Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Nov 11. 1821--Feb. 9, 1881

It was about an handful of decades ago that I sat down, took up a book, and began to read--

"Towards the end of a sultry afternoon early in July a young man came out of his little room in Stolyarny Lane and turned slowly and somewhat irresolutely in the direction of Kamenny Bridge."

A friend had cleaned out his locker on the last day of final exam week and offered to sell me a copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. It was the Modern Library edition, translated by Constance Garnett, and he wanted fifty cents for it. I had heard of Dostoevsky but had never read anything by him. I took the book. I finished it in a day or so and immediately went out, searching for more Dostoyevsky.

It was the depiction of a potential murderer, and a murderer of an old lady, that grabbed me. Raskolnikov was not a raving, drooling monster. He seemed to be a relatively normal individual, even if highly distraught, and possessed some strange philosophical ideas, that really weren't that strange, if one considers the range of ideas that humans have come up with over the centuries. He just didn't seem like a murderer, or at least what I considered to be a murderer at that time.

Dostoyevsky showed parts of Raskolnikov's character that I recognized but had never before seen in a literary work, or at least showed it to a depth that I had never seen before. He was of two minds about his plan to murder the old pawnbroker. One part of him doesn't think he could ever commit a murder, but he goes about as if he actually intends to do it. Which is the real Raskolnikov--the thinking Raskolnikov or the acting Raskonikov?

Throughout the days leading up to this day, he acts as though it were only an experiment, "no more than a test and a far from serious one." It was only "an idle fancy" that caused him to visit the old pawnbroker and note the layout of the apartment, the room where the painters are working, and the traffic around the doors to the building. He can't believe he will go through with it as he sews a loop inside his coat where he will hang the hatchet.

But, when the day he had decided upon arrived, he found himself almost as a prisoner in his own body which now seemingly acted on his own.

"His reactions during this last day, which had come upon him so unexpectedly and settled everything at one stroke, were almost completely mechanical, as though someone had taken his hand and pulled him along irresistibly, blindly, with supernatural strength and without objection. it was as if a part of his clothing had been caught in the wheel of a machine and he was being dragged into it."

While I have never murdered anyone, I have done some dumb things, which I knew were dumb, but I still went ahead and did them anyway, even while part of me insisted that I couldn't do such a dumb thing. Nor was I unusual in this respect, for I knew of others who had acted the same. No other writer that I had encountered up to this time had ever portrayed a person so completely, so thoroughly, and so convincingly in that state of mind.

As numerous critics have pointed out, Dostoyevsky has his flaws, but he shows us the depths of the human being as few writers have ever done before him, or after him. Dostoyevsky's characters are alive and breathing, and he cares for them, good or bad, virtuous or evil, or, which is most common in his characters, a mixture of both.

Perhaps there may be others who can do as well, but I don't think there are any who do it better.

Overall Rating--Very highly recommended.


  1. Fred, I have spent a number of hours since yesterday surveying my bookshelves and thumbing through book-lists in an attempt to decide what book will be next on my reading schedule. Your superb essay persuades me that my search is over: I will reread _Crime and Punishment_, and I hope to have the kind of splendidly rewarding experience you so generously share in your essay. Now, I'm off-the-air and into my reading chair with Dostoyesky's novel in hand. Thanks.

  2. Crime and Punishment is one of my all-time favorites, mostly because of the psychology of the main character. I was both fascinated and repelled by him, and felt all of the emotion he was feeling. The book wasn't an enjoyable read ( as in "fun"), but it was a totally engrossing one.

  3. R. T.,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I gather the consensus of scholars and critics is that Brothers K. is Dostoyevsky's best novel. I don't want to argue with that point, but C&P will always be my favorite. A first love lasts the longest, don't it?

  4. Cheryl,

    Yes, it's the in-depth portrayal that got me from the first reading. At times, I felt claustrophobic for I seemed to be trapped within Raskolnikov and his fantasies, almost delusions of grandeur, for he identified so much with Napoleon, that I wondered if he actually believed he was Napoleon, a strange delusion for a Russian.

    Yes--Absorbing, engaging, but definitely not a "fun" book.

  5. I'm appreciate your writing skill.Please keep on working hard.^^