The AP English Challenge rides again: Jill reviews Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

crime and punishmentI feel like there is some symmetry in when I finished Crime and Punishment.  I started it over Christmas break of 1993, which was just about twenty years ago.  Finishing it almost twenty years to the day after starting it amuses me and makes me wildly nostalgic for that long ago December.  From what I remember, I spent the entire two weeks laying around in the pajamas my mom bought me for Christmas (green and blue flannel with a matching robe that she bought me in preparation for my soon to be life in the dorms at an as yet undetermined college) reading books and listening to music and watching movies, all at the same time.  My mind was infinitely better at multitasking back then.  I, of course, wasn’t reading Crime and Punishment so much as I was reading Anne Rice books, but that’s not the point.  The future was creeping up on us that December, and I remember it as the last real Christmas break I ever had.   By that I mean that I was truly on vacation.  No thoughts of work or homework or getting into vet school or classes or anything.  Just vacation.  Doesn’t that sound nice?  2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of Bethany’s and my high school graduation.  I don’t mind getting older, not really.  I do mind how old people my current age used to seem to me, how old I must now seem to high school students.  Not that I’d ever want to be seventeen again.  EVER.  But there’s just something about this calendar year that is making the years feel a bit heavier on my shoulders than they usually do.  Crime and Punishment is, with the exception of Paradise Lost, the last AP English book that I failed to finish senior year.  I don’t think Paradise Lost is going to happen, though Bethany’s recent posts about it have been encouraging me to try again.  These books have been weighing on my book-reading mind for twenty years.  To finally remove them all is a beautiful thing.

I intended to do a progress report on this one but didn’t get around to it, in no small part because I didn’t want to stop reading long enough to write one.  Crime and Punishment is really an excellent novel.  It is a crime caper, a love story, a family drama, a condemnation of the social system in mid-nineteenth century Russia, and a fascinating character study of a would-be sociopath.  With all this going on is it any wonder it took me from mid-October to January 2nd to read it?  I read the edition/translation we used in high school and it was very easy reading.  It was a new translation then, done in 1991.  I almost felt like it was too easy to read, like Dostoyevsky’s prose had been modernized a little excessively.  I, of course, didn’t mark anything off while I was reading, but I just kept getting a sense that Raskolnikov wouldn’t say something like “‘what’s up with them…?’ (p. 119)” in 1850’s St. Petersburg.  And that’s just something I found quickly while scanning the book right now.  There are tons more examples.  The Anna Karenina translation I read was from the 1950’s and the language was a bit more old-fashioned, and in keeping with how I imagine people would have written/spoken back then.  My preference when reading old literature is to have it be as close as possible to how the author intended it to sound, and if that makes it harder for my twenty-first century brain to get through it, so be it.  Does this mean I’m going to go out and buy an older translation of Crime and Punishment and read it again?  Well, no, not right now.  But maybe someday I’ll do it.

