I first read Crime and Punishment when I was 14. I was, at that time, perhaps this book’s perfect reader, maybe even a perfect reader for any book; I was certainly the happiest reader I’ve ever been. I find these days that I cannot read purely for enjoyment, that I spend half my time mentally composing reviews while I turn pages. Yet when I was a teenager I wasn’t interested in literary criticism, and did not have a huge backlog of knowledge about world literature to draw from. Truth be told, my tastes were pretty unsophisticated. I knew what I liked, of course, but I didn’t really know why; and I’m sad, in a way, that I cannot go back to that state of innocence, because the more great works that I have read, the greater my critical faculty has become, the more impossible it is for a book to completely please or impress me. I mention all this, because when recently rereading Crime and Punishment I felt a little disheartened. Unfortunately, I can no longer cherish it in the way that I once did.
I doubt there are any people reading this review who are not aware of the book’s basic plot. However, just in case, here is a very brief summation: impoverished young man decides to murder woman, in part to rob her and in part [so he claims] to showcase his superiority and therefore his right to behave as he pleases, morally. What then ensues is a game of cat and mouse between the killer, Raskolnikov, and the police. Crime and Punishment is, then, a kind of existential thriller.
[One of Fritz Eichenberg’s Crime & Punishment illustrations]
Kafka is often lazily thrown around as a comparison when reviewing or talking about literature – effectively serving as little more than a substitute for weird – but in this instance I believe that it is worthwhile to look at Raskolnikov in relation to Josef K, from The Trial. Like Josef K, Raskolnikov is oppressed at every turn, tragically and absurdly and comically. K., however, is oppressed by things outside of himself, by the other, by other people’s inability to reason, while Raskolnikov is oppressed by himself, by what is inside, by his own inability to reason his way through situations. He knows exactly how to behave in his own best interests and yet cannot; indeed he seems deliberately to draw attention to himself, and actively seeks out people to confess to. I know that some, and maybe Dostoevsky himself, would call this inability to reason conscience, but he is exactly the same prior to the murder. For example, despite being poor he turns down work when it offered to him. What I find most interesting about the Kafka-Dostoevsky comparison is that it maybe explains why Kafka is increasingly relevant and the Russian less so, because we, as a society, are more outward looking than inward looking, we tend to find our oppression in other people, rather than ourselves.
It is baffling to me that Raskolnokov is often described by readers as someone who successfully acts out a clearly defined philosophy. Yes, I know there is some stuff in the text, voiced by Raskolnikov, about supremacy and a kind of utilitarian approach to life and morality [i.e. that if good can come from the death of a wicked person, then one ought to remove the wicked person; or at least it isn’t bad to do so]. But I wouldn’t say the philosophy is clearly defined, nor is it successfully acted upon. In fact, it strikes me that this is Dostoevsky’s point, that these kinds of approaches are ok in theory, but that reality is a whole lot messier, a whole lot more difficult to control and predict. In any case, Raskolnikov isn’t any kind of success, he is actually a complete failure, both personally and philosophically. Indeed, he is, to a large extent, socially inept or awkward. Perhaps that is why young men and students often identify with him and the book.
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”
It is not oft mentioned but Dostoevsky’s work, and this novel in particular, is at times really very funny. All of the characters, or nearly all, are grotesque and emotionally abnormal. Take, for example, the ranting Berhardian monologues, of which there are many here [but which occur much less frequently in his more sophisticated work]. Ranting is inherently funny, to me anyway, because it involves a loss of control. It is almost a kind of physical comedy, like someone falling down or tripping up or losing their footing on ice. There is, too, a kind of randomness to the behaviour and actions of the characters, people do not act according to our [realist] expectations. Indeed, while one may anticipate that Raskolnikov – as the murderer, as a paranoiac – will behave oddly, he actually seems hardly any less volatile than a handful of other major players, such as Razumikhin, who takes a shine to the killer’s sister. This jolting unpredictability is amusing precisely because it is unexpected or unexplainable. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere to the book, a chronic absurdity, which means that I struggle to understand the furrow-browed, earnest response to it from many readers. Crime and Punishment is, let’s face it, to a large extent epically silly.
One could say, however, that this chronic absurdity, this epic Gogolian silliness, is a flaw with the work. Raskolnikov, we’re led to believe, is meant to be a man in torment, a man apart, a man isolated, a man in conflict with his conscience and his soul. But If he does not appear any crazier, does not strike us as more anguished, more unpredictable, and less in control of himself and his emotions, than nearly everyone else in the book, surely Dostoevsky’s vision is compromised. if you feel that the point of the book was, with high-seriousness, to explore one man’s descent into insanity, one man’s struggle with his own soul, then the book cannot possibly be deemed a success. Of course, Dostoevsky wasn’t incapable of providing contrasts, of writing straight men, serious men, sane men. There is the pious Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov, for example. But Crime and Punishment was written 14 years earlier, and so perhaps he wasn’t yet capable of that kind of subtlety, and that for me is what makes it one of his lesser works.
It must also be said that the book suffers from more than just the failure to successfully execute its ideas. I was struck by how tedious and inorganic it is in places. Dostoevsky’s major novels all involve long passages in which characters exchange or discuss philosophical, moral, issues. Yet, here those conversations lack the power of those, for example, in Brothers Karamazov. Furthermore, there are pages and pages of essentially aimless interaction. Raskolnokov’s mother says almost nothing of any note, and yet she isn’t adverse to rambling on, often incoherently. Likewise, Ramusikhin is often guilty of this, as in Sonia’s mother. These characters repeat themselves frequently, and while it does, as mentioned earlier, contribute to the absurd Kafkian atmosphere, it does become, well, boring over nearly 600 pages. How is it inorganic? Dostoevsky was never the most controlled writer, his novels not often finely plotted. Here, the plot feels stage-managed, there are too many occasions when you can see the strings, when Dostoevsky signposts what he is doing. By this I mean that someone will say something or overhear something or there will be some unbelievable coincidence, and each time the purpose is obviously simply to move along the story in a particular direction.
So, if you consider Crime and Punishment a failure [relative to his best work, of course; it’s still better than most things out there], as I do, what reason is there to read it? Well, the book has much to say about the state of the world, about every man, not just one individual isolated from the rest of [civilised?] society. The world of Crime and Punishment is a world in collapse, in disintegration, where women can silently, randomly, throw themselves off a bridge; it is a world where near everyone is going loco and that is what, in my opinion, gives the book its power. In fact, to my mind Raskolnikov is reacting against this state of the world when he does the dirty deed, as he sees it as a way of distinguishing himself from other people, people he considers louses. The key to the work, for me, is that while Raskolnikov seeks to prove his superiority, to set himself apart as a great man, a man who as great is therefore outside of conventional moral obligations, he comes to realise that he isn’t any of those things, that he is, in fact, just like everyone else. That, indeed, while initially contributing to his anguish eventually leads to his salvation.