Sunday, January 23, 2011

Crime and Punishment

By Fyodor Dostoevsky
Now this is a novel that's been on my reading list for a few years--ever since reading War & Peace (which is one of my favorite novels of all time). I say that because War & Peace was the first piece of Russian literature I can recall reading and piqued my interest in Russian culture. So it was with high expectations I delved into Dostoevsky's masterpiece, and those expectations were duly met--just not in the ways I was expecting.

Imagine yourself meeting a brilliant young man with the entire world at his fingertips and then witness him murder an old woman--with an ax. But rather than feel for the murdered woman, you empathize with the ax-murderer. That is what Dostoevsky has done with Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov (Ah! Those Russian names!).

Raskolnikov is in a terrible predicament. He's poor, all the hopes of his mother and sister rest upon his successes (that are not forthcoming), and he's miserable in isolation within the filthy, dark, cramped walls of a hole for a room within the heart of hot, crowded St. Petersburg. That is the very breeding ground for the idea that forms in his head: isn't he justified in killing an old pawnbroker woman--a louse--that no one will mourn, in order to use her money to achieve great things for mankind? Sacrifices must be made for greatness, or so he's convinced himself. Just look at the 'great' men like Napoleon (he uses this comparison often), and all the men whose blood was spilt in order for Napoleon to achieve what he did. Raskolnikov thought he was a great man, therefor, like Napoleon, above the common moral law.

And thus begins our story. As a reader you understand Raskolnikov's logic and motivations, no matter how twisted they may be. You watch how his pride (probably his greatest vice) fails to let him recognize the error in his judgement. You watch that pride torment and suck the life from him, as he withers to a sickly specter of a human. And towards the end, when he finally confesses his crime, you ache when he still doesn't understand his error. To him, the only reason he failed was because he was found out. And because he was found out, this meant he wasn't a 'great man'. He wasn't a Napoleon. It was this thought alone that crushed him.
It isn't until the very end when the constant love of a harlot woman brings him back to humanity. And it is only then that he can realize the weight of his crime, thus the very beginnings of the soul wrenching, painful process of the heart's reconstruction. Dostoevsky leaves us with that, as, he claims, the process of healing and redemption would be another story altogether.

Despite the very heavy subject matter, the author does implement humor. There are many other characters that enrich the world Raskolnikov lives in and as a reader you appreciate the reprieve from our main character's torment. The dialogue is so very real and candid--it's just like the flow in conversations you'd expect to have with people every day which made the characters themselves that much more believable.

Which leaves me with this. I take away a good many things from the books I read--particularly those written in a time other than the present. And from this story, there is one fact that really stood out: how a man could commit something so evil, yet be so thoroughly convinced that what he was doing was truly for the benefit of mankind. And that, I believe, is the most frightening kind of evil.

***If you like YA Fantasy, check out my book, GAIA'S SECRET. The sequel is coming soon!

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