Book Ramblings: Crime and Punishment

I must admit that this is the first Russian classic that I’ve ever read in my entire career as a bookworm. This behemoth of a novel is certainly worth the read and is actually quite absorbing until, I would say, the last 50 pages of the agonizing finish. This is one of the books that I wish I had read in a college course and that I would sink my teeth into more if I were forced to write a paper on it, but since it is part of the reading for Colby College’s Great Books Summer Institute, fortunately I’ll have the chance to sit in on some good discussions of the novel.

The main character, Raskolnikov, is a complex study of an intellectual mind that struggles to justify the premeditated murder of an old cruel pawnbroker through reason and idealistic theories of utilitarianism. The anguish, mental illness, guilt, and inward suffering that follow the murder paint a sympathetic and very human picture of a man who has erred, whose familial and social relationships deteriorate as a result of his detachment, and who must ultimately pay for his dark deed by turning himself in to the authorities.  Even after sludging through the disturbed psyche that permeates the entire novel (but in a fascinating, can’t-put-this-down way), I was glad to find a small ray of sunshine in the love that Raskolnikov discovers in himself for Sonya, a former prostitute who stays by his side throughout his imprisonment and who garners the respect of other inmates because of her dedication to him.

I think one of the most fascinating and eerie bits of the novel happens towards the beginning of the novel even before the murder is committed, when Raskolnikov dreams of a childhood event. Interestingly enough, the dream contains autobiographical elements from Dostoevsky’s life. In the dream, the child Raskolnikov is walking with his father past a tavern when they happen upon a group of drunk men who decide to beat and kill an old mare as she tries to pull an impossible wagon-load of people. In a frenzy, the men take up crowbars, sticks, and whips to finish off the poor horse. As she dies, Raskolnikov shouts and runs to the mare, crying and kissing her muzzle in a childlike display of empathy for her senseless murder.

The dream foreshadows well the murder of the old crone and reveals to the reader the extent to which Raskolnikov’s subconscious is not that of a cold-blooded murderer but rather someone who was born with not only a conscience but an acute sense of compassion. We see these bouts of compassion in Raskolnikov in his acts of charity towards Marmeladov and also towards Sonya, but we also see aggressive and dark episodes in Raskolnikov’s behavior towards his mother and sister, perhaps because he is at a complete loss of how to possibly move forward with his life after the murder. Raskolnikov is a character who is volatile, disturbed, and ultimately confused by the decisions that he makes and his rationale for making them.

What is so engrossing about this novel is the intense psychological turmoil that the reader experiences through Raskolnikov’s engaging yet still slightly detached point of view, and also the insight that we get into the impoverished life and suffering of the characters. Also very interesting is the moment right before Raskolnikov actually commits the murder. The event of the murder, in his mind, would be the result of intellectual calculations and reasoning, and yet among his scattered thoughts, there is also the suggestion that this was not exactly a decision but rather a mechanical course of events that led him inevitably to the kill the old woman:

He walked in like a man condemned to death. He was not reasoning about anything, and was totally unable to reason; but he suddenly felt with his whole being that he no longer had any freedom either of mind or of will, and that everything had been suddenly and finally decided… The last day, which had come so much by chance and resolved everything at once, affected him almost wholly mechanically: as if someone had taken him by the hand and pulled him along irresistibly, blindly, with unnatural force, without objections.

Raskolnikov believes beforehand that if he maintains his cool rationality during and after the crime, he would not fall into the blunders of common criminals who get caught. Little does he know, however, that “this darkening of reason” would characterize his mental state leading up to the crime, during, and long after. Once he has made up his mind to follow through with his plan, Raskolnikov seems to no longer be functioning as a rational human being but rather as a cog caught in a wheel, which is ironic because the crime was conceived as a rational endeavor that would ultimately benefit many others.

I guess the most important questions I myself took from the novel were: Should the reader sympathize with Raskolnikov? Is that ultimately what the author would want? Is a pre-meditated crime, or anything which violates our innate moral codes, justifiable by any kind of philosophical theory or desire to help those closest to us? When is it that we should or should not approach our relationships and actions with reason as opposed to gut feeling, and is there a point at which reason leaves us after we’ve made irrevocable decisions? Would our lives benefit more from acting as creatures of the mind or of the heart?

