Petersburg, who can’t afford to spend summers in the country, are crowded in the filthy, sweltering city and drunkards joylessly gather in the bars.

Raskolnikov visits a pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, to pawn his father’s watch. She is a mean-spirited old woman who regularly cheats her clients. He conceives a plan to murder her, a horrendous crime he doesn’t actually plan to carry through. Later, sitting in a bar, he hears someone else talking about it. Alyona Ivanovna was wealthy but cruel and shallow, they say — she serves no purpose. Imagine how many people’s lives could be salvaged from desperate poverty with her money. Killing and robbing her would not be a crime — it would serve the greater good.

This idea germinates in Raskolnikov’s mind and becomes an obsession.  Dostoyevsky does an incredible job of taking us inside his head — experiencing his depression, his ideas, and the obsession that is consuming him. This writer really is a master at delving into that disturbing, slippery area between good and evil.

Part I of Crime and Punishment, which I just finished re-reading, ends with Raskolnikov’s heinous crime. The rest of the novel covers the aftermath of the crime and its consequences.

When I first read this novel, in my early 30s, I saw it largely as a story about the philosophical and psychological road to a “normal” person — one who is not a sociopath — becoming convinced that a heinous crime is justifiable. I was also interested in the sociopolitical and historical background. This time around, I am more intrigued by the character of Raskolnikov himself, an odd, introspective young man who has great difficulty connecting with other people but cares deeply for his mother and sister.

There are enough tangled layers in this novel to withstand a hundred re-readings — and I am sure there are enough doctoral dissertations written on every aspect of this book to fill Buckingham Palace. I do find it interesting, however, that with Great Books, as we progress through the different stages of our lives, we never really read the same book twice.

More later.

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