How to Save a Life

A friend dubbed March “Giant Russian Novel Month” and challenged anyone who wants to join her in reading a giant Russian novel. I chose Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

[this review contains spoilers, as usual, so here’s your warning.]

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This psychological novel quickly swept me up with its cat and mouse, murderer/detective game, kind of along the lines of Tom Hanks and Leonardo diCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. The protagonist is 23-year-old Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished but talented student in St. Petersburg who murders a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. Even though he is poor and has dropped out of school, he doesn’t do the crime for the money. The few trinkets he steals from the pawnbroker, along with her unopened purse, he hides under a rock.

It was the perfect murder with no evidence to catch him, yet Raskolnikov is tormented by his conscience. I think this is the punishment the title refers to more than the legal punishment that comes at the end of the book. It’s almost like Raskolnikov wants the detective Porfiry, who’s been assigned to his case, to come right out and accuse him—to put him out of its misery. And yet Raskolnikov lives off of secrecy and deception. Hence the cat-and-mouse-game.

Raskolnikov finally confesses the murder to Sonya. Sonya is a young woman, deeply religious, who is forced into prostitution to keep her highly dysfunctional family afloat (three young siblings, an alcoholic father, and a raging stepmother). It is her family that Raskolnikov gives the last of his money to (not the stolen money) when he hears about their suffering. It is one of his few beautiful acts throughout the novel, complicating our aversion to him.

Incidentally, Sonya is a fascinating character in the novel because her prostitution is consistently separated from her character. Somehow, the dehumanizing transaction she’s in has not tainted her pure spirit. She’s a Christ-like figure, actually. Her role made me ask: Can you be involved in something like that and not have it define who you are? I think yes. Can the same thing be said for Raskolnikov?

Raskolnikov is one of those bright young intellectuals who gets carried away with a theory that has no grounding in reality (characters refer to him as a “monomaniac.”) He divides the world into two groups: ordinary and extraordinary men. According to him, extraordinary men can step over the law (even going as far as murder) if it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose. Their brilliance allows them to think new thoughts that the majority of people don’t understand, yet in stepping over certain obstacles, they do something “salutary for the whole of mankind” and gain glory. Raskolnikov cites Napoleon Bonaparte as one of these extraordinary men. As you can imagine, Raskolnikov believes himself to be one of these men, too.

He justifies the murder, saying, “It wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!”

And when he does admit he killed a human, he tries to minimize his crime:

“I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless, nasty, pernicious louse.”

“A human being—a louse!”

But then he admits to her that he’s lying. “I’ve been lying for a long time.”

Raskolnikov is one of the most conflicted characters I’ve encountered in literature. He doesn’t know what’s up and down, and how can he if he’s been lying to himself so long he can’t tell the difference between ground and sky?

When his sister Dunya finds out about his crime, she asks another character in the novel, “How can you save him?” And then the follow-up question lurking in the shadows: “Can he be saved?”

This seems to be the question Dostoevsky is asking throughout Crime and Punishment.

Even after Sonya urges Raskolnikov to turn himself in (which he eventually does), he still isn’t remorseful. Remorseful that his theory about being one of the extraordinary men didn’t turn out as he expected, yes, but not remorseful for murdering two humans. It’s almost like he’s mad his conscience works so well, that it won’t let him carry on with his life unhindered.

Of course there is a problem with him if he had.

I was still left wondering if Raskolnikov is repentant when we see him, in the epilogue, working at a labour camp in Siberia (he was given 8 years). Sonya follows him there on her own volition. In a beautiful scene at the end, he throws himself down at her feet, weeping. She realizes he loves her, at last. She’s loved him for a long time already.

In rereading this scene, I wonder if Raskolnikov’s repentance is implied in his ability to love Sonya, because it’s difficult (I’d say impossible) to love another if your heart is hard and closed.

Indeed, Dostoevsky gives us his answer to Dunya’s question in these lines:

They wanted to speak but could not. Tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin, but in those pale, sick faces there already shone the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life. They were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

For a man who used words to lie and reason his life away, Raskolnikov’s silence and tears are perhaps the truest response he could have.

After his epiphany with Sonya, Raskolnikov returns to his barracks, lies in bed and thinks: “Did not everything have to change now?”

I wrote in pencil in the margin: yes.

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