In short, I maintain that all great people or even people who are slightly uncommon, that is to say capable of producing some new idea, must by nature be criminals–more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, in fact, to submit to it.
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
My mother grew up in Seoul, South Korea, in the sixties and seventies, in a time when her country was rapidly industrializing and Westernizing. What I heard of her childhood was small snippets or funny family stories that had become embellished over the past thirty, forty years. Still, there was this one summer she always recounts, during which she devoured Agatha Christie novels and literary classics in translation. When I was younger and less prone to reading classics, I remember my mom urging me to read more Dickens and Tolstoy.
The book she recommended above all, though, was Crime and Punishment. Until you’ve read this one, she told me, you haven’t read enough.
Crime and Punishment was the first book I tackled on my brand new Kindle Paperwhite, which afforded me an enjoyable reading experience. Thankfully enough, it was not the first piece of Russian literature I’ve encountered. That honour belongs to Anna Karenina, which I spent a good month lugging around from place to place. And let me tell you, Russian literature is hard to get into. For those of us not so familiar with Russian history, politics, and naming conventions, it is a struggle. In both novels, there is a large cast of characters, many of whom are called three or four different names. It gets confusing, to say the least.
Anyone who knows me well will likely tell you about my interest in crime, which I can’t really explain. Maybe it has something to do with an interest in the extremes of human nature. Whenever I see news reports of murders, especially serial killers, I can’t help but wonder: What are their motivations? How could a human being possibly justify killing another person, let alone tens or hundreds?
I think that’s why Crime and Punishment, despite being written in an era and country not my own, struck a chord with me. To be honest, I thought that the book itself could be unnecessarily convoluted at times, but I kept reading. The justification that Raskolnikov gives for his murder, his theory of mankind, is one of the most horrifyingly logical justifications for murder I have encountered.
In the novel, Raskolnikov’s theory consists of the idea that there are two types of people: the extraordinary, referred to as “Napoleons”, and the ordinary, whom he often calls “lice”. Lice must live within the confines of societal norms and cannot cause harm to others, or hope to achieve anything great. However, Napoleons can, and often must, cause harm to others, including murder, in order to achieve greatness. Greatness often comes from realizing new ideas, unthought of in previous generations. In order to realize these new ideas, Napoleons have to transgress pre-existing boundaries, and transgressing these boundaries implicitly identifies them as criminals.
The duality of human nature is a commonly explored theme in literature, with stories like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray taking the theme to literal levels. The way that Dostoevsky represents duality was refreshing to me, in that all of the characters were both morally good and bad to certain degrees, often inexplicably so. I found the character of Svidrigailov particularly interesting–that he was implied to be a cold-hearted murderer, but also fronted the money for the children’s orphanage fees. Many of the novel’s characters and plot points can’t necessarily be explained through logic, which I appreciated. It was closer to what I feel real life is like–random.
I loved Raskolnikov’s chaste relationship with Sonia, a young woman driven into prostitution by her family’s poverty, and how they read the Bible together. The existence of such an innocent relationship in a book otherwise filled with horrors was one of my favourite parts, and what makes the book worth reading:
“The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candlestick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book.”
Whenever I read novels in translation, I can’t help but wonder if I’m getting the same amount of meaning as I would in the original language. But this book is enough of a classic, with universal themes, that I don’t think it matters too much.
YES OR NO?: YES. This book is a classic. That being said, I definitely don’t think it’s for everyone. It is an investment, since it takes a long time to read, and the Russian naming conventions take time to get used to. But if you’re fine with esoteric language and interested in classics in general, I would definitely recommend it.