Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reflections: Crime and Punishment

Someone once asked me what classifies a book as a classic, jeering that most classics were merely outdated books written in another era and that they gained their exotic title because of merely ascribing their dense text to literary significance. Reading a classic is an experience, and I decided to save my breath trying to argue about an experience which clearly the other person hadn't felt. In all the scores of books I've read, very few have had the intensity to suck me into their depths, where I merge with the characters, their thoughts flowing in parallel with mine, the world shifting with every turn of the page. When the last page is turned and I struggle to yank myself out of the surreal world, and when the words and the intensity remain etched in me, the book was not just read, but lived. Crime and Punishment is one such a book. No matter how many times I read the passages, the words don't tire me; I only gain a new understanding and live a whole new feeling.

I first read the book as a teenager, and the book was so powerful in its intensity that I fell in love with it. I'm sure that not every page, nor every paragraph made sense to me, for this is a book that has to be read many times before every ounce of wisdom and truth in it can be felt and understood. Despite being too young to grasp the whole book, it captivated me. After all these years, when I finally am at a phase where I question the meaning of morality, the concept of sin and crime and the true limits of our rationality, Crime and Punishment was the most apt book for me to re-read. Rereading the book has only amplified my reverence for it and I'm glad that I could glean more wisdom from it this time. But I know I still haven't got everything from the book, and rereading it is an exercise to undertake again in another few years.

Raskolnikov, a young student in the grips of utter poverty, tries to rationalize the meaning of crime. He convinces himself to murder an old, miserly pawn-broker, originally with the intent to rob her and put the money to good use, helping his family climb out of the rut of poverty. But as he sets out to execute the crime, something in him doesn't agree with his will, yet he brings himself to murder the old woman, and her sister, who unfortunately happens to enter the scene. Raskolnikov faces a lot of ordeal in trying to escape the scene of crime, but thanks to a streak of luck, he manages to scurry out. Although his grand scheme hinged on the loot he would rob, he somehow didn't have any interest in robbing, and in his fluster, he carelessly scooped in some random trinkets and some odd money. Even this little loot, he buries under a stone and has no interest in touching them. He spends the next few days in fever and hallucinations, driving himself insane on why he committed the crime, if he still justified the crime, or if he should confess it all to give himself some peace.

How curious a man...he commits a crime that he thinks is not a crime, and yet he can't be in peace. He is skeptical about God, his intellect and rational mind assuages him that he merely killed a parasitic old woman who was tricking the poor and collecting their hard-earned money, that the money he robbed could give himself a new future, save his family and help him do much more good to the people of Petersburg than he ever could as a law-abiding citizen residing in a little hole of filth with not even enough money to wash and feed himself. Despite the logical arithmetic of killing two to save many, there was something in him that wouldn't stop nagging him -  his conscience. Here is where I merged with Raskolnikov. Although I am not contemplating any dire crime, I can relate to his qualms of stepping over the barriers to do something unconventional and extraordinary. And no matter how many hours, days, weeks, months and years are spent in trying to straighten out the logic and the rationality of it all, something never quietens. And there is no way out. Raskolnikov couldn't have walked away without executing his actions, neither could he be at peace after his actions. Having stuck oneself in the horns of a moral-dilemma, there is no painless way out. And the scars are deep and will remain. It just becomes a matter of which horn to gouge oneself with. And in Raskolnikov's case, he gouged himself through both horns.

And that is the essence of the book. It tests the limits of human conscience. It's a debate between the rational mind and the inexplicable voice of the conscience. Dostoevsky is a master analyst, and an astute psychologist. No matter how many times I have already talked about his perceptive genius, I can't tire. Here is an era wherein DNA fingerprinting and other sophisticated means of criminal investigation are unheard of. Yet, he weaves a suspenseful drama of how the crime is solved, with no material evidence...but all based on psychology. This is Dostoevsky's trademark... he used the same "double-edged sword of psychology" in the courtroom drama of The Brother's Karamazov. But in this book, he doesn't go into as much explicit analysis.

He propounds a thesis on what makes a man extraordinary. What made the great Kings and leaders who are now immortal in the history of Mankind, so great? They could break rules and make their own. They didn't subject themselves to the letter of the law. They were brave enough to rise above it, to realize that certain rules need to be broken, that morality has to be redefined in their hands, and that only their essence needs to seep through for them to murder a few to save millions, and still have a peaceful conscience. Those who can't step over such man-made pickets of rules, who are unable to see such moral clarity and act with conviction, are but ordinary. Raskolnikov strove to be such an extraordinary man, but failed. He failed despite his intellect, and despite his lack of faith in God. I marvel at Dostoevsky's deftness in glorifying humanity, no matter what decision Raskolnikov took. He stresses on the innate goodness residing in all men, despite their efforts to rationalize crime and be blind to retribution from a higher authority.

Through his other characters, he also compares the shades of legality and morality, and how each measures the goodness in a person. There are many men who circumvent and stay clever and obedient in the eyes of the law, yet their moral character is far more loathsome than a person like Raskolnikov, who goes against law and commits the highest "sin" - murder. Conscience is one factor, the other is the intention. Many philosophers and spiritualists have emphasized that an action by itself cannot be classified as good or bad... it is the intent behind it, and the purpose it serves. This is cleverly brought out in the book.

Another aspect that comes out is, how the murder affects Raskolnikov physically and mentally. The weight of his conscience and his immense resistance to the crime makes Raskolnikov feverish and delirious. These physical manifestations imply the psychosomatic effects of his inner tempest. Dostoevsky hints at how a person physically and mentally wears out every time he works against his conscience. This reminded me of the Horcruxes in Harry Potter. In my interpretation, this is exactly what Rowling also seems to imply. Every time Voldemort commits a horrendous crime, his entire soul suffers and splits into pieces, so much so that he deteriorates in both spirit and body.

As I mentioned, I'm sure there is perhaps more to the book that I have missed and need to re-read. But such is the beauty of this classic. It analyzes all the multiple complex facets of morality, crime and punishments, packed into words that are so impassioned and vivid. Truly a masterpiece.


Sanjini said...

Is this book a non fiction book or a work of fiction which tries to convey some meaning? To be honest I am not a big fan of books talking about crime. However based on your description the concept seems very interesting.

Your post also made me introspect on what makes a book a classic. It is very much dependant on how much the reader identifies with the book.

Your post made me very introspective after I read it.

Neeraja said...

Crime & Punishment is a Russian Literary work of fiction and a celebrated classic. It explores the meaning of morality, right versus wrong, what defines a virtue versus a crime etc. It's not a gory mystery on a crime, or the nature of crime. It's a contemplative book on morality.