I am thrilled to be back with a review today, especially of a book I love so much. I have read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky several times both for school and for fun. I even took a Dostoevsky class in college because I wanted to. The term paper from that class became my graduate school application writing sample–and I got in too! 🙂
Every time I reread this classic, I am blown away. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. And I only hope to do it justice in a small review. Be aware: I do use some major spoilers in this review as they are central to the plot and it’s nearly impossible to write about this book without them.
- This is one of my favorite books period and every time I reread it, I am in awe of all it accomplishes and how easily I am able to read it. It’s a quick read for me every time despite it’s large page length and deep subject matter.
- I have the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, and it is stunning! The writing is engaging and full of intriguing ideas and lines. I highly recommend this translation.
According to Goodreads, “One of the world’s greatest novels, Crime and Punishment is the story of a murder and its consequences—an unparalleled tale of suspense set in the midst of nineteenth-century Russia’s troubled transition to the modern age.
In the slums of czarist St. Petersburg lives young Raskolnikov, a sensitive, intellectual student. The poverty he has always known drives him to believe that he is exempt from moral law. But when he puts this belief to the test, he suffers unbearably. Crime and punishment, the novel reminds us, grow from the same seed.
“No other novelist,” wrote Irving Howe of Dostoyevsky, “has dramatized so powerfully the values and dangers, the uses and corruptions of systematized thought.” And Friedrich Nietzsche called him “the only psychologist I have anything to learn from.””
From the first page this book is intriguing because of its unique point of view–a murder story from the murderer’s perspective. We get inside Rodion Raskolnikov’s head for almost the entirety of the book. In a word: fascinating. Even more fascinating is that the murder occurs so early in the book and the majority of the book focuses on his punishment–both self inflicted and a product of society. The development of the murder investigation and how Raskolnikov both defends himself and condemns himself along the way is compelling. He wants to be above the law but finds himself bound by a higher moral guilt. The way he interacts with the police investigator Porfiry, others in the police office, Sonya, and his family is fascinating: telling how he would commit a murder, his continual return to the scene of the crime and his burial of the money/items stolen from the old crone. Beyond those actions directly connected to the murder, we also observe his illness, his feigned or true madness, and his inability to keep money for himself although he live in poverty. It’s all connected and all so fascinating.
This novel is full of complex and intriguing characters. You could take any of the characters from our protagonist to the unfortunate Marmeladov family or the cunning Svidrigailov and write an essay or several about their character development and complexities. I will share just a few thoughts on some of my favorite characters.
- Raskolnikov is a fascinating character with high beliefs in the potential for some men to be above the law. He believes a select few are above remorse for any of their actions to gain power and perhaps do good in the world. In many ways, the murder is an experiment to see if he is above the law. Yet he is haunted by guilt and by the possibility that he is not such a man although he seeks to try to be.
- Sonya is one of my favorite characters and is so interesting because she is both a fallen woman who is shunned by society but also a religious woman who brings faith back to Raskolnikov. She is goodness, innocence, and kindness despite all she suffers in the novel.
- Dunya fascinates me because she seems so noble and is judged for her beauty. But she is strong and fights for what she believes in. She even fights for her brother who doesn’t deserve her respect at times. In fact, I don’t think Raskolnikov understands his sister. I like how the novel ends for her.
- Razumikin is both comic relief but also a foil to Raskolnikov in his relationships with others and his determination to see the good in the world.
- There are so many more characters that are fascinating and incredibly developed.
No other novel explores themes this powerful with such grace, detail, and complexity as Crime and Punishment. Perhaps there are novels that are as intriguing in the themes they explore (Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities come to mind here). But I have yet to read an author who is more poignant than Dostoevsky. It could take a whole series of posts to discuss these themes in detail. Instead, I want to share some of the questions and ideas that struck me the most this time rereading this novel.
- Life and death: What is the value of human life? Is it universal for all men? How does one live a full life? Can one be living but not truly alive?
- Law, Morality, Power: Do all laws apply to all people? Can some people rise above human law to gain power and strength? Is murder always bad? Can you get away with a crime despite guilt? Can you commit crime and not feel guilt?
- Crime and Punishment: Can one commit crime and escape punishment? What is punishment? What is the most powerful punishment?
- Faith and God: What is faith? Can you lose faith and then regain it? Is faith the same for everyone or can it be different? Is atheism possible? Is God real and can He save everyone?
Why read Dostoevsky?
Finally, a few reasons why I think everyone should read at least a little Dostoevsky. Yes, he is complex. Yes, he can be dense. But wow is the effort worth it!
- Timeless themes that make us think regardless of when we read them. He made me think deeper and more complexly about these and other themes as a student. And I found that the be true years later as I reread this novel.
- Characters that are flawed, relatable, and compelling. It’s easy to be invested in his characters especially in this novel. Often, I find the characters that are most unlike me to be the most intriguing. And I am always impressed by how Dostoevsky writes so poignantly about the human condition.
- He has written so much! You don’t have to tackle Crime and Punishment first if it intimidates you (although I certainly recommend it in general). Dostoevsky has shorter works, collections of essays, short stories, and even larger novels so there is something for everyone.
- Beautiful translations from Russian. I can’t speak for all translations, but the ones I have read in English are gorgeous! The writing is lovely and seems to live up to the high standards of the original text.
Overall, this reread lived up to all my expectations and then some. I am so pleased I got to experience the compelling story, remember the intriguing characters, and think deeply about so many poignant themes. I love Dostoevsky and hope to reread more of his work in the future!
What is your favorite classic?
Are there any authors that you love–
no matter how many times you reread their work?