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Stepping Over and Punishment

I just finished reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, having struggled with the novel for several months and putting it down for long stretches at a time. There were occasions when I would get through multiple chapters in one sitting, but typically I’d read two or three pages at night before becoming exhausted and falling asleep. Eventually I got far enough along where I committed myself to seeing it through, if only to be able to claim truthfully that I’d read the darn thing. The metaphorical dream sequences, Russian culture, and long monologues were difficult enough, but it was the names that really did me in. Not only are they difficult to pronounce, there are alternate names for several characters. The protagonist for example, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, is also referred to as Rodya, Rodenka and Rodka. Just getting him and his sister straight was like trying to memorize the lineup for a visiting baseball team. And there were so many elaborately wordy, extensive passages that I found myself trapped in similar internal conversations while performing menial, everyday tasks.

I should put this laundry in to dry. But why? It will dry eventually without my using the machine and I have no need for the clothes today. Why have I washed them in the first place? Had I not, I needn’t be having this drying debate. But of course, dry clothes are good, and why resist the process or enjoying their warm, softly-folded pleasures? And here – a sock! But what of its matching counterpart? Why worry when it will only be obscured by the hem of my trouser? .. etc. etc.

Obviously there’s more to the book than this, and thousands of professors, literary scholars, and ardent intellectuals can’t all be wrong. It asks some very compelling questions about morality and redemption; about what a person is capable of doing and then living with. But to read the novel in anything but its native language puts one at a disadvantage. For example – the Russian word for crime is “prestuplenie” and its literal translation is “stepping over.” This information alone changes the complexion of the work. Crime and Punishment looks at murder, and whether it is ever acceptable – not just in cases of retribution, but in ridding the world of a life which only subtracts. What if you know someone who compromises the lives of others in their every action? What if the person is so blind to the world beyond how it touches them, their mere existence sacrifices those closest to them? Is murder then justified? You’d likely have difficulty making your case before a judge.

A great novel works on much more than just the literal level, and is open to as many interpretations as a good song or a fine painting. My less than educated read left me with the impression that Raskolnikov eventually finds love and through it starts on the long path to redemption. This love and redemption comes through human connection, and while similar can’t be fit neatly or literally into the Christian sense introduced earlier in the novel. But there’s a strong chance that I’m wrong. And even if I’m not, I’m fairly certain I’ve contemplated some of these same ideas before, whether it was listening to a Hank Williams song, watching the George Burns movie Oh God, or slogging through the O.J. Simpson trial.

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