Book in Review: "Crime and Punishment"

Crime and Punishment is a classic Russian novel written in 1866 about a young murderer by the name of Raskolnikov, and the unavoidable consequences of his crime.

The book can be read two ways: the first is to enjoy the dynamics between characters, resonate with the theme of true love, feel the effects of evil, and be gripped by the power of the conscience (micro level). This is primarily how I read it.

The second (which may be the way Dostoyevsky intended it to be read) is to read with the intent of understanding the consequences of ideas (macro level). Dostoyevsky is highly critical of the Nietzsche “ubermensch” or “superman” philosophy, in which man’s ultimate goal is to rise above the societal constructs of religion and morality—structures that are nothing more than crutches for the weak. In fact, the very reasoning for Raskolnikov’s murder in the first place was because he had embraced such a worldview. He had no utilitarian motivation for such a crime and only wanted to set himself apart from the cold and timid masses. To rise above morality, like a Napoleon or an Alexander—and to be likewise recognized as great.

But spoiler alert: Bad philosophies do not work. Dostoyevsky is thoroughly of the conviction that God has created humanity with very specific rules and boundaries, and the only way humanity works is when everyone plays by such rules. Rejection of those rules will reap the consequences to both the society at large as well as the individual lawbreaker. (We see these consequences played throughout the novel and in particular the characters of Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov, and to some extent Luzhin).

From a reader standpoint Crime and Punishment, with all its weighty themes, is surprisingly easy to read. It might take some time to keep track of the Russian names, but that is a fairly minimal hurdle to overcome. Every character has a purpose. Every dialogue can be further reread and analyzed. Frequently I would have to stop myself from reading for a few minutes, and just think (Not too many books have that effect!). I actually wish I had read this book with a group so I could discuss and realize further all that Dostoyevsky was trying to communicate.

However you slice it, Crime and Punishment is a philosophical masterpiece. Profound ideas are interlaced throughout. Personally I find much of Dostoyevsky’s thought to be convincing and even relevant to a degree for an age like today. But that is beside the point:

If you do not want to think, do not pick this book up.

Consider yourself sufficiently warned.


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