Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There’s nothing better than reading winners back-to-back! Last week, I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and this week I had the pleasure of getting swept away by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I didn’t have high hopes: I mean, Russian literature is supposed to be super long and heavy and hard to read… plus, my copy was, well, a little worse for wear (another “pre-loved” edition lifted from my husband’s collection).

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The introduction didn’t help matters, either. It was a little hard to follow, not having read Crime and Punishment (or, indeed, any of Dostoyevsky’s other works) before. Some parts were pretty salient, though:

“Few works of fiction have attracted so many widely diverging interpretations as Crime and Punishment. It has been seen as a detective novel, an attack on radical youth, a study in ‘alienation’ and criminal psychopathology, a work of prophecy (the attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II by the nihilist student Dmitry Karakozov took place while the book was at the printer’s, and some even saw the Tsar’s murder in 1881 as a fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s warning), an indictment of urban social conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, a religious epic and a proto-Nietzchean analysis of the ‘will to power’. It is, of course, all of these things – but it is more.”

Introduction (Crime And Punishment)

The fact is Crime and Punishment has been super-popular ever since the first installments were published in The Russian Messenger in 1866. No one seems to doubt its significance – but academics argue themselves hoarse about what Dostoyevsky was actually getting at. It’s a reasonable basis for my concerns, but I shouldn’t have been worried. I was hooked from the very first page. It just goes to show, not only should you not judge a book by its cover (especially when that cover is falling apart), but you also shouldn’t pay much mind to its reputation. The book you worry is going to be really dense and boring to read actually turns out to be… well, fan-fucking-tastic!

Let’s start with the premise, because it is wild! Crime and Punishment follows the story of ex-student Rodin Raskolnikov, living on a shoestring in St Petersburg. He formulates a plan to stop his sister marrying a rich man (whom she does not love) in order to support the family – he sees that as a kind of prostitution, so how to prevent such a crime? Well, kill a crotchety old pawn-broker and steal her cash, obviously!

Yes, it’s a super-flawed plan, and it makes for fantastic reading. Dostoyevsky employed a really revolutionary narrative technique (for the time), writing from a third-person perspective but focusing almost exclusively on the internal monologue of the protagonist. Raskolnikov is a bundle of nerves and anxiety, which makes him – and I know I shouldn’t say this, given that he is a literal axe murderer, but I don’t care – totally relatable! Crime and Punishment follows his moral dilemmas leading up to the murder(s), and his complete psychological denouement afterwards. It’s compelling stuff! Most of it is told through Raskolnikov talking to himself, but it still seems fast-paced and action-packed. That takes real talent, eh?

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over other organisms.”

Crime And Punishment (page 242)

Apparently, Dostoyevsky wrote his original drafts with a focus on “the present question of drunkness… all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances”, and the original title was The Drunkards (well, he is Russian). But as he started to develop the character of Raskolnikov, and fleshed out the nature of his crime, the story took a turn. Dostoyevsky’s masterful narrative technique only emerged in the final draft, where he switched to third-person narration, and basically re-wrote the whole thing. I can only imagine what a slow and laborious process that must have been in the days before word processors… but all his hard work sure paid off.

Crime and Punishment is written in six parts, and it’s around Part Three that Dostoyevsky starts getting philosophical, sharing with us (through his characters) his thoughts on… well, crime and punishment, funnily enough. He picks apart all of the disastrous consequences of Raskolnikov’s “moral” murder. You could spend a lifetime analysing the philosophical questions raised by Crime and Punishment, but I think I’ll leave that up to the professors – KUWTP is hardly the place to dissect Dostoyevsky’s position on nihilism 😉

Even without the philosophical analysis, it’s impossible to write a simple plot summary that is both succinct and complete, because Crime And Punishment is so deeply complex. But don’t let that fool you! That does not make it heavy, boring, or hard-to-follow (I’m now kicking myself for letting all those pre-conceived ideas put me off reading it for so long).

The only valid forewarning I feel I need to give you is that this book is really 600 pages of “crime”, and only an epilogue or so of “punishment”. Whatever the title might have you believe, Dostoyevsky didn’t so much write about formal punishment of crime (in terms of the justice system and so forth), but rather the internal “punishment” stemming from Raskolnikov’s own conscience.

But enough heavy stuff! What I really want to impress upon you is how much fun this book is! It’s not at all what you’d expect.

“The companion who was the object of these reproaches was sitting on a chair and had the look of a man who badly wanted to sneeze, but could not for the life of him do so.”

Crime And Punishment (page 601)

Crime and Punishment is officially a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. If you’re looking to delve deeper into Russian literature as some kind of project, you might want to start with Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (as Dostoyevsky said himself, “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat”), but if you’re simply curious and not put off by its bad reputation, pick it up today! As beat-up as this copy looks, I strongly recommend trying to get your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations but I can’t vouch for any of those, because the art of translation can make or break your enjoyment of a book. On top of that, the footnotes in this edition are great – helpful without going over the top. All in all, I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go – and I’m sure you will be too!

Note: I’m so confident that you’ll love Crime And Punishment that I included it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crime and Punishment:

  • “If this book doesn’t drive you to drink nothing will. I haven’t encountered this many melodramatic people in my entire life. Really, truly, one after another is dropping dead of guilt or shooting himself or going insane, or hating and loathing his friends and family and sweethearts, or,
    When all is copacetic, just drinking himself stupid. Let me do you a favour and save you a few hours: Man kills 2 women and then proceeds to feel guilty for 600 pages. If I could have killed him myself I would have!” – Geezer & Wife
  • “Can’t eat a classic” – Keith B Cruise
  • “This book was P to the double O P don’t waste your hard earned money on this piece of total and complete crap.” – Cecily
  • “This book manifest a many-eyed demon in your soul, who will proceed to tear the blindfold off your inner child’s face, exposing him to the blinding light of truth as he falls headlong into the abyss while madly clawing at the smoking pits that were one his pure, innocent eyes.” – Amazon Customer
  • I was determined to finish it because it is a classic. My question for the author would be “Were you determined to bore us to tears by constantly using 500 words when 100 would have sufficed?” Get thee to a gulag!” – Amazon Customer


  1. Great review pf this book.

    This has been on my radar for some time. I have read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and The Possessed. Both of those books contained crazy, murderous young people. It seems that Dostoevsky had a knack for some character types. I might get to this one in 2019.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      December 19, 2018 at 7:57 AM

      Hahahaha he sure did! I’ve heard The Brothers Karamazov is great, but a lot more work, so I’m a little hesitant to pick it up still… I might get to that one in 2019 myself 👍🏼😉

  2. Disclaimer: I didn’t read this whole post because I’m such a freak about spoilers, but I read the beginning and end, and you’ve made me want to put this on my list for 2019. I think I have 8 Russian books on my Life List. I read the first one this year (Anna Karenina), and it was not as difficult to get through as I imagined it would be. After seeing your glowing recommendation for Crime and Punishment, I’m definitely thinking it needs to come next!

    • ShereeKUWTP

      December 19, 2018 at 11:33 AM

      Oooh, yes Hannah! If you managed Anna Karenina, you’re definitely up for Crime And Punishment. Can’t wait to hear what you think of it, enjoy!!

  3. Janel - Keeper of Pages

    December 19, 2018 at 8:56 AM

    I loved reading this post! I have Crime and Punishment on my TBR, but have been hesitant because, as you mentioned, Russian Literature is often thought of as quite heavy. I loved that you described this as fun, and how many discussion points it raised. I’m particularly eager to read Part 3, I love all discussions on crime and punishment (I had so much fun doing my degree in Criminology). I’m currently compiling a list of all the books I want to 100% read in 2019, and this one just made the list! Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    • ShereeKUWTP

      December 19, 2018 at 11:41 AM

      Crime And Punishment’s bark is definitely worse than its bite. And give your background and interest, it should be right up your alley!! Let me know what you think of it!! ❤️

  4. What a great wrap-up. Raskolnikov’s internal monologue is definitely pretty unique and amazing. He’s pulled so many readers into committing the crime with him. I’m glad the title was changed, although The Drunkard sounds like a typical Dostoevsky title too. And yes, I have the very same David McDuff translation as you. I’m looking forward to more, since The Brothers Karamazov really impressed me too.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      December 20, 2018 at 2:14 PM

      Cheers, Paula! The Drunkard definitely has a Dostoyevsky-esque ring to it, but I’m glad for the different direction he took too 😉

  5. I read this one, rare for me, but someone bought it as a gift. I really disliked it. I found the psychological state of the murderer to be unconvincing. I got tired of the whole passages dedicated to his internal suffering – OK I get it now lets get on with it was my abiding thought. I put it down several times but forced myself to read to the end. By which point I was thoroughly disappointed in it. Classic fiction definitely isn’t for me if its like this one.

    • ShereeKUWTP

      December 20, 2018 at 2:15 PM

      Oh darn, Phil, I would’ve thought this one would win you over! Luckily, there are plenty of non-Russian classics not so much in this vein, so I’m sure there’s still something in the back catalogue that’ll tickle your fancy 😉

    • No, you should not judge other classical works based on this one, which I agree was very dry and boring in most parts. Have read two of Dostoevsky’s works now, and will be removing any future reading of his off my to do list. So many better classic authors out there.

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