The plot of Crime and Punishment is fairly simple: Rodion Romanych Raskolnikov is a destitute former student living in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Desperation has driven him to consider committing a murder for money.  And later on it comes out that perhaps he considers doing it just to see if he can get away with it.  The target is an unpleasant pawn-broker woman named Alyona Ivanovna.  Ultimately Raskolnikov does murder her (with an axe, it’s all quite gruesome), and unfortunately he also murders her sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna, who lives with Alyona Ivanovna and who comes home unexpectedly before Raskolnikov is able to escape.  He completely freaks out, doesn’t take much of the pawn-broker’s stash of goods, and ends up hiding them in a construction site.  Then he goes home and lays in a fever for several days, and is tended to by his good friend from university, Razumikhin, his landlord’s servant, Nastasya, and various and sundry other minor characters.  As he is coming out of his “fever,” he gets word that his mother and sister are coming to St. Petersburg, and that his sister is engaged to a man named Luzhin, who has money, and not a lot else going for him.  Needless to say Raskolnikov is more than a bit worried about having to see his family while is mind is occupied with his feelings of guilt and fear of being caught.  (Brief aside: this murder would not have gone down so smoothly these days—I’m pretty sure Raskolnikov left all kinds of trace evidence behind when he killed those women.)  In the midst of all this, he goes to a bar and meets Marmeladov, an alcoholic public official who takes a liking to him and tells him all about his consumptive wife and their family.  His oldest daughter (from a prior marriage), Sonya, has had to become a prostitute to supplement the family’s income since he generally drinks it all away.  Poor drunken Marmeladov is eventually killed when he gets run over by a carriage.  Raskolnikov is there when it happens and immediately offers to pay for the funeral expenses (with some money his mother gave him).  He meets Sonya and they have an immediate connection.  The funeral banquet for Marmeladov is actually pretty amusing; Katerina Ivanovna (Marmeladov’s wife) puts on airs while having tuberculoid coughing fits while all the poor from their building sneak in to steal food.  It’s probably not supposed to be funny.  But it was.  In the meantime, Raskolnikov breaks up his sister Dunya’s engagement, Dunya and Rasumikhin fall in love, and he almost confesses to the murders no less than three times before he finally does confess and go to prison.  There are multiple other subplots and ancillary characters, but this is sufficient summary (I think) to have a reasonable discussion about Crime and Punishment.

So much of this book takes place in Raskolnikov’s head that when Dostoyevsky gives his readers a break and spends time with other characters it’s almost a relief.  I had a hard time figuring out if Raskolnikov was really going crazy or if that’s what everyone’s internal monologue sounds like.  For example, here is Raskolnikov trying to decide what to do with his loot from the murder/robbery: “He raked them all together in one hand and stood in the middle of the room.  ‘Should I hide them in the stove?  But the stove’s the first place they’ll start rummaging about in.  Burn them?  But what with?  I don’t even have any matches.  No, I’d better take them somewhere outside and throw them away.  Yes, the best thing to do is throw them away!’  he repeated, sitting down on the sofa again.  ‘And right now, this minute, without delay!…’  Instead, however, his head sank back on the pillow again; again the unendurable ague sent its icy chill through him; again he pulled the overcoat about him.  And for a long time, several hours, he kept telling himself in his dreams: ‘Come on, you must take the stuff right now and throw it all away out of sight somewhere, quickly, quickly!’  Several times he tried to get off the sofa and stand up, but was unable to.  At last a loud knock at the door woke him (131-132).”  This sums up Raskolnikov’s inner monologue/struggle pretty well, now that I think about it.  He is trying to act for the entire book.  He acts once: he kills the sisters.  And then for about five hundred pages he tries to make up his mind what to do next.  He decides.  Then he sits.  Then he walks around.  Then he comes home and is mean to someone who loves him.  Then he sits some more.  I suppose we all have times where we are trying to make up our minds whether to act or to sit still.  That Dostoyevsky is able to turn the process of deciding to whether to act or to sit into an entire novel, and a good one, is something of a surprise.

Of course, there are lots of stories out there about deciding to act.  I wonder if Crime and Punishment was the first?  Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot springs to mind as the epitome of people trying to decide whether to sit or act, but I can’t think of another off the top of my head.  Obviously in Waiting for Godot the two characters don’t end up acting.  They continue to wait.  Raskolnikov eventually decides to act, because he has fallen in love with Sonya, and she gives him the courage and the peace to face his crime and his ultimate punishment.  (Like how I did that there?  Pretty cool, huh?)

This is one of those books that can beget term papers and Ph.D.’s, so I’m going to refrain from taking up any more of your time with this wonderful book.  I’m glad I finally finished it, and to the fellow who spent some time being angry on our behalf about the depth and breadth of our AP English syllabus I have this to say: we’re still talking about these books and this class twenty years after we took it.  Don’t you think that makes the stress we felt and work we put in worth it in the long run?  I do.  If we had finished all the books we were assigned and they were all appropriate to our reading level, do you think we would still be thinking about them now?  Maybe.  But maybe not.

This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Fiction - literary, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

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