Reading Crime and Punishment, my dad once joked, should be considered crime and punishment.
I suspect that like many Americans, he had Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterwork assigned to him in high school, just like so many other classic novels are.
This probably makes people see these books as just more homework and poisons their opinion of them down the road. Which isn’t to say that reading great literature shouldn’t be happening in high schools (it most definitely should!), it’s just sad that so many adults despise the books that high schools listed as required reading for their younger selves.
I read Crime and Punishment in 2017, when I was in high school, but I read it out of overwhelming curiosity rather than for any assignment. At first, it astonished me that anyone could loathe such a brilliant and exciting novel . . . but that made me remember that for many people, their first encounter with Dostoevsky isn’t, well, out of their own volition. Today, though, I want to change this view.
On its surface, Crime and Punishment, which came onto the literary scene in 1866, tells a simple story: a young Russian man named Raskolnikov slays a much older woman for her money and valuables. A lengthy investigation into the murder follows. Again, nothing radical plot-wise, to the point where I didn’t feel like warning “spoiler alert!” was even necessary before revealing that the protagonist is a murderer.
The brilliance in Crime and Punishment I was referring to comes from its disturbing and fascinating psychology. (Although I will say another incredible element is the setting: Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg is an eerie, sinister, and at times soulless city.) Raskolnikov’s mental health problems, already apparent before he murders the old woman, explode during the subsequent investigation, and Dostoevsky brings the reader in to feel what Raskolnikov is going through: we experience his terror, paranoia, waves of guilt, and outbursts of both rage and relief.
At the same time, each time we learn more about Raskolnikov’s many motivations for the crime, we get a whole new understanding of his character, from an admirable son and brother trying to provide for his impoverished mother and sister on one hand and a narcissistic, maybe even delusional, young man nursing ideas that he is unbounded by the rules of society, even going so far as to believe that he could be another Napoleon.
Coupling this aspect of Crime and Punishment with the novel’s beautiful epilogue, which makes you once again rethink Raskolnikov as well as your own mind and place in the world, I’ve been intrigued by the human mind ever since.
Happy dusting off!
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