3 September 2007

Fyodor Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment

I started writing this before I went to St Petersburg, just after rereading the novel for the first time in 15 years. Since then I've seen several places where Dostoevsky lived, including his last house, now a museum, and the study where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, which was particularly moving. I've also seen the supposed locations of the action of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov's flat, the Haymarket and the pawnbroker's flat, and Dostoevsky's grave.

None of that has particularly illuminated my appreciation of C&P, but given that many of the buildings in which Dostoevsky lived and set his stories still stand, it does provide a mental backdrop for the action. And imagining Dostoevsky himself, in relative poverty, feverishly scribbling his story against a deadline, describing Raskolnikov in his own fever, adds to that.

I first read this when I was about 22, a typical age for it, when the intensity of the prose and the complexity of the themes appeal to the post-adolescent mind. I had considered that maybe when I reread it I'd find that I'd outgrown it, or that perhaps it wasn't as good as I'd found then - as with the Idiot.

But I was wrong, it is a magnificent novel, of course. One of the most remarkable aspects is how Dostoevsky stretches time. The novel takes place over a few days, maybe a week, yet this is represented in 550 pages, seemingly entirely of action with very little digression or flashback.

The police procedural element is much less than I remembered it, and the confrontations between the investigator and Raskolnikov less plausible. But such is the heightened atmosphere of most of the novel, the tension at the interviews pervades the rest of the novel, as it does Raskolnokov's mind.

It's Raskolnikov's mind that's at the centre of the book, of course. Why does he commit the crimes? Is he insane? He compares himself to Napoleon, saying more than once that if the emperor, at the beginning of his career, had to murder one worthless old woman in order to achieve the greater good of ruling France and changing the world, he wouldn't hesitate to do it. That one life is insignificant in comparison to the many other lives that will be sacrificed in later wars.

It's not a naive philosophical point, but for most people it's a mind game, a moral dilemma that wouldn't need to be faced, and indeed Raskolnikov needn't put it to the test. He does so not for money - the little that he takes from the pawnbroker's flat he hides, and has no thought as to where she might keep her fortune - but to prove to himself that he is the 'great man' of his own dreams. He transgresses moral taboos, kills for no good reason, and sets himself outside society. From that point his dislocation is reflected in the urgent narrative.

However, Raskolnikov is not amoral, despite his compulsion to be so. He believes that, in order to be 'great', he has to stand 'above' the petty moral concerns of ordinary men, but he has neither the courage nor the strength to do so - he cowers in panic and paranoia after the event, and although his conscience isn't troubled by the killing, he's afraid of the consequences.

His continuing moral sense is manifested by his attitude to his sister, and to Sonya. His idealisation of Sonya, a simple girl forced into prostitution by the destitution of her family, is part of the same romantic attitude as his idolisation of Napoleon, and comes out of his need for emotional, then spiritual comfort. He protects his sister from a bad marriage to a cynical man.


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