Definitely a recommendable read for those who love long novels involving crime and the criminal’s tortured psyche. A tome though it may be, it’s actually highly engrossing, with different plot lines that all weave into the same one, and with vivid, believable characters that make the novel come alive.


After Botched Tarts

There is a secret to baking
which resembles the gardener’s
green thumb

the scientist’s measuring tools
with minute intervals
not enough to transform
sagging dough into dessert

when we were young
our plans to make strawberry shortcake
failed in a pool of brown soupy syrup

my grandfather peered
into the dish and politely poked
What is that?

this was after our grandmother
had died, who used to swell the house
with thick aromas of butter cookies

she was always seen with oven mitts
and studying the dizzying points
of a cross-stitch flower
or cutting the portholes to paper ships

perfection is certainly not enough
nor perhaps an affinity to precision
the way we count or grind out
our days with declining wonder

does not in effect add up
to how we recall our past selves
grandpa forgetting who he was
got lost on his walks to the store

and I am only sorry
I was not older and better then

my lack of method admires
the baker’s zeal for carrying out
instructions and his faith
placed in the batter’s yearning
to rise and fluff out

Book Ramblings: Reading Lolita in Tehran

I read the first chapter of this book while still in Madrid, and was determined to read the rest of it after having read Lolita. I think in retrospect it was even more interesting reading Lolita with the premise of this book resonating in my mind. Set in Iran during the Cultural Revolution and the rise to power of the dictator Ayatollah Khomeini, this engaging memoir discusses how the lives of several Iranian women intersect because of their love for literature at a secret workshop that Dr. Azar Nafisi, the author of the book, establishes in the comfort of her home.

During the Revolution, Nafisi is banned from teaching Western literature at the University of Tehran because of her refusal to wear the veil in class and to compromise on her ideals of Western literature. She decides to resist the stifling laws of the new Islamic Republic by creating a safe space where her female students can discuss works of literature, but most importantly, where they can talk about their own lives in relation to the similar themes of control and totalitarianism they find in works of fiction.

I found this book rather fascinating in the way that it effectively creates for the reader a feeling of the absurd, confined life that women experienced during the Islamic regime. It also plants the seed of hope that through inspiring figures like Nafisi, these women were able to silently rebel in their own way and nurture their own growth and education, which the government so feared and wanted to crush. Nafisi’s comparison of Khomeini’s dictatorship to Humbert’s control over Lolita was perhaps a bit simplified and overworked, but I find it very interesting nonetheless that she likens Khomeini’s reign to an agent who wants to confiscate, manipulate, and shape the lives of others according to their own fictitious vision of the world: “Lolita belongs to a category of victims who have no defense and are never given a chance to articulate their own story. As such, she becomes a double victim: not only her life but also her life story is taken from her” (41).

Like Lolita, Nafisi’s girls are deprived of the simple joys of daily life, having been engulfed by the regime and the way it collapses the private and political spheres. The regime makes them cherish the things that once seemed normal to them in their every lives:

Oh, the things we have to be thankful for! And that memorable day was the beginning of our detailing our long list of debts to the Islamic Republic: parties, eating ice cream in public, falling in love, holding hands, wearing lipstick, laughing in public and reading Lolita in Tehran (55).

Along with Lolita, many other works of literature are discussed, including Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby, which is put on a mock “trial” in one of Nafisi’s university classes because of the revolutionary students’ protest against the Western “decadence” and “sinfulness” that they claim the book upholds. Nafisi tries to convince her students of the art of literature for literature’s sake, that the beautiful thing about a book is its lack of moral agenda and its ability to bring characters to life — characters who are courageous, cowardly, abusive, or righteous. She tries to teach them that In the world of literature, there is no black and white, right or wrong; it is where gray spaces thrive.

I like that Nafisi’s insightful writing makes the reader experience how the lives of these women come in contact with the imagined world of these books, and how important literature can become by empowering an oppressed group and giving them the tools necessary to make sense of their own reality. Nafisi says about The Great Gatsby:

What we in Iran had in common with Fitzgerald was this dream that became our obsession and took over our reality, this terrible, beautiful dream, impossible in its actualization, for which any amount of violence might be justified or forgiven…[Gatsby] wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream? (144)

On the whole, this was a truly fascinating read that weaves a very real and complex issue into the problems of reading, analyzing, and appreciating works of literature.


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