Part Four, Chapters Two and Three
by Dennis Abrams
Razumikhin vows to help protect Sonya from Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov is glad that Razumikhin actually saw Svidrigailov, “Because, you know…I was thinking, I keep imagining, it might have been a ghost…And who knows, Maybe I really am mad, and everything that’s happened during these days, maybe everything is just my imagination.” Razumikhin reports on his meeting with Porfiry, which ended with him bringing his fist to Porfiry’s face and saying I was going to smash him, “in a familial way.” Raskolnikov and Razumikhin decide that there is nothing to worry about regarding Porfiry. The meeting with Luzhin, Raskolnikov, his mother and sister, and Razumikhin. Mother and sister learn that Svidrigailov is in Petersburg. Luzhin’s investigates Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov’s relations with the money lender named Resslich, and her niece, “a dumb girl of about fifteen, or even fourteen, whom this Resslich hated beyond measure and reproached for every morsel; she even used to beat her brutally. One day the girl was found hanging in the attic. The verdict was suicide. After the customary proceedings, the case was closed, but later there came a report that the child had been…cruelly abused by Svidrigailov. Dunya defends Svidrigailov, angering Luzhin, “I see, Avdotya Romanovna, that you are somehow suddenly inclined to justify him.” Surprise when it is learned that Svidrigailov had visited Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov reports that Marfa Petrovna had left Dunya three thousand roubles in her will, and that Svidrigailov had an offer for Dunya. Dunya tells Luzhin, “You wrote that my brother had insulted you; I think this ought to be explained at once and that you should make peace. And if Rodya did indeed insult you, he must and will ask your forgiveness.” Luzhin says that some things are unforgivable. Dunya responds that unless the matter can be settled, their whole future marriage is uncertain, “Understand that if you do not make peace I shall have to choose between you: either you or him.” Luzhin’s anger that he is being placed on the same level as Raskolnikov, “…your words are of all too great an import for me; I will say more, they are even offensive, in view of the position I have the honor of occupying in relation to you. To say nothing of the offensive and strange juxtaposition, on the same level, of myself and…a presumptuous youth…Love for one’s future life-companion, a future husband, ought to exceed the love for one’s brother…and in any case I am not to be placed on the same level…” Did Raskolnikov give the money to Sonya or to her mother? “…in my letter I enlarged upon your qualities and actions…to describe to them how I found you and what impression you made on me…” Luzhin remarks that Dunya’s inheritance of 3000 roubles seems to have changed Dunya’s attitude towards him. Argument about money and expenses. Dunya throws Luzhin out. Despite the fight, Luzhin is not willing to give up on Dunya — she is just what he thinks he has been waiting for. Dunya confesses she was tempted by Luzhin’s money. Svidrigailov’s offer. Razumikhin proposes that with a thousand roubles from Dunya and a thousand roubles from his uncle, they could go into the business of translating and publishing. The family agrees. Razumikhin proposes that Raskolnikov’s watch be pawned for immediate funds — Raskolnikov decides to leave, telling everybody that he would be going away for a while, to forget him all together, and he will come back or send for them when the time is right. Raskolnikov and Razumikhin meet in the corridor.
This passage, Raskolnikov’s last words to Razumikhin in the corridor, gave me chills:
“‘Once and for all, never ask me ab out anything. I have no answers for you…Don’t come to me. Maybe I’ll come here. Leave me…but don’t leave them. Do you understand me?’
It was dark in the corridor; they were standing near a light. For a minute they looked silently at each other. Razumikhin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and fixed look seemed to grow more intense every moment, penetrating his soul, his consciousness. All at once Razumikhin gave a start. Something strange seemed to pass between them…as if the hint of some idea, something horrible, hideous, flitted by and was suddenly understood on both sides…Razumikhin turned pale as a corpse.”
Pale as a corpse…brilliant touch.
I’ve also been struck by this thought: When one reads reports and analysis of crime and abuse and broken families and and and among the poor, one often gets the sense that it is somehow unique, that in some so-called “golden age” the poor lived happily despite their lot, and that substance abuse, physical abuse, etc., are somehow new creations of our modern times. Reading Dostoevsky reminds us that this is not the case.
I’d like to share with you the opening paragraphs of the 1966 essay “The World of Raskolnikov,” by Joseph Frank:
“Most Western criticism of Dostoevsky, when it is not searching his work for religious sustenance, approaches him from a psychological or biographical point of view. The overwhelming and immediate impression made by Dostoevsky’s works on first reading is that of a passionate exploration of abnormal states of divided consciousness; and it has been only natural to assume that so masterly a portrayal of internal psychological conflict could only come from direct experience. Hence Dostoevsky’s biography has been endlessly explored, analysed, and speculated about in the hope of uncovering some traumatic key to his creations.
