Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov’s “New Word”

by Deborah A. Martinsen

As we all read and reread, blog, twitterize, and discuss Crime and Punishment in this 150th anniversary of its publication year, I have been struck yet again by the novel’s focus on ethics, its tight structure, and how the two work together. To illustrate this observation, I will cite three passages – from the novel’s beginning, middle, and end.

Passage one (Pt 1): On the novel’s first page, Raskolnikov wonders “what do people fear most? A new step, a new word of their own.” The narrator thus signals that Raskolnikov prizes originality, especially theory. The surrounding paragraph makes it clear that he is anxious about the gap between theory and action. (Attentive readers will note that in the course of the first page, the narrator moves from an outsider omniscient stance, to partial insider status using free indirect discourse – paraphrasing Raskolnikov’s thoughts, to full insider status using direct discourse to quote Raskolnikov’s thoughts verbatim in this passage.)

Ernst-Neizvestnyi

One of Ernst Neizvestnyi’s illustrations for Crime and Punishment

Passage two (Part 3, Ch 5): As Raskolnikov discusses his article on crime with Porfiry and Razumikhin, he claims that only extraordinary people have the gift or talent to utter “a new word.” Five pages later, Porfiry asks him: “when you were composing that little article of yours, well, it’s simply inconceivable – heh, heh! – that you didn’t also think of yourself as being at least a teeny bit ‘extraordinary’ as well, as also having a new word to utter, in your understanding of those terms…Wouldn’t you say, sir?” Porfiry thus voices our suspicion, putting another motive for murder on the table. In between these two fragments of the conversation, Razumikhin identifies Raskolnikov’s new word, his contribution to a current debate on natural law: “what is truly original about it all – and truly belongs to you alone, to my horror – is that, in the end, you permit bloodshed as a matter of conscience, and, if you’ll excuse me, you’re actually quite fanatical about it… This, then, must be the main idea of your article. But the permission to shed blood as a matter of conscience, well…it’s more terrifying, to my mind, than any official permission, any legal permission…” Raskolnikov notes that the idea is “only hinted at,” but now we know that a new word signifies a theory, so we have another theoretical justification for the crime.

Dostoevsky undercuts Raskolnikov’s preoccupation with originality (the “new word”) in a number of ways. First, Raskolnikov himself is a literary cliché: a young man from the provinces who comes to the big city and lives off his family. Second, in Part 1 (Ch 6), readers see that the “strange idea” in Raskolnikov’s head (killing the old pawnbroker and using her money for social good) is actually a commonplace discussed in taverns! Finally, as many of Dostoevsky’s readers would have known, much of Raskolnikov’s theory about extraordinary people comes right out of Louis Napoleon’s History of Julius Caesar, an 1865 literary sensation that was a veiled apology for himself and his uncle.

Passage 3 (Epilogue, Pt 2): As Raskolnikov mechanically takes the Gospels out from under his pillow, he realizes that he had asked Sonya to bring it to him, but he had not even opened it yet: “Nor did he open it now, but a thought flashed in him: ‘Can her convictions not be my convictions now? Her feelings, her aspirations, at least…’”

In his inimitable fashion, Dostoevsky has moved the conversation from abstract theory – “a new word” – to incarnated Gospel truth (“In the beginning was the Word,” John 1.1). Moreover, Dostoevsky debunks the utilitarian calculus with which he has been polemicizing throughout the novel. In the Dostoevskian universe, calculation is the worst sin. In Crime and Punishment, Luzhin is the greatest villain. Luzhin enthusiastically embraces utilitarianism (Pt 2, Ch 5): “If hitherto, for example, I have been told to ‘love my neighbor’ and I have done so, then what was the result? . . . The result was that I ripped my sheepskin in two, shared it with my neighbor and we both ended up half-naked . . . But science says: love yourself before loving anyone else, for everything in this world is founded on self-interest. Love yourself and your affairs will take care of themselves, and your coat will remain in one piece. . . . it is precisely by profiting myself and no one else that I thereby profit everyone, as it were, and enable my neighbor to receive something more than a ripped coat” (a nineteenth-century articulation of trickle-down economics and the prosperity gospel). A few pages later, Raskolnikov claims that Luzhin’s “theory in action” would justify murder: “Take what you were preaching just now to its conclusions, and one could stab people….” In short, Dostoevsky creates a powerful parallel between his sympathetic axe-murderer and the novel’s most despicable character. Just as Raskolnikov exposes the weaknesses of Luzhin’s theory by taking it to its logical conclusion, Dostoevsky exposes the weaknesses of Raskolnikov’s theory. He thus demonstrates that theories have consequences. It matters which “word” we follow.


Deborah A. Martinsen is Associate Dean of Alumni Education and Adjunct Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where she teaches classes on Dostoevsky, narrative, and world literature. She is the author of Surprised by Shame: Dostoevsky’s Liars and Narrative Exposure (2003; in Russian 2011), and has most recently co-edited Dostoevsky in Context (2015) with Olga Maiorova. She was President of the International Dostoevsky Society (2007-13) and Executive Secretary of the North American Dostoevsky Society (1998-2013). She is also a managing editor of Dostoevsky Studies.

This post appears as part of the #CP150 project. For more information about the project, click here.

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