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Lazarus of Siberia

July 27, 2010

Dostoeyevsky has always occupied a gloomier corner of the literature aisle, at least in my mind. A bleak corner, akin to, say, Russia, of circuitous monologues darkened by the unending northern winter. Reading Notes from the Underground and a bit of The Brothers Karamazov in a class on existentialism further solidified this conception. I just finished Crime and Punishment and, well, it didn’t really change my conception – but it is ultimately an almost supernaturally uplifting story.

On the surface, C+P is the story of Raskolnikov, a destitute student of St. Petersburg who hatches a plan to murder an “old crone” pawnbroker in order to rob her, and the consequences of that plot (he goes through with it). The book is much more than that, however, as it explores many questions about morality and justice. The pawnbroker was bleeding the poor (that is, committing usury) and Raskolnikov needed the money to complete his studies, with the ultimate goal of accomplishing greater deeds for the benefit of society. Should we then soften our judgment of him? Is a single evil deed justified by a more significant good? If laws are made by those who have already usurped the law or even shed blood – the book’s main example being Napoleon – should an individual really compelled to follow those laws? Can dignity be maintained in the face of bitter poverty and utter humiliation? All these issues reverberate from the original crime.

Beyond this, Dostoevsky is a wonderful writer who has tremendous control of the various gradations and whims of human emotion as well as a deft sense of narrative and what makes you want to read more. One can’t help becoming deeply invested in the novel’s characters.

I don’t want to give away too much but in its course the book goes far beyond those abstract questions as well and demonstrates both the regenerative nature of the human spirit and the redemptive capacity of love. Continuing to be purposefully vague, I would call it the most well-earned ending to any novel I’ve read, an ending that isn’t all that gloomy.

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