All you need to know about the books you meant to read
This week: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment
Saturday 18 November 1995
In St Petersburg, the impoverished student Raskolnikov trudges through the grimy streets "with a heart exacerbated by theories". He imagines himself a Napoleon, beyond moral law.
He visits an old woman moneylender and meets the drunken pitiful Marmeladov whose angelic daughter, Sonia, has sold herself into prostitution.
To escape his misery and poverty, Raskolnikov randomly murders the moneylender with a hatchet. Her sister returns unexpectedly and is greeted with the same treatment.
Raskolnikov is then pursued by his conscience and the magistrate Porfiry. Our anti-hero returns to the scene of his crime and his soul begins to awaken. Porfiry, certain of his guilt, waits for him to confess.
Sonia, acting as intercessor, shows Raskolnikov the path of penitence and redemption. She follows him as he goes to the police to own up and then on to Siberia where he is sent to pay for his sin. The novel closes uncertainly with Raskolnikov hoping for "new life".
Theme: Raskolnikov comes to the painful discovery of his own conscience and of God's mercy; no matter how psychologically perverse, the individual is always capable of redemption. The book also seeks to show that in a predominantly evil-seeming world, goodness endures and triumphs: Christian belief is a living force of purification.
Style: Fantastic realism. Dostoyevsky defamiliarises everyday surroundings, laying on his frenetic sentences like thick oil paint to create three- dimensional hallucinations.
What they thought of it then: Dostoyevsky always has a close band of intelligent supporters - although there were complaints (from Tolstoy, among others) that he was too keen to slither along in the muck and tended to be a bit of a ghoulish ham.
What we think of it now: Its status as undisputed classic has tamed the book. Modern critics tend to sanitise Dostoyevsky's insights by sprinkling on a good dose of historical perspective and banging on about Nihilism.
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