Over the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to expand my scope of reading beyond the trashy romance, historical romance, fantasy, and sci-fi that have been my reading staples for as long as I can remember
I had, because I am a literary heathen, no clue what Crime and Punishment was about. I picked it up because it was famous. It was classic. It was good for you… like vegetables. And after a diet of candy-like trashy romance novels and the gooey pizza-y goodness of sci-fi/fantasy for decades, I thought that now that I was in my 30s, I should do the responsible thing and start reading books that were good for me.
So, based on my previous experience with “great literature”, I steeled myself to be bored to tears, to potentially not understand a word of what was going on, and to probably hate the book and all of its characters by the end. Imagine my surprise when I got a few chapters into the book and realized that I was inside the mind of an ax murderer plotting out his crime. I know that the title was Crime and Punishment and there should have been some sort of clue there, but I kind of thought that was going to be metaphoric or something. I definitely didn’t think I was going to do a ride-along with a deranged ex-student who chops an old lady to bits. I think it says something about me that this was the Best. Surprise. Ever.
So when I picked up Anna Karenina, I went in hoping that I would also find this story to be engaging and interesting, but I was completely unmoved it. I’m not saying that Anna Karenina was bad. Tolstoy is highly regarded for a reason – the writing is well done. It’s the subject matter that didn’t age well. It’s fully possible that when he wrote it, everything made sense. However, the plot hinges on Anna’s inability to leave a loveless and unfulfilling marriage, because her husband won’t give her a divorce. He’s a controlling ass hat who refuses to let her out of the marriage, because his political career would be hurt because of public censure. She cheats, drama ensues, people shoot themselves – it’s like a telanovela – except not as good.
Today, if Anna had met another dude and fell in love with him, she’d get a divorce and just get married to the other guy. Or not. It’s just not that complicated anymore, because, you know, women’s rights and stuff. She wouldn’t have to beg her husband for a divorce and fear that she’d never see her child again, she could just go get one – and probably get full custody, too. In a country where the divorce rate is 50%, being trapped in a marriage because your husband won’t let you get a divorce is just not that relateable – certainly not enough to believe that any of the characters involved are going to shoot themselves over it. So while I understood what happened in the novel, I didn’t care very much about any of it.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Some things about the world change so dramatically over the course of hundreds of years. Shock and social censure at things like adultery and divorce just aren’t what they used to be – no one thinks they’re good things, but if our nation’s politicians are any indication, it’s not exactly a career killer anymore. And if a lady wants a divorce, she just goes and files for one. Lots of people do it, multiple times even – just look at Liz Taylor, and everyone adored her.
Ax murdering, on the other hand, is pretty much as reprehensible now as it was back then and most likely, will continue to be in the future.
And gazing into the mind of a killer as he kills his victims? Always going to be interesting. Dexter. Silence of the Lambs. Every episode of every crime drama ever written. They all feed our desire to understand what would make someone take another person’s life. What was their motivation? What were they thinking? Are they like us? Are we like them? Are they sorry? Do they feel bad? Do they feel anything?
Crime and Punishment endures where Anna Karenina does not simply because our simultaneous fascination and horror with psychopaths and murder will stand the test of time, whereas societal outrage about social mores is fleeting and changeable. As long as we’ve been telling stories to one another, some fictional character somewhere has been slaughtering some other character in the most creative and horrific ways possible. And we can’t get enough of it.
Diamonds are forever? Nope. Murder is forever.