Monday, March 29, 2010

An Open Letter to My Former High School English Teachers Regarding Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dear Mr. Sharpe, Mr. Mohan, and Mrs. Balaban,

How are you doing? Remember me? Maybe not. Nevertheless, I loved having you as my high school English teachers, but I need to bring a matter to your attention. Once I do this, I will feel as if I've made a small, but important, contribution to society.

The matter is regarding the assignment - actually lack thereof - of Crime and Punishment. None of you assigned the reading of this novel in any of the English classes I attended. My question is this: What were you thinking?

Full of intrigue, mystery, murder, prostitution, gender bias, history, and romance, this novel is chock full of the stuff teenagers love. Dostoyevsky is clean in the way he unfolds these dramatic themes. Imagine that! Much cleaner than, say, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, which we read and analyzed in detail. As you well know from your many years of teaching literature, the Tolstoy-esque details are absent from Crime and Punishment. The novel is extremely accessible to even the high school level reader.

What is also shocking about the fact that you didn't have us read Crime and Punishment is the sheer volume of moral lessons present in the book. We could have had some really heated debates about whether or not Raskolnikov was forced to commit his crime or not. My classmates would have relished such a discussion!

Truly, though, the most disturbing part of not reading this novel until my 39th year of life is that my brain (and heart) missed the quality of his writing, and specifically, on his masterful use of dialogue to develop plot. Consider, for example, the following:
"Principles! You're always standing on your principles as if they were stilts. You won't move on your own feet."

And then later:
"I didn't kill a human being! I killed a principle!"

What high school student wouldn't love to ponder this statement as he or she is contemplating the future:
"You see, Rodia, it's my considered opinion that all you have to do to make your way in the world is the right thing at the right time."

I'll give you all the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps one of you assumed that the other was going to cover the novel in a later class. Hopefully in the past 25 years you have worked out those kinks and you are not withholding the gift of this novel from your beloved students.

I know you are holding your breath, worried that I'm holding this against you. Really, I'm not. I'm just glad that I can read Crime and Punishment now. It's unfortunate, because I like the book so much that I'd really enjoy writing a paper on it at 39 years of age. However, you can bet your bottom grammar text that I'm going to make sure that all of my friends' English teachers made them read this book, because I wouldn't want them to miss out on what is, by far, one of the greatest novels in existence.

Respectfully yours,



  1. Now you need to send a letter of protest to Hollywood and scold THEM for failing to put out a decent version of this book on film. On the other hand, maybe that's a good thing!

    If it's not already been done, I want to start a 'Razumahin Fan Page' on Facebook.

    With AK and C&P under your belt, can The Brothers Karamazov be far behind??

  2. Hollywood would ruin this novel.

    A Fan of Razumahin? What about Svidrigailov?!? That guy has some nerve. So much that it was comical.

    I'm halfway through The Possessed, so I'm going to let her choose my next Russian novel. Could be The Brothers, but War and Peace is knocking at the door as well. I'll take suggestions from an English teacher who actually made his students read C & P.

  3. I have it on good authority that he made his students read novels that he himself wanted to read. Soooo – have you read The Yearling yet?

  4. Yes! I read The Yearling - twice - once in 4th grade and then again in high school. I was the kid who read at recess. The Yearling was one of the recess books.