Book Club: Crime and Punishment

“Your worst sin is that you have destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing.”

I bought this book years ago, as part of my attempt to read all the classic novels. Like the rest of the classic novels I bought at the time, it gathered dust in my book basket while I enjoyed more modern works. A little while ago, I was perusing Instagram as I do, when I came across the quote above and it struck a chord with me. I saved the post, as I do with all the quotes that I like, and did not think much of it. Then I saw it a few more times, and one post in particular had not just the name of the author but also the book the quote came from. I thought to myself: “I think I have this book“, lo and behold I did. This was the motivation I needed to finally read the book, and I am glad I did.

Crime and Punishment is a classic novel by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky and was published in 1866. It follows the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a poverty stricken law student seemingly in the throes of mental anguish. He lives in squalor, and cannot even afford that squalor as he is owing his landlady rent; he barely eats, has dropped out of university due to lack of funds and is all around despondent. Rather than do something useful with his life however, he is content to brood over his misfortune and obsess about the wrong ways to improve his circumstances. He decides the only way out is to rob and murder the local pawn-broker; an elderly woman who keeps money and valuables in her house. A letter from his mother and sister drives him over the edge and strengthens his resolve to carry out the crime. It is all downhill from there. The rest of the book follows his internal turmoil as he agonises over what he has done; he goes in and out of delirium, his mental and physical state deteriorating rapidly as the (excruciatingly slow) hands of the law close in on him.

“Man has it all in his hands, and it all slips through his fingers from sheer cowardice.”

The crime is obvious- the murder. The punishment appears not to be that which is handed by a court of law, but Raskolnikov’s crisis of conscience. By the time the law caught up with him, he had been so severely tormented and ruined by his conscience that the law was a mercy. By the the end of the book, I had completely forgotten that Raskolnikov was described as “exceptionally handsome and well built.” He just seemed ragged, haggard and unwashed.

“The man who has a conscience suffers whilst acknowledging his sin. That is his punishment.”

Though the book primarily focuses on Raskolnikov, there are other interesting stories which intersect with his own. Chief of this is the story of Marmeladov; a drunkard who has squandered his money and job to drink, leaving his sick wife- Katerina Ivanova- to deal with the household and children in complete penury. Her life causes her so much anguish and she never fails to speak about her early life of nobility. Of all the characters, I was most sympathetic to Katerina and her children, including her stepdaughter Sofya. So much suffering for no purpose. I was bored by Raskolnikov; I just wanted him to be arrested already! I had no sympathy for him and just found him lazy and pretentious. Same with Marmeladov, but I could have a bit of sympathy for him as alcoholism is a disease and he seemed to acknowledge his failings. However a man who is content to let his family live in filth, and have his daughter resort to degrading measures to provide is gutter trash. Marmeladov and Raskolnikov are similar to me in that they both wallow in their despair rather than seeking help, and this causes chaos for those around them.

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.

One of my favourite scenes in the book is that of the reception hosted by Katerina Ivanonva; the drama, the chaos, the suspense! I want to watch the film/stage adaptation of the book just for that scene. Katerina’s life was so sad and I felt bad for her. The scene also revived the book in a way, as I was starting to get tired.

After reading the book, I went on to do research about it (of course) and found a few interesting things. One; Dostoevsky was working on another book called The Drunkards when he conceived the idea of Crime and Punishment. The Drunkards was about Marmeladov, which was then merged into Raskolnikov’s story as one book. I found this interesting as I had thought to myself while reading the book that Marmeladov’s story could stand on its own. At some point I was even annoyed by the back and forth. Truly, the way the stories were merged is genius. This makes me wonder if I can just combine the countless drafts I have in my laptop into one story instead.

Another thing is that the book was not initially written in full, but instead published in twelve monthly instalments in a Russian journal. The book is split into 6 parts (and an epilogue), and I wonder if this has anything to do with it, as I did not really see the point of the different parts. This must have been de rigueur back in those days, as HG Wells’ The Invisible man was also published in instalments in a journal.

