Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (tr. Constance Garnett)
Reviewed by Ian Mitchell
Of all the great Russian classics, Crime and Punishment has, arguably, the most modern theme: Power and the guilt which can accompany the untrammeled use of that power.
A young university student decides that he can help his family escape from poverty - especially his sister who is being forced to marry a deeply unpleasant man for his money - by murdering a despicable old pawnbroker. He persuades himself into a position where he feels capable of acting like Napoleon, since all truly great men, he thinks, have no scruple, or at least they do not hesitate to act, even when aware of the human consequences of their actions.
The hero of the book commits the murder of the old pawnbroker but is soon trapped into admitting his guilt, partly by the clever psychological assault which the investigating magistrate uses on him, and partly by his love for a prostitute who has been forced by her father’s alcoholism to sell her body in order to feed her mother and siblings. She convinces him, from Christian principles, that he will never know inner peace until he has accepted the immorality of his amoral behaviour.
I will not reveal the rest of the plot - assuming that there are still people who have not read this extraordinary book - but will only say that it has many of the qualities of a modern thriller. The reader is kept in suspense by two central questions: first, will the hero or will he not confess to the authorities and accept the conventional punishment for the murder; and, second, what will happen to his relationship with the prostitute once he is condemned publicly as a murderer?
Dostoyevsky wrote this masterpiece in 1866 when he was under immense pressure from a creditor, due to his addiction to gambling. He was also suffering from a variety of health problems, including epilepsy and haemorrhoids. He had to write so fast that he was forced to hire a stenographer, whom he afterwards married.
He started the book six times, before finally getting it right. But once he had found his way, he did not hesitate. Perhaps he was able to work so quickly because he was familiar with many of the emotions surrounding murder, since his father had been killed years before by his own serfs. Dostoyevsky senior had been a minor aristocrat who was known for his drunkenness and his brutality, as well for his sexual assaults on the daughters of the serfs in his domain. One morning, when he was out riding on his estate, some of the outraged fathers ambushed him. They crushed his testicles with their bare hands and then poured vodka down his throat until he drowned.
This edition of Crime and Punishment comes with an excellent introduction which gives a lot of interesting background to the composition and structure of the work, as well as a six page extract from Dostoyevsky’s own notes. I have not seen these in any edition before, and they are fascinating. This book is published at an extremely reasonable price, and is as well produced as many editions costing three times the price.
Worsdworth Classics ISBN: 978 1 8402 2430 6
134 roubles from Bukberi, 17 Nikitskiy Bulvar