photo & text by nacrowe
i have a funny history with this classic of RUSSIAN literature. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (RUSSKIY VESTNIK, 1867) by FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY was the first book i taught as an ENGLISH teacher and it was not by choice. but first i have to back up a bit.
in 2008 i graduated from TEACHERS COLLEGE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY with a masters in the ENGLISH EDUCATION (and yes, i am aware my blog entries are often suspect in terms of grammar and syntax). at that point there was a hiring freeze across NYC and pretty much nationwide as old teaches were not retiring due to the downturn in the economy. effectively i was not able to find work despite having an IVY LEAGUE degree (not bragging, just stating the obvious) and administrative and peer recommendations from BROOKYLN TECH, a specialized "magnet" high school i student taught at as part of my degree. needless to say it was beyond frustrating and effectively was a good primer for my (brief) teaching degree in general. out of the blue i ended up taking a position at my alma mater in KUWAIT of all places. it didn't go well. maybe at some point i'll write about that experience, but effectively i returned stateside let down and pretty demoralized.
i had interviewed with dozens of NYC schools before taking the KUWAIT gig out of desperation. this included STUYVESANT HIGH SCHOOL, which is essentially the premier public secondary institution in the country. look up their alumni list, its more impressive than most colleges. they called and asked if i was available to cover for a teacher soon to be on maternity leave. of course i was. i came in a few weeks in advance just to meet the other teachers and get a lay of the landscape, when the unthinkable happened. the teacher i was going to cover for had her water break on site. she was on her way to the hospital when i learned i was starting that day. period.
the head of the english department walked me into his office where the class sets of books were to see what was available. i was handed the classic existentialist noveL CRIME AND PUNISHMENT to teach to my SOPHOMORES. easily one of the scariest moments of my life. i read the novel in college and was somewhat familiar with it, but i was walking into a lion's den not fully prepared by definition. teachers have been replaced because they couldn't handle the pressure of teaching to the brightest kids in the city. i will fully admit, some of those kids at 15 had me intellectually at 27. all i could do to compete was be better prepared.
the other teachers told me this was the worst set of circumstances they had ever seen a new teacher come in under with the exception of one teacher. upon hearing this, that teacher interjected saying "nope, CROWE has it worse." her first day of teaching at STUYVESANT? SEPTEMBER 11, 2001. the school is a black from ground zero.
so that is my history with the book. i do enjoy it because in essence it is a morality play the intensely religious DOSTOYEVSKY constructed as a way of reassuring himself that religious ideals like purity and devotion could still be viable in a rapidly changing cultural and economic RUSSIAN landscape. he utilizes quite a few inversions whereby characters that should hold a certain level of respect and grace fall way short while those at the bottom of the social ladder are almost saintlike.
probably my biggest takeaway from the novel was its question about the NATURE OF PUNISHMENT, whether being judged by the community via a legal system was worse than how we judge ourselves individually. the legal system in essence stands in for the kingdom of heaven and our own potential absolution from fear, guilt and punishment. to what extent is that absolution a matter of personal choice or circumstance?
because of the deep, introspective nature of this line of questioning which seemingly questioned religious authority by seeking a more personal relationship with the almighty (as opposed to just passive participation in religious ritual), DOSTOYEVSKY and this novel in particular get labeled as early examples of proto-EXISTENTIALISM. but he wasn't rejecting GOD. he was searching for a deeper connection and the questioning of the RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH was implicit in that search.
funny how they like him now that his ideas along with other 19th century writers like TOLSTOY, GOGOL, and PUSHKIN have lifted RUSSIAN LITERATURE to global recognition. at the time of its inception this novel was effectively heresy.
you don't need me to tell you to check out this novel, but you should. deep down you knew that already.