Teaching Crime and Punishment in Time and Space

by Chloë Kitzinger

The following blog post emerged from a roundtable on “Teaching Dostoevsky in the 21st Century” organized by Daniel Brooks at the 2019 AATSEEL conference in New Orleans. This is the fifth in a series of posts by roundtable participants. The first four posts in the series can be found here: 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Anyone who teaches nineteenth-century Russian (and not just Russian) literature has grappled with the question: how do we go about teaching really long novels? This question has implications that reach from before the beginning to after the end of a course — for syllabus design and recruitment, assignments, grading, and beyond. What kinds of courses will place novels like Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, or The Brothers Karamazov in a frame where students feel free (and motivated) to make the investment of time and intellectual energy they demand? What does one do about all the study guides out there online — from Cliff’s-Notes-style interpretive summaries full of secondhand wisdom, to collections of passages ready-made for common paper topics? And what better tools might there be to help students dig into such exciting and bewildering narratives on a first-time reading, and make some aspects of those narratives their own?

The narrative structure of Crime and Punishment (Prestuplenie i nakazanie, 1866) poses particular difficulties. Crime and Punishment is built as a spiral — a chain of repetitions-with-variations that brings Raskolnikov ever closer to the discovery of his own true motives and identity, but that actually can become more confounding the more slowly you read it — especially in a reading that follows the novel’s own claustrophobic focus on Raskolnikov’s evolving perspective. Linger with the “pro and contra” of Part One[1]—the forces pushing Raskolnikov toward and away from murder— and the debate about consequentialist ethics may last long after Dostoevsky himself has moved on. Emphasize that the question of Raskolnikov’s self is at stake in his crime from the beginning,[2] and it’s hard not to grow impatient with how long it takes Raskolnikov to figure this out. I want to sketch two approaches I have taken to adjusting the pace of classwork to such a deliberately- (and trickily-) paced narrative.

For one approach, in a single-author course on Dostoevsky, I have asked students to think spatially, gathering details throughout their reading of Crime and Punishment that will allow them to draw a “map” (a schematic visual representation) of a key aspect of the novel or a pattern they have noticed running through it. This assignment was inspired by an experiment I recently undertook to trace the character-networks of Crime and Punishment, collating encounters and connections among characters by hand and then graphing them using the open-source, freely available visualization software Gephi.[3] I designed the network graph as a tool for teaching, in the hope that it would defamiliarize the experience of reading the novel and serve as a laboratory for exploring how one side of its fictional world is constructed. However, my students have found the task of making their own “