by Dennis Abrams
Siberia. Raskolnikov’s trial. “The court proceedings in his case went without great difficulties.” Disbelief in Raskolnikov’s claim that he hadn’t opened the pawnbroker’s purse and didn’t know that there were three hundred and seventeen roubles and three twenty-kopeck pieces inside, “but from this they concluded at once that the crime itself could not have occurred in some sort of temporary insanity, including so to speak, a morbid monomania of murder and robbery, with no further aim or calculation of profit. This fell in opportunely with the latest fashionable theory of temporary insanity, which in our time they so often try to apply to certain criminals.” “…the criminal did almost nothing to defend himself…he answered quite clearly, with the crudest exactitude, that the cause of it all lay in his bad situation, his poverty and helplessness, his wish to fortify the first steps of his life’s career with the help of the three thousand roubles…And to the question of what precisely had prompted him to come and confess his guilt, he answered directly that it was sincere repentance. There was something almost crude about it all…” After Razumikhin testifies that Raskolnikov had “used his last resources” to help a poor fellow student, and then, when the student dies, helped his “old and paralytic father,” and Raskolnikov’s landlady testifies that one night he had rescued two children from a burning apartment, he is sentenced “to penal servitude of the second class for a term of only eight years.” The illness of Pulcheria Alexandrovna, her faith in her son’s future “as was proved by his article and by his brilliant literary talent. She read this article incessantly, sometimes even aloud; she all but slept with it…” Her silence on certain issues — keeping the truth from her. Razumikhin vows to save his money and move to Siberia within three or four years to be with Raskolnikov. Saying goodbye. Dunya marries Razumikhin, “The wedding was sad and quiet. Among those invited, by the way, were Porfiry Petrovich and Zossimov.” The death of Pulcheria Alexandrovna. Sonya’s letters to Dunya and Razumikhin. “Sonya ceaselessly reported that he was constantly sullen, taciturn, and even almost uninterested in the news she brought him each time from the letters she received…” Raskolnikov’s rudeness to Sonya — his lack of belief in a future. Raskolnikov in the hospital — not from the horrors of convict life, or the food, or his shaved head, or his patchwork clothes, “He was indeed ashamed even before Sonya, whom he tormented because of it with his contemptuous and rude treatment. but he was ashamed not of a shaved head and chains; his pride was badly wounded, and it was from wounded pride that he fell ill…But he judged himself severely, and his hardened conscience did not find any especially terrible guilt in his past, except perhaps a simple blunder that would have happened to anyone. He was ashamed precisely because he, Raskolnikov, had perished so blindly, hopelessly, vainly, and stupidly, by some sort of decree of blind fate, and had to reconcile himself and submit to the ‘meaninglessness’ of such a decree if he wanted to find at least some peace for himself.” No repentance for his crime, indeed “He might at least have raged at his own stupidity, as he had once raged at the hideous and utterly stupid actions that had brought him to prison. But now that he was in prison, and at liberty he reconsidered and reflected upon all his former actions and did not find them at all as stupid and hideous as they had seemed to him once, at that fatal time.” His conscience is clear, “‘…even many benefactors of mankind, who did not inherit power but seized it for themselves, ought to have been executed at their very first steps. But those man endured their steps, and therefore they were right, while I did not endure, and so I had not right to permit myself that step.’ This alone he recognized as his crime: that he had not endured it, but had gone and confessed.” Raskolnikov is disliked and avoided by everyone, even hated; he is even attacked after services during the second week of the Great Lent, “You’re godless! You don’t believe in God!” they shouted. “You ought to be killed!” All the prisoners love Sonya. In the hospital. Raskolnikov’s dream of a pestilence spreading throughout Europe from the depths of Asia, “microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies…Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad…Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else, each thought the truth wsa contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others…They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good.” Chaos. “The pestilence grew and spread further and further. Only a few people in the whole world could be saved; they were pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and a new life, to renew and purify the earth; but no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.” Raskolnikov’s concern for Sonya when she became ill. Raskolnikov and Sonya on the riverbank: Raskolnikov takes Sonya’s hand. “…but suddenly it was as if something lifted him and flung him down at her feet. He wept and embraced her knees…all at once she understood everything. Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes, she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come…” Back in the barracks, Raskolnikov “knew by what infinite love he would now redeem all her sufferings.” “Instead of dialectics, there was life, and something completely different had to work itself out in his consciousness.” “Under his pillow lay the Gospels. He took the book out mechanically…’Can her convictions not be my convictions now? Her feelings, her aspirations at least…'” Only seven years. “but here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality…”
I’ll have more to say about the book in my posts this week. For now, I’d like to share this excerpt from an essay by Hugh Curtler, published in the “Journal of Aesthetic Education” regarding Raskolnikov’s dream — a section I found puzzling to say the least.
