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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Perhaps it really would be better in Siberia

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevksy

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The main character is Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov. (Delightfully alliterative, eh?) When the book begins, he is getting ready to do something. We're not entirely sure what it is he's getting ready to do, but we begin to understand that it's very bad. He has to talk himself into it. It turns out that he is planning to kill his pawnbroker and steal her money, not particularly because he's poor, but because she's a bad woman and he kind of thinks he's doing society a favor. He murders her with an axe, and then her sister walks in, so he kills her as well. He very nearly gets caught in the act by some random men who come to speak with the pawnbroker, but he gets away, stashes the stolen items under a rock, and manages to get home to his bed before falling seriously ill. He is sick for a few days, and his friend Razumihin and his landlady's servant Nastasya take care of him. Upon waking up, everyone kind of thinks Rodya (Rodion) has gone mad, and he comes very close to implicating himself in the murder. Everyone is gossiping about the murder, as it has now become known all over town. Rodya's mother and sister come to town (St. Petersburg) because she is getting ready to marry Luzhin, a man who has promised to support her. Rodya's family is very poor. When Rodya meets Luzhin, however, he instantly hates him, and makes sure that his sister Dounia doesn't marry him. Rodya meets a man named Marmeladov while he's out at a bar, and hears this man's sad tale of how he's a hopeless drunk and his family is incapable of feeding themselves. Marmeladov later gets run over by a carriage, and Rodya offers his last 15 rubles (which his mother borrowed from her pension to send to him) to Marmeladov's widow, Katerina Ivavnova. Katerina's stepdaughter, Sofya (Sonia) Semyanova was whoring herself out to support the family, and Rodya befriends her and tries to help her out. Dounia (sorry, I forgot) had her reputation ruined while she was a governess for a family back home in the country because the man of the house said she was coming on to him. It turns out he was coming on to her, and her reputation was mostly repaired, but this man, Svidrigailov, comes to St. Petersburg when his wife dies, and tries to proposition Dounia. Dounia, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Rodya's best friend, Razumihin. Rodya spends most of the book in a sort of delirium, going over the murder in his head, wondering if people know, deciding to kill himself, deciding to turn himself in, and lying around in bed having nightmares. Eventually, he tells Sonia (the whore stepdaughter) and Svidgrigailov overhears. Porfiry Petrovich, Razumihin's cousin and a cop, figures it out as well. Svidrigailov makes a last attempt to get Dounia to run away with him, but when he realizes she doesn't love him, he shoots himself. Dounia finds out (via Svidrigailov) that Rodya killed the two women. Sonia and Dounia are strangely supportive of Rodya, and he eventually turns himself in to the police. He almost decides not to, but as he's walking away from the police station, he sees Sonia, and her look sends him back inside and he confesses. For various reasons his sentence is only 8 years, and he goes off to a work prison in Siberia. Sonia follows him, visiting and sending various messages of support. At the end, he decides that he really does love Sonia, and that he's been able to repent, and he will start his new life with her in "only 7 years." Yeah. Only seven years. Congratulations if you got through this plot summary. I promise the blog will be less complicated.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

- The title comes from a comment Rodya makes when he's contemplating turning himself in. I think it's pretty comical, in that I can't imagine anything being better in Siberia. But then again, I'm not quite as crazy as Rodya.

- This book was really hard for me to read. Those of you reading this who know me well know that I had a deep existential crisis when I was in France, and since then I don't really like to read books or watch films with dark and twisted psychological plots. I'm not living a shallow existence, I just prefer to stay away from things that I know will set my overactive mind to work. So, as you can imagine, reading a 530-page psychological thriller from the point of view of a man who's just killed two people basically because he thinks it's his right was not really on my traditional game plan. But I decided that a book would not conquer me, and that I would be the better for having read it afterward. And I do feel proud to have finished it.

- The names in this novel were immensely confusing. Aside from the massive syllable count, many characters have multiple names, and they're used interchangeably, often within the same paragraph. I'm sure this has something to do with Russian formalities, but still. It was extremely confusing trying to remember that Pyotr Petrovich and Luzhin were the same man, and that Dounia and Avdotya Romanovna were the same woman.

- The book is told from Rodya's perspective, not in third person, but with full description of what he's feeling and experiencing. We occasionally get thoughts and feelings from others, but Rodya is the main focus. It was odd, therefore, when the book inexplicably switched to Svidrigailov's perspective just for the chapter in which he kills himself. I'm not sure if it was to show us his full range of emotions prior to the event, or what, but it's the only part of the book where we don't deal with Rodya really at all.

- Everyone seems to believe that Rodya couldn't possibly have committed the crime, even after they've downright suspected him previously. Several of the policemen who suspect him early in the book go on to apologize later on for having accused him! There's such a strange sense of everyone wanting to believe that anything is wrong with him before they believe he is a murderer. I suppose it's human nature to want to think the best of people who we love and care for, but even complete strangers try to give him the benefit of the doubt! I found this odd.

- Ultimately, Rodya commits the murder because of a theory. He believes that certain men have the right to commit crimes because they have a greater purpose in life that can only be achieved with the help of those crimes as stepping stones. He sees himself as ridding the world of a "louse" because the pawnbroker was an unpleasant sort of woman who held people in debt over small pledges and IOUs. He also talks of how insignificant one murder is in the face of all-out warfare. Which brings up an interesting philosophical debate, but what is warfare but systematic murder? I can't see it as any more excusable, but I suppose the author is asking why war is acceptable when murder is not.

- In the end, Rodya has a moment of redemption where he falls at Sonia's knees and they know they love each other and in 7 (short) years they will be together and start a new life. This moment rang false to me. It just felt completely fake, after this deep, penetrating, convoluted psychological study, to end with a moment of joy. And Rodya is so sullen, so sulky, that he doesn't at all deserve to be redeemed. Sonia is far too good for him. And then Dostoevsky throws in this line that this isn't the end of the story, and maybe there's another whole story to tell. What a lame ending, dude! There's no other story, this is the end! And it's a crappy end, if you ask me!

- Last comment. I was chatting with my boss about this book, and after I'd told her the beginning, she asked, "Crime and Punishment. Is that the one where he wakes up at the end and it was all a dream and he's a schizophrenic?" And I said, "Well if it is, then you just ruined the end for me." And then she said, "Or is that... Fight Club?" Hilarious. I'm not sure those books have ever been compared, but maybe that should have been my thesis. It probably would have been a hell of a lot more fun than the one I did write.

Well, this first of what will be many Russian novels on the list didn't conquer me. Time to conquer another classic - Catch-22, here I come!

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