Friday, 30 January 2015

My crime, your punishment?

Crime and punishment

Our first reading group for 2015, and I had persuaded our group to read Crime and Punishment over summer, and to discuss! A select group met, with a number having read it as young adults at University, and others reading for the first time, with one keen member re-reading it and another deciding to read The Idiot instead. Those who had read it in their youth were quite affected by it, with the re reader declaring it did not quite have the same emotional impact for her as a later reader.

It was written in 1866, the year after Alice in Wonderland was written, and the same year as Dickens' last book, Our Mutual Friend. It was written in 12 parts in a magazine. 

I reported that I related Raskolnikov to my experience with psychosis and schizophrenia, with many similar symptoms displayed, including: Impulsiveness, delusion, paranoia, disorganisation, passive aggressive, self centred, unable to manage money. We agreed though that mental illness was not Dostoevsky's intention in writing the book, but the  book is described as a psychological drama, as it describes the action quite often from inside the head of the main character, describing his mood changes, uncertainties and irrational behaviour. 

We discussed the significance of the Superman idea, where there are those in the world to whom normal mores do not apply, and who can exert their superiority by their power over others, including the ultimate power, to murder others of less value. This was Raskolnikov's avowed reason for murdering the old pawnbroker, and he compared himself with Napoleon and others. However is Dostoevsky supporting this idea? Perhaps as the consequences of Raskolnikov's action unfolds, we see the flaws in this ideology. He was punished ultimately after he finally confessed, and then finally came to repent in the epilogue, under the influence of the saintly Sonia. Another reader suggested that his punishment was also in evidence throughout the book, as he was racked with anxiety, and fear of being uncovered, while still maintaining he was quite justified in the murder.

We compared Dostoevsky with Dickens, seeing them both as writing on a large scale, with a complex intertwining of characters, focussing on the lower classes, and revealing a lot about the social ills of the time. Dostoevsky wrote at a time when the impact of the emancipation of the serfs, flooding into the cities, but often living in great poverty was being felt. The impact of alcoholism was also clearly revealed through the Marmeladov family, where the father had been sacked twice from a well paid position, leaving his family in poverty, and forcing his daughter to become a prostitute. There was some debate about whether Dostoevsky was writing about the social times, and trying to raise awareness of some of the inequities and suffering of those who fall into poverty. He had a strong focus on ideas, and discussion about morals and religious ideas. 

We talked about Dostoevsky's portrayal of women, and his use of the saintly whore (Sonia), and the sacrificing sister and mother, whose role seems to be to take care of Raskolnikov as the son in the family.

Did we empathise with Raskolnikov? Most of us not totally. We are inside his head, and we see his mood changes, and his frailty, and his generosity. However in the end the murder served to alienate us as readers, and some of us were not convinced by his speedy redemption at the end. One member compared him with Macbeth, as he unravels following the murder.

The use of religious metaphors and the significance of religion in the book was shown as important, and in the end the hero is redeemed by the love of a good woman, and finally repents. However, the sense of nihilism, the chaos in society, the superman ideology indicate Dostoevsky was very affected by ideologies running at the time, including Darwinism and capitalism, which were challenging the dominance of religion. Dostoevsky was a Russian Orthodox, and in one of his later books: The Brothers Karamazov, he explores a range of religious questions, and seems in favour of Courts run by the Church rather than the state.

We looked at some of the challenges of the language, often in keeping track of the names, and their derivative forms. We also compared translations of the books we had, some reading the traditional translation by Constance Garnett, and others quite modern translations, which may have given the text more flow in reading, but in the sample we looked at did not greatly vary many of the words used. 

So most members were pleased to have read this significant work from world literature, even though we could spend a lifetime unravelling the many aspects of this great novel. Thanks Minerva members for indulging me, as I now continue my reading of The Brothers Karamazov! And there's much I have left out, so happy to take other input!