Part Four, Chapter Two
by Dennis Abrams
Is Svidrigailov a continuation of Raskolnikov’s dream? “The whole question here is: am I a monster, or a victim myself?” Svidrigailov defends his treatment of his wife. “And what is there to laugh at? Just think: I struck her only twice with a riding crop; there weren’t even any marks…I also know perfectly well that Marfa Petrovna may even have been glad of my, shall we say, enthusiasm…” The whipping of the German woman on the train. Raskolnikov’s surprise that Svidrigailov is “such a congenial man.” Svidrigailov has “acquaintances.” “I now place all my hopes in anatomy, by God!” Svidrigailov’s past: In prison for debt, he was “purchased” by Marfa Petrovna for thirty thousand pieces of silver. Ghosts. Visits by Marfa Petrovna. Her warnings to Svidrigailov not to remarry. Filka and the pipe. Raskolnikov refuses to believe in ghosts. Svidrigailov: “We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that’s the whole of eternity. I sometimes fancy something of the sort.” Svidrigailov’s proposal: He wants to meet with Raskolnikov’s sister to apologize, and offer her ten thousand roubles to break with Luzhin. Raskolnikov’s outrage. Svidrigailov’s plans to go on a voyage, or to marry.
A fascinating introduction to Svidrigailov. Is he mad? Who is he? Obviously, there will be more on this to come…
I’d like to share this section from Joseph Frank’s biography, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time:
“Dostoevsky now, as a preparation for the full disclosure of the article ‘On Crime,’ begins to fill in those aspects of Raskolnikov’s past that help to illuminate his self-identification with the ‘extraordinary’ people. His mother, going farther back into his pre-radical past, recalls his plan to marry the landlady’s daughter, despite, she says, ‘my tears, my entreaties, my illness, my possibly death from grief, from poverty.’ His concern for his family had thus always been subordinate to an immutable egoism of personal self-affirmation. This egoism had previously been combined with a whole-souled acceptance of Christian values quite the opposite of callous inhumanity; still, the innate expression of Raskolnikov’s temperament had been evident even this commitment. The girl, Razumikhin remarks were some perplexity, was ‘positively ugly…and such an invalid…and strange.’ Raskolnikov explains that ‘she was fond of giving alms to the poor, and was always dreaming of a nunnery…I believe I would have liked her better still if she had been a lame or a hunchback’ (he smiled dreamily)’ These disturbing words indicate a desire to embrace what others would find repellent, and suggest a desire for self-sacrifice bordering on martyrdom; it is as if Raskolnikov looked on his proposed marriage as some sort of self-exalting as well as morally heroic deed. His conversion to radicalism involved no change in the moral aims of these ambitions and supplied a similar outlet for his egoism, but it inspired a heroism in terms of Utilitarian principles. Six months after burying his fiancee, with whom, as he tells Dunya, he had argued about his new convictions, he wrote the article expressing this new self-image.
It is against this background that Raskolnikov comes for his first meeting with Porfiry Petrovich. Porfiry is highly cultivated, and, since he has come across Raskolnikov’s article and made inquiries about the author, he has been closely following the movement of contemporary ideas. He thus has an understanding of Raskolnikov’s cast of mind, which, taken with everything he has learned from Zametov and others, convinces him that Raskolnikov is the murderer. Even though Raskolnikov considers Porfiry to be employing the ‘old, material method’ of critical investigation, the very opposite is true: he understands that the cause of Raskolnikov’s crime is ultimately ‘psychological’ (that is, ideological) and cannot be understood in ‘material’ terms.
The impossibility of amalgamating the qualms of Christian conscience with Raskolnikov’s previous image of ‘greatness’ is brought to the fore when, already upset by Porfiry’s questioning, Raskolnikov is suddenly called a ‘murderer’ by a workman in the street. This blunt accusation strikes the final blow to his tottering self-control. The thoughts that now race through his mind in a seemingly disconnected torrent climax the process of self-confrontation that has been occurring all along, and Raskolnikov’s eyes are finally opened to the tragic antinomy on which he has become impaled — not only how far he had fallen short of his expectations, but even more, how foolish it had been for him to believe he could succeed when he continued to cling to the moral purpose of his intended deed. True great men like Napoleon cared not a whit about any such purpose, and acted solely out of a supreme conviction in their right to do whatever they pleased. ‘No, these men are not made so. The real Master to whom all is permitted storms Toulon, carries out a massacre in Paris, forgets an army in Egypt, wastes half a million men in the Moscow expedition and gets off with a jest at Vilna. And altars are set up to him after his death, and so all is permitted. No, such people it seems are not of flesh but of bronze!’
