Friday, February 27, 2015

THE OPEN-ENDED NOVEL (2) DOSTOEVSKY, "Crime and Punishment"

Although Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866) in the same decade that Turgenev published his Fathers and Sons, C and P, in size and structure, has little in common with Turgenev's work.

C and P tells the story of a contrite murderer, Rodion Raskolnikov, who, unfortunately, is both contrite and un-contrite at the same time. Raskolnikov, in fact, has a split personality and is a typical example of one of Dostoevsky's paranoiac types.

In reading this novel you get the feeling that the author wants his main character saved in the end, wants Raskolnikov to somehow choose the way of the saintly Sonya, who knows in her heart that this man is good and wants him along with herself, in the camp of Jesus Christ.

But Dostoevsky finds himself in a quandary: the novel has run to 450 pages and the main character is still good and evil simultaneously. So the author makes one last effort to get Raskolnikov right with God in the epilogue.

Here we learn that Raskolnikov had once helped a poor consumptive student and his ailing father, had, as well, rescued two little children from a fire. But still he is proud, and for Dostoevsky pride is of the devil. Until the hero humbles himself he cannot hope to be saved.

Note the episode describing Raskolnikov, under Sonya's influence, on the way to the police station to confess his crime. She tells him that he must fall down and kiss the earth he has defiled. He does. But then, when bystanders begin laughing at him, his pride reassert itself and he fails to say aloud (as Sonya has told him) "I am a murderer." Note the comments of the bystanders:

"It's because he's on his way to Jerusalem, boys, and he's saying good-bye to his family and his country. He's bowing down to the whole world and kissing the famous city of St. Petersburg and the soil it stands on" (Norton Critical Ed. of C and P, Jessie Coulson trans., p. 445).

This is a telling statement. Sonya (and Dostoevsky) would like to think that Raskolnikov is bound for  "Jerusalem," where he can find expiation of his crime and salvation, but he still has a long way to go. He is supposed to kiss the good earth, an ancient symbol of warmth and benevolence for Russians, but he ends up kissing the soil of St. Petersburg--the city that, for Dostoevsky symbolizes all the unease and malevolence that works on his hero's psyche, symbolizes, as well, the evil and rationalist ideas imported to Russia from the West.

Back to the epilogue. By the time we arrive here the author is desperate to get his hero saved. Dostoevsky, Christian author that he is, would have the reader believe that in a sudden burst of light, and, of course, with the help of the saintly Sonya, his hero finally receives God's grace:

"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. . . . . But at once, in that instant, she understood. . . she no longer doubted that he loved her forever and that now, at last, the moment had come. . . . " (463).

Thing is, I don't believe a bit of this. Here we have a mentally ill character who goes round and round for 463 pages, alternating Christian love with satanic hatred, and suddenly he finds himself a salvation of sorts. The whole passage is, basically, made up of empty, forced rhetoric. The author, exasperated with his crazy character, prods him with a stick, forcing him, finally, over onto the lap of Jesus Christ:
"Come on, now. Get on over there! Stop resisting; I said you're saved!"

Of course, even Dostoevsky realizes the false note here. He starts hedging around almost immediately on the last two pages of the epilogue, suggesting that no, Raskolnikov is really not quite saved yet. He will still have a difficult struggle ahead of him. What has just happened, the clasping of Sonya's knees, the receipt of God's grace, is just the first step on his path to salvation.

Oddly enough, Dostoevsky ends Crime and Punishment by describing how the story is not over, suggesting that another whole novel might have to be written before the story is finally told:

"But that is the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration, of his slow progress from one world to another, of how he learned to know a hitherto-undreamed-of reality. All that might be the subject of a new tale, but our present one is ended" (465).

This writing of a novel that is not finished when you get it written recalls Nikolai Gogol and his magnum opus, Dead Souls. Gogol ended the first volume (the only one published in his lifetime) on a lofty note, promising great things to come, including the redemption of his rogue hero Chichikov and many other wonderful developments for Russia in the two volumes to come. In his megalomania Gogol seemed to believe that when he finished the trilogy of Dead Souls he would find the secret to the meaning of Russian reality and of life itself. He never finished even the second volume to his satisfaction, and when his great dream died he went crazy and starved himself to death.

The one thing that the endings of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons have in common is that both authors, at the ends of their works, were doing a lot of wishful thinking. See previous posting on Turgenev ["The Open-Ended Novel (1)]. At least Turgenev's epilogue is an epilogue that wraps things up. Dostoevsky's is an epilogue that leaves the book totally open-ended.

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