25 April 2009

Reading journal: Crime and Punishment by Fjodor Dostojevski. Entry 5: Conclusions and a few final words.

I got so caught up in the story that I decided not to stop to write notes about parts 5 and 6 and instead went on to finish the story. Therefore I don’t have any notes or thoughts on future developments, but here are my conclusions:

  • While the main thread of the story is predictable – man commits crime, man tries to avoid suspicion, man breaks down and confesses – the parts that flesh out the narrative are not all so predictable. What really makes this such a brilliant story is not the main story itself but the characters and their interactions and dialogues. Each character is unique and separate and there is no danger of ever getting them confused with each other. Raskolnikov, for example, is brilliantly conceived, and one can easily see how someone with his pride, arrogance and tendency toward depression would be adversely affected by his circumstances and commit a crime. It is equally plausible how he can then be driven to confess by an older man like Petrovits, experienced in applying psychology to squeeze confessions out of hardened criminals, which Raskolnikov is definitely not.

  • Although the incarceration of Raskolnikov at the end might be considered to be the punishment of the title, the real punishment is of course his realisation that he is not the great man he thought himself to be, which is why he gives himself up to the police in a quest for some peace of mind. He has no regrets for the death of the old woman, considers her a necessary part of his experiment to find out if he really is a great man or not. He does not find peace of mind in the punishment meted out to him, but rather in the realisation that he loves Sonja, who has loved him almost from the first.

  • Lots of death in various forms: Murder, suicide, accident, illness, lack of will to live. Surprisingly, while some of the deaths are quite wrenching to read, the story is not depressing, perhaps because it ends on a note of hope, but also because one sees that the characters are expendable and their deaths are necessary for the plot.


The question now is: does this book really belong on a list of best crime novels?
On the surface it is certainly about a crime, but underneath it is an examination of human emotions, of character, of what drives people to extremes, and how people react to abnormal circumstances, so isn’t calling it a crime novel reducing it to a mere entertainment, a book to take to the beach?

Some of the best modern psychological thrillers and crime novels are exactly about those same themes, even when they don’t approach C&P in literary quality. It would be quite easy, I think, to pare C&P down to a sleek psychological thriller. It would certainly lose some of the literary quality, but the core story would still be about Raskolnikov and his crime, his mental anguish over it, and his eventual incarceration, so therefore I think the answer to the question is a definite “yes”. I am no expert on world literary history – all I have studied is Icelandic and English lit – but I think this may just be the prototype for the psychological criminal novel.

I even want to read it again some time in the future, which is not something I can say about many of the crime novels and mysteries I have read, however good they have been.


Rating: A masterpiece of literature and a great read. 5+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 107.

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