Musings on Crime and Punishment, an Unexpected Novel

I found some rather huge issues with the writing of Crime and Punishment, but once a reader wades through that (and through the very weak and tedious middle section), it’s a decent read. It’s clearly trying to do something great; its sights are set high. At the same time, the novel seems hesitant to clarify what exactly it’s trying to do, and so it’s very difficult tell, after all is said and done, whether or not it was successful.

People call it a psychological novel, but it’s a little bit artificial or at least confused about its psychology. It’s not natural with the nature or psyche of its characters as, say, Tolstoy, or even the casual analytics of Plutarch or Montaigne are. Dostoevsky even goes off on long expositions regarding certain vaguely related topics, often using a character’s thoughts as his vehicle. This isn’t psychology, it’s philosophy. There’s no issue with that, but I think people mischaracterize Dostoevsky, leading to false expectations. Perhaps even Shakespeare was as psychological.

In fact, perhaps a comparison between Raskolnikov and Macbeth would be worth writing, has anyone attempted it?

I would put Dostoevsky on a similar level as Plutarch, actually. Not a legendary name like Plato or Shakespeare, but certainly a wide and interesting read. What’s important with Dostoyevsky’s work is not that he has achieved some sort of grand psychology through his characters and narrative, but rather he, along with us the reader, is trying to figure something out. I believe that this is actually the key to many of the classics, that we’re in process with the writer.

So what did I not like about the novel? Well, it did seem a little artificial, although not enough for me to be bothered. But the first third of the novel after the inciting incident with the axe, is just Raskolnikov wandering around, being half dead with grief, hiding objects and worrying. A lot of this part of the book is just the protagonist being comforted and reassured by his friends.  There’s almost zero narrative movement until Sonia and the detective appear—and that’s a few hundred pages in.

The uncertainty of the plot mixed with the equally uncertain philosophy behind why Raskolnikov did what he did—and the incompleteness in philosophes that the protagonist held—is kind of evidence to me that the work wasn’t entirely planned out. I think, rather, during that first third where nothing really is happening, the full plot was still forming in Dostoyevsky’s head. So, once he figured out, “Ah! I needed detective who is very psychological. And I need a love interest who is also fallen, but in a different way! And I need to know exactly what the protagonist is going to end up choosing to do about the mess he’s gotten into.” Once Dostoevsky had these elements in place, the narrative began to function much more smoothly.

There’s a infamous piece of advice for novel writing, which is that you should cut the first 40% of what you’ve written, because it’s really you finding your way through the plot and figuring out your voice. And I believe that’s exactly what happened with Crime and Punishment. I think that if it received another round of editing, this novel would be a lot shorter and even some of the events would happen in a different order.  For example, the chapter upon chapter of Raskolnikov wandering around with the precious objects and being stressed out about people finding out what he’s done could be entirely removed, or at the very least placed after he finds out there’s a detective searching for the perpetrator. Once he knows that the police are searching, there’s urgency that can be added to all of these otherwise rather dull scenes at the beginning of the novel.  And obviously the relationship with Sonia was so sudden, one could say it was abrupt. They make sense together, and yet, he managed to get a woman’s life long devotion from one or two conversations?  No, they definitely needed more scenes together. Maybe talking about unrelated things so that we could explore their character in relation to each other, rather than almost exclusively in relation the plot.

 As I begin to live life outside of university, a new rule, a new criteria for what makes a novel great is starting to dawn on me.  It’s rather subjective and maybe that’s why it took me graduating to come upon it, but here it is and you can decide if you like it or not.

If your mind constantly returns to what happened to the novel and begins to make connections or deepen in on questions,  I think that’s a mark of a good novel. War and Peace, which I was initially a little disappointed in, ended up growing on me immensely, to the point where only a few months after completing the giant thousand page novel, I already want to return to it. To lesser extent, Crime and Punishment is making me think about it, and I think that’s why I returned a couple weeks after finishing it to write this review. As of right now, I give the novel a 3.4/5. Maybe in the future I’ll read it a second time and come to an even greater appreciation, which is one of my older criteria for what makes a novel great: that it’s even better on subsequent encounters. I hope you enjoyed this, and welcome any other opinions in the comments.

Daniel Triumph.

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