Russian criticism since the Bolshevik Revolution has, of course, taken a different tack. It has tried to interpret him either in socio-psychological terms (he is a member of the ‘dispossessed and rootless intelligentsia’ whose characters reflect all the abnormalities of this class), or it has engaged in genuine historical investigation and turned up numerous interesting relations between Dostoevsky’s novels and the cultural history of his time…Since Dostoevsky, however, is still the most brilliant and devastating opponent of the men who provide the foundation of present Soviet culture — not Marx and Engels, but the Russian radical tradition of Belinsky and Chernyshevsky — Soviet historical study of Dostoevsky is inevitably handicapped in scope and myopic in interpretation.
Without accepting the theoretical premises of the Soviet approach to Dostoevsky, I believe, nonetheless, that the Russians are right in stressing the social and cultural dimensions of his work. For the exclusive Western emphasis on psychology and personal biography as a means of access to Dostoevsky’s mind and art is unquestionably very limiting and very falsifying. I should argue the same in the case of any writer; but since my subject at the moment is not critical method, I shall only say that of all the great modern writers, this type of biographical criticism seems to me least illuminating as regards Dostoevsky.
If Dostoevsky has one claim to fame, it is certainly as a great ideological novelist — perhaps not the greatest — for that would invoke comparisons with Sterne and Cervantes, but the greatest in the 19th century. And if his status as such is so generally accepted, it must be because his creative imagination was stimulated primarily by the problems of his society and his time rather than by his personal problems and private dilemmas. Or, to put the point the other way around, he was always able to project those private dilemmas in terms that linked up with the sharp conflict of attitudes and values occurring in the Russia of his time.
This is the reason why psychology in Dostoevsky’s novels, vivid and unforgettable though it may be, is invariably only an instrument or tool used for a thematic purpose that is ultimately moral-ethical and ideological in import — ideological in the sense that all moral values are connected in Dostoevsky’s sensibility with the future destiny of Russian life and culture. More particularly, he saw all moral and ethical issues in the light of the inner psychological problems posed for the Russian intelligentsia by the necessity of assimilating (and living by) alien Western European ideas. Dostoevsky’s extensive journalism of the early 1960s (most of which has not yet been translated) or, more accessibly, his travel-articles about Europe, Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1853), contain a whole history of Russian culture conceived in terms of this inner struggle. We cannot take even the first step towards understanding his major aim as a novelist, if we do not realise that he wished to portray the new types and modalities of this perennial Russian inner struggle springing up all around him in the turbulent and evolving Russia of the 1860s and 1870s.
It is from this point of view that we must take very seriously Dostoevsky’s claim to ‘realism’ for his novels — a claim which, in my opinion, is entirely justified.l But let us be clear about the nature of this ‘realism’ and the nature of Dostoevsky’s imagination. He knew very well that he was not a ‘realist’ in the sense of getting the normal, middle range of private and social experience on the page. This was why he spoke of his bent for ‘fantastic realism’; but what he meant by this terms was something very clear and very specific. He meant that the process of his creation would invariably start from some doctrine that he found prevalent among the Russian radical intelligentsia. It was there in black-and-white in the magazines or novels everybody was reading, and in this sense was perfectly ‘real’ — particularly since Dostoevsky believed in the reality of ideas. But then he would take this doctrine and imagine its most extreme consequences if it were really to be put into practice and carried through in all its implications; and this was where his psychological gifts came in to aide him in dramatising the ‘fantasy’ of this idea relentlessly translated into life.
Dostoevsky was perfectly well aware that the extremism he depicted in such a character as Raskolnikov was not at all the way in which the vast majority of the radical intelligentsia would hold the doctrines in question, or the way in which it would affect their lives. But then, the people who accepted the theories of Leibnitz in the 18th century bore little resemblance in real life to Dr Pangloss and his pupil Candide. Nonetheless, we cannot deny that Candide dramatises a ‘real’ fact of 18th-century culture (It is suggestive that among the unfinished projects that Dostoevsky left at the time of his death was that of writing a Russian Candide.) Exactly the same relation obtains between the theories of Dostoevsky’s protagonists, the acts to which their theories drive them, and the Russian culture of their time. Indeed, I think the best way to define Dostoevsky’s particular uniqueness as a novelist is to call him a writer whose imagination naturally inclined to the conte philsophique, but who, happening to be born in the century of the realistic novel, possessed enough psychological genius to give his characters verisimilitude and to fuse one genre with the other. This, by the way, is one reason for the often noted resemblance between Notes from Underground and Le neveu de Rameau [“Rameau’s Nephew” by Denis Diderot], aside from the fact that 18th-century mechanical materialism was as important in the Russia of the 1860s as it had been in the France of Diderot.”
More to come…
The Weekend’s Reading:
Part Four, Chapters Four and Five
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.