WHAT IS “CRIME”? WHAT DOES “PUNISHMENT” CONSIST OF?
I firmly believe that when Franz Kafka wrote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,” he was at his supreme. Very few statements, I have ever read, are as true as this sentence. I personally don’t like the books that others curl up with – with a coffee mug in hand – and enjoy reading and never really come back again after finishing quickly. Rather I would read those books that pull me out of my comfort zone and show me the mirror of reality.
'Crime and Punishment’ is such a book, a sharp “axe” for the “frozen sea” inside one’s heart.
People call it so many things – one of the best Russian novels ever written; one of the best psychological novels ever written. Some even call it one of the best novels ever written in world literature.
This is a successful novel. An immortal novel with people discussing it even today.
But at the same time, it’s a difficult book to start with; even more so when you have watched videos on YouTube of this novel.
You know you are going to suffer; suffer as the protagonist Raskolnikov suffers moments after committing the “crime” by brutally murdering an old pawnbroker and her half-sister with a cruel “axe”. This is precisely what great pieces of literature do, if you take my opinion; they make you a friend of the protagonist(s) and make you feel for him/her/them.
Raskolnikov has reasons behind the murder of the old, wretched pawnbroker. He has this notion of man-God, where he doesn’t believe in the existence of God and therefore thinks there is no supreme authority to decide whether murdering an old woman is morally right or wrong. He feels – so to speak – that murdering the pawnbroker and robbing her money would be the best thing for him and for the society.
The pawnbroker is infamous for taking advantage of people’s poverty and making financial profit out of it. Raskolnikov argues that the old woman has only a purely negative impact on society – if she has any impact at all.
Where he needs money; to become something great, something huge, something gigantic; and to prevent her sister from almost selling herself to a rich man by marrying him. He believes that to become something great, something remarkable, like Napoleon, one has to go beyond the boundaries the society puts around us. For the net benefit of the society, the old woman has to die, he concludes and steals an axe and kills her, and her sister who stumbles upon the scene of the hideous crime.
We are introduced to the murderer and the motif behind the murders in the beginning of the story – Dostoyevsky, a master at work in ‘Crime and Punishment’ – takes us to the psychological path of a criminal, a murderer. Raskolnikov suffers. He suffers bitterly. He includes us in his suffering as we suffer and bleed the same amount of blood – if not more – as the protagonist.
Literally the rest of the novel is about his suffering, about the “punishment” he gets even before getting behind the bars. We want him to confess before the police, so that the “punishment” he gets mentally can come to an end. That promptly asks a very important question, what does “punishment” consist of? As Raskolnikov mentally becomes sort of imbalanced, it seems to the reader that this punishment is harsher than any “visible punishment”, like going behind the bars or receiving a death sentence.
Good books always ask you questions and make you uncomfortable through them. But what a real human being can do is face those questions as they come, rather than trying to silence the source of the questions.
Asking a lot of questions is exactly what this book by Dostoyevsky does.
Is actually committing a crime a crime?
Or just the thought of committing a crime is a crime?
Were the actual murders by Raskolnikov wrong?
Or was thinking that he is man-God and he and he can violate the rules set before us by the society (which prompted him to commit the murders) wrong?
Did the old pawnbroker have the right to live?
Were the murders even a crime, considering that it benefitted the society after all?
You get attacked by a lot of questions. The scenes become unbearably uncomfortable; but you simply can’t stop – once you pick up this book – till the end.
I must confess something here. My first ever short fiction, ‘Sorry’ was greatly inspired by ‘Crime and Punishment’. There a boy, out of fear and anxiety kills his cat and then the rest of the story follows his psychologically tormented condition. I have no shame in accepting the fact that it was greatly inspired by this monumental work of literature, and I kind of copied Dostoyevsky.
And I have no shame in accepting that I failed miserably in my very first story to capture the heart of this novel. There you go, Dostoyevsky was a genius, and I am just an ordinary person scribbling on my piece of paper.
IG Handle: @spandanb.49
(Spandan wants to establish himself as a full-time author. He likes daydreaming.)