“It would be difficult to point to exactly what caused the idea of this witless memorial meal to be born in Katerina Ivanovna’s unsettlted head.”

Part Five, Chapter Two
by Dennis Abrams

The witless memorial dinner. Katerina Ivanovna’s “duty towards the dead man to honor his memory ‘properly.'” Her desire to show “that she had been brought up for an altogether different lot.” Katerina Ivanovna’s “mind was becoming deranged.” Wines, (no Madeira), vodka, rum, and Lisbon “all of the worst quality, but in sufficient quantity.” Pancakes and samovars. The assistance of Amalia Ivanovna. Almost none of the tenants who had been invited actually came to the funeral, “yet for the memorial meal — for the food, that is — all the poorest and most significant of them appeared, many not even looking like themselves, just some sort of trash.” Katerina Ivanovna’s irritation. A “certain genteel lady and her ‘overripe maiden’ daughter,” and an unaccepted invitation. “In short, the only ones who came were: the little Pole, then a miserable runt of a clerk, mute, covered with blackheads, in a greasy frock coat, and with a disgusting smell; and then a deaf and almost completely blind old man, who had once worked in some post office…There was also a drunken retired lieutenant, actually a supply officer, who had a most indecent and loud laugh, and, ‘just imagine,’ was not wearing a waistcoat!” The arrival of Raskolnikov. Bad words about the landlady. The arrival of Sonya; how her reputation kept the lady and her daughter away. Katerina’s plans to open an “institute for noble girls in her native town of T—” Her pride in her certificate of merit. Mounting argument with the landlady, including insults about the other’s father. Amalia Ivanovna tells Katerina to vacate the apartment. Katerina lunges towards Amalia. The arrival of Luzhin.

Talk about a memorial dinner from hell. I’m not sure why, but a scene from Bunuel kept coming to mind as I read it…

And more from Joseph Frank’s “The World of Raskolnikov”

“The purpose of Dostoevsky’s juxtaposition and telescoping of the time sequence is obviously to undermine Raskolnikov’s conscious motivation for the reader. The hypnotic hysteria in which he kills the old pawnbroker could not reveal more clearly, in an objective, dramatic fashion, that Raskolnikov’s crime is not being committed according to his altruistic, Utilitarian theory. Whatever Raskolnikov may have believed about himself, he is now acting in the grip of other forces and not on the basis of the theory, which is still fresh in our minds because we have met it only a page or two before. Dostoevsky’s technique is thus intended to force the reader, if he is at all attentive, to pose to himself the question of what Raskolnikov’s true motive can possibly be.

Now I believe that the entire construction of the first part of the book is intended to give an answer to this question in the same objective, dramatic fashion. Part I consists of two alternating sequences of episodes. In one sequence, composed largely of flashbacks, we learn about Raskolnikov’s past, his desperate family situation, and all the circumstances pushing him towards the crime. All these scenes build up the altruistic side of his character, and reinforce our sense of his essential goodness, humanity, and sympathy for suffering. It is this aspect of his nature which forever distinguished him from a real criminal, and that makes him think of expiating his crime — if one can really call it a crime — by future services to humanity. But then we also see him in action in this part, in the series of episodes with Marmeladov and his family, and with the young girl on the boulevard. And in these scenes we notice a very significant dialectic occurring, which undermines the foundations of his altruistic, Utilitarian theory in exactly the same way as the later dramatic irony: this latter is, indeed, only the final crescendo of this whole masterly sequence.

In each of these episodes, Raskolnikov at first responds purely instinctively to the spectacle of human misery and suffering, and he spontaneously rushes to help and to succour. But at a certain point, a total transformation of his personality occurs from one moment to the next. Suddenly he withdraws, becomes indifferent and contemptuous, and instead of pitying mankind he begins to hate it for being weak and contemptible. In each case, this change of feeling is indicated to be the result of the application of an Utilitarian calculus. For example, he is starving and yet leaves all his money at the Marmeladovs; but as he walks out he begins to laugh at himself scornfully for this gesture. Why? Because he thinks, ‘after all they have Sonia and I need it myself.’ This leads him into reflections on how despicable human beings are because they can become accustomed to anything — like living off the income of a prostitute daughter.

The same situation occurs at greater length with the girl on the boulevard, who has clearly once already been violated and who is in danger of falling into the hands of another seducer. Raskolnikov at first springs to her aid, but then again turns away with a cold revulsion of feeling. ‘Let them eat themselves,’ he says to himself (after all, a good Darwinian sentiment). And then he ponders the Malthusian proposition that a ‘percentage’ has to go that way anyhow for the protection of society, so that pity and sympathy are totally misplaced. The ‘percentage’ theory has recently been traced in Russian scholarship to an article of Zaitsev’s in The Russian Word, who used it for the philanthropic purpose of arguing that, since vice and crime were inevitable natural phenomena, it was wrong to punish their perpetrators. Dostoevsky’s use of the same idea for Raskolnikov, however, is perhaps more logical in taking the greatest good of the greatest number as a standard.”

More to come…

Thursday’s Reading:

Part Five, Chapter Three


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2 Responses to “It would be difficult to point to exactly what caused the idea of this witless memorial meal to be born in Katerina Ivanovna’s unsettlted head.”

  1. Minnikin says:

    This is a very funny chapter: the deluded ‘keeping up appearances’ of Katerina Ivanovna; the boozy memorial dinner guests; the dialogue (‘look at that one with the pimply face: some sort of snot on two legs!’) and Dostoevsky’s brilliantly descriptive and funny passage (page389-391) that almost leads to a catfight between Katerina and her landlady, Amalia Ivanovna. Brilliant and hilarious.

    • You’re right — it is funny, but painfully so, because we understand why Katerina finds it important to “keep up appearances,” so I found myself wincing while at the same time being amused.

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