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Amber Paulen

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky's Madnesses

Last night I finished Crime and Punishment for the third time. I know I took away much more from this reading than I did the last two, which both happened over ten years ago. Dostoevsky is the author I’ve re-read most, alternating between his four big novels (The Brothers Karamazov, this one, The Idiot and Demons). I think this is because his novels, or better his characters are like a good black and white photograph: there is black, there is white and there is every grey in between. Each of the main characters are like this, and each of his novels are like this too, on a much larger scale.

The scale in Crime and Punishment has one end as love and on the other there is madness. The madnesses of Crime and Punishment are deliriums and they are often accompanied by fever. The mad characters speak in short, clipped, confused sentences and they act in the same way. The major madness of the novel is that of Raskolnikov, after he commits the murder (but there’s also madness in him before). It is difficult to tell, in him, what is a madness and what isn’t—maybe he’s always been like this, delirious, misanthropic, reserved, prone to wandering the streets. But then the madness also seems to be a throw back of that awful rationale that convinced him it was okay to murder in the first place.

It was the madnesses that I enjoyed most in this reading. I love how Dostoevsky makes them seem so normal. That when Raskolnikov’s mom flies into delirium herself, Raskolnikov tells his sister, “She’ll either die or lose her mind.” Most of the emotional pitch of the novel is kept reverberating here and is only swung in the other direction with the steady devotion of Sonya. But of course, her sanity can hardly be called sane either. And it is this pitch that makes the book a tragedy and at the same time lends it its comedy. How these two can reside so comfortably in one novel together was only for Dostoevsky to know how to do.


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