I’ve had reason to return to the book that embodies everything I love about literature, and I’m so happy to come home.
Though I’ve read the book countless times, it’s been years since I picked it up. A friend (greetings, Mark!) had expressed interest in reading it after I had spent a ridiculous amount of time verbally swooning over the mastery of Dostoyevsky at his best. I think the experience of reading Crime and Punishment can be enhanced if some considerations are floating around as you read, so I went to draw a few food-for-thought questions up for him. (At the end of my Crime and Punishment posts, I’ll copy those here for interweb posterity.) But I realized, as I was typing out my “things to think about” list, that I was writing from too great a distance. A few of the names were fuzzy, and I’m sure there were huge passages that I wasn’t even considering. So I thought I’d break it out again. And I am in heaven. Well, in as much heaven as you can be in while reading a heartwrenching book.
I’m barely in, and I already have so much to write about that I had to narrow it down to one topic. Knowing where Dostoyevsky is going with the book makes me notice so many more things. The replay value on a book like this is incredible.
But my topic today is prejudicial language, and if you could humor me and decouple the pejorative nature of the phrase’s contemporary usage for one second, I think I can convince you why prejudicial language is a glorious thing.
One of my food-for-thought Crime and Punishment questions, as you’ll see when I post my list, is this: If prompted to argue that Raskolnikov is a good person or a bad person, why you could make a pretty decent case for either scenario? And I think what I’m really asking about in that question goes back to the complexity of the novel. Crime and Punishment masters complexity–it pretty much owns the rights to the word and, if it weren’t public domain, someone could be suing me right now. And reading just the first few pages, I can see how Dostoyevsky is setting it all up.
There are a few crimes that most everyone, save deviants, can agree on as fundamentally repulsive. Murder turns most people off pretty reliably, from a moral standpoint. If you read a news brief titled, “Young Man Kills Old, Helpless Woman and Waifish, Charitable Sister with Axe,” wouldn’t you immediately be inclined to engage in polarized thinking? One party in the right and one in the wrong, one good and one evil? So Dostoyevsky has to fight the natural prejudice, which is for us to be inclined against Raskolnikov, with counter-prejudicial language to make the story complex. More on why that matters later.
As I’m reading just the first few pages, my sympathy for the broken, tortured Raskolnikov is immediately established, and I know why. It’s because of language like this:
“All worked painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves” (Sorry for no page numbers–Kindle citing.)
I already feel sorry for him.
“…the young man’s refined face.”
He isn’t some brute. In fact…
“He was, by the way, exceptionally handsome”
Seriously, though. We often sympathize more with people that we are attracted to than people we find hideous, and the passage that follows allows us to picture him. We now have a real human being–a good-looking one–in our heads that we can feel something toward.
“He was crushed by poverty, but the anxieties of his position has of late ceased to weigh on him…his ideas were sometimes in a tangle and…he was very weak; for two days he had scarcely tasted food. He was so badly dressed that even a man accustomed to shabbiness would have been ashamed to be seen in the street in such rags.”
So he’s handsome but not vain. And horribly poor. And possibly starving to the point of hallucination. Sympathy. But, regarding the hallucinations, Dostoyevsky’s provided window into Raskolnikov’s thought life reveals not a lunatic, but a very serious, philosophical young man whose thoughts are made disjointed by any number of things–poverty, hunger, depression or perhaps something worse. Speaking of which…
“He had forgotten the note of that bell, and now its peculiar tinkle seemed to remind him of something and to bring it clearly before him…he started, his nerves were terribly overstrained by now”
PTSD wasn’t a term used until recently, and even before then, it was really only after soldiers returned from WWI with “shell shock” that the condition was found noteworthy. But Dostoyevsky seemed to know of its existence before it had a name (which is understandable if you know anything about his life). He seems to be hinting at symptoms of it here. Sympathy increasingly garnered.
“Raskolnikov was not used to crowds, and…he avoided society of every sort, more especially of late. But now all at once he felt a desire to be with other people…he was so weary after a whole month of concentrated wretchedness and gloomy excitement that he longed to rest, if only for a moment, in some other world, whatever it might be”
So although Raskolnikov is clearly a hermit crab, he has moments when he is filled with the desire to reach out to others, to make a human connection.
Tell me you don’t feel something for the young man in the “Kills Old, Helpless Woman with Axe” headline now. You don’t have to think what he did was okay. But you understand that it isn’t as good vs evil as it appears at first glance. And, sure, Dostoyevsky has done this on purpose. He made his character handsome, poor, tortured, frazzled. He tries to prejudice you in Raskolnikov’s favor in many ways. But (1) if he didn’t, you would be immediately prejudiced the opposite way. And (2) he is trying to paint a picture of a complex world with complex human beings living in it.
Now, expanding to broader level…what is the value of the complexity? Why does this help make Crime and Punishment such a beautiful book? Because it’s all of us. You can get the more cheery version of this through Whitman’s passages in “Song of Myself” about containing multitudes, and I sure won’t knock one who rejoices in it and wants to have a complexity party. But what I love about Crime and Punishment is that so much that happens in this world is painful and unfair, and it causes us make weird and horrifying decisions in order to protect ourselves, punish ourselves, and prove to ourselves that the world makes sense. It makes us contradictory. It makes situations impossible to boil down to a headline like “Young Man Kills Old Woman with Axe.”
The reason I love Crime and Punishment is because it makes me feel connected with others. I understand people because I can’t possibly understand them. They contain multitudes, and sometimes those multitudes are unfathomable–an impossible-seeming combination of beautiful, terrible things. Crime and Punishment makes me love people in real life because of the complicated creatures they are. Raskolnikov embodies a world of contradictions, and it’s eerie-accurate. It’s why I love human beings. It’s why I hate them. It’s why I love me and hate me. The book just does the complexity of real people so perfectly.
This is my favorite, favorite, favorite book and I have lots of feels because of it. Because of that, this post is as mushy as you will ever see me get. Except for my other posts about Crime and Punishment…
So far, I’m halfway through chapter two. So if I were you and I hated squishy-love-hate-human-connection talk, I might tune out for the next 30 posts or so.
Before this, I blew through Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City (WOW) and John Green’s Paper Towns (very good, but not as good as Looking for Alaska). I was going to write about both, especially Emerald City. I speculate that short story writing is some form of witchcraft because I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone can do it, let alone do it like Egan. I’ll get there one day, maybe, but I sense a lot of Crime and Punishment talk in my future.