I have just finished Crime and Punishment. All 522 pages in the Signet Classics paperback edition. It’s a novel I’d always intended to read because of my fascination with Russia, because I want to strengthen my knowledge base of classic literature, and because it’s been sitting on my shelf since I chose it for a reading prize from our library’s incentive program a few summers ago.
Our hero, Raskolnikov, finds himself hungry, poor and suffering in St. Petersberg. He lives in an apartment which is so small that he is able to shut the door while still sitting on his bed. He eats very little: cabbage soup or the tea that his landlady provides when he pays his rent. Which he hasn’t in quite some time.
To obtain money, he has pawned family items of worth such as his deceased father’s gold watch. The pawnbroker is an old woman, a greedy and stingy person who does not give even half the value of the items she buys to their desperate owners.
By page 75, Raskolnikov has murdered this woman purposely, and her sister, who unexpectedly walked into the room, accidentally. This part is easy: there’s the crime.
But, the punishment? Not until page 434 is he even accused of committing the crime. In the interim we suffer with him as he falls ill, struggles to help other poverty stricken families, and interacts with his own mother, sister and her betrothed. We see Raskolnikov torment himself with the murders he has committed, although not necessarily guiltily. He has buried the money and items he stole from the pawnbroker, and never does use their worth to his advantage. It seems he has committed the murder solely to commit murder. To rid the world of this nasty woman.
I asked myself, throughout reading this novel, why do people commit crimes? Is it out of necessity from poverty? Is it for the thrill? Is it because of anger, or greed, or daring? Are crimes committed because of the Devil’s influence? Or, and this seems to be Dosteyevksy’s premise, do some people commit crimes for power as they consider themselves above the law?
In many places throughout the novel, Raskolnikov likens himself to Napoleon, in that it was fine for him to commit crimes as long as they served his purpose. While serving his jail term in Siberia, at the epilogue of the novel, he asks himself,
“In what was was my idea any stupider than the other ideas and theories that have swarmed and clashed in the world, one after the other, since the world began? All you have to do is look at it from a disinterested and completely independent point of view, free of the common preconceptions, and surely, if you do that, my idea turns out to be not quite so…grotesque. Ah, critics and five-kopeck philosophers, why stop always halfway?
“Why does what I committed seem so hideous to them?” he said to himself. “Because it was a crime? What does that word mean-crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, I overstepped, illegally; of course, the letter of the law was violated; blood was spilled Very well, satisfy the letter of the law-take my head, why not?-and let it go at that! Given that of course, we have quite a few human benefactors who did not inherit power but seized it for themselves; they should have been executed at their very first steps. But they followed their steps through, and so they were right; and I didn’t follow through, so it turns out I did not have the right to permit myself that first step.” (p. 516)
To me, this sounds like the excuse and rationalization of any person who doesn’t wish to be held accountable for his actions. It is all too easy to place blame on someone else rather than to accept it personally.
Fortunately, Raskolnikov is redeemed through love. At the end of the novel, Sonia, who was forced to work as a prostitute due to her alcoholic father’s proclivity to drink, and Raskolnikov determine that they love each other. They only have to endure the seven more years of his sentence, and then they can be together.
“At the beginning of their happiness they were both prepared at moments to look on these seven years as on seven days. At the time he did not know that a new life had not been given him for nothing, that it would have to be bought dearly, the he would have to pay for it with a great deed in the future…
That is the beginning of a new story, though: the story of a man’s gradual renewal and rebirth of his gradual transition from one world to another, of his acquaintance with a new reality of which he had previously been completely ignorant. That would make the subject of a new story: our present story is ended.
If we let it, can’t love redeem us all? Perhaps, the novel could have been called, “Crime and Redemption” instead.