Part One, Chapters 1-4
by Dennis Abrams
It’s summer in St. Petersburg. We meet Raskolnikov, living in a closet under the “roof of a tall, five-storied house,” who has been “in an irritable and tense state, resembling hypochondria,” hoping to avoid his landlady to whom he owes back-rent. “It was terribly hot out, and moreover it was close, crowded; lime, scaffolding, bricks, dust everywhere, and that special summer stench known so well to every Petersburger who cannot afford to rent a summer house — all at once these things unpleasantly shook the young man’s already overwrought nerves.” His good looks, his ragged clothes, his Zimmerman hat which, to his dismay makes him stand out. Climbing the dark, narrow “back” stairway to visit the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanova, “a tiny, dried-up old crone, about sixty, with sharp, spiteful little eyes and a small, sharp nose.” The neatness of her apartment. The pawned silver watch, interest owed, promise of a silver cigarette case to come. His inner monologue: “‘Oh, God, how loathsome this all is! And can it be, can it be that I…no, it’s nonsense, it’s absurd,’ he added resolutely. ‘Could such horror really come into my head? But then, what filth my heart is capable of!…Above all, filthy, nasty, vile, vile!…'” The desire for a beer, his first visit to a tavern. “There were chopped pickles, and dry black bread, and fish cut into pieces, all quite evil-smelling. It was so stuffy that it was almost impossible to sit there, and everything was so saturated with wine-smell that it seemed one could get drunk in five minutes from the air alone.” Marmeladov’s story: Alcoholism, poverty, oldest daughter driven to prostitution by need and stepmother, “My dear sir…poverty is no vice, that is t he truth. I know that drunkenness is also no virtue, and that is even more so. But destitution, my dear sir, destitution is a vice, sir. In poverty you may still preserve the nobility of your inborn feelings, but in destitution no one ever does. For destitution one does not even get driven out of human company with a stick; one is swept out with a broom, to make it more insulting, and justly so, for in destitution I am the first to insult myself.” His daughter’s yellow pass. His wife, Katerina Ivanova, “Do you know, do you know, sir, that I even drank up her stockings? Not her shoes, sir, for that would at least somehow resemble the order of things, but her stockings, I drank up her stockings, sir! Her angora kerchief I also drank up…and this winter she caught a chill and took to coughing, with blood now.” Katerina Ivanova’s first marriage,”She loved her husband exceedingly, but he got into card playing, was taken to court, and thereupon died.” Left alone with three small children, she consented to marry Marmeladov, “For she had nowhere to go. Do you understand, do you understand, my dear sir, what it means when there i no longer anywhere to go?”” Marmeladov’s new job, his family’s happiness — one week of work followed by a five-day drunk. Marmeladov’s certainty of forgiveness. Raskolnikov helps Marmeladov home — the room scattered and in disorder, two chairs and a sofa, an old pine kitchen table. Katerina Ivanova, “…a terribly wasted woman, slender…pacing the small room…her lips parched, her breath uneven and gasping.” Her fury at Marmeladov, “And suddenly, in a rage, she seized him by the hair and dragged him into the room. Marmeladov made her efforts easier by meekly crawling after her on his knees. ‘And it’s a delight to me! It’s not painful, it’s a deli-i-ight, my de-e-ear sir’ he kept crying out, being pulled by his hair all the while and once even bumping his forehead on the floor.” Leaving, Raskolnikov leaves whatever few coopers he finds in his pocket on the windowsill, but immediately thinks better of it. “Man gets accustomed to everything, the scoundrel!…But if that’s a lie…if man in fact is not a scoundrel — in general, that is, the whole human race — then this rest is all mere prejudice, instilled fear, and there are no barriers, and that’s just how it should be!…” Raskolnikov wakes up late the next day at home, looking “with hatred at his little room.” “It was a tiny closet, about six paces long, of a most pathetic appearance, with yellow, dusty wallpaper coming off the walls everywhere, and with such a low ceiling that a man of any height at all felt creepy in it and kept thinking he might bump his head every moment. The furniture was in keeping with the place.” Tea and day-old cabbage soup. A letter from his mother: Rasknolnikov’s sister “Dunya,” who had worked as a governess for Svidrigailov until he drove her off with his sexual advances (she had initially been blamed until Svidrigailov’s wife cleared her name) is planning to marry seventh grade court councillor, Luzhin, who both mother and sister hope will be able to help advance Raskolnikov’s career. The lack of love between Luzhin and Dunya. Luzhin’s miserliness — he won’t pay for tickets for the mother and daughter’s tickets to St. Petersburg, but does deign “to volunteer to pay for the delivery of our luggage and the big trunk.” Raskolnikov’s sorrow at the news, followed by violent thoughts that drive him from his apartment, “…as usual, he walked without noticing where he was going, whispering and even talking aloud to himself, to the surprise of passers-by. Many took him for drunk.” Raskolnikov’s monologue, anger at his mother for allowing his sister to sacrifice herself marrying a man like Zuhin (who Raskolnikov is quick to categorize), comparing Sonya’s prostitution to Dunya’s upcoming marriage “Do you understand that this Luzhinian cleanliness is just the same as Sonechka’s cleanliness and maybe even worse, nastier, meaner, because in your case Dunechka, some extra comfort can still be reckoned on, while there it’s simply a matter of starving to death!” Thoughts of suicide, Marmeladov’s “Do you understand…what it means when there is no longer anywhere to go?…For it is necessary that every man have at least somewhere to go…Suddenly, he gave a start: a certain thought, also from yesterday, raced through his head again. But he started not because this thought raced through his head. Indeed, he knew, he had anticipated that it would certainly ‘race through his head,’ and was already expecting it…But the difference was that a month ago, and even yesterday, it was only a dream, but in some new, menacing, and quite unfamiliar form, and he suddenly became aware of it himself…” The young drunk girl, the lecher, the policeman, and Raskolnikov’s attempts to save the girl before dismissing the idea that he can help. Remembering he was going to visit his one friend from university, Razumikhin.
