Tuesday, January 27, 2009

#39 - "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I guess there are many reasons to read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866). It’s a classic novel that’s been famous for over a hundred years, translated and read throughout the world, with unforgettable characters, an exciting murder plot, and timeless issues of family, responsibility, poverty, absolution, and more. But Crime and Punishment has been in the back of my head as a to-be-read book for a much simpler reason. You see, I have a very vague memory of introducing myself to some guy during college. And after I said my name, his response was, “Like the prostitute?” “...???” “You know. From Crime and Punishment.” I actually knew nothing about Dostoyevsky’s selfless and angelic Sofia Semionovna, or Sonia, from Crime and Punishment at the time, but I was intrigued that a character with my name was bandying about in classic literature as a prostitute and I knew nothing about her. So many, many years later, I finally did something about it.

Dostoyevsky wrote a complex, layered, and intricate story in Crime and Punishment, which centers around a young, impoverished Russian student by the name of Rodion Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov is selfish, alienated and angry and decides to murder a mean, old pawnbroker woman, rob her and thereby improve his life. He is not a stupid man, but I have to say, this is not one of his better ideas. Admittedly he’s under a lot of pressure. He’s run out of funds and had to leave school. He had been doing some tutoring but it wasn’t making much of a difference and he could see the hopelessness of his situation. In addition, his mother was barely getting by and getting deeper into debt by the second, and his proud and intelligent sister was about to sell herself into marriage with a prick because of their desperate straits. He manages to rationalize that the old woman is a “louse,” a blight on the world that no one will miss, and if he takes the money he can change his life around and make many more positive differences in the world.

In a very anxiety-ridden chapter, Raskolnikov follows through on his idea. It doesn’t go exactly according to plan, but Raskolnikov does manage to get away. However, his life does not change for the better as he thought it would. Raskolnikov is plagued by fears, insecurities, madness, and fever. A 19th Century Russian Columbo is playing with him like a cat plays with a mouse. His mother and sister come to St. Petersburg for his sister’s marriage. Another man follows Raskolnikov’s sister to St. Petersburg to make a bid for her. And Raskolnikov also manages to get wrapped up in the haunting drama of another family, the Semionovna’s. Sofia Semionovna, or Sonia, is the eldest daughter of this family, forced into prostitution by the ineptness of her drunken father and poverty in order to provide for her father’s second wife, Katherine Ivanovna, and Katherine’s three girls. Sonia is a very haunting character, helpless and often scared but completely selfless and devoted. She is the one character that Raskolnikov can really talk to, and she basically manages to bring Raskolnikov back into the fold with her goodness.

What I liked about this book: The plot was generally unexpected, interesting, and fast-paced; and the characters were clearly written, well-defined, and often unforgettable. From the first page of Crime and Punishment where Raskolnikov is trying to sneak out of his apartment without being spotted by his landlady, I could relate to him. (It’s not that I don’t like my landlord or that I’m behind in rent, I just don’t want to discuss my current unemployment with him). There are some truly haunting scenes about the poor in St. Petersburg and the suffering and hopelessness they endure. I was almost brought to tears by a dream of Raskolnikov’s where a rowdy group of drunks beat a weak, old mare to its death. There is no question that Dostoyevsky is a powerful writer. I kind of wish I had read Crime and Punishment in a class where we would discuss and write about the various characters and their actions, why they acted a certain way, and what it means. There’s definitely a lot going on.

What I didn’t particularly care for: In some ways, Crime and Punishment can be seen as Raskolnikov’s journey back to God. According to the Translator’s Preface and the Introduction, Sofia Semionovna’s name means “divine wisdom.” Sonia is the agent who brings Raskolnikov back to God after he lost his way. Now, I’m not sure if this is exactly what Dostoyevsky was getting at, but on the whole, I don’t really buy into his whole theory. I don’t think you have to accept God to be a good person and denounce murder, even though there might be rational reasons for that murder. I also don’t think you have to accept God to be a good person. And it’s impossible to dislike a character as sweet and selfless as Sonia, but she is incredibly and frustratingly helpless and inactive. How can she be any kind of role model? Her father is a drunk, forcing his eldest daughter into prostitution for survival; yet she still gives him money whenever he asks and whenever she has it. Then she follows Raskolnikov wherever he goes even though he often treats her horribly. She meekly accepts whatever circumstances those around her throw her into and does nothing to change her situation. There are many interesting and strong women characters throughout the novel, and I’m not sure if Dostoyevsky was holding Sonia up as someone people should aspire to be or someone who is almost beyond human, but she did bother me sometimes. I was also bothered by some casual but insidious anti-semitism that was sprinkled throughout the novel that I couldn’t quite ignore or excuse.

And although I am a little disappointed in my namesake because I know I will never be like her (really, the character I most liked was Avdotia Romanovna, or Dunia, Raskolnikov's sister), I'm glad I finally read something by Dostoyevsky and made it through Crime and Punishment.

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