I must admit that this is the first Russian classic that I’ve ever read in my entire career as a bookworm. This behemoth of a novel is certainly worth the read and is actually quite absorbing until, I would say, the last 50 pages of the agonizing finish. This is one of the books that I wish I had read in a college course and that I would sink my teeth into more if I were forced to write a paper on it, but since it is part of the reading for Colby College’s Great Books Summer Institute, fortunately I’ll have the chance to sit in on some good discussions of the novel.
The main character, Raskolnikov, is a complex study of an intellectual mind that struggles to justify the premeditated murder of an old cruel pawnbroker through reason and idealistic theories of utilitarianism. The anguish, mental illness, guilt, and inward suffering that follow the murder paint a sympathetic and very human picture of a man who has erred, whose familial and social relationships deteriorate as a result of his detachment, and who must ultimately pay for his dark deed by turning himself in to the authorities. Even after sludging through the disturbed psyche that permeates the entire novel (but in a fascinating, can’t-put-this-down way), I was glad to find a small ray of sunshine in the love that Raskolnikov discovers in himself for Sonya, a former prostitute who stays by his side throughout his imprisonment and who garners the respect of other inmates because of her dedication to him.
I think one of the most fascinating and eerie bits of the novel happens towards the beginning of the novel even before the murder is committed, when Raskolnikov dreams of a childhood event. Interestingly enough, the dream contains autobiographical elements from Dostoevsky’s life. In the dream, the child Raskolnikov is walking with his father past a tavern when they happen upon a group of drunk men who decide to beat and kill an old mare as she tries to pull an impossible wagon-load of people. In a frenzy, the men take up crowbars, sticks, and whips to finish off the poor horse. As she dies, Raskolnikov shouts and runs to the mare, crying and kissing her muzzle in a childlike display of empathy for her senseless murder.
The dream foreshadows well the murder of the old crone and reveals to the reader the extent to which Raskolnikov’s subconscious is not that of a cold-blooded murderer but rather someone who was born with not only a conscience but an acute sense of compassion. We see these bouts of compassion in Raskolnikov in his acts of charity towards Marmeladov and also towards Sonya, but we also see aggressive and dark episodes in Raskolnikov’s behavior towards his mother and sister, perhaps because he is at a complete loss of how to possibly move forward with his life after the murder. Raskolnikov is a character who is volatile, disturbed, and ultimately confused by the decisions that he makes and his rationale for making them.
What is so engrossing about this novel is the intense psychological turmoil that the reader experiences through Raskolnikov’s engaging yet still slightly detached point of view, and also the insight that we get into the impoverished life and suffering of the characters. Also very interesting is the moment right before Raskolnikov actually commits the murder. The event of the murder, in his mind, would be the result of intellectual calculations and reasoning, and yet among his scattered thoughts, there is also the suggestion that this was not exactly a decision but rather a mechanical course of events that led him inevitably to the kill the old woman:
He walked in like a man condemned to death. He was not reasoning about anything, and was totally unable to reason; but he suddenly felt with his whole being that he no longer had any freedom either of mind or of will, and that everything had been suddenly and finally decided… The last day, which had come so much by chance and resolved everything at once, affected him almost wholly mechanically: as if someone had taken him by the hand and pulled him along irresistibly, blindly, with unnatural force, without objections.
Raskolnikov believes beforehand that if he maintains his cool rationality during and after the crime, he would not fall into the blunders of common criminals who get caught. Little does he know, however, that “this darkening of reason” would characterize his mental state leading up to the crime, during, and long after. Once he has made up his mind to follow through with his plan, Raskolnikov seems to no longer be functioning as a rational human being but rather as a cog caught in a wheel, which is ironic because the crime was conceived as a rational endeavor that would ultimately benefit many others.
I guess the most important questions I myself took from the novel were: Should the reader sympathize with Raskolnikov? Is that ultimately what the author would want? Is a pre-meditated crime, or anything which violates our innate moral codes, justifiable by any kind of philosophical theory or desire to help those closest to us? When is it that we should or should not approach our relationships and actions with reason as opposed to gut feeling, and is there a point at which reason leaves us after we’ve made irrevocable decisions? Would our lives benefit more from acting as creatures of the mind or of the heart?
Definitely a recommendable read for those who love long novels involving crime and the criminal’s tortured psyche. A tome though it may be, it’s actually highly engrossing, with different plot lines that all weave into the same one, and with vivid, believable characters that make the novel come alive.