Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Dunce: Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Book Dunce is a series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a book that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never read. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.

One of our writers here at Spectrum Culture jokes that no one's actually ever read Crime and Punishment in its entirety, but the embarrassment factor prevents anyone from admitting it. It's not true, of course, but for years I preferred to think that it was. At the least it made me feel a little bit less like an uncultured moron and instead like someone whose Jesuit education still managed to respectably include many novels from the Cliff's Notes series, even if I'll never get the image of Sister Rose misquoting The Great Gatsby's "orgastic" future as "orgasmic" out of my mind. Besides, an education under the auspices of the Jesuits carried with it its own unique definition of crime and punishment. Anyone who's ever had to write Campion's Brag by hand in JUG - that's Justice Under God to you - or has taken a shillelagh to the shins knows what I mean. Raskolnikov's inner turmoil and mental anguish paled by comparison. I even managed to make it through college - with a minor in English - without even catching a whiff of the novel.

I eventually bought Crime and Punishment on November 26, 2002. How do I know that? Because when I dug the book out of basement storage for this feature, the receipt was still halfway through chapter 2, which is where I stopped when I tried to read back then. Eight years and a climb into my early 30s later, I actually can't remember now why I abandoned the book in the midst of one of Marmeladov's drunken ramblings. Sure it's long and its prose undoubtedly loses some of its poetic beauty when it's translated to English - and, if it's possible to criticize a heavyweight like Fyodor Freaking Dostoevsky, parts of it are more melodramatic than daytime soaps - but its concerns and characters are as recognizable and relevant to our modern world as they were in the author's 1860s Russia.

A quick recap for those who think Crime and Punishment is one of "Law and Order's" many spinoffs: Raskolnikov is a dirt-poor ex-student living in the slums of St. Petersburg with an unstylish hat and a Napoleon fixation who once wrote an article expounding a theory that murder is justifiable if it will ultimately benefit humanity. He eventually decides to kill a pawnbroker for her money, alleviating his cash flow problem and expunging someone whom he considers a "vile noxious insect." When the pawnbroker's sister unexpectedly arrives after the former student has axed the pawnbroker, he kills her as well. Raskolnikov then spends his days trying to hold his mental shit together while tons of awful, just awful, things happen to various other characters linked to him: town drunk Marmeladov is trampled by a horse-drawn carriage (he dies); his consumptive wife's health rapidly deteriorates (she dies); the shady sex-hound Svidrigaïlov is rejected by Raskolnikov's sister Dounia and puts a bullet through his temple (brain matter everywhere, you know the rest). At the urging of Sonia, Marmeladov's daughter and a true hooker with a heart of gold, Raskolnikov confesses and is eventually incarcerated in beautiful Siberia.

All joking aside, and as I'm sure at least one literary critic has so eloquently said before, Crime and Punishment is fucking awesome. It works on numerous levels: as a psychological study of a mind in an increasingly fragile state, where Raskolnikov tries to reconcile his perception of himself as a superman genius who's beyond good and evil with his murderous actions; as a detective story filled with suspense and tension; as a character study of various types, whether it's the virtuous prostitute Sonia, the selfless Razuminhin or the sly investigator Porfiry; and as a glimpse into the author's opinions of his birth country's political, cultural, religious and social climate. It's a page-turner without any of the cheap thrills and absurd plot twists that define the majority of popular fiction, as well as a prosaic work that raises questions about the human condition and our moral obligations to one another.

For students of Russian history or modern philosophy the novel is indispensable, but a true masterpiece succeeds based on whether the story it tells can exist outside of the environment in which it was written. Crime and Punishment unarguably still does. Even the epilogue, probably the most criticized aspect of the novel, is integral, as it hints at Raskolnikov's redemption as well as the fidelity that defines us in our best moments. Academia - just not those Jesuits who taught me - worships it for obvious reasons, but this is also a novel worth embracing outside of the halls of higher learning.

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