I expected more from Dostoyevsky. I included Crime and Punishment on my list with high expectations that it was money in the bank. I’d read The Brothers Karamazov the summer I was nineteen and it knocked me out with its profundity, so I felt C&P was not just a safe bet, but something to look forward to. I was so convinced that I took it with me on vacation to Maui, expecting to curl up with it on the beach. Sadly, my confidence was misplaced, and what I discovered in Maui was a story that was tedious, full of insane characters, and all centered around a stupid idea.
The book follows Raskolnikov, a down-on-his-luck former student living in St. Petersburg, as he plans, executes, and then repents the murder of an old woman. This titular crime is built around Raskolnikov’s idea that there are certain men (e.g., Napoleon) who are able to transcend the morals of society. Unfortunately for Raskolnikov, he never explores the question of what gives a man such standing and instead jumps right to putting himself in that category. The novel begins when the idea has already taken hold in his mind, so we see him in fairly short order ride the idea to a plan to an act. The lady is dead maybe eighty pages in.
This idea was subsequently (I believe) made explicit in Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, which has always struck me as sophomoric, and I was disappointed to realize early on that Raskolnikov was driven to his crime by second-rate philosophy. But yep, let’s go kill an old lady with an axe because some men transcend the morals of society, uh-huh. So he does, and we are then treated to another three hundred pages of Raskolnikov trying to live with what he has done, nearly confessing, trying to stay ahead of the police investigation, admitting the crime to a girl he sort of loves, getting extorted, and then ultimately confessing to his crime in the last sentence. This leads to a tedious afterward set in Siberia that itself ends after a good twenty pages with another epiphany, where Raskolnikov finally allows himself to love. Blech.
Among the many things I found to dislike about this book was the general insanity of the characters in it. We are of course subjected at great length and depth to the fever swamp of Raskolnikov’s thinking, but everyone around him seems to act like a lunatic as well, with insanely heightened emotions hurling in every direction. Everyone in the book seems to be driven entirely by their emotional connections to those around them, and the rational and practical needs of life are essentially ignored by everyone in the book, despite the fact that most of them are destitute, and I would think wouldn’t have the freedom to indulge such excesses. R’s school chum essentially devotes himself to taking care of him, for no clear reason, and then he falls instantly in love with R’s sister, which ends in a marriage. R meets a drunk in a bar, walks him home, and then later sees him die in that home from a carriage accident. R feels such empathy for the drunk’s widow that he gives her the complete nest-egg he has just gotten from his mother, which was the last of her money. The widow blows the whole thing on a funeral feast to show up the neighbors, which bankrupts her and leads to her eviction—at the conclusion of the feast itself. The husband in the house where R’s sister worked not only fell in love with her, but then poisoned his wife to be free of her and pursues the sister to Petersburg to press his case. Seemingly every character in the book operates on rules of behavior that make little sense here in the real world. R is hopelessly behind on his rent, but the sweet servant girl keeps bringing him tea all the time. Where do people actually behave this way?
But sadly, for all that everyone acts like a lunatic, the book is unable to parlay that into a compelling story and the whole thing is exceptionally tedious. We have the profound tediousness of Raskolnikov himself, thinking his repetitive thoughts while he wanders the city in a delirium, colliding periodically with the dozen or so characters orbiting around him, who indeed seem to be the only people in Petersburg, since one of them always happens to be around the next corner. Then we have his mother and sister who come in from the country, as his sister is set to wed a businessman, whom R knows to be unworthy even before meeting him, so there’s a whole drama around that. Then there’s the school chum and his love for the sister. Then there’s the drunk who dies, and the family that remains, which consists of a matriarch (who actually does go insane in the book) and her children, the eldest of whom prostituted herself to care for the family; we follow the rapidly shifting fortunes of this family over the course of this tumultuous couple of weeks’ time. Then there’s the blackmail scheme from the sister’s country admirer. There are layers and layers of tedium to navigate here, and none of them really serve to give the book any momentum or the reader any particular drive to keep turning the pages.
