Crime and Punishment

When I was in early high school we read an obligatory fic piece. The main character was supposedly a reading prodigy who suggested making Crime and Punishment the topic of her grade school book report.

Only lately have I realized how tall a claim that was. This book is definitely not a kid’s read.

I actually bought the book some time ago (only to find out that my sister had a practically unread copy), but it was Sir Mike Mariano, our Great Books (Ancient Period) prof and member of the Philo department, who encouraged me to read it. Or, to be more precise, he told me to read Anna Karenina first because Tolstoy was the easier read, but then proceed to Dostoevsky’s philosophical and psychological genius. But, yours truly being, well, yours truly, I found Anna Karenina a bore and went straight for Crime and Punishment.

It must be said that Dostoevsky does not seem to have the best writing technique in the world. Unlike the “god of art” (I think that’s Dostoevsky’s own line) that was Tolstoy, he had awkward phrases and sentences, and at times I was confused with who said what. However, what I love about the novel is 1) its ability to sustain interest as it plunges deep into the troubled psyche of Raskolnikov, and 2) its honest take on the dangers of liberal thought. Raskolnikov, believing himself (or at least initially deluding himself to be) a genius, a Nietzschean superman, a Napoleon, kills an evil old pawnbroker to prove a mere theory: that a genius can transgress moral law for the greater good of humanity. And yet, as Dostoevsky’s superb psychologizing shows, there seems to be in man, or at least in Raskolnikov, a strong moral impulse, a strong aversion to evil, a strong conscience that haunts him until he confesses his crime. And Dostoevsky points at this strong conscience and its respective root: Christian piety and grace.

One might argue that Dostoevsky was making unnecessary polarizations by pitting Greek Orthodoxy and devotion to religion against Western thought and progress. One might argue for the existence of the good atheist, the good liberal, just as much as the deluded fundamentalist. And this argument, for me, seems valid enough. And yet historical experience would tell us that there have, indeed, been many times when errors were made in the name of liberalism and progress. In Dostoevsky’s time, a fanatically liberal student made an attempt at the Czar’s life. A little above half a century later, the Revolution claimed the lives of the reigning Romanov family. The rise of Fascism and Communism also brought about death by the millions. In the end, then, perhaps Dostoevsky had the reason to fear the hasty march of liberalism and modernization. Hence the necessity of this book.

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