Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Crime and Punishment

Welcome to my blog! Though I am not an expert on literature I am going to pretend to be. Frequently, I finish books and want to talk everyone’s ear off on what I think about them… and people could not care less. Through this blog, I’ll have the platform to discuss the books I read with an audience that might actually be interested. Of course, these are just my opinions, so don’t get all defiant if you disagree with me. That being said, if you would like to share your own opinion please contact me or comment below. My first book of choice is one I recently finished—Crime and Punishment* written by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Now, I respect Dostoevsky as a writer and a human--and not just because he has an awesome, aggressive sounding name. It’s funny when you realize that authors are actual people and not just huge assholes bent on ruining your sacred high school social life by creating deceivingly brilliant works which entice English teachers to assign them. But seriously, Dostoevsky was a very resilient man who more than earned his platform for asserting his outlook on the world. The guy’s mom died when he was fifteen which sucks in and of itself but I suppose you can’t expect a long lifespan while living in poverty in mid nineteenth century Russia (I arbitrarily hate on Russia because it’s too big and too cold). Later in life, he was arrested for his participation in an underground politically-charged book club (think Reading Lolita in Tehran) called the Petrashevsky CircleFollowing a casual eight-month grimy jail stint, he was sentenced to death—one of the accusations being that he “[knew] of the intention to set up a printing press”. I’m sorry….uhhh, what? Now, I have been desensitized to death because I just finished watching the Sopranos, but that seems slightly ridiculous. Then, when he was LITERALLY tied to a stake in front of a firing squad, Nicholas the First was like just kidding, let’s have them do some years of hard labor instead. One of his fellow oh-so-graciously spared prisoners went insane afterwards, as is his right, but Fyodor went back to the books. He attempted to publish two journals—both were shot down by his Majesty’s minions and he suffered financially. Needless to say, I would probably have spent the rest of my life pouting and repeatedly scribbling “I hate Nicholas l” on a sheet of paper. Conversely, he ended up producing this classic and the Brothers Karamazov, so there’s that.

So, after establishing that Dostoevsky has both the intellectual aptitude and enough life experiences under his belt to potentially create something poignant and thought-provoking…do I actually like the book? At the risk of dumbing down the novel, I will provide the briefest of summaries: a man (Raskolnikov), driven by very complex motivations, kills two women and takes some of their money and possessions. The first killing was preconceived whereas the second casualty occurred in the heat of the moment—when the half-sister of the deceased walked in mid-murder. Post murder, Raskolnikov undergoes a deeply agonizing internal struggle in an attempt to make sense of what he did and why he did it. As a student of psychology, I can appreciate that the bulk of the book is concerned with how the event of killing psychologically affects the killer himself. In my opinion, a good book forces the reader to ask him/herself questions. As such, I found myself pondering—is this particular murder justified? Is any murder justified? Is said justification affected by the murderer’s state of mind or particular moral convictions? Moreover, a good book enables and empowers you to learn about yourself. What does it say about me that I really wanted Raskolnikov to chill out, stop being such a dramatic baby about everything, and be able to get away with the murder?

I’d like to think that this is more so a reflection of my dedication to the character than a potential latent serial killing tendency inside me. Not only have I learned to humanize authors, I have also begun to do the same for characters. Characters are people and an adroit author will give them personalities that come to life. Prior to reading this novel, I had just finished Reading Like a Writer, a book generously gifted to me by my 12th grade English teacher. A section of the book suggested that writers resemble actors. I have always admired actors for being able to believably adopt a psychology that is not their own. Similarly, writers construct multiple conceivably realistic personalities. That being said, Raskolnikov was kind of a dick. In the end, it appears that his crime was induced by a self-pride rooted in nihilistic and utilitarian philosophies. In sum: he feels that there is a special class of superior men who are both capable (physically, emotionally) and entitled to violate societal laws. In an attempt to prove—primarily to himself—that he belongs to said class, he kills a woman whom he deems utterly worthless. Much to his dismay, he fails to exhibit the characteristics of this so-called superior man, namely in that he experiences feelings of guilt and ambivalence. Unlike the triumphant man who allegedly makes the world a better place by occasionally acting with no regard for the rules which govern the general public, Raskolnikov cannot murder and simply move on.

Oftentimes, Dostoevsky depicts this inner turmoil through physical reaction. Now, no sane person buys into the antiquated views of mind-body dualism. This isn’t Lizzy McGuire where some floating mini-me is standing above me giving advice akin to the mind. Still, the inextricable link between the mind and the physical body portrayed in this book is alarming. Any would-be murderer who reads this book will assuredly be very turned off by the notion of succumbing to a terribly miserable and physically debilitating feverish state as a consequence of killing. Raskolnikov was essentially a bad murderer—he became severely ill, a reaction which roused suspicion among his fellow Russians.

In the end, we have this character who mistakenly thinks he can accomplish “great” things without retribution… what happens to him? After roughly 700—sometimes rewarding, sometimes grueling—pages, Dostoevsky decided it might be a good idea to start smoking crack before he finished writing the rest of the book. While I have no definitive historical proof of this, the haphazard way in which he ended this novel strongly points in that direction. Basically, Raskolnikov undergoes an epiphany, confessing to his crime and declaring his repentance in the name of Orthodox Christianity. Epiphanies are, by definition, sudden and unexpected; however, I do not feel that his recourse to faith was a realistic development of Raskolnikov’s temperament. There are many modern day examples of men and women who adhere to an ideology so strongly that they will kill for it. Rasknolnikov begins to falter in his “superior man class” convictions, undoubtedly due in part to his inability to cope with the guilt that accompanied his actions. Yet he continues to maintain that his views are reasonable despite his failure to live up to the class of men he reveres. This steadfastness to his ideals directly contradicts his hastened confession.

         The majority of this novel did an excellent job of expressing the experiences of the human condition; unfortunately, it culminated in an ending that is more so a forced portrayal of Dostoevsky’s personal political and religious views than a natural progression of Raskolnikov’s guilt. Furthermore, his religiously motivated confession was thrown in the end of the novel without being fully fleshed out, making the ending appear rushed and not conclusive. Perhaps my feelings are confounded by the common desire for readers to feel “complete” at the end of their reading. But honestly, at this point, I don’t care about feeling complete-- I’d just like the slightest bit of consistency. I understand that people change; what I don’t understand is people instantaneously morphing into an entirely different person. Like, no.

All in all, I give it 2 out of 5 camel-humps (hump day hardbacks, get it?). There were times when I desperately wanted to be done with this book and there were times when the element of surprise fueled me. On a broad scale, you don’t really know what will come of the murder, providing enough intrigue to keep you trucking. Conversely, step-by-step events within the novel are fairly predictable. The book was long—but not too long—I only wish that the ending had been more compatible with the entirety of the novel. 

*Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: CRW Publishing Limited, 2004. Print.

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