On the whole, this was book a terrible disappointment. I was expecting a riveting character study steeped in deep philosophy, and instead I got the shallow ravings of someone who dramatically overestimates their own intelligence—I mean Raskolnikov, but I can’t help but also mean Dostoyevsky. I find myself wondering whether the profound experience of reading The Brothers Karamazov had less to do with Dostoyevsky’s brilliance and more to do with the fact that I was a literally sophomore at the time, not as smart as I imagined myself to be, and easily beguiled by cut-rate philosophy and a world where all emotions are heightened and world-changing. The only way to know for sure would be for me to revisit The Brothers Karamazov, but in my case I am saved from that potential tedium by the fact that it is simply not on the list.
Excerpt from Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
THE door was as before opened a tiny crack, and again two sharp and suspicious eyes stared at him out of the darkness. Then Raskolnikov lost his head and nearly made a great mistake.
Fearing the old woman would be frightened by their being alone, and not hoping that the sight of him would disarm her suspicions, he took hold of the door and drew it towards him to prevent the old woman from attempting to shut it again. Seeing this she did not pull the door back, but she did not let go the handle so that he almost dragged her out with it on to the stairs. Seeing that she was standing in the doorway not allowing him to pass, he advanced straight upon her. She stepped back in alarm, tried to say something, but seemed unable to speak and stared with open eyes at him.
“Good evening, Alyona Ivanovna,” he began, trying to speak easily, but his voice would not obey him, it broke and shook. “I have come . . . I have brought something . . . but we’d better come in . . . to the light. . . .”
And leaving her, he passed straight into the room uninvited. The old woman ran after him; her tongue was unloosed.
“Good heavens! What it is? Who is it? What do you want?”
“Why, Alyona Ivanovna, you know me . . . Raskolnikov . . . here, I brought you the pledge I promised the other day . . .” And he held out the pledge.
The old woman glanced for a moment at the pledge, but at once stared in the eyes of her uninvited visitor. She looked intently, maliciously and mistrustfully. A minute passed; he even fancied something like a sneer in her eyes, as though she had already guessed everything. He felt that he was losing his head, that he was almost frightened, so frightened that if she were to look like that and not say a word for another half minute, he thought he would have run away from her.
“Why do you look at me as though you did not know me?” he said suddenly, also with malice. “Take it if you like, if not I’ll go elsewhere, I am in a hurry.”
He had not even thought of saying this, but it was suddenly said of itself. The old woman recovered herself, and her visitor’s resolute tone evidently restored her confidence.
“But why, my good sir, all of a minute. . . . What is it?” she asked, looking at the pledge.
“The silver cigarette case; I spoke of it last time, you know.”
She held out her hand.
“But how pale you are, to be sure . . . and your hands are trembling too? Have you been bathing, or what?”
“Fever,” he answered abruptly. “You can’t help getting pale . . . if you’ve nothing to eat,” he added, with difficulty articulating the words.
His strength was failing him again. But his answer sounded like the truth; the old woman took the pledge.
“What is it?” she asked once more, scanning Raskolnikov intently, and weighing the pledge in her hand.
“A thing . . . cigarette case. . . . Silver. . . . Look at it.”
“It does not seem somehow like silver. . . . How he has wrapped it up!”
Trying to untie the string and turning to the window, to the light (all her windows were shut, in spite of the stifling heat), she left him altogether for some seconds and stood with her back to him. He unbuttoned his coat and freed the axe from the noose, but did not yet take it out altogether, simply holding it in his right hand under the coat. His hands were fearfully weak, he felt them every moment growing more numb and more wooden. He was afraid he would let the axe slip and fall. . . . A sudden giddiness came over him.
“But what has he tied it up like this for?” the old woman cried with vexation and moved towards him.
He had not a minute more to lose. He pulled the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the blunt side down on her head. He seemed not to use his own strength in this. But as soon as he had once brought the axe down, his strength returned to him.
