Sunday, September 25, 2011

Crime and Punishment

I really don't know where the past week has gone--or the month for that matter--but I have an inkling it's because school has been keeping me pretty busy, and when it hasn't, the house and the garden have.

So I'll try to kill two birds with one stone tonight (the violent imagery is quite appropriate, as you'll soon see), and talk about one of my favorite novels that I have the good fortune to be teaching this fall and spring.

Spoiler alert: I won't give it all away, but I'm going to talk about what happens in Part I of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, which is essentially the major event of the novel.

Whenever people ask me what my favorite books are, I never like to say, because it often depends on what I'm reading at the time.  But I will say that Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is one of my favorites to read and to teach.

In fact, there are times when I can't believe I'm lucky enough to get to spend hours talking and thinking about it and get paid to do so.

I think Part I of the novel is an amazing and interesting expression of what happens when an idea becomes linked to action.  The protagonist, Raskolnikov, has been spending far too much time alone and far too much time thinking; consequently, he has also spent far too little time talking to other people and far too little time earning a living.

This may sound trite, but in the context of Dostoevsky's novel, it's not.  Solitary thought, while powerful, is sterile and, in its most extreme manifestations, downright dangerous.  We need to connect to others and we need to experience the humbling encounters that are a regular result of our interactions with the world at large.

As a result of his moody blues, Raskolnikov has become fixated on the idea that some people are inherently better than others.  Life isn't fair, though, so often the better people suffer at the hands of the worse.  The rich aren't always very nice or very good and in particular, they often don't do what they should with their money.

Raskolnikov becomes convinced that, if social revolution is to occur, one of these better individuals must be brave enough--and strong enough--to cross the threshold of human morality.  In Russian, the word "crime" of the novel's title is actually "Преступление"--more accurately translated, it means "transgression" or a "crossing over."  ("Пре-" is a prefix meaning "across" or "over" and "ступление" means "a stepping.")

Put simply, Raskolnikov recognizes that "great" men don't worry about other people's feelings--or lives, for that matter.  They don't hold themselves bound by the codes of moral and ethical conduct that circumscribe the everyday lives of the rest of us.  A great military leader can't lie awake nights feeling guilty and upset about the life of every single solider lost in battle that day--the focus must be on the "bigger" picture.

So if Raskolnikov feels and believes that he is such a man, why shouldn't he act accordingly?  He knows that a local pawnbroker, a greasy and reasonably unsavory woman who beats and abuses her mentally handicapped sister, has a pretty sizable store of ready cash.  The pawnbroker, in Raskolnikov's estimation, contributes nothing to the world: in the words of Dennis the Menace, "she's mean, she's ugly, she doesn't share!"

So why not kill her, take the money, and do some good with it?  This is the idea that Raskolnikov has been spending all of his time brooding over, and this is his mindset when we meet him at the outset of Dostoevsky's novel: should he do it?  can he do it?  will he do it?

He spends a great deal of time wondering whether he should do it, whether he is in fact the kind of man who can do such a thing.  In Dostoevsky's estimation, the implication is clearly, "if you have to ask..."--but of course, Raskolnikov doesn't realize this.  He wants to think he is the kind of person who is brave enough to cross a threshold in the name of social justice.  

He wants to be a great man.  So he gets an axe and goes to the pawnshop.
He pulled the axe out, swung it up with both hands, hardly conscious of what he was doing, and almost mechanically, without putting any force behind it, let the butt-end fall on her head...
The old woman was, as usual, bare-headed.  Her thin fair hair, just turning grey, and thick with grease, was plaited into a rat's tail and fastened into a knot above her nape with a fragment of horn comb.  Because she was so short, the axe struck her full on the crown of the head.  She cried out, but very feebly, and sank in a heap to the floor, still with enough strength left to raise both hands to her head... Then he struck her again and yet again, with all his strength, always with the blunt side of the axe, and always on the crown of the head. (pg. 66)
In a stroke of pure imaginative brilliance, Dostoevsky repeatedly emphasizes the rather odd fact that Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker using the blunt end of the axe-head: in essence, he bludgeons her to death.  From behind. 

When her mentally handicapped sister walks in on the murder-scene, however, Raskolnikov instinctively does the unimaginable: he kills her as well, this time using the sharp blade of the axe, "splitting [her head] open from the top of the forehead almost to the crown of the head, and felling her instantly" (68).

He looks at her directly as he does so, and the image of the "simple, brow-beaten, and utterly terrified" Lizaveta that Dostoevsky offers us is nothing if not memorable: because she doesn't know any better, the pawnbroker's sister
did not even put up her arms to protect her face, natural and almost inevitable as the gesture would have been at this moment when the axe was brandished immediately above it.  She only raised her free left hand a little and slowly stretched it out towards him as though she were trying to push him away... (pg. 68).
Her death is the unintended consequence of Raskolnikov's (allegedly) "great" idea.  And in a cruel irony characteristic of Dostoevsky (and of life), Lizaveta is also pregnant.

So the decision to remove one "guilty" life from the world results in the death of two innocents.

This is one of Dostoevsky's great fascinations: life's collateral damage.  We can be good and kind and honest or we can be lowdown and dirty and mean, but in his worldview, we are all subject to the same drives and impulses.  Sometimes those drives can lead us to murder. 

But they can also lead us to unfathomable acts of generosity, and, in Dostoevsky's conception, since we can never rule out the latter, we must be careful how we police and punish the former.

We must be careful when it comes to what we think we know--about ourselves, and about others.

1 comment:

  1. If you're interested, you can check out an interactive map of St. Petersburg that identifies various sites mentioned in Dostoevsky's novel and includes images as well as quotations from the novel

    There is also a slideshow of images of Raskolnikov's journey to the pawnbroker's house


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."