“Crime and Punishment”

[Spoilers alert.  But then, you probably already know the plot of this one.]

“‘Brother, what are you saying?’ Dunia cried out in despair, ‘You have shed human blood.’

‘Which they all shed,’ he interrupted, almost frantic.

‘Which cascades, and always has, down upon the earth like a waterfall, which they pour like champagne, and for which they are crowned on the Capitoline and called the benefactors of mankind…’” (499).

While I’ve mainly been reviewing science fiction and fantasy, I read many other types of books including “classic” literature.  For years, my spouse, who happens to be a Russophile, has recommended “Crime and Punishment” to me.  In all honesty, I barely knew anything going into the book, other than it’s about a murderer and the criminal justice system in Russia during the 1800s.  I happened to read the translation by Sidney Monas for no better reason than it was at the library.  Although this novel is from the 1800s, it remains relevant for analysis today.

The focus of this blog is the intersection of books, culture, and sociology.  “Crime and Punishment” was both a challenging and rewarding read for me, and I think that it’d be a good book for discussing many topics in an introduction to sociology class.  It’d be useful for comparing and contrasting the judicial system in the US today with that of Russia in the 1800s.  For example, what is true punishment?  Is rehabilitation possible?  It’d also be a useful book for discussing early field of psychology in terms of looking at obsession.  Does a psychological, sociological, or religious framework work better for discussing why people commit crimes?

It’d also be an excellent book for considering how the structure of the society around the characters leads to feelings of alienation from themselves, others, and society at large.  Since “Crime and Punishment” looks at the rapid social changes happening in the period, it be a great way of discussing the concept of anomie.  There is a sense of normlessness in the society that leads to many people attempting to commit suicide.  This book was published before Durkheim’s work on called “Suicide,” but it represents many of the ideas well.  It’d be possible to relate some of these ideas to our time period, too.  With rapid globalization, changing technologies, and many fluctuating social norms, people today may also be inclined to alienation.  If you are interested in reading more on this anomie and globalization, there are some interesting articles in this archive of The Global Sociology Blog.

Raskolnikov, the main character, and murderer, cites many reasons for his murder of a pawnbroker.  He murders her sister, too, when she returns too early while the murder is in progress.  The rest of the book is an exploration of what thoughts and theories led the character to commit these heinous acts.  Additionally, the novel is overtly religious.  It seems as if Dostoyevsky was making the argument that in a period of uncertainty and disorder that individuals need something to give their life meaning.  At the end of the novel, Raskolnikov starts to feel love for another character, Sonia, that also connects to Christianity.  After reading the book, I don’t feel that he was necessarily making the argument that religion is “real” but that it is important for people.  I’d love to hear what someone else thinks about this topic.

Finally, the novel would be great to illustrate social inequalities.  Social class is addressed extensively in the book, as well as gender.  Additionally, students might notice how there are threads of anti-semitism by some of the characters in the book.  Tensions between characters of different ethnicities is apparent, too.  “Crime and Punishment” is an emotionally challenging read, but it is a riveting book of both psychological and sociological importance.


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Filed under Book Reviews, Classics, Sociology

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