Raskolnikov, a former student, having discontinued his studies through lack of money, lives a bitterly impoverished life in St Petersburg. His pride is wounded by receiving small amounts of money from his mother and sister living in the country. He hears from his mother that his sister has recently left her post as a governess in scandalous circumstances. She is rescued by an offer of betrothal by a wealthy local man, and accepts in the interests of financial security rather than any trace of affection. This dilemma mirrors his own, caused by his poverty. To break out of this situation he decides to murder and rob a local pawnbroker, which he does, killing the woman’s sister along the way.
His state of mind during this killing, and thereafter during the months of the investigation of the crime, is the focus of this novel. The author reveals this to us mainly through the narrator’s commentary. While the murder – with an axe – is brutally described, Raskolnikov never reflects on the details of his crime or expresses any remorse. Nevertheless the psychological trauma of the event cannot be suppressed, and he falls ill, and behaves in such as way as to arouse the suspicions of the police and his family and friends. He is blessed with very steadfast friends and family who stand by him, believing in his inherent goodness, right through to the end of the novel. Raskolnikov lies to himself, suggesting that the murder was something he never really intended to do, while simultaneously showing us the detailed and devious preparation he has made for the murder. He could easily have avoided detection or capture if he had the will to do so. Instead he crumbles and confesses, and is sentenced to eight years in a Siberian labour camp, where he is followed by his adoring prostitute lover, Sonya.
This was not an easy read. The translation, for me, was wooden, and the original language must have been very intense and complex to have produced such turgid prose. It was a struggle to finish and there was little doubt all along about the outcome – the title tells us Raskolnikov is not going to avoid eventual capture and punishment. The tendency for each character to have multiple names only added to the confusion.
Reviewing “classics” is never easy, even less so when the novel is a translation, and much loved by many readers. The entry point is hard to find – one’s own reading and judgments risk being facile, plot summaries are available elsewhere online with much more detail than my memory can supply, and all that needs to be said has been said elsewhere, many times over. I prefer reviewing works that are less monolithic than this. But having read the novel it is in keeping with the spirit of this blog that I record some impressions, however simplistic.
The idea that a novel can be driven by a character who is both a murderer and someone the reader is invited to identify with, even like, was a dramatic shift from a world where only black and white positions existed, with no scope for any shades of grey. I couldn’t warm to Raskolnikov, and as a result I found less and less of the novel to engage with. I did finish, but it was a challenge.