The old woman was as always bareheaded. Her thin, light hair, streaked with grey, thickly smeared with grease, was plaited in a rat’s tail and fastened by a broken horn comb which stood out on the nape of her neck. As she was so short, the blow fell on the very top of her skull. She cried out, but very faintly, and suddenly sank all of a heap on the floor, raising her hands to her head. In one hand she still held “the pledge.” Then he dealt her another and another blow with the blunt side and on the same spot. The blood gushed as from an overturned glass, the body fell back. He stepped back, let it fall, and at once bent over her face; she was dead. Her eyes seemed to be starting out of their sockets, the brow and the whole face were drawn and contorted convulsively.
He laid the axe on the ground near the dead body and felt at once in her pocket (trying to avoid the streaming blood)—the same right hand pocket from which she had taken the key on his last visit. He was in full possession of his faculties, free from confusion or giddiness, but his hands were still trembling. He remembered afterwards that he had been particularly collected and careful, trying all the time not to get smeared with blood. . . . He pulled out the keys at once, they were all, as before, in one bunch on a steel ring. He ran at once into the bedroom with them. It was a very small room with a whole shrine of holy images. Against the other wall stood a big bed, very clean and covered with a silk patchwork wadded quilt. Against a third wall was a chest of drawers. Strange to say, so soon as he began to fit the keys into the chest, so soon as he heard their jingling, a convulsive shudder passed over him. He suddenly felt tempted again to give it all up and go away. But that was only for an instant; it was too late to go back. He positively smiled at himself, when suddenly another terrifying idea occurred to his mind. He suddenly fancied that the old woman might be still alive and might recover her senses. Leaving the keys in the chest, he ran back to the body, snatched up the axe and lifted it once more over the old woman, but did not bring it down. There was no doubt that she was dead. Bending down and examining her again more closely, he saw clearly that the skull was broken and even battered in on one side. He was about to feel it with his finger, but drew back his hand and indeed it was evident without that. Meanwhile there was a perfect pool of blood. All at once he noticed a string on her neck; he tugged at it, but the string was strong and did not snap and besides, it was soaked with blood. He tried to pull it out from the front of the dress, but something held it and prevented its coming. In his impatience he raised the axe again to cut the string from above on the body, but did not dare, and with difficulty, smearing his hand and the axe in the blood, after two minutes’ hurried effort, he cut the string and took it off without touching the body with the axe; he was not mistaken—it was a purse. On the string were two crosses, one of Cyprus wood and one of copper, and an image in silver filigree, and with them a small greasy chamois leather purse with a steel rim and ring. The purse was stuffed very full; Raskolnikov thrust it in his pocket without looking at it, flung the crosses on the old woman’s body and rushed back into the bedroom, this time taking the axe with him.
He was in terrible haste, he snatched the keys, and began trying them again. But he was unsuccessful. They would not fit in the locks. It was not so much that his hands were shaking, but that he kept making mistakes; though he saw for instance that a key was not the right one and would not fit, still he tried to put it in. Suddenly he remembered and realised that the big key with the deep notches, which was hanging there with the small keys could not possibly belong to the chest of drawers (on his last visit this had struck him), but to some strong box, and that everything perhaps was hidden in that box. He left the chest of drawers, and at once felt under the bedstead, knowing that old women usually keep boxes under their beds. And so it was; there was a good-sized box under the bed, at least a yard in length, with an arched lid covered with red leather and studded with steel nails. The notched key fitted at once and unlocked it. At the top, under a white sheet, was a coat of red brocade lined with hareskin; under it was a silk dress, then a shawl and it seemed as though there was nothing below but clothes. The first thing he did was to wipe his blood-stained hands on the red brocade. “It’s red, and on red blood will be less noticeable,” the thought passed through his mind; then he suddenly came to himself. “Good God, am I going out of my senses?” he thought with terror.
But no sooner did he touch the clothes than a gold watch slipped from under the fur coat. He made haste to turn them all over. There turned out to be various articles made of gold among the clothes—probably all pledges, unredeemed or waiting to be redeemed—bracelets, chains, ear-rings, pins and such things. Some were in cases, others simply wrapped in newspaper, carefully and exactly folded, and tied round with tape. Without any delay, he began filling up the pockets of his trousers and overcoat without examining or undoing the parcels and cases; but he had not time to take many. . . .
