The poor, ex-student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov has a Napoleonic theory that extraordinary men are exempt from morality and to test it, as well as to prove that he himself is an extraordinary man, he comes up with a plan to brutally murder an old pawnbroker. And so begins Dostoyevsky’s brilliant Crime and Punishment, first published in a Russian periodical in 1866, and reprinted and translated many times since.
Raskolnikov’s terror at what he is about to do is palpable as we panic with him just outside her door running through the entire plan over and over and reassuring our steps. It doesn’t go as planned. Someone else is here. Another murder. Where is the money? There must be a key. Why did you do that? Quiet! Calm yourself and think. Someone is coming. Hide. Now run into the night. Fool! Walk calmly. Breathe.
He spirals down in disgust at what he has done. She was but a louse and meant nothing to society, but oh, the inhumanity of it. Here is his proof that he is not an extraordinary man, he is human and subject to guilt. He succumbs to fever and delirium and suffers a physical and mental breakdown, the agony and inner turmoil so vivid that we suffer along with him.
Oh, the dialogue. The deep conversations with friends, family and himself. None of them are frivolous small talk, each is fraught with meaning and consequence and analysis. These are passionate conversations where dialogue is beautifully Russian. Oh, to be fluent in Russian, to be Russian, to have grown up reading and studying these masterful works of art. I never fail to bemoan this when I come to the end of a piece of Russian literature, completely worn out by the emotion of living with such intense characters, tragic scenes, detailed settings and subtle wit. Oh, the humanity. My God.
His sister, basically agreeing to marry for money, and his mother, struggling on her dwindling pension, come to St. Petersburg and despair at the state of him. The seemingly bumbling detective Petrovich appears to come ever closer to solving the case. The life-worn Christian young prostitute Sonya, who Raskolnikov shows kindness and gives money to, convinces him to confess, come to God and be set free through repentance. Siberian prison. Humility. Mercy. Forgiveness. Love. Cures for what threatened to destroy him. Breathe.
Virginia Woolf once said of Dostoyevsky’s novels, “Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.” Oh, yes that, but I go willingly. Oh so willingly.