Monday, September 16, 2013

Teaching Crime and Punishment

by Julia Buckley

I've written here before about one of my favorite books, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.  I first read it in high school, then again in college, then again in grad school.  I've taught it at the high school level for many years, and I even included it significantly in my novel, THE GHOSTS OF LOVELY WOMEN. So why, you may wonder, am I so smitten with a 19th century Russian novel?

Because, my friends, it has everything. It's a mystery, a psychological tale, a Shakespearean homage (Raskolnikov is Dostoevsky's answer to HAMLET), a love story, a story of faith, a story of doubt, a tale of redemption and loss, a police procedural, a story of police profiling, an examination of obsession and paranoia--and a story of friends and family.

The premise is this: a young man, (who is, Dostoevsky makes sure to note on the second page, VERY handsome), crushed by poverty and humiliated by the fact that he's had to drop out of law school for lack of money, is forced to sit in his garret in the stifling July heat.  He has not eaten in two days, and he has lost his job as a tutor, which only paid a pittance, because his clothing has been reduced to rags and he is no longer "respectable."  He is forced to witness, again and again, the suffering of the poor in the streets of St. Petersburg, and in order to survive he has been compelled to pawn one of the last things he has from his late father--a gold watch.

The pawn broker, a greedy old woman who squeezes the poor for their last drops of blood and then charges them interest, gives him very little for the watch.  He sees her as a roach, a louse, someone who increases the suffering of the rabble in the streets, and he wonders if humanity wouldn't benefit if someone killed her and re-distributed her amassed wealth back to the poor she took it from.  Starving, practically boiling to death in his hot attic room, he broods over this thought, and over the suffering of his mother and sister, who are poor and still living in a little country town, where they struggle to make money to send to him, their hero and the only man in their family, so that he can go back to school and make something of himself.

Under all of these pressures he poses this question: are some people, in fact, extraordinary men?  (Think of the theories of Hegel and Nietzsche and you have something close to his idea).  If so, then isn't he, perhaps, an extraordinary man?  He has a fine intellect, after all, and Fate has put him into the position of being poor and looking for some sort of salvation. Since he has rejected God as probably non-existent, he wonders if that salvation shouldn't come from himself.

And that is why Rodion Raskolnikov, at the beginning of the book, is contemplating a terrible crime . . . but what he chooses to do will change the course of his life and his family's, and it will test his intellect to its limits.

Sound interesting?  Give the book a try!! You'll like it.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, Dostoevsky's a great storyteller, but so are you! I can just see you sucking in generations of high school kids with that come-on. :)

Julia Buckley said...

Haha! Thanks, Liz. I do love to set up a tale, especially a tale worth telling.

Rosanne Dingli said...

It does make one wonder how this novel would be placed or categorized today. General fiction? Family saga? Mystery?
I write novels with similar inclusions - they are romantic art-history mysteries full of action and adventure and phsychological twists and turns.
I used to work with a publisher who found placing my work neatly in any one genre frustrating. Today, as an indie, I have trouble finding a category that will work for me.
Dostoevsky had no such trouble ... or rather, his novels today need no classification or genre to travel under.

Julia Buckley said...

Good point, Rosanne. I think he had to worry less about finding a "niche" and merely had to focus on writing something good.

Marina Sofia said...

One of my favourite books - and one that got me hooked on crime fiction, oddly enough, although of course it is about so much more. Like all really good books, it transcends genre.

Julia Buckley said...

I agree, Marina--I love the book more every time I read it.