Book Review: Crime and Punishment

There are many rules when it comes to writing, and different authors favour different rules. Hemingway liked the effect of short sentences, Stephen King is big on ditching adverbs, and then there’s what seems to be Fyodor Dostoevsky’s rule of choice: punch the reader in the conscience.

Well, old Fyodor is at it again in Crime and Punishment. This one observes a young student named Raskolnikov. He has barely enough money to look after himself, let alone his poor mother, and his sister is about to enter a bad marriage just for the financial security. Meanwhile, there’s a stingy old hag of a pawnbroker in town who hoards people’s wealth and treats her own sister as a slave. Raskolnikov has a brainwave: kill the hag and take her money. With the cash he could end his family’s money woes, and then use the leftovers to help others in need—it’s more than the old pawnbroker would ever do. He figures by killing her he would be doing everyone a favour. So he does. He murders the old woman with an axe, but then her sister walks in, so he bludgeons her to death too. He escapes with only a small amount of treasure, which he temporarily buries under a rock. So, he’s killed the lady, got some gold, and no one saw a thing—success, right? Wrong. While the murder was physically straightforward, morally it turns out to be more complicated. Raskolnikov becomes ill, then consumed with paranoia, and finally swamped with guilt. His conscience torments him until a long stint in a Siberian labour camp seems preferable to lugging his dreadful secret any further.

This book starts off with a bang: Raskolnikov commits the murders almost immediately. After that though, things become less about the action and more about the psychological. While it’s a great read, it does get a little longwinded; I feel Dostoevsky could have shaved a hundred pages or so off the final draft and it would have been just as good.

Deep issues are Dostoevsky’s speciality, and here he delves into man’s eagerness to replace God. Raskolnikov rejects the biblical moral benchmark of “Thou shalt not kill”, instead relying on his own assessment of right and wrong. For him, in this case, murder is justified. But the young man finds he is not as fit to sit on the divine throne as he thought. Among us mortals, this is a lesson much needed, though seldom studied. Raskolnikov might have avoided his miseries had he listened to the warning of Nietzsche’s madman, or watched the movie Bruce Almighty. But then, that would have presented its own difficulties—he would have had to locate a copy of the movie with Russian subtitles, get a hold of it using some sort of time travel apparatus, and then transport it into his fictional realm, presumably via magic. It would have been a dangerous exercise, and he was wise not to attempt it.

Crime and Punishment is slow going, but a brilliant and uncomfortably accurate examination of morality and human weakness. 7/10

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