Perhaps the most interesting of all was learning about Dostoevsky himself, and the case that supposedly inspired the novel. Thanks to Wikipedia and the notes in the novel, I found out that Dostoevsky was actually sentenced to death but had his sentence commuted just moments before the firing squad was to go off! How surreal. Wow. He then spent ten years in exile composed of 4 years in a Siberian prison and 6 years in military service. There are references to all of this in the book, and it is fair to say that he put a lot of his experiences into Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky was also very poor, and was often in debt much like Raskolnikov (and really like a lot of the artists of the time who have now achieved fame and success posthumously). He was also a gambler and lost a lot of his money that way (similar to Marmeladov’s alcoholism and Raskolnikov’s penchant for impulsively giving out money even though he was broke). He also had a daughter named Sofya but she died in infancy. Are we sure Dostoevsky didn’t actually murder an elderly woman? (does this still count as slander/libel? If so I include the word “Allegedly”.)

The book gives a good idea of life in 19th Century St. Petersburg, Russia. There is talk of serfs and poverty; of economic change and growing discontent; of political movements and suppression. St. Petersburg is presented as this dirty, shabby place, infested with crime and debauchery; this sentiment carries on throughout the book and seeps into the characters. There are references to “current events” which would have been the talk of the town back then e.g. the university lecturer arrested for forgery, and the policeman arrested for attempted murder. There is also a fair bit of philosophical babbling about life and justice and this and that which makes more sense after learning about Dostoevsky’s real life. I’ll admit that I skipped past some of it as I was quite desperate eager to get to the end of the story. I also rolled my eyes at Raskolnikov’s attempts to rationalise the murders by suggesting that some men can be above the law. Still, there were some interesting theories.

“We’re always thinking of eternity as an idea that cannot be understood, something immense. But why must it be? What if, instead of all this, you suddenly find just a little room there, something like a village bath-house, grimy, and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is. Sometimes, you know, I can’t help feeling that that’s what it is.”

I am not all that familiar with Russian culture, and this may be the first Russian book I have read. I was therefore quite confused with the naming nomenclature in Russia. Most of the characters were introduced in one way, and then referred to by another name which left me so confused. For instance:

Rodion Raskolnikov (Rodya)
Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikova (Dounia
Dmitry Prokofyich (Razumíkhin)
Pyotr Petrovich (Luzhin)
Sofya Semyonovna (Sonia)

It could very well be that these are known nicknames (I have heard that Russians called Natalia are often referred to as Natasha) but this drove me insane. I would be reading about Razumíkhin and then the name Dmitry Prokofyich would come up and I would think who on earth is this now??? I have also learnt that the author did not choose the names randomly and they are largely play on words which I guess would make sense to a native Russian speaker (born in the 1800s). I found this example online:

Raskolnikov is far from a random, raspy, sinister name. It comes from the Russian for ‘schism’, raskol, and its derivative raskolniki, which refers to a particular group of schismatics: namely, the Old Believers, who broke from the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-seventeenth century.

The book is well deserving of its status as a classic; the writing is stunning in that way that makes me wonder if I will ever be able to conceive and deliver such work. Once I committed to read the book, I found that it was not as bad as I thought and was in fact easier to read than expected. Still, some parts dragged on and after an initial burst of energy, the final 100 pages took me over 2 weeks to finish. However, even in parts where I felt the story dragged, either from the age or style, I was still impressed by the writing. I read online that a few people thought the epilogue was anti-climatic and not befitting the book given the quality of its preceding pages. I can completely see where those people are coming from. For me however, the book was so intense that I was happy for the “come-down” in the epilogue. Could the book have done without it? Definitely. The final chapter ended with some ambiguity as to Raskolnikov’s fate and I guess there is some power in this ambiguity. This reminds me of Kafka’s The Trial. I do appreciate authors taking the time to tie up all loose ends but I can see how it may have cheapened the whole story. Personally I wanted to see Raskolnikov punished for his actions so I appreciated the epilogue but I was not satisfied by it. I’ll leave it at that.

This was an intense book in that so much time was spent in the heads of people. There was so much sadness and poverty. Did anyone really get a happy ending?

One thing about me? I love a good quote that I can relate to. It is one of my favourite things about reading; finding a quote that so beautifully articulates something I have felt, or that provides the motivation that I need. There were a few such quotes in the book:

“Don’t be overwise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid – the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.”

Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!

Oh one last thing; Dostoevsky predicted Covid-19. Of course.

He had dreamed that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen ones. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will.


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