Oh, the complexity of Crime and Punishment’s Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov… To me, not many characters are as difficult to understand as he is.
When I was little, people were either good or evil. Sometimes I needed help from my parents to determine who was what. For example, if we were watching a movie together, I’d very soon ask about some character: “Is he good or bad?” They’d tell me, and I could then peacefully go on watching the movie, having a clear perception about its structure, rules, guiding principles. Knowing if someone was good or bad was simply the most important thing for me.
Then came more complex movies, books and real-life situations where it was not too easy to establish how a person was ranking on a good-evil scale. Even today, at 36, I have trouble accurately assessing a situation or a work of art if I’m confused about the morality of the main actors.
Though Crime and Punishment‘s protagonist, Raskolnikov, carries with him a wide range of contradicting feelings and associations that make it difficult to place him, it’s pretty easy placing the book at the very top of all literature, and not only because that’s what the critics say. It’s simply great.
First, a quick summary of the plot, for those who forgot it or haven’t read it yet and love spoilers: Raskolnikov is a poor student who, because of poverty and hunger (or so I thought at the beginning), kills an old woman who gives loans to people in exchange for valuable things, and then also kills her younger sister who unexpectedly returns home earlier than Raskolnikov thought she would. He steals some money and things but soon gets rid of everything and continues living without a penny, tormented by a local investigator who starts suspecting him and playing psychological cat and mouse with Raskolnikov, seemingly certain that the young man will eventually confess his crime.
Raskolnikov eventually does, but why? Remorse is certainly not the reason. And that’s certainly one of the things that baffled me throughout the whole book. No feeling of guilt whatsover? The only regret Raskolnikov has is the fact that he was too weak and couldn’t finish what he started. And what he started is something that only select people can accomplish. His idea, something that has been cooking in his mind for a very long time, is perfectly illustrated with a dream described at the end of the book. Raskolnikov dreams of a virus that spreads from the East to the West, infecting Asia and Europe with microscopic humans blessed with superior mind and will. And whoever gets infected immediately becomes smart and so sure of his ideas and thoughts, that people start killing each other for these superior ideas.
Hence, Raskolnikov is an idealist and he committed a crime because an idea formed in his head. And as much as we know he is wrong, I have to agree with many things that he says. Kings and fighters throughout history have been celebrated and blessed for bringing peace and prosperity to the people, but no peace and prosperity has been won without sacrificing many innocent people. And that is all Raskolnikov wanted to do. Rid the people of vermins in their society, so that people who deserve a better life can have it. He makes many wonderful humane gestures before and after the murder, saving kids from fire, giving all the money he has to strangers, simply because he sees purity and goodness in them. And he cold-bloodedly smacks an ax right into two women’s skulls, without ever feeling remorse.
What I love about the book is how Dostoyevski gives us snippets of the progressive, modern 19th century Russia through dialogue between the characters. We know there’s “youth” with innovative ideas that is excited about the change they are making; we know that women are on their way to become equal to men (and some of them are even in universities!); we see glimpses of these progressive ideas, books being read, “ordinary men” valuing literature, scientists and writers like nothing else. But then we also hear about the conservative country, heart-breaking poverty on every corner of Saint Petersburg, little girls becoming whores to feed their family, and occasional disappointed remark about the world and what became of it.
Every time I read a book written some hundreds of years ago (Gargantua and Pantagruel, Crime and Punishment, etc.), I’m newly surprised by how interesting and “modern” the characters are, how humorous their conversations, how progressive and educated their points of view, and my conclusion is always the same: aside from technology, we’ve not advanced one single step intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically. Never was education and knowledge as little valued as today, it seems to me.
But back to Dostoyevski. He is definitely the master of the human’s darkest, innermost torments. His skill is in combining this dark psychology with the most vibrant descriptions of people’s appearance and gestures, the ability to bring to life every character, and the craft of creating wonderfully humorous dialogues. I will definitely not stop at Crime and Punishment. I have my eye on Notes from Underground now.
But before I continue with the dark (beautiful, powerful, interesting) psychology, I thought I should start 2015 on a lighter note and admire for a moment that one area of humankind where we managed to progress: technology and science. If Stephen Hawking in his Brief Histoy of Time can’t explain the universe so that I can understand it (at least a little), no one can. So, that’s my next exciting stop, but before I tell you all about it, I want all of you to enjoy leaving 2014 behind and entering the new year, full of new possibilities, new spring and summer, new books and songs, handshakes and hugs, full moons, laughter and pleasant silences… All the things that make life beautiful.