Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Crime and Punishment: Why Bother?

Granted that Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian writer working in the 1860s, is not quick and easy escape reading. Granted that you might actually have to bust a lobe like a student, why would you trouble your little gray cells?

Scene from a foreign film of Crime and Punishment.
I grabbed this off the internet.

The themes are interesting and relevant, and they are worked out consistently throughout the main plot and the subplots.

You don't have to spend any time wondering why Dostoevsky wrote this book. He makes it very clear that he wants to refute certain theories that were being bandied about by the youth of St. Petersburg at the time, namely nihilism, utilitarianism, and the superman theory. He does this by driving these theories to their logical extreme with the act of murder.

Nihilism challenges all conventions and traditions; negation is the ultimate value. Utilitarianism declares that the ultimate value is the common good. The superman theory claims that some people are so superior to the herd that they can set their own moral code, and even commit murder if it suits their purposes.

Crime and Punishment demonstrates the importance of faith in life and connection to the community; it explains why it is impossible to engineer the common good; and it dramatizes how murdering someone else causes the death of self.

When a young man gives into comprehensive doubt and isolates himself from his community, his isolation makes his brain spin, and his concern for the common good devolves into all-consuming egoism. And even though the murderer refuses to acknowledge any feelings of guilt or sympathy for his victim, his crime causes him spiritual turmoil, physical illness, confused thinking, and intense paranoia.

Of course all the young intellectuals of his time assumed God was dead and Christianity was irrelevant, but Dostoevsky shows that the Christian tenets of faith, humility, and the acceptance of suffering offer a path toward redemption for those who have sinned against humanity.

Not just murder, but a wide range of transgressions is depicted, including prostitution, alcoholism, lust, pride, gluttony, usury, and domination of one person by another. Not just the murderer, but all the sinners get their due punishment.

Dostoevsky wants young people to know that faith is better than doubt, that life is better than death, that a sin against anyone else is a sin against yourself, that pride is bad, but self-respect is good, that friendship and belonging are better than isolation and denial of your humanity, and that love and redemption are possible if you are willing to accept suffering with humility.

The plot is multi-layered, interweaving stories and ideas in a fascinating design.

The way Dostoevsky develops and intertwines his plot and two sub-plots is masterful. Characters are introduced early whose significance is made clear later. There are parallels between the characters in the stories as they play out, and each character represents a different aspect of the overall theme. No detail is casual or random. All actions and thoughts are explained, and everything is wrapped up in the end, according to the author's theory of life.

Dostoevsky exposes and deplores the role of women in 19th century Russian society.

Although the main plot concerns a murder, the two sub-plots concern the role of women. In one, at the lowest level of society, an innocent girl is forced into prostitution by her wicked step-mother; in another, a few steps up the scale, a well-bred girl volunteers to enter an odious marriage for economic advantage. Their situations are compared in detail. The scene where the well-bred girl realizes her mistake and rejects her suitor is one of the novel's high points. It is not Dostoevsky's job to offer a solution to the treatment of women as sex objects and property, but he does show a romantic relationship based on mutual respect, and he suggests how marriage might play out as an equal partnership.

Some of the scenes are spectacular in their heightened emotionalism; you will never forget them or what they mean.

A scene may depict pity, horror, disgust, awe, despair, spiritual turmoil, guilt, pride, hysteria, delirium, disgrace, violence, or even occasionally, romance, euphoria and redemption—all of it very intense.

Dostoevsky's depiction of poverty and its effects in his time is shocking, and important for your understanding of history.

The city of Petersburg (or St. Petersburg), where the novel takes place, is seething, noisy and unsanitary. Slum dwellings are crowded and dingy. You can almost feel the dirt accumulating on your hands as you explore this impoverished world. Clothing is torn and dirty; china is broken and mis-matched; teabags must be re-used; scenes are lit by single candle-stubs. Everyone is looking to take advantage of everyone else. Crime is prevalent. Drinking is the favorite escape. 

The characters are unique, well-developed and memorable.

A murderer, a whore, a lecher, a soul-less bureaucrat, an evil step-mother, and an alcoholic are presented intimately, with their reasons, their failings, and their punishment. For contrast, characters who hold steadfastly to human values are lovingly depicted and justly rewarded.

Dostoevsky originated many features of the modern murder mystery in Crime and Punishment.

Dostoevsky was one of the earliest theorists to emphasize the emotional or psychological reasons that people commit crimes. Social scientists had only begun to use emotional factors to explain behavior, and the field of criminology was not formulated until the early 20th century. I have read that this novel is still used in psychology lectures to illustrate the phenomenon of split personalities. The author also shows the influence of the environment and the situation on the criminal.

Dosteoevsky shows the workings of the detectives and their bosses, and analyzes their investigative practices. The detectives are interesting characters in their own right. One is the prototype of the clever detective feigning excessive courtesy and pretending to bumble along, all the while teasing out the strands of the crime until the perpetrator is forced to confess. This character is also one of the earliest detectives in fiction who is interested in saving the murderer's soul, as well as bringing him to justice. Nowadays we have Father Brown, Don Matteo, and the Vicar Sidney Chambers in Grantchester playing detective while saving souls.

There is also a dumb detective who jumps to conclusions and takes offense easily, and a young officer who does most of the footwork. There is even the familiar role of chief—affable but detached.

In these characters, you'll find the methods of many of your favorite fictional detectives: using psychology, noticing every detail, connecting the dots, sympathetic probing, gentle nudging toward confession, trapping the murderer in his own web of lies.

Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest works of art ever created.

Read it because you will like being in contact with a great mind like that of Dostoevsky.

For an introduction to the large cast of characters in Crime and Punishment, check out my other article on the novel: