“Crime and Punishment,” says Richard Pevear in his introduction, “is a highly unusual mystery novel: the most mystified character in it is the murderer himself.”
At first glance, there is no mystery. The answers to “who, what, when, and where” seem self-evident, especially since the murder occurs center stage in the first 80 pages of the novel. Yet the “why” behind Raskolnikov’s crime arrests attention, and the mystery is determining exactly what is the “punishment” of the title. From the beginning section to the epilogue, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s psychological novel captures a disturbed mind in turmoil from its own philosophic ideals. Raskolnikov’s expectations for himself as a “Napoleon” above the law are distorted by his own inner turmoil, and his “punishment” may be realizing his place as a human in the midst of humanity.
But I say “at first glance.” The best facet of Crime and Punishment is its depth. An abundance of characters, some stereotyped and some individual, and layers of complexities of situation and personality illustrate just how each one of us has both a “devil” and a “saint” inside us.
As the Penguin Reading Guide asks, “Who among us is not a criminal? Who among us has not attempted to impose his or her will on the natural order?” I love Crime and Punishment because of the universality of that concept. The concepts do not seem specifically Russian or nineteenth century. Instead, it is universal in its look at human nature, and human nature has not changed much in the past 150 years, although the specific settings vary.
Upon this reread (probably my third reading), I was struck by some new things such as the structure, the variety of characters, and the family relationships. Most particularly, though, the religious elements stood out to me on this read. Although I realized before that there were religious elements to it, this time it seemed much more religious in retrospect. In my book group last night, I came to more of an understanding of the significance of the raising of Lazarus to the story. Raskolnikov’s request that Sonya read the passages from the scriptures was a way of asking her to help him with his faith. I have more thoughts about it, but since I am no longer in school, writing papers about such elements of the novel, I’ll leave that here for future reference: next time I read this book, I should consider Lazarus from beginning to end.
Crime and Punishment is a novel that I cannot praise sufficiently and that I could not reread frequently enough. Subsequently, I struggle to discuss it in an impersonal internet-post format. Just as with the murder motive, I cannot properly explain the “whys” behind my passion for this novel. I love it, and this post will have to remain as is. If I had more time, I’d do a three–part “why I love this” series as I did when I read The Iliad a year and a half ago. But I don’t have time for that anymore. Instead, I’ll look forward to yet another reread, and maybe then I’ll revisit it on this webpage.
I’ll just leave with a (rhetorical) question: How did Dostoevsky create such a complex psychological portrait? He did create a realistic and intimate portrait in this volume. Yes, there is such complexity in each person, yet Dostoevsky’s ability to portray humanity so realistically in text testifies that he is a truly great writer. I am in awe.
What novels leave you in awe of the author’s ability to create?