Raskolnikov now calls himself a ‘louse’ because of the ‘aesthetic’ incongruity between the pettiness of his own deed (‘a vile, withered old woman, a money-lender’) and the grandeur of the figure whose name and destiny had hung himself before him like a lodestar. (‘Napoleon, the pyramids, Waterloo’). But it is the realization that ‘I have been importuning Providence for a whole month, calling on it to witness that it was not for my own, so to speak, flesh and lust that I proposed to act but for a noble and worthy end’ — it is this incongruity that makes him exclaim: ‘I killed a principle, but as for surmounting the barriers, I did not do that, I remained on this side.’ Raskolnikov had killed the ‘principle’ of the old moral law against taking human law, but this very purpose and choice of victim shows that he had not been able ‘to surmount the barriers.’ He had attached to moral aim to his desire to achieve ‘greatness’; he had remained a man of flesh, who had failed to become one of bronze.
But Raskolnikov — even though he explains to himself, ‘Ah, how I hate the old woman now! I feel I should kill her again if she came to life!’ — cannot sustain this hostility for very long, and his thoughts modulate into recollections of Lizaveta and Sonya (‘poor, gentle things, with gentle eyes’). His inner struggle then terminates in the dream that ends Part III, in which he unsuccessfully tries to rid himself of the ghost of his victim. Fearfully reliving the moment of the murder, he tries to kill Alyona Ivanovna again, but finds her imperious to his blows. Huddled in a chair, with her head dropping and face concealed, she was ‘overcome with noiseless laughter’ and simply ‘shook with mirth’ as he redoubled his blows. He had murdered her in the flesh but not in his spirit, and she continues to haunt his conscience. He had failed to become one of the ‘great men’ who had gone beyond good and evil altogether.
Svidrigailov emerges from the shadows at the beginning of Part IV, when Raskolnikov has finally glimpsed the incongruity of attempting to place an all-powerful egoism into the service of moral ends. Materializing in Raskolnikov’s room almost as if part of the dream repetition of the murder, Svidrigailov seems to be an apparition; and Raskolnikov asks Razumikhin whether the latter had actually seen Svidrigailov in the flesh. Nothing similar had occurred in the case of Luzhin, and Svidrigailov’s emergence from, as it were, Raskolnikov’s subconscious suggests that he stems from more deeply rooted level of Raskolnikov’s personality than Luzhin, who embodies his ideas. Svidrigailov mirrors the elemental thrust of that egoism, concentrated in Raskolnikov’s monomania, which had ultimately led to the murders. He now confronts Raskolnikov as someone who has accepted the thoroughgoing egoistic amorality that, as Raskolnikov now has begun to realize, he had unwittingly been striving to incarnate himself.
One of Dostoevsky’s most strangely appealing characters, a sort of monster a la Quasimodo longing for redemption to normalcy, Svidrigailov’s Byronic world-weariness signifies a certain spiritual depth, and the contradictions of his personality, swinging between the blackest evil and the most benevolent good, perhaps can best be understood in Byronic terms. Is he not similar to such a figure as Byron’s Lara, ‘who at last confounded good and ill,’ and whose supreme indifference to their distinction made him equally capable of both? One can well say of Svidrigailov,
Too high for common selfishness, he could
At times resign his own for other’s good,
But not in pity, not because he ought,
But in some strange perversity of thought,
That sway’d him onward with a secret pride
To do what few or more would do beside;
And thus some impulse would, in tempting time,
Mislead his spirit equally to crime.
Tuesday’s Reading: I am going to be out of town for a few days to attend the funeral of a very dear friend and will not be able to post until Friday morning. So I’ll keep it short — Part Four, Chapters Two and Three. This will give those of you who are behind time to catch up, and allow those of you who are keeping pace to take a deep breath, and, hopefully…FILL THE BOARDS WITH YOUR REMARKS, QUESTIONS, and I hope — an ONGOING DIALOGUE.