“Dreams play a central role throughout the novel, of course, to reveal hidden fears and desires. Thus we can find important hints or clues in these dreams to help us better understand the dreamer. In the epilogue, however, the dream Raskolnikov remembers having had while in a fever is more straight-forward — despite being recalled rather than experienced directly.
In his dream mankind is revealed as afflicted by a “pestilence” characterized by general behavior strikingly similar to Raskolnikov’s throughout the “experiment” which led to the death of the old pawnbroker woman and her sister. We are told that “it distressed [Raskolnikov] that this ridiculous fantasy lingered so painfully and sadly in his memory, and that he could not shake off for so long the impressions of his delirious dreaming.” Indeed not! This dream represents the reductio ad absurdum of his nihilism. He knows that there can be no further attempts to justify the crime. His theory makes no sense, and the fact that he faltered is no mere “blunder” — it was inevitable, not only for him, but for anybody. He is no extraordinary man, and his theory carried to an extreme is absurd: no man can be extraordinary and remain human. There is very little left to support Raskoilnikov’s attempts to justify his crime at this point. His Napoleonic ideal is a bogeyman. Raskolnikov is like everyone else, difficult though that might be for him to admit, and like everyone else he shares a common morality that condemns his action.
Even with such a generous interpretation of what is clearly an important event in the epilogue, however, we must hesitate. To be sure, the dream raised serious doubts in Raskolnikov’s mind about the intellectual viability of his theory and consequently about the possibility of justifying the murder. The madness that characterized the nihilists in Raskolnikov’s dream terrified him. Two alternatives seemed open: suicide, as in the case of Svidrigialov, or madness, as in his dream. But while his dream did in fact leave his rationalizations in shambles and frightened him to the core, it is a bit too much to ask the reader to accept the premise that the proud creature who produced these arguments is now ready “to accept torments in order to redeem his act”: that he now feels genuine remorse. Loss of pride, after all, must not be confused with momentary self-deprecation. Dostoevsky, of all people, should know this. The entire episode is contrived. This is especially clear if we examine the details of his dream whose “meaning” is so obvious as to require no interpretation whatever.
The men in Raskolnikov’s dream were afflicted with an Asiatic pestilence and behaved “like men possessed and out of their minds. But never, never had men thought themselves so wise and unshakable in the truth as those who were attacked.” They considered their moral convictions and creeds “infallible. . .each thought he was the sole repository of truth and was tormented when he looked at the others. . . they could not agree that what was evil was good . . . Men killed one another in senseless rage.” Dostoevsky is on his soap-box, but if the message is not yet clear, he proceeds:
The most ordinary callings were abandoned because each man put forward his own ideas. . . The plague grew and spread wider and wider. In the whole world only a few could save themselves, a chosen handful of the pure, who were destined to found a new race of men and a new life, and to renew and cleanse the earth.
We sense that we are being taken by the hand and led somewhere we do not necessarily want to go. If we ignore the problem of the peculiar nature of the dream itself, however, other problems remain.
