Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I would like to thank the Saint Louis County Library system, Recorded Books LLC, audiobook reader George Guidall, and translator Constance Garnett for making it possible for me to enjoy this book during my daily drive to and from work, one hour each way. I had always been intimidated by this book and had never gotten any closer to reading it than having a copy on my bookshelf and occasionally, nervously, holding it in my hands. I had some faint idea of the novel's gravity, psychological depth, and literary significance, which together added up to a conflict between the side of me that felt destined to read the book and the side that shuddered at the idea. I could draw an inept parallel between my inner conflict and that which drives the main character in this book, but I won't, because it would be stupid. Luckily, I was delivered from my dilemma by the idea of listening to the book on CD while commuting.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (or Dostoyevsky) knew a lot about inner conflict. Consider his history: a political radical in Russia's pre-Revolution days, reprieved from a death sentence at the last moment, pardoned after several years imprisoned in Siberia, then celebrated for a writing career in which the two sides of his character warred with each other: the rebel who was almost hanged for his activities, and the penitent mystic who polemicized against the very ideals he had once nearly died for. Right in the middle of that same conflict is the novel's central figure, Rodyon Romanovich Raskolnikov: an impoverished student in the far northern capital city of Saint Petersburg, who dares himself to murder another human being in order to prove whether or not he is like Napoleon—a man who can "speak a new word," a leader, a world-changer.
If I don't want this to be a tediously long-winded review, I will have to forgo the customary word-sketch of who's who and what happens. There are a lot of unforgettable characters in this book, some with big bright souls, others shriveled and dark. There are pages of agonizing suspense, gripping psychological drama, touching romance, shattering tragedy, and even now again a moment of macabre humor. There is a character who inspired the TV detective Columbo, and a strikingly strong and almost "modern" female character, and a saintly angelic female character, and a goofy sidekick who will steal everyone's heart. There is a whole family that would seem right at home in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, dramatizing the evils of alcoholism in a way that, seemingly beyond possibility, is both heartbreaking and ludicrous at the same time. There is a murder mystery in which who done it, and how, is the first thing you know; why he done it, you learn later; and what leads him to confess his crime, when he has a real chance of getting away with it, is the real crux.
Your world lit teacher will probably tell you that this book, first published in a serialized format in 1866, broke new ground by inventing the "third-person omniscient" narrator. He may also express embarrassment over a couple of casually antisemitic comments in the book (including a caricatured physical description that Dostoevsky assigns to "all Jews without exception"). Or he might just take it easy on you and let you read lighter stuff like Chekov and Pushkin, and leave this book for grad students and bookworms to discover on their own. None of these possibilities is really quite necessary. You're not going to notice anything novel about the book's point-of-view because you're used to that sort of thing; you're big enough and intelligent enough to recognize that no person or period in history was perfect, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be discussed and thought about in their own context and on their own terms; and, after all, this is really a surprisingly clear, readable, and powerful book that you won't have any trouble finishing once you've well begun it.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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