Crime and Punishment: The Contrived Scenes, The Emotional Hysteria, The Melodrama
What bothers me most about reading Dostoevsky’s fiction are the melodrama, the overblown hysteria, and the hyper-theatrical staging of the scenes. As the critic Mochulsky has stated, “The principal intrigue is tragic; the accessory intrigues are melodramatic.”
Things are often staged in such a way that key characters are thrown together for key scenes. Certain liberties are taken to make sure that the central personages are properly placed. The well-off Luzhin, e.g., stays in the same lodgings as the Marmeladov family, although it is more than doubtful that even a skinflint such as he is would choose to live in such a low-class tenement. Svidrigailov takes a room right next to Sonya, and this puts him conveniently in a position to sit by the door and eavesdrop, as Raskolnikov pours out his soul to her.
Typical of Dostoevsky’s theater is the scandal scene, involving confrontations between characters, the building of tension in crescendos of hysteria, followed often by a dramatic entrance, which builds the tension still more. Interspersed with all this are a series of explosive incidents, each usually more explosive than the previous one; a final dramatic entrance usually precipitates the loudest and most devastating explosion.
Dostoevsky uses this technique in all of his novels. The best example in C and P is the funeral dinner for Marmeladov (Part 5, Ch. 2 and 3; p. 319-42 in the Norton Critical Edition). The crescendo of hysteria is interrupted by the next chapter, Ch. 4, the climactic scene of the whole novel, in which Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya that he is a murderer, while perverse Svidrigailov sits on the other side of the door, listening and chuckling to his evil self. Then Lebezyatnikov appears, to inform Raskolnikov and Sonya that Katerina Ivanovna has gone mad, and we’re off to the races again. Next comes the wild scene of the crazy woman out on the streets of St. Petersburg, bewailing her fate and forcing her small children to beg.
In the scene of the funeral dinner Dostoevsky brings in squalid background characters—poverty-stricken people who come to the funeral dinner largely because they are starving, and others who are there to gloat over Katerina Ivanovna’s misfortune—thereby providing a background chorus of squabblers, drunks and laughers for the main action, which involves, largely, Katerina Ivanovna’s incessant efforts to retain at least a glimmer of dignity. Dostoevsky is often taken as the most dead serious of writers, but there is always a comic side to the scandal scenes. Dark comedy it is, yes, but comedy nonetheless.
Of course, the main melodramatic intrigue here involves despicable Luzhin’s attempt to frame Sonya, an episode that is worthy of inclusion in the worst pulp fiction of that time. Or, to use another parallel, this is a scene out of a sentimental soap opera today. Here is what Nabokov says about sentimentality in his Lectures on Russian Literature: “Remember that when we speak of sentimentalists, among them Richardson, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, we mean the non-artistic exaggeration of familiar emotions meant to provoke automatically traditional compassion in the reader.”
Therefore, a big problem for me, and not only for me, is Dostoevsky’s frequent overindulgence in emotion, combined with flashy, cheap theatrical effects. With FMD using poor starving children to squeeze out the reader’s tears is a common occurrence. This is what we get with the scene of Katerina Ivanovna and her children on the street. Dostoevsky was already using these kind of effects in his first published novel, Poor People, and he never got completely away from the device.
Another scene that parallels—for sheer melodrama—the scene in which Luzhin accuses Sonya of stealing his money is the confrontation between Svidrigailov and Dunya in Svidrigailov’s room (Part 6, Ch. 5). Here Dunya ends up pulling a gun and shooting at her tormentor, grazing his scalp. This grazing of the scalp thing reminds me of the old Western movies I watched on Saturday afternoons as a child, and frankly, this whole scene is too overblown to be taken seriously.
So much for the weak side of Dostoevsky. But let’s backtrack a bit now. The fact that melodrama and sentimentality lessen the artistic quality of many of FMD’s scenes does not mean that all of his scenes are weak and ineffective. For me the mare beating scene is one of the most hideously effective scenes of violence in all of Russian literature. While horrifying, it is devoid of melodramatic license, as is the scene describing Raskolnikov committing murder—another piece of writing that ranks high in the pantheon of world literature.
Note that these two scenes of violence are central to the main plot, the story of Raskolnikov’s plight. Most of the melodramatic excess comes in scenes more directly concerned with subplots of the novel, where Dostoevsky is much a lesser creative artist. To repeat what Mochulsky wrote: “The principal intrigue is tragic; the accessory intrigues are melodramatic.”
Of course, a big weakness of the novel as a whole is the lack of verisimilitude in the over-sentimentalized prostitute/nun Sonya. She is simply never very believable as a character.