We can easily imagine that such dreams might well strike terror in the sensitive soul of a man like Raskolnikov, given his feverish state. Unlikely though it is, his immense pride may lie in shambles at his feet alongside his arguments. But his pride is the mortar that has held his complex personality together throughout the novel. Dostoevsky proceeds apace: he has some new mortar ready at hand with which to replace Raskolnikov’s pride. We are now at the final stage of the hero’s “resurrection.”
Raskolnikov’s dream began an illness that put him in the prison hospital. He was “almost totally recovered” from his illness when he went “by chance” to the window and saw Sonya in the yard below. Dostoevsky describes the scene for us:
It was as if something had pierced his heart at that moment; he shuddered, and moved hastily away from the window. The next day Sonya did not come, nor the day after that; he realized that he was waiting anxiously for her. At length he was discharged. When he reached the prison he learnt from the other convicts that Sonya Semenovna had been taken ill and was in bed and not able to go out. He was very disturbed and sent to inquire after her; he soon heard that her illness was not dangerous. When she in her turn heard that he was anxious and worried about her, Sonya sent him a note, written in pencil, informing him that she was much better, that she would soon, very soon, come to see him at work. As he read the note, his heart beat heavily and painfully. As has been mentioned, Raskolnikov had never permitted himself the luxury of the “soft” emotions of compassion, sympathy, and empathy, since they would have been out of character with the extraordinary man he took himself to be. Porfiry had accurately charged that his character was “one-sided.” Presumably, however, the emotions Raskolnikov had held back for so long are now released: the tensions that tore at his soul are at last resolved. Or are they? How can they be? We must note in this regard that the compassion Raskolnikov apparently felt for Sonya in her illness might have been mere pity, which is a thoroughly selfish emotion. Further, it is almost certainly compounded by a deep fear of being alone once again: what would he do without Sonya? Without her, Raskolnikov would be trapped forever within himself, “cut. . .from everybody and everything as if with a knife.” He senses this and realizes his need for Sonya. One hesitates to call it love. The scene in which Raskolnikov rejoined Sonya after her recovery marks the final stage of his “resurrection.” It is of pivotal importance from the point of view of our present analysis, since, confused though they were, his emotions rush forward in a flood.
How it happened he himself did not know, but suddenly he seemed to be seized and cast at her feet. He clasped her knees and wept. For a moment she was terribly frightened, and her face grew white. She sprang up and looked down at him, trembling. But at once, in an instant, she understood. Infinite happiness shone in her eyes; she had understood, and she no longer doubted that he loved her, loved her forever, and that now at last their moment had come. . . They tried to speak, but they could not. Tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin, but in their white, sick faces there glowed the dawn of a new future, a perfect resurrection into a new life. Love had raised them from the dead, and the heart of each held endless springs of life for the heart of the other.
