The choice of Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky for the March discussion caused consternation among the members of the book group at the Oxfam Bookshop Muswell Hill. Some of us had read or studied it in our teens and were happy to re-read it. For others the length of the novel and complexity of the plot posed a challenge. But, when we met on the first Wednesday of the month, we discovered that everyone had enjoyed the book.
Dostoevsky was writing at a time of extremes in Russia, censorship had been lifted giving greater freedom for the discussion and creation of new political and cultural thought. But these freedoms were limited – Dostoevsky and his friends were arrested for their revolutionary ideas and, after an incredible deliverance from a firing squad, exiled to Siberia. Crime and Punishment was written after this exile as magazine instalments then edited down for publication as a book in 1866.
The novel follows the story of Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished student who develops a philosophy that a few people, including himself, are superior beings who are above the law and can commit crime if it can be justified. To test his ideas he plans to murder a dissolute pawnbroker for the greater good.
Our discussion started simply, or so we thought – was the novel a complex detective thriller or a psychological exploration of the mind of a mentally ill young man? If it was the former, it was possibly the earliest of the genre where the crime and the criminal are known from the earliest chapters and the focus is on how the gifted detective will trap the murderer into a confession. (We learned that the TV detective series Columbo was, in part, modelled on Crime and Punishment). If the latter, the psychological complexity created in the novel is impressive as it predates the work of Freud, Jung and Adler by at least fifty years – we agreed that great writers, of any era, have always reflected their times in the psychology of their characters, even if the term was unknown to them. Most of the illnesses described in the novel would today be considered as mental health issues, although we did acknowledge that the Russian character is thought of as being more overtly emotional than British cultural expectations.
The moral and religious themes of the novel sprung naturally from this discussion – is killing, especially murder, ever justified? Does the end ever justify the means? Would our opinion of Raskolnikov as a ‘superior person’ be different if he had not killed the pawnbroker’s sister? Is it necessary to experience suffering to achieve spiritual redemption? Sonya, the long-suffering prostitute to whom Raskolnikov confesses, is the agent of religious redemption, but most of us were irritated by her low self-esteem; she does not appeal to a modern audience. Porfiry Petrovich, (the ‘detective’, who we agreed was our favourite character), spends more time, and dialogue, on redeeming Raskolnikov’s grasp on reality, of accepting his guilt, than on resolving the crime. He struck us as ahead of his time as a criminologist who puts rehabilitation ahead of punishment.
Crime and Punishment is not just a novel of grand ideas and great debates, we felt is the small details that make it a pleasure to read – the detailed descriptions of clothing, (Raskolnikov’s hat, Sonja’s best shawl), where and how they live, what they eat and drink; all these keep the novel on a human scale. No wonder one member of the group found it so absorbing that he missed his station on the underground and finished up in Cockfosters.
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