He suddenly heard steps in the room where the old woman lay. He stopped short and was still as death. But all was quiet, so it must have been his fancy. All at once he heard distinctly a faint cry, as though someone had uttered a low broken moan. Then again dead silence for a minute or two. He sat squatting on his heels by the box and waited holding his breath. Suddenly he jumped up, seized the axe and ran out of the bedroom.
In the middle of the room stood Lizaveta with a big bundle in her arms. She was gazing in stupefaction at her murdered sister, white as a sheet and seeming not to have the strength to cry out. Seeing him run out of the bedroom, she began faintly quivering all over, like a leaf, a shudder ran down her face; she lifted her hand, opened her mouth, but still did not scream. She began slowly backing away from him into the corner, staring intently, persistently at him, but still uttered no sound, as though she could not get breath to scream. He rushed at her with the axe; her mouth twitched piteously, as one sees babies’ mouths, when they begin to be frightened, stare intently at what frightens them and are on the point of screaming. And this hapless Lizaveta was so simple and had been so thoroughly crushed and scared that she did not even raise a hand to guard her face, though that was the most necessary and natural action at the moment, for the axe was raised over her face. She only put up her empty left hand, but not to her face, slowly holding it out before her as though motioning him away. The axe fell with the sharp edge just on the skull and split at one blow all the top of the head. She fell heavily at once. Raskolnikov completely lost his head, snatched up her bundle, dropped it again and ran into the entry.
Fear gained more and more mastery over him, especially after this second, quite unexpected murder. He longed to run away from the place as fast as possible. And if at that moment he had been capable of seeing and reasoning more correctly, if he had been able to realise all the difficulties of his position, the hopelessness, the hideousness and the absurdity of it, if he could have understood how many obstacles and, perhaps, crimes he had still to overcome or to commit, to get out of that place and to make his way home, it is very possible that he would have flung up everything, and would have gone to give himself up, and not from fear, but from simple horror and loathing of what he had done. The feeling of loathing especially surged up within him and grew stronger every minute. He would not now have gone to the box or even into the room for anything in the world.
But a sort of blankness, even dreaminess, had begun by degrees to take possession of him; at moments he forgot himself, or rather, forgot what was of importance, and caught at trifles. Glancing, however, into the kitchen and seeing a bucket half full of water on a bench, he bethought him of washing his hands and the axe. His hands were sticky with blood. He dropped the axe with the blade in the water, snatched a piece of soap that lay in a broken saucer on the window, and began washing his hands in the bucket. When they were clean, he took out the axe, washed the blade and spent a long time, about three minutes, washing the wood where there were spots of blood rubbing them with soap. Then he wiped it all with some linen that was hanging to dry on a line in the kitchen and then he was a long while attentively examining the axe at the window. There was no trace left on it, only the wood was still damp. He carefully hung the axe in the noose under his coat. Then as far as was possible, in the dim light in the kitchen, he looked over his overcoat, his trousers and his boots. At the first glance there seemed to be nothing but stains on the boots. He wetted the rag and rubbed the boots. But he knew he was not looking thoroughly, that there might be something quite noticeable that he was overlooking. He stood in the middle of the room, lost in thought. Dark agonising ideas rose in his mind—the idea that he was mad and that at that moment he was incapable of reasoning, of protecting himself, that he ought perhaps to be doing something utterly different from what he was now doing. “Good God!” he muttered “I must fly, fly,” and he rushed into the entry. But here a shock of terror awaited him such as he had never known before.
He stood and gazed and could not believe his eyes: the door, the outer door from the stairs, at which he had not long before waited and rung, was standing unfastened and at least six inches open. No lock, no bolt, all the time, all that time! The old woman had not shut it after him perhaps as a precaution. But, good God! Why, he had seen Lizaveta afterwards! And how could he, how could he have failed to reflect that she must have come in somehow! She could not have come through the wall!
He dashed to the door and fastened the latch.
“But no, the wrong thing again! I must get away, get away. . . .”
Public Domain. Translated by Constance Garnett