The Four Raskolnikovs and the Confessional Dream

by Amy D. Ronner

I am a law professor who teaches criminal procedure, a course which covers the constitutional protections for those accused of or charged with crimes. One of the burning questions in the text books is why do so many suspects waive their Miranda rights and confess? Typical conjectures blame the overbearing and devious tactics of law enforcement or the suspects’ hubristic confidence in their own skill at talking their way out of trouble. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s perspective in Crime and Punishment is far more astute. In essence, there are four Raskolnikovs and they quadriphonically divulge confessional truth.

At least unconsciously, Raskolnikov knows what he needs to sire his own deliverance. Shortly before the crime, Raskolnikov experiences what has become famous in world literature – – his dream of the suffering horse. Dostoevsky underscores the momentousness of “dreams, morbid dreams, [that] always live long in the memory and have a powerful effect on disturbed and already excited organisms.”[1] It is this “palpable and vivid” dream that predicts the future and prescribes the cure (Pt. 1, Ch. 5: 51).

In the dream, Raskolnikov is a boy visiting the countryside with his father and passing a tavern, loaded with drunken partyers. Mikolka, the owner of a large wagon, hitched to a skinny old horse, invites the rowdies to pile in and go for a ride. Although it is obvious that the horse cannot drag the overloaded wagon, Mikolka savagely beats the horse to a pulp. The incident turns into a self-defeating vicious cycle: the more Mikolka delivers lashes, the less the horse can budge and the less the horse can budge, the more the enraged Mikolka delivers the lashes. When spectators voice objections, Mikolka yells, “I’ll do what I like.” According to Mikolka, the mare is his “property,” which after being senselessly bludgeoned on the spine, “sighs heavily” and expires (Pt. 1, Ch. 5:54, 55).

Child Raskolnikov, traumatized and dashing out from the crowd, makes a futile attempt to save the horse. Eventually, he lunges at the murderer:

He yells and squeezes his way through the crowd to the sorrel, throws his arms around     her dead bloodied muzzle and kisses her, kisses her on her eyes, her lips. . . Then he        suddenly jumps up and charges at Mikolka with his little fists. At that very moment his father, who’s been chasing after him in vain, finally grabs him and hauls him out of the crowd (Pt. 1, Ch. 5: 55).

When Raskolnikov awakens, he instantly annexes his dream to the very murder he has been contemplating:

“My God!” he exclaimed. “Will I really – – I mean, really – – actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces? . . . Will I really slip in sticky, warm        blood, force the lock, steal, tremble, hide, all soaked in blood. . . axe in hand? . . . Lord,will I really?” (Pt. 1, Ch. 5: 56).

Psychoanalyst Louis Breger points out that in Raskolnikov’s “own interpretation he sees himself as Mikolka, the dream portraying his plan to kill the aged and useless old pawnbroker.”[2] While the dream does mirror the atrocity that Raskolnikov is about to commit, it also prefigures regeneration and prescribes what he needs to do to even begin to get there.

Crime and Punishment back cover: the horse dream

There are four Raskolnikovs in this dream: one, the Mikolka-Raskolnikov who seeks to assert power over and ownership of others through the irrational extinguishment of human life; two, the mare-Raskolnikov who feels helplessly trapped and beaten down; three, the boy-Raskolnikov, who compassionately leaps forth to try to spare a life; and four, the father-Raskolnikov, who swoops in to squelch the child’s heartfelt, heroic benevolence.

Here the most important Raskolnikov in the quadrille is, of course, the boy, who speaks, comes forth, takes responsibility, and tries (albeit in futility) to right a wrong. He is, after all, the antidote to a Mikolka-esque murderous tantrum, and he is, like the spirit of confession, a courageous personification of what can potentially become best in human nature. In an allusion to Nekrasov’s poem “Till Twilight” (Do sumerek, 1859), the boy kisses the mare “on the eyes” and “on the lips,” compassionate acts which extol both vision and speech as faculties that can assist heartfelt redemption (Pt. 1, Ch. 5:55). As Deborah Martinsen has pointed out in her superb blog (“Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov’s ‘New Word’”), it “matters which ‘word’ we follow.” In essence, Raskolnikov’s soul and psyche desperately need to hear and heed this little boy’s word and thus, let him “squeeze[] his way” out (Pt. 1, Ch. 5:55). The dream tells Raskolnikov, even before he has committed the offense, that what he must do to just begin to change his life is to come forth, confront that internecine Mikolka, and confess.

The dream is conterminously prophetic because it is the fourth Raskolnikov, the suppressive patriarch, who prevails by banishing the boy, by rendering him invisible, by silencing the inception of the symbolic confession, and by curtailing the heartfelt outburst. It is only after the dream-father has trumped the dream-boy that Raskolnikov opens his eyes to the realization that he is heading down the Mikolka path and might actually “take an axe” to bring his horrific project to fruition. The dream, however, is even more of a prescription than it is prognostication: it admonishes Raskolnikov to confront his own Mikolka-like instincts, to come clean, to ultimately “hug the knees” of and accept love (Epilogue, Ch. 2: 516). As such, even before he bashes Alyona Ivanovna over the head, Raskolnikov craves confession and deep inside desperately wants to join the human race.

Notes:

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Oliver Ready (New York: Penguin Books, 2014): 51. Hereinafter, I will include the Part and Chapter number, as well as the page number from the Ready translation, in parentheses in the text.

[2] Louis Breger, Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst (New York: New York University Press, 1989); 31.


Amy D. Ronner, who holds both a law degree and an M.A. and Ph.D in literature, is a Professor of Law at St. Thomas University School of Law, where she teaches Constitutional Law, Wills and Trusts, Sexual Identity and the Law, and Criminal Procedure. She is the author of five books, including Dostoevsky and the Law (2015) and Law, Literature, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence (2010). This blog is a rough adaptation of a section of her article, “Dostoevsky and the Therapeutic Jurisprudence Confession,” which appeared in The John Marshall Law Review, 40 (2006): 41.

The image that accompanies this post is from the back cover of the US deluxe edition of Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment, available from Penguin Books. 

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