google analytics

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What I’m Reading: Crime and Punishment

If, at the end of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s last work The Brothers Karamazov, the reader remains in doubt about the identity of Fyodor Karamazov’s murderer, in Crime and Punishment the murderer - Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov- is identified almost immediately.  Most of the story is told from his viewpoint[i]; so much so that the reader begins to feel the suffocating weight of the crime.
“The old woman was bareheaded, as always. Her scantly, light-coloured, greying hair, smeared thickly all over with oil as it always was, had been plaited into a rat’s tail and gathered together under the remains of horn comb which jutted out at the nape of her neck.  The blow landed smack on the crown of her head, something made easy by her smallness.  She cried out, but very faintly, and suddenly sank in a heap to the floor, though even then she managed to raise both arms to her head.  In one hand she was still holding the ‘pledge’.  At that point, with all his might, he landed her another blow, and another, each time with the butt [of the axe] and each time on the crown of the head.  The blood gushed out as from an upturned glass, and her body collapsed backwards.  He stepped back, allowed her to fall and at once bend down over her face: she was dead.  Her eyes were goggling out of her head as though they might burst from it, while her forehead and all the rest of her features were crumpled and distorted in a convulsive spasm.” [ii]

The title Crime and Punishment (Преступлéние и наказáние )– doesn’t fully reflect the contents of the novel.  The “crime” of the novel is described in graphic detail, but only briefly, and the “punishment” –the official sentence for the crime - comes only in the novel’s short epilogue.  Instead the novel dwells on the nature of morality – both personal and corporate, individual as well as communal.  It also dwells quite a bit on pride and shame.  Crime and Punishment also analyses the Nietzchean idea of Übermensch and the “will to power.”

I haven’t read enough Nietzsche to write about it with any authority, but  Raskolnikov believed that he was one of these Übermensch –able to commit atrocious acts of violence and criminality because of his intellectual and emotional fortitude.  He believed himself to be above and beyond the rules that bound the rest of the “ant-heap” of humanity.

In an example of art imitating life – Dostoyevsky based the details of  Raskolnikov’s crime on the real life crimes of the French criminal Pierre Francois Lacenaire.  And in life imitating art, Leopold and Loeb killed Robert Franks in 1924 in order to commit the perfect crime, believing themselves to be Nitzchean supermen.

In this, my second reading of Crime and Punishment, I was struck by the way that Dostoyevsky used the characters around  Raskolnikov as mirrors.  They invert and reflect his character back to him and these reflections of himself are what haunt and shame him – they punish him more effectively than any sentence from the courts.

On the one side of Raskolnikov is the predatory sensualist Svidrigailov.   Raskolnikov despises Svidrigailov because of the way that he treated  Raskolnikov's sister, but even more, as the story progresses, because of what he begins to see of himself in this amoral character.   He is a mirror to  Raskolnikov’s despair and nihilism, and ends his life in suicide.   Raskolnikov comes close to following in his example.

On the other side of the novel’s protagonist (one can hardly call him a “hero”) is Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova – often called Sonya. Sonya is something of the “hooker with a heart of gold,” without the jaded and cynical aspects of that literary archetype.  Unlike  Raskolnikov, she is a small and diminutive young woman, meek and fearful.  But she is a mirror to  Raskolnikov’s hope and spirituality –however darkened they might be within the story’s atheistic protagonist.

On either side of  Raskolnikov are these characters acting as mirrors – showing him aspects of himself that he is unable to see or unwilling to face.  And right behind him all through the novel is the detective Porfiry Petrovich, another mirror, pursuing him like one of the hounds of heaven.

Raskolnikov believes himself to be another “Napoleon,” one of those “extraordinary people” for whom the laws and morality of ordinary people do not apply.   He believes himself to be above or beyond the laws of society.  Porfiry, as  Raskolnikov’s mirror is an agent of that law and, ironically, also interested in Napoleon.

“I can see, dear Rodion Romanovich, that you’re laughing at me: here I am, a civilian state employee, picking all my examples from military history.  But what am I to do, it’s a weakness of mine, I’m fond of military matters, and I’m inordinately fond of reading all those military reports…I suppose I’m in the wrong career, really. I ought to have served in the military, sir, really I ought.  I might not have become a Napoleon, but I’d have made the rank of major…”[iii]

The book is also about the redemptive power of suffering. When  Raskolnikov finally confesses his crime to Soyna and asks her what he should do she replies that he should:
“Go immediately, this very moment, go and stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the ground that you’ve desecrated, and then bow to the whole world, to all four points of the compass and tell everyone, out loud ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life again.  … You must accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what.”[iv]

It’s not that suffering will eliminate  Raskolnikov’s punishment.  He is being punished internally long before he confesses and turns himself in for his crimes.  But through his suffering, he can be redeemed, he can find in himself the sin that he committed against the earth, against the world, and against the divine image within himself and he can begin to be changed.

He can begin to be changed. I say that rather than “he can  change.”  Even as we finish Crime and Punishment  Raskolnikov is not “changed,” not fully, but he is being changed.  He will complete his sentence of eight years of labor in Siberia – he will suffer – and he will be changed, he will be redeemed.

[i] Dostoyevsky did frequently change vantage points within the narrative – a “modern” literary technique which, at the time, earned him the accusation of being unfocused and scattered.
[ii] Crime and Punishment Trans. David McDuff, page 114.
[iii] Page 402
[iv] Page 489

No comments:

Post a Comment

Jeff Carter's books on Goodreads
Muted Hosannas Muted Hosannas
reviews: 2
ratings: 3 (avg rating 4.33)

Related Posts with Thumbnails