A few observations:
1. I was struck by how immediately we’re thrown into the story, the setting, and into Raskolnikov’s thoughts. No shilly-shallying around — boom! We’re there.
2. And as for the “there” — my immediate reaction is to just how close and claustrophobic it is. Raskolnikov’s closet, the tavern, Marmeladov’s room…everything is closed-in, stuffy…
3. Marmeladov. Despite the horror of his story, his seeming lack of guilt or compassion for the fact that his daughter has been forced to become a prostitute, I found something kind of endearing about him, in his confidence that he and she and his family will be saved, “On that day He will come and ask, ‘Where is the daughter who gave herself for a wicked and consumptive stepmother, for a stranger’s little children? Where is the daughter who pitied her earthly father, a foul drunkard, not shrinking from his beastliness?’ And He will say, ‘Come! I have already forgiven you once…I have forgiven you once…And now, too, your many sins are forgiven, for you have loved much…and He will forgive my Sonya, He will forgive her, I know He will…” For some reason, and I might be pushing it here, while reading his monologue in chapter two, I kept thinking about the Dickens’ character from David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber.
4. It’s obvious, I think, that sacrifice is going to be a major theme: Sonya’s sacrifice for her family; Dunya’s for Raskolnikov’s future.
5. And while I agree with everyone who has commented on the general atmosphere of anxiety that Dostoevsky creates so quickly and seemingly effortlessly, I was also struck by the number of times that I laughed, especially while reading the letter from Raskolnikov’s mother. For some reason I found her utter hopefulness, her desire to see the bright side of everything, even her happiness at Luzhin’s generosity in offering to pay for their luggage (although not their tickets) for the trip to St. Petersburg laugh-out funny.
6. It’s all to easy to picture Raskolnikov, walking down the street (or probably shambling) in his rags in the summer heat, sometimes with his lips just moving, sometimes muttering, sometimes suddenly yelling “Or renounce life altogether!…Accept fate obediently as it is, once and for all, and stifle everything in myself, renouncing any right to act, to live, to love!” as bystanders…stare in horror? Ignore him?
7. And finally, a brief Garnett to Pevear comparsion:
Garnett: “She was a diminutive, withered-up old woman of sixty, with sharp malignant eyes and a sharp little nose. Her colourless, somewhat grizzled hair was thickly smeared with oil, and she wore no kerchief over it. Round her thin long neck, which looked like a hen’s leg, was knotted some sort of flannel rag, and, in spite of the heat, there hung flapping on her shoulders, a mangy fur cape, yellow with age.”
Pevear/Volokhonsky: “She was a tiny, dried-up old crone, almost sixty, with sharp, spiteful little eyes and a small, sharp nose. She was bareheaded, and her colorless and only slightly greying hair was thickly greased. Her long, thin neck, which resembled a chicken’s leg, was wrapped in some flannel rags, and, despite the heat, a fur-trimmed jacket, completely worn out and yellow with age, hung loosely from her shoulders.”
Here is a good example, I think, of where Pevear and Volokhonsky shine. “dried-up old crone” vs. “withered-up old woman…” The rhythm of “with sharp, spiteful little eyes and a small, sharp nose.” vs. “with sharp malignant eyes and a sharp little nose.” It’s all little things, but they are cumulative.
So readers…let me know what you think. And also…was the reading assignment for the weekend too much? Too little? Just right? Please bear with me as I tinker with that, as well as how much to post as a synopsis, how much other material, etc.
Part One, Chapters 5-6