So (as I’m sure I’ve made it abundantly clear over the last few weeks) Crime and Punishment is my absolute favorite book. As I’ve said before, it’s my bellweather. It’s helped me define what literature is to me, and it’s a big–maybe the main–reason I love literature enough to have made it my major.
That being said, I don’t think it’s an easy read. And I don’t think it will, or even should, be everyone else’s favorite book. My tastes can run morbid, and I value characters and psychology much more than I value plot. I know this.
I also know that everyone has different preferences. And I know there are several blockades that make this book less accessible then most people’s regular reads, such as language difficulties due to century of publication and unfamiliar customs/naming conventions (unless you’re Russian, of course).
But I think, with guidance, everyone can appreciate what Crime and Punishment brings to the table. You can understand why it’s stuck around this long, and you can have some really, really great conversations about it with interesting people. You don’t have to like it as much as I do, but I think I can help you extract value from reading it.
Questions coming up. First, the most important thing to making Crime and Punishment more accessible: keeping track of who’s who.
Russian Naming Conventions
It’s really hard to keep who’s who straight because everyone has at least four names (well, in the sense that us Anglofolk have two or three names–a first, a last, and possibly a nickname). And Russians have seemingly endless combinations of those names.
I can’t recommend this enough: say the characters’ names aloud in your head. Like, sound them out, syllable by syllable. It really helps keep them straight in your head.
(That’s kind of a cool name.)
Also, this (adapted and then quoted from a U Virginia site) will help you understand the names better:
Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov
Rodion = first name
Romanovich = patronymic
Raskolnikov = family name
Russian names generally consist the three parts: the first or given name, the patronymic, and the last or family name. The patryonymic is created by taking the given name of a person’s father and adding a suffix to it. This suffix means “son of” or “daughter of.” Thus the patronymic takes a different form for men than it does for women. The most common men’s suffixes are -ovich or -evich while for a woman they are -ovna or -evna.
Russians call each other by first name and patronymic. Often, however, Russians will use a shortened form of the first name, a diminutive that connotes more familiarity. Often friends and children will be addressed in this way. One can think of the patronymic and name being equivalent to “Mr. So and So” in our culture.
So calling Raskolnikov “Rodion Romanovich” is like calling him “Mr. Raskolnikov” in the English-speaking world. His dad’s name is Roman. So his sister, who is most often called Dounia, has the patronym “Romanova” as a female version of the dad’s name. But a person not close to her would call her by her non-nickname first name and patronymic, Avdotya Romanova.
Women are never called by their last name. For instance, Dounia isn’t who we think of when we say Raskolnikov, but that’s her last name as well. So Katarina Marmeladov is (obviously) a Marmeladov, but when “Marmeladov” is mentioned as a character in the book, it’s a reference to the patriarch.
Questions to consider while reading Crime and Punishment
There are no cut-and-dry answers to these questions, which, in my mind, is what makes the book so great.
*Note: I consider these questions spoiler-free, unless you consider the murder of the pawnbroker a spoiler. If you’re picking up Crime and Punishment and you don’t know the main character is going to kill a pawnbroker…um, sorry for that. You would have figured it out pretty soon, though. I promise.
1. This is my favorite question, so it’s going first on the list.
Raskolnikov gives a number of reasons throughout the novel for killing the pawnbroker, especially when he goes to visit Sonia the second time. Some of them are clearly just not true. Others are more plausible. The one most often believed is his idea that he is somehow the embodiment of Nietzsche’s idea of the ubermench, or superman, who is above the common man and therefore need not abide by their rules. If you believe this, then Raskolnikov killed to prove to himself that he was, indeed, above the common man and would not suffer their common consequence, including guilt or remorse. Do you think that’s the real reason? What evidence would you give for what you think?
2. Does the guilt Raskolnikov feels manifest itself in ways you imagine guilt would? Is it guilt that he is experiencing, or is it something else? If it is guilt, why was he so disturbed before the murder as well? Was the thought of killing tearing him apart, or is he mentally unbalanced in a different way?
3. I would argue that 90 percent of the characters in the novel are delusional. Raskolnikov has literal delusions in the form of hallucinations, but he also holds broader, more philosophical delusions. Katerina has delusions. Raskolnikov’s mother certainly has delusions. Think of Sonia. Svidrigailov. Razumihin. What is each character’s particular delusion? What role does the delusion play in helping them cope or destroying them? Are any of the delusions healthy?
4. Think about Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse and the way he spends his money. Is Raskolnikov a compassionate person? Or is simply ruled by impulses that swing more wildly than those of most people? Is it too complicated a question to answer?
5. Does Raskolnikov seek absolution or credit for what he did? Both?
6. Both the pawnbroker and her innocent, good-hearted sister are murdered. One might think that the focus of the novel would be on the death of the innocent woman, and that this would be the murder that troubles Raskolnikov the most. Yet, she seems not to be the focal point at all. Why is Raskolnikov’s guilt and the murder of the pawnbroker such that the sister is just a byproduct, not the true tragedy?
Here’s the real question: is it important to the novel that Raskolnikov feels the way he feels after killing a pretty awful person that did more harm than good?
7. If you were going to argue that Raskolnikov was a good person, what would you use as evidence?
If you were going to argue Raskolnikov was a bad person, what would you use as evidence?
What does it mean that you could make a good argument for either side?
8. Svidrigailov. Is he evil? Are you glad when he is no longer in the picture? If not, why? Either way, why do you think he departs from the novel the way he does?
9. It’s tempting to think this a story about redemption through suffering, especially by the end–a very Christian theme indeed. The most religion-focused family is the Marmeladov family. There’s Katerina’s blasphemous rejection of it near the end, Sonia’s embrace of it, Marmeladov’s love of his righteous punishment, almost like self-flagellation (and his “confession” to Raskolnikov in the bar in beginning of the book). Does anyone have the right of it? Do any of them wind up the better for it?
10. Do you find the ending–either the non-epilogue or epilogue version–satisfying? Was there a better way to end it? Does anything remain unresolved, in your mind?
11. What do you think of the women in the novel? Why are they all so self-sacrificial? Do you think it’s cultural, or do you think it says something about the author?
12. Would you argue that Raskolnikov would be in a different state of mind and would have perhaps chosen another path if he were less broken by poverty, hunger, and illness? Or is it simply his personality that makes him who he is? Any evidence for your reasoning?
These are just a few of the things I like to contemplate as I read. There’s so many more questions worth exploring. But I hope this gives you a launching pad and that wondering about these questions along with me makes your experience reading Crime and Punishment more meaningful.