Human Depravity in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ever wanted to get inside the head of a murderer? That's exactly what the legendary Russian writer Dostoevsky does in this classic novel. On the face of it, by the usual standards of literature, this doesn't seem to be much of a novel. There isn't much in the way of plot (the murder happens in the early pages, we know who he is from the outset, and the only real suspense revolves around whether or not he will confess). The language is at times awkward and complex. The setting is believable but not captivating. But the people are, and here Dostoevsky excels: characterization. The focus of the novel revolves around the internal struggle within the murderer's mind, as he deals with the consequences of his action as a moral being. Most modern murder mysteries seek to entertain by focusing on the blood and gore; Dostoevsky goes far deeper by focusing on the mind.
Dostoevsky has a deep insight into human nature and psychology. In the process of wading through the text, one can expect to come across wonderful pearls like these: "I have noticed more than once in my life that husbands don't quite get on with their mothers-in-law." (p37) "Even the poorest and most broken-spirited people are sometimes liable to these paroxysms of pride and vanity which take the form of an irresistible nervous craving." (p350) "And do you know, Sonia, that low ceilings and tiny rooms cramp the soul and the mind?" (p386)
This insight into human behaviour especially becomes evident in Dostoevsky's treatment of the murderer Raskolnikov. Many writers are one-dimensional, but Dostoevsky shows how people have a complex system of emotions, often fluctuating from one feeling to the next. He depicts human nature with different layers and moods, as Raskolnikov moves between conflicting emotions such as fear, guilt, remorse, and courage. The brilliance is already evident from the first chapter, where Raskolnikov is introduced as a figure absorbed in selfish isolation. Completely absorbed with the self and away from love of God and man, as he contemplates murdering the old woman pawn-broker Alyona Ivanovna his wretched condition is a convincing portrait of the depravity of the human heart estranged from God. As Raskolnikov later confesses: "Sonia, I have a bad heart, take note of that. It may explain a great deal." (p383). With a window into the mind of a murderer, we begin to understand him to the point where we identify with him, and realize that we are all capable of enormous sin. Raskolnikov's loathsome heart is ultimately no different from our own.
But Dostoevsky also excels in showing the tragic consequences of depravity: it results in isolation from other human beings, and ultimately from God. Raskolnikov's deteriorating mental and physical state is highly reminiscent of what David says in Psalm 32 about being in bed, wracked with unconfessed guilt. Although Dostoevsky shows the effect of sin more in relation to other humans (isolation) than in relation to God, he succeeds in showing the tragic consequences of the darkness of the human soul. Raskolnikov experiences an increasing sense of isolation. "It seemed to him, he had cut himself off from everyone and from everything at that moment." (p109) Such comments about the psychology of a murderer are particularly illuminating.
Yet there is also a sense of hope, as Raskolnikov finds the answer to guilt and its consequences in heartfelt repentance. This solution is enhanced by way of a contrast with the remedy sought by Svidrigailov. Although his guilt is never directly affirmed, we are left with the distinct impression that Svidrigailov struggles with the same guilt over murder as Raskolnikov. Svidrigailov advises Raskolnikov that he has only two options: Siberia or a bullet in the head. But while Svidrigailov himself chooses the latter option of suicide, Raskolnikov chooses Siberia ... and repentance. This inner transformation leads to significant observable changes in his life, with Sonia functioning as a Christ figure. The novel ends fittingly with both realism and optimism about repentance: "He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering. But that is the beginning of a new story - the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life." (p505)
As a novel, "Crime and Punishment" is not entirely without weaknesses. The occasional blasphemy eg "Good God!" was surprising. The sentences are sometimes broken, and the flow of the English translation is at times unnatural and difficult to read. Dostoevsky's dialogue is frequently verbose, the lengthy soliloquys unrealistic and tiring. The Russian names are also difficult to keep track of, particularly because characters are at times referred to using different names (to keep your Petrovna's and Petrovitch's apart, consider keeping a character list handy while reading). But these difficulties are in part a result of the inevitable distance that arises from cultural and language differences. In the final analysis this book is not easy to read merely because of its weaknesses but because of its brilliance. Despite the heavy going, it's no `punishment' to read this book, but rather a `crime' not to. "Crime and Punishment" is a brilliant psychological and religious study of human depravity, giving you an opportunity to discover something more about your own corruption, as well as its only cure.