I’ve always considered myself to be quite a diverse reader, and I am a fan of ‘classics’, both modern and older. I always struggled to understand why some people seem to find the idea of reading classics a bit daunting, because I’ve generally found them to be as accessible as more recent literary works (and sometimes even more so – give me Pride and Prejudice over The Silmarillion any day!). However, once I’d picked up a copy of Crime and Punishment, all became clear. It was a daunting read (and not just because it’s huge), and there was a period where I had to lay it aside for a week or two (or three or four) because I found it a bit overwhelming in its construction and story-telling. But I persevered with it, and actually found myself really enjoying it.
On the face of it, it sounds like a pretty gripping tale. Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is an impoverished student who has managed to fritter away all of his money but can’t really be arsed to go about amending this by means of something as trivial as getting a job. Instead he decides to murder a pawnbroker (Alyona Ivanovna) and steal her money. He even presents this to himself as a morally justifiable course on the basis that Alyona Ivanovna isn’t really contributing to society and so can be seen as a drain and waste of resources, whereas Raskolnikov can use the stolen money to do something good, thereby bettering society and making the murder worthwhile and even desirable. Napoleon’s used as an example; the theory runs along the lines that Napoleon achieved such great deeds that it morally placed him above society, and therefore any murders by him of people less great than himself weren’t to be condemned, because the murdered people didn’t contribute to the ‘greater good’ as he did and were therefore expendable anyway. I’m sure someone else could explain that much more clearly and succinctly, but (I think) that’s the basic gist of it, as I understood it anyway.
However the murder doesn’t quite go to plan and Raskolnikov ends up killing Alyona’s sister Lizaveta too. He then completely bungles the burglary, and spends the majority of the rest of the book wrestling with his conscience about whether to turn himself into the police or just carry on with his life. Don’t be mistaken into thinking this attack of conscience is any sign of remorse though; rather, Raskolnikov knows admitting the crime would be the moral thing to do, but he doesn’t think he should suffer a punishment for someone as worthless as Alyona. A sense of guilt doesn’t really appear much at this point (if at all).
He is, however, capable of ‘good deeds’, and when he is given money by his family he immediately gives it away to the struggling family of Marmeladov, a drunk killed by a horse and trap, to pay for the funeral costs. Marmeladov’s family are very grateful, particularly Sonya who was forced into prostitution to support the family, and forms an attachment to Raskolnikov. She persuades Raskolnikov to confess, and it is eventually the thought of Sonya which causes him to finally repent for his actions.
In a way, I was surprised that I enjoyed Crime and Punishment as much as I did. It certainly took a while to get going, and I found it very slow and not particularly captivating at first, although it became much more gripping as it progressed, particularly towards the end. I did find myself quite invested in Raskolnikov’s fate, even though he wasn’t very likeable at all as a character. I quite enjoyed not liking him though, there was something quite refreshing about it. I did start to grow a bit weary of his internal agonising about whether to turn himself in or not though. It didn’t particularly bother me that he wasn’t at all remorseful because I found the justification of his actions quite fascinating, but after 400 pages of umming and aahing and changing his mind, I just wanted him to pick a course and be done with it. I know some people found the ending to be unsatisfying, but I thought it worked well and I wanted Raskolnikov to face a punishment, whether he thought it was deserving or not. His surprisingly short sentence was fairly depressing though, as it highlighted what Raskolnikov had been arguing to himself throughout – that Alyona Ivanovna and Lizaveta’s lives weren’t deemed significant enough for anyone to really care that they were murdered with an axe. Not only that, but there wasn’t even any point to their murders. Raskolnikov planned to kill Alyona solely for her money, but then he failed to steal it, so they died for nothing. After all his prattle about Napoleon and the worth of individuals as members of society, Raskolnikov cocked up big time and killed two women for no real reason whatsoever; how, then, can he justify it to himself for so long?
Aside from the fascinating but dubious motives, I did have a few other problems with the book. It was my first foray into the world of Russian literature, and I must admit I found it extremely hard to keep up with the Russian names. I really struggled trying to keep track of who was who, especially as each character was known by a few name variations depending on who was speaking to them, and Dostoyevsky had no qualms switching between these names within the space of a paragraph so that at one point I was convinced there were three people speaking in a scene when in fact there were only two. It became extremely confusing. To give you an example, Raskolnikov’s sister is called Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov but is also known as Dunya and Dunechka, while Sonya’s real name is Semyonovna Marmeladov but she is also occasionally called Sonechka. Not only did each character have a variety of names for me to learn, but some of the names were incredibly similar and all unfamiliar to me so that it was very hard to keep track in general. By the end of the book I was still thoroughly confused between Zossimov and Zamyotov, and couldn’t remember for the life of me which was which and who had appeared when.
Despite this the thing, or should I say person, which bothered me most about Crime and Punishment was the character of Sonya/Semyonovna/Sonechka. I found her to be quite irritating. All the other characters treat her as a little mouse, completely pure and innocent (despite her life of prostitution), but it seems unfair to treat her as a vertebrate when the girl’s clearly lacking a backbone. She was such a drip, I was desperate for her to take a stand but she was too busy being meek and mild. Not only that, but she fell in love with Raskolnikov pretty much instantly (which is always a pet peeve in fiction, there’s nothing as unbelievable as insta-love), and then continued to fawn over him even when she discovered he was responsible for the murder of her friend Lizaveta, the most innocent and harmless character in the book, and a friend so close that she had given Sonya her own crucifix to wear. And Sonya didn’t even seem that bothered that Raskolnikov had taken an axe to her head! Instead she stands by the unrepentant Raskolnikov, and even follows him to Siberia to serve out his sentence. She was frustrating in the extreme.
Struggles and issues aside, Crime and Punishment is definitely worth a read, and is quite an intriguing and fascinating book. I think so anyway. I wouldn’t recommend it as a place to start if you’re not used to reading classics though; also even if you regularly read classics, bear in mind that this might seem a bit more hard-going due to the nature and conventions of Russian literature. I did find it hard work at times, particularly in the first third or so as I found it quite slow to get into, but I really was gripped by the end and wanting to know the resolution. This is a book that does require you to make an effort, but if you’re willing to do so it’s definitely worth it, and I think a rewarding read.
See also My Culture Mission or read previous Book Review featuring Sebastian Faulks’ Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel.