Posted by: gdevi | March 17, 2014

English 404: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment Notes

English 404

Dr. Devi

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment Notes

In addition to Dostoevsky’s letter about the conception of the novel that we reviewed in class, here are some additional notes for you to read over the break as you finish the novel.

As we discussed in class, the most useful way for us to read Crime and Punishment is, as Dostoevsky himself noted, as a “psychological account of crime.” Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, as the author himself noted is an exemplum of an unformed young man taken by “incomplete ideas floating in the air” that leads him to commit his crime–the murder of the old pawn-broker woman–his alienation from society and his eventual reintegration into the human fold through voluntary suffering–the punishment. Raskolnikov’s crime is a crime against humanity. But he does not recognize that. This is why everything works out too perfectly for Raskolnikov during the commission of the crime and afterwards. He can live a very happy, free life, if he chooses to do so. There is nothing that explicitly connects him to the murder. He can walk away from the crime. And yet, he cannot. Raskolnikov’s “idea” is proven wrong to him, in his own eyes.

His elegant foil is Porfiry Petrovich, the quiet, unassuming, exquisitely aware and intuitive detective–the man who immediately upon first meeting Raskolnikov implicitly understands that Raskolnikov is the murderer, but that there is nothing to tie him to the crime. He simply observes Raskolnikov over time, talks to him, and makes it eventually easier and easier for Raskolnikov to confess his crime. Porfiry is one of literature’s profound characters. You might want to pay attention to the character of Porfiry quite a bit; the universe functions as it does because of characters like Porfiry.

You might also want to pay attention to the character of Svidrigailov, an extreme example of the “superfluous man,” the man who is spiritually empty, who lives in a human/ social vacuum, and who believes he can do whatever he wants. If Raskolnikov is testing an ill-formed “idea” in killing the pawn-broker, Svidrigailov truly believes that “everything is permitted,” any account of any kind of immorality is permitted and that this is an indifferent universe. More than Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov embodies the fate of men who ruin the world for their sensuality and pleasure. This is why when the last thing that pleased him–Raskolnikov’s sister Dounia whose revulsion of him finally becomes unambiguously evident to him–drains away from his heart, he kills himself. He is hollow inside. His suicide is the logical end of a man who is empty.

Critical Excerpts on Crime and Punishment

N. Strakhov, “The Nihilists and Raskolnikov’s New Idea” (1867)

“For the first time, an unhappy nihilist, a nihilist suffering in a deeply human way, is depicted before us . . .The author took nihilism in its extreme form, at the point beyond which there is no further place to go . . . The task of the novel is to show how life and theory fight each other in man’s heart, to show that struggle in the form in which it reaches its highest degree, and to show that victory is won by life.”

Leo Tolstoy, “How Minute Changes of Consciousness Caused Raskolnikov to Commit Murder” (1890)

“The painter Bryullov once made a correction on a student’s sketch. The pupil looking at the transformed sketch, said: “You hardly at all touched my study, yet it has become entirely different.” Bryullov answered: “Hardly-at-all is where art begins”.  . . One can say that true life begins where hardly-at-all begins, at the point where changes occur which seem to us infinitely small, barely perceptible. True life does not take place where large external changes occur, where people move, collide, fight, kill one another. It takes place where hardly-at-all differentiating changes are made.  . . . [Raskolnikov’s] real life took place when he was thinking about whether or not he ought to live in Petersburg, whether or not he should accept money from his mother, about questions which had nothing to do with the old woman. The decision whether or not he would kill the old woman was made then, in that animal sphere of life completely independent of reality.”

Jose Ortega y Gasset, “Why Dostoevsky Lives in the Twentieth Century” (1968)

“But is not then Dostoevsky’s “realism” –let us call it that not to complicate things–not so much a matter of the persons and events he presents as of the way the reader sees himself compelled to deal with these persons and events? Dostoevsky is a “realist” not because he uses the material of life but he uses the form of life. In this ruse of laying false scent Dostoevsky indulges to the degree of cruelty. Not only does he refuse clearly to define his figures beforehand, but as their behavior varies from stage to stage they display one facet after another and thus seem to be shaped and assembled step by step before our eyes. Instead of stylizing the characters Dostoevsky is pleased to have their ambiguity appear as unmitigatedly as in real life. And the reader, proceeding by trial and error, apprehensive all the time of making a mistake, must work out as best as he can the actual character of these fickle creatures. Owing to this device, among others, Dostoevski’s books, whatever their other qualities, have the rare virtue of never appearing sham and conventional. The reader never stumbles upon theatrical props; he feels from the outset immersed in a sound and effective quasi-reality. For a novel, in contrast to other literary works, must, while it is read, not be conceived as a novel; the reader must not be conscious of curtain and stage-lights.”

Mikhail Bakhtin, from Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984)

All of Dostoevsky’s major characters, as people of an idea, are absolutely unselfish, insofar as the idea has really taken control of the deepest core of their personality. This unselfishness is neither a trait of their objectivized character nor an external definition of their acts–unselfishness expresses their real life in the realm of the idea . . .what is important is not the ordinary qualifications of a person’s character or actions, but rather the index of a person’s devotion to an idea in the deepest recesses of his personality. The second condition for creating an image of the idea in Dostoevsky is his profound understanding of the dialogic nature of human thought, the dialogic nature of an idea. Dostoevsky knew how to reveal, to see, to show the true realm of the life of an idea. The idea lives not in one person’s isolated invididual consciousness–if it remains there only, it degenerates and dies. The idea begins to live, that is, to take shape, to develop, to find and renew its verbal expression, to give birth to new ideas, only when it enters into genuine dialogic relationships with other ideas, with the ideas of others. . . The idea is a live event, played out at the point of dialogic meeting between two or several consciousnesses.  . . As an artist, Dostoevsky did not create his ideas in the same way philosophers or scholars create theirs–he created images of ideas found, heard, sometimes divined by him in reality itself, that is, ideas already living or entering life as idea-forces. Dostoevsky possessed an extraordinary gift for hearing the dialogue of his epoch, or, more precisely, for hearing his epoch as a great dialogue, for detecting in it not only individual voices, but precisely and predominantly the dialogic relationship among voices, their dialogic interaction . . . .”Reality in its entirety,” Dostoevsky himself wrote, “is not to be exhausted by what is immediately at hand, for an overwhelming part of this reality is contained in the form of a still latent, unuttered future Word.”


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