You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Crime and Punishment

I finally got around to reading Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, in December 2006. It took me about 4 weeks to read it. It was definitely worth it.

The novel tells the story of Raskolnikov, a law student in St. Petersburg. He decides to commit a crime, the murder of a old woman who is a greedy pawnbroker. He also kills her sister, a mentally deficient woman. After his crime, he becomes ill, staying in bed for days, wandering around the city in a stupor, being cold to his mother and sister and friends. The color yellow figures prominently throughout the story, signifying sickness.

There follows a cat and mouse game. A police officer named Porfiry calls Raskolnikov to his office, where he discusses the murder and possible motives and suspects. Raskolnikov becomes more and more agitated. He believes he knows that Porfiry is toying with him.

There are intertwining stories of Raskolnikov's mother and sister, who have come to St. Petersburg to visit the sister's fiance, whom Raskolnikov immediately dislikes. There is also Svidrigailov, the sister's former employer who made a pass at her and who has come to St. Petersburg after his wife mysteriously dies. And there is Sonia, a young woman who has turned to prostitution because of her drunk father and deathly ill stepmother. Raskolnikov helps carry the father to the family when he is struck by a carriage, and the man dies with his family. There is a huge drama with the stepmother and her fellow tenants and landlady, and the dinner she wants to serve at the funeral.

Eventually, Raskolnikov confesses to the pious Sonia, who encourages him to confess to the police. Finally he does, goes to prison, where Sonia follows him, and comes to truly repent.

The moral force of the book is Raskolnikov's rationale for commiting the murder. He tells Sonia at first that it was for the money. He is poor, but that explanation is just an excuse. The real reason, as he tells her and Porfiry discusses with him, is that he was putting to the test a new philosophy. He believes that he can be beyond the law, like Napoleon, who can wage war and change laws to his pleasing and be worshipped by millions. If he can be above mortal law, then he could start by murdering a woman who is a leech on society. He rationalizes that he is doing good by removing her, though the murder of her sister bothers him more.

The story brings up some interesting moral questions. Where does the law come from? If a ruler overthrows an old order and creates a new order, hasn't he still violated the old order? Can the law require the death of an individual? How can war, the murder of thousands or millions, be glorified, but a single murder be regarded as illegal? These questions intertwine the fabric of society, and their answers decide out man is to survive alongside other men.

There is also a politcal dimension. Characters in the novel discuss a nascient socialism, and its role in eroding traditional values. One of the more ridiculous characters espouses a political view that many basic societal values.

I see Raskolnikov's trouble as at least partially psychological. He suffers from a bit of megolomania. He is not very attached to his family, and sees them mostly as a way to get money. His only route to atonement is through Sonia's love. It is this love that turns the story into a personal story of redemption, at least of sorts. Raskolnikov can also be compared to his sister's fiance, who turns out to be an evil manipulator when he tries to frame Sonia for theft. He also compares to Svidrigailov, an interesting figure who comes to St. Petersburg in search of a wife, does some drinking and womanizing, tries to force himself on Sonia, gives a young woman and her family a lot of money, gives money to Sonia and her stepsisters and stepbrother, and even gives money to Raskolnikov's sister before killing himself. All this even as he knows Raskolnikov's secret, having listened to his confession to Sonia.

I'll grade it as an A. It's easily one of the most striking and influential novels ever written, certainly in the top ten. The goings on of Raskolnikov's personality and rationalizing are dramatic. The side stories complement the main story well.


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