Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is the third classic I have read in last few weeks, closely following 1984 and The Great Gatsby. And, perhaps, classics are like old wines, they taste even better when aged. For now, I am smitten with these age old books, laden with deep emotions expressed in the choicest of words, belonging to a bygone era, that sound just as interesting as the coming new world.
Crime and Punishment further fortified my belief in the creative mantle of Russian writers. If I found Leo Tolstoy an excellent narrator, Fyodor impressed me with his immense knowledge of human psyche and emotions. Initially, I thought Crime and Punishment to be a psychological study of a culprit’s mind, who has committed a sin in a fit of passion and is now squirming under guilt, desperate to avoid punishment and yet seek redemption.
However, as I read on, I discovered that the main crime is just a foil, the real attempt is to expose the selfishness of humanity in general. Raskolnikoff is just one misguided intellectual, while the society is swarming with people who commit sins in their hearts and yet try to remain pure and gentleman like in real lives.
Before, I delve any further into myriad emotions this novel, welled up in me, let me begin by giving a slight outline of the story. Crime and Punishment is a story about a young man Raskolnikoff, a bright law student in St. Petersburg. However, something terrible has happened in his life of late, and he is feeling dejected and socially isolated. He cannot bear the craftiness and double faced character of the society and takes it upon himself to deliver punishment to the guilty souls. And, the first and essentially the last victim of his delirious high headed morality, turns out to be a vicious hard hearted money lender Alena Ivanovna and her innocent sister Elizabeth.
For the first few pages, the novel traces Raskolnikoff’s thoughts, his elaborate planning, his dreams, his nightmares, and the abject poverty he is forced to accept. And, even before any murder is committed, I was damn sure that Raskolnikoff has reached a stage, from where there is no return. Essentially, I had a feel that he had already committed the crime in his nightmares, hundreds of times and the actual event would be just another dress rehearsal. Fyodor, with his sombre tone had already formed a bond, exhibiting the vulnerable distressed side of the young man, who is about to perform a hideous sin, without knowing the compunction that would rend his heart and prick his conscience.
At first, I found the novel a bit too depressing and despondent, particularly Raskolnikoff’s dream about a mare flogged to death numbed me, and I was in two minds as to whether continue reading this ghastly tale of blood and gore. But, thankfully, I did persist and luckily so, as the novel turned out into an interesting psychological criminal investigation, carried out at a leisurely pace by an over-confident Magistrate. What sets Crime and Punishment apart from the usual crime novels is the fact that the reader knows at the very beginning who the murderer is and also it is certain that the punishment would follow the crime, but, the myriad characters introduced in the novel gave it an altogether different feel.
Razoumikhin- a happy go lucky chatterbox, Svidrigailoff- a cunning old rich bloke, Peter Petrovich- a calculating businessman, Sophia Semenovna- a pure human soul whose innocence makes her vulnerable to torture and exploitation. All these characters present an intricate contrast with the self absorbed hypochondriac Raskolnikoff. And though, the young man is throughout the novel projected as a crazy man, but there were several episodes where rest of the characters appear even madder.
Fyodor slowly and diligently reveals multiple layers of human psyche. At times, he sounds socialist when he presents almost all the rich people as selfish, heartless creatures, while the poor are shown sympathetically as honest, hapless souls who have bear their burdens without any complaints. But, at the very next moment, the author reveals that even this difference is superficial, the poor also behave as badly as the rich, whenever they get money in plenty. Catherine Ivanovna is particularly exemplary in this regard. She is unable to control her boasting even at the funeral feast of her dead husband and becomes a laughing stock. So, in a way, Dostyevsky was able to infuse life into even the dead creatures by his brilliant sarcasm.
Though, I found the entire novel a brilliant effort, but there were some scenes, which really stand out, particularly the interview between Raskolnikoff and Porphyrius, where the investigation is carried out in the most strategic way, expounding psychological theories and a sincere effort is made to extract a confession without any proofs. Another brilliantly executed scene was the allegation of theft made by Looshin, implicating the honest Sophia.
However, all said and done, there was a slight hitch in the book. For some unknown reasons, Fyodor used different names for the same character, for example at times Sophia Semenovna was called Sonia and Razoumikhin was called Dmitrich Prokovich. It may be that the characters were given names, pet names and surnames. But, in a translated foreign language work, as it is already quite tough to get used to difficult sounding names, the interchange of names further confused me and I had to keep turning the pages for reference. Further, the same surname Ivanovna was used for many female characters. Alena, Catherine and Amalia are all Ivanovnas, and the strangest thing is that they are not even related. And, I am unable to understand as to why an author of Fyodor’s level could not think more creative names.
But, barring this small irritant, the novel turned out to be much better than I expected. And, Fyodor effectively drives home the point when he says, “Crime is a protest against a badly organized social state of things”. Crime and Punishment is an outstanding novel from an extra-ordinarily talented sensitive man. A must read.