I started a tradition a few years ago of reading one classic novel a year. Some of the novels I've read over the past few years include Charles Dicken's David Copperfield, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and John Knowle's A Separate Peace. This year I chose Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
For years I've heard that not only was Dostoevsky a Christian, but he is also considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. To be labeled a classic novelist puts a person in a pretty elite class, but in this case the label isn't wasted. Crime and Punishment delivers.
The story is about a brilliant, but conflicted student striving to make his place in the world but is constrained by his impoverished background. The main character Raskolnikov develops a theory that the world is divided into two classes of men, inferior and superior. According to the theory, the superior class (which is an elite group of extremely rare individuals) isn't subject to the same laws as the inferior class because the superior class is able to contribute to society in ways that the inferior class can not by virtue of their intellect.
Early on in the novel, Raskolnikov decides to put his theory to the test by murdering a despised pawnbroker. Raskolnikov figures that the cynical, vile woman is a drain on society and, after all, her money and possessions can also be used to feed a lot of poor people. Since Raskolnikov is one of the superiors, his moral judgment is also superior, which makes him above the law. Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov fancies himself in the same category like a Napolean Bonaparte or a Russian general that makes a siege on a city for nationalistic interests. He figures that if generals can lay sieges on entire cities, killing whomever they please, for the purpose of advancing human civilization, then why can't he murder a useless old pawnbroker?
Herein lies the genius of the book. Crime and Punishment was published in 1866. Woven throughout the book are characters that represent the major ideological movements of his day--including capitalism and communism. By creating characters that intellectualize to the point of near insanity, Dostoevky virtually predicted the Cold War about 80 years ahead of its time. Even more importantly, he revealed the moral bankruptcy of people that spend too much time intellectualizing and not enough time mixing with real people with real problems.
Throughout the novel I kept asking myself if there was any hope for Raskolnikov? Will this young man finally see the error of his ways and repent? When is this guy going to get off his intellectual high horse and face up to the fact that he committed a horrible crime? Will Raskilnikov forever remained imprisoned in his own thoughts?
The answer may surprise you.
Read it and let me know what you think.