The drastic changes leave the reader breathless — and a bit incredulous. What has happened here? Has Dostoevsky prepared us, dramatically, for this scene? Note that the question is not one of psychological fact: apparently Rene Girard, who should know, was convinced of the plausibility of this scene. But one cannot reach outside the novel to determine questions of dramatic plausibility. Such a question can only be addresses by reference to the formal demands of the novel itself. In this respect, the author’s claim in this passage that “love had raised them from the dead. . .” is an obvious violation of the canons of the poet’s craft. Granted, there have been indications within the novel itself that Raskolnikov’s pride and assertiveness did not always succeed in closing out his concern for others, as in the obvious case of Marmeladov. On occasion he even allowed himself to cry: for example, once with Sonya when he attempted to explain to her his reasons for the murder, and once with his mother when he visited her for the last time. In addition, we might recall the astonishing scene in the Haymarket when Raskolnikov prostrated himself and “kissed the filth with pleasure and joy.” But in each instance we are presented with counter-forces that refuse such feelings their full charge. He no sooner gives his last ruble to help pay medical expenses for Marmeladov, then he curses his action as stupid; the joy is no sooner felt than it turns into indignation and resentment. After the scene in the Haymarket, for example, he remarks contemptuously “But why? What for? . . .If I must drink let it be all at once.” Thus, even if we are convinced that some fundamental changes have occurred, there is no reason to believe that these changes are permanent. Raskolnikov’s motives for confessing the murder at the end of the novel are no less confused than were his motives for committing the crime in the first place. And, as we have seen, nine months in prison do not seem to have changed matters much. In the first stage, Raskolnikov has reverted to his former state: “His lively conscience could find no particularly terrible guilt in his past, except a simple blunder. . .that might have happened to anybody.” Once again, at this point, his pride dominates his personality, and even though the dream of the second stage described above may be powerful enough to reduce his pride, they cannot replace his preoccupation with himself, his “selfish egoism.” It is far-fetched to suppose that his pride has now been replaced by love for another person. Even his apparent concern for Sonya in the final stage, as we saw, may be nothing but an expression of his concern for himself. His need for the woman resembles the child’s need for his mother. It is not love in the sense that there would appear to be no real concern for the Other. At no time has the ability to give himself to another human being been detected in Raskolnikov’s personality as a permanent feature of his complex personality. Why are we to assume that it is now?
We must recall, after all, in the scene mentioned above when Raskolnikov called on his mother for the last time, he threw himself at her feet, and we were told it was “as though, after all these dreadful months, his heart was all at once softened. He fell down before her and kissed her feet, and they wept, with their arms around one another.” This scene has a remarkable similarity to the later scene with Sonya, and we have no reason to believe that Raskolnikov will not revert to his old self in the latter case as he did in the former. That is to say, we are simply not prepared by forces operating within the novel for the, supposedly, profound changes in Raskolnikov’s personality. No matter how brilliantly Dostoevsky takes us through these three stages described above, Raskolnikov remains incapable of love as his sister had feared. The incursion into the novel of the idea of freedom, Raskolnikov’s “resurrection into a new life,” is of primary importance in the description of Raskolnikov’s dream (which occurred, please note, during “the latter part of Lent and early Easter”), and in the scene described above, with Sonya. Dramatic presentation is of decidedly secondary importance. Indeed, to achieve any degree of dramatic plausibility, Dostoevsky must resort to coarser emotions — pity for the “pale and thin” hero and heroine with their “white, sick faces”; romantic sentimentality and sodden religiosity intrude as the two face together “a perfect resurrection into a new life.” Indeed, the phrase “into a new life,” and the description of Sonya and Raskolnikov as thin, sickly, and white occurs repeatedly within the space of a few pages. It is a testimony to the genius of Dostoevsky that we take Raskolnikov’s “resurrection” seriously. But preaching is one thing and poetry another, and it behooves the teacher of criticism to keep the two separate. Dostoevsky’s epilogue is sheer melodrama.
Dramatically, the tensions within the novel have been resolved as the novel proper ends; philosophically they have not. Dostoevsky still has something to say: he wants to continue to wrestle with a problem he will try to work out poetically in his later novels. But in his preoccupation with a particular idea, with Raskolnikov’s return to humanity, he has become impatient to settle certain questions about the healing power of love, and to resolve deep-rooted psychological tensions within the space of a few breathless moments. In this novel Dostoevsky has betrayed the only sort of “truth” that should have concerned him as a poet and he has therefore failed artistically.”
We’ll begin reading The Idiot on Monday, so in the meantime, there’s plenty of time for you to post your responses to the book we just finished. What did you think of it? Is the book a philosophical study? A thriller? A psychological study? If you read the book in high school or in college, how do your impressions now compare to then? Is the Epilogue, as both Curtler and Colin Wilson suggest, a failure? Do we believe that Raskolnikov can or even wants to be redeemed? Post your thoughts…