Review of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett)

I didn’t particularly like Crime and Punishment… I read the Garnett translation. I was happy with it, to the extent that “happy” is the right word to describe the experience of reading what I found to be a depressing novel.

It was third-person omniscient but drifted into unreliable narrator territory because the protagonist is crazy, and you spend a lot of time watching him very closely as he goes around in circles being indecisive. I find his behavior dull at best and really frustrating at times—which is perhaps the point, but it’s unpleasant and rather drawn-out. I think I was expecting more overt philosophy, but there’s only a couple of scattered bits.

One thing I like about the Garnett translation is that, as the editor of the Wordsworth edition points out, “To avoid puzzling her readers, Mrs Garnett deliberately restricted her use of diminutives (in contrast to subsequent translators).” I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like I need every variation of every Russian name in the book to be represented accurately. The names in the book already appear in several variations as it is.

The aim of the philosophical content seemed to be to denigrate a kind of Nietzschean “rational” egoism which boils down to “The ends justify the means”, especially in hindsight, as it’s the winners who write the history books. The ambitious protagonist at first believes the powerful can justify anything, and views himself as one with Napoleonic power. Pathetically, he comes to realize he is mistaken. The antidote for his delusions is humility and Christian repentance.

Both the problem and the solution seem flawed to me: I don’t feel tempted to believe in “extraordinary” people who are exempt from moral accountability. Nor do I embrace a faith that views humans as inherently culpable. Thus the whole plot strikes me as a failed attempt to overcome a strawman.

Two Stars
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If you’re not discouraged by my negative opinion and you’re trying to choose a translation of Crime and Punishment to read, be sure to check out my super long post about the different translations of Crime and Punishment.

There’s now also a post about audiobook versions of Crime and Punishment.