Thursday, June 16, 2011

Literary Bite: Crime and Punishment

If you have a challenge-loving book club like mine, you may want to consider reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s one of those impressive books to have read, and really isn’t as punishing as it sounds. At about 600 pages (depending on your translation) it’s long, but the story miraculously sucks you in and moves along, despite the fact that nothing really happens.

I’m presenting Crime and Punishment at my book club meeting this weekend, so here’s my discussion guide for your enjoyment…

"Can evil means justify honorable ends?"

Crime and Punishment is Dostoyevsky’s second full-length novel, and the first thing he published after his time in a Siberian prison camp (his name is pronounced dahs-tuh-YEF-skee). It was originally supposed to be about drunkenness (titled The Drunkards), but Dostoyevsky decided to focus instead on a murderer's first-person confession, making his original theme ancillary*.

It was originally published over the course of a year in 1886 as a series in The Russian Messenger.
About Dostoyevsky:

Dostoyevsky grew up in a middle-class family in Moscow. His father, a doctor, was a tyrant toward his family, and his mother was a mild, pious woman who died before Dostoyevsky was sixteen. At his father's insistence, Dostoyevsky trained as an engineer in St. Petersburg. While the youth was at school, his father was murdered by his own serfs at the family's small country estate. Dostoyevsky rarely mentioned his father's murder, but Oedipal themes are recurrent in his work, and Sigmund Freud suggested that the novelist's epilepsy was a manifestation of guilt over his repressed wish for his father's death.

Dostoyevsky graduated from engineering school but chose a literary career. In 1848 Dostoyevsky joined a group of young intellectuals, led by Mikhail Petrashevsky, which met to discuss literary and political issues. In the reactionary political climate of mid-nineteenth-century Russia, such groups were illegal, and in 1849 the members of the so-called Petrashevsky Circle were arrested and charged with subversion. Dostoyevsky and several of his associates were imprisoned and sentenced to death. As they were facing the firing squad, an imperial messenger arrived with the announcement that the Czar had commuted the death sentences to hard labor in Siberia for ten years. This scene was to haunt the novelist the rest of his life. His intense study of the New Testament, the only book the prisoners were allowed to read, contributed to his rejection of his earlier liberal political views and led him to the conviction that redemption is possible only through suffering and faith, a belief which informed his later work.

Crime and Punishment is the novel in which Dostoyevsky first develops the theme of redemption through suffering.
Russian names are notoriously tricky, everyone has at least two, and they are used interchangeable, often making Russian literature difficult to follow (remember Anna K.? And The Master and Margarita? That book nearly killed LLC.)

Name Word Meaning (in Russian)
  • Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov - raskol - a schism, or split; "raskolnik" is "one who splits" or "dissenter"; the verb raskalyvat' means "to cleave", "to chop","to crack","to split" or "to break"
  • Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin - luzha - a puddle
  • Dmitri Prokofich Razumikhin - razum - rationality, mind, intelligence
  • Alexander Grigorievich Zamyotov - zametit - to notice, to realize
  • Andrey Semyenovich Lebezyatnikov - lebezit - to fawn on somebody, to cringe
  • Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov - marmelad - marmalade/jam
  • Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov - Svidrigailo - a Lithuanian duke of the fifteenth century
  • Porfiry Petrovich - Porphyry - (perhaps) named after the Neoplatonic philosopher
Discussion Questions:
  1. For more than a century, critics have argued about the book's message: Is it a political novel? A tale of morality? A psychological study? A religious epic?
  2. The crime itself is only given a few pages, and the actual punishment isn’t addressed until the epilogue…so what is the novel about?
  3. Who is the real criminal? Marmeladov, for abandoning his family? Luzhin for exploiting Dunya? Svidrigailov for murdering his wife? Sonya for prostituting herself? The greedy pawnbroker whom Roskolnikov murdered?
  4. Who among us is not a criminal? Who among us has not attempted to impose his or her will on the natural order?
  5. The novel was originally written in first person, why do you think Dostoyevsky decided to change it into third? How did the POV affect the telling of the story?
  6. Sonya and Raskolnikov have one thing in common – they share the same feelings of shame and alienation. Compare and contrast their circumstances that lead them to this shared feeling. How does this bring them together? Why does Raskolnikov confess to her?
  7. Raskolnikov wavers between wanting to confess his crime, and desperately hoping to get away with it. Why?
  8. Raskolnikov has a theory that some people have a right to commit crimes, and are somehow above the law. He argues that with the pawnbroker's money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of a worthless parasite. He also commits this murder test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of, and even have the right to, do such things. Can you think of any modern-day examples of this attitude?
  9. Discuss Roskolnikov's theory of the ordinary versus the extraordinary man.
  10. Compare the characters of Roskolnikov, Luzhin, and Svidrigailov. How is each of these men a "villain," and to what extent are they guilty? How does each man face his guilt, and how does each suffer for it?
  11. Compare the major female characters: Sonya, Dunya, Katerina Ivanovna. Do you think they are well-rounded characters or stereotypes? How does each figure in Roskolnikov's actions?
  12. Later, in confessing the murder to Sonya, Roskolnikov claims, "Did I really kill the old woman? No, it was myself I killed.... And as for the old woman, it was the Devil who killed her, not I." (p. 488) What does he mean by this? Why doesn't the confession ease him of his inner torment?
  13. Does the fact that Roskolnikov never uses the money he stole from the pawnbroker make him less-or more-guilty? Why do you think he never recovers the stolen items or cash?

*Ancillary - ajd. auxiliary; assisting.