Crime and Punishment: A Five-Minute Guide
"For suffering, Rodion Romanovitch, is a great thing."
Ahh, yes, Crime and Punishment - one of those works that people in tweed like to mumble about and most of us know only by name. Probably the greatest of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels, Crime and Punishment survives in the cultural memory through its association on shows like Family Guy with the dry, intellectual reader. To most people Crime and Punishment is a book for the intelligentsia.
Which, in its own way, is a bit ironic - as Crime and Punishment comprises a rather scathing critique of the evil that rational minds can accomplish and a study of the pains and passions endured by people from all walks of life. If you have suffered you will find something to identify with in Crime and Punishment. So if you'd like to pick up the ol' C&P but are a little hesitant (or need a primer before reading it as homework) here's Chapter of the Day's five-minute guide. Enjoy.
Murder on His Mind
Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov is a promising 23-year old law student in the capital of Russia who, unfortunately, has fallen on hard times. Too poor to stay in school, Raskolnikov becomes depressed at what he considers the failure of the word to recognize his genius. Too stubborn to take low-paying work as a tutor, Raskolnikov survives by pawning off what few valuables he has to a local pawnbroker named Alyona Ivanova. As Raskolnikov pawns off more valuable pieces of his past, he grows increasingly bitter, resolving eventually to murder Alyona Ivanova and use her wealth in a number of good deeds - which Raskolnikov reasons is a morally acceptable outcome.
Raskolnikov's decision plagues him, however, and Crime and Punishment spends a great deal of its time considering the self-loathing and denial a rational mind experiences upon deciding to commit a horrible deed. Chief among the torments endured by Raskolnikov is fear of being "found out." While one may succeed at fooling the world world, the young man discovers, one can never entirely escape the all-seeing eye of the human conscience.
Theory: A Dangerous Game
One of the most striking things about Dostoevsky's evildoers in Crime and Punishment is that they are all exceedingly clever. In addition to the young scholar, Raskolnikov, readers encounter a brilliant card-shark with a history of sexual violence, as well as an alcoholic civil servant with an impressively keen mind. The "heroes" of the story - though that's not quite an appropriate word - are all far less insightful. A young prostitute, a blustering if good-natured fellow student, and a stuffy young doctor all frustrate and confound the plotting of Raskolnikov not through their intelligence; but through earnest good-nature and kindness.
At one point, however, Dostoevsky does allow Raskolnikov to face-off against a man of intellect equal to his own, a lawyer who suspects and condemns Raskolnikov's theory that many good acts can outweigh a criminal one:
"You made up a theory and then were ashamed that it broke down and turned out to be not at all original! It turned out to be something base, that's true, but you are not hopelessly base" (Dostoevsky 486).
Perhaps the most poignant warning of Crime and Punishment is that intelligent individuals with apparently revolutionary ideas about "the good" can do terrible evil. In fact, as the lines above suggest, the ideas of evildoers are never really revolutionary at all, but instead the same familiar acts of cruelty. Only, the danger of such ideas is that their slick packaging can make them appealing to even the "better" elements of society - individuals who genuinely want to do good. Resolution comes only when "life had stepped into the place of theory" and the human experience of compassion for suffering triumphs over abstracted ideas about how to end suffering entirely (577).
Suffering: A Human Condition
Perhaps surprisingly, the language and narrative of Crime and Punishment are neither of them difficult to follow. So where does the reputation for being such a "tough" book emerge from? I suspect it stems from the content of the text itself. In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky manages an incredible feat of literature - the author manages to suggest an importance, even a goodness, to human suffering without ever revealing the nature of that goodness. Even the work's title, which encompasses two means by which humans inflict suffering on each other, speaks to the centrality of suffering within the work.
Few authors were as familiar with suffering as Dostoevsky. Accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit, Dostoevsky was sentence to death and made to wait eight months in prison for the execution. Moments before the fatal act, the Russian Tsar granted a stay of execution, and Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted to imprisonment and hard labor. Here was a man who in his darkest hours had literally suffered senselessly at the hands of a powerful and corrupt state. In spite of this long suffering, however, Dostoevsky never gave into nihilism. Indeed, one of the great themes of Crime and Punishment is the evil of nihilism and the virtue of bearing up under the sufferings endured by humanity. More than any other element, Crime and Punishment's obsession with suffering in all its forms makes it a difficult but worthwhile read.
To walk away from Dostoevsky's greatest novel with all its treasures, one must first be willing to confront its grim view of the world.
And that's the five-minute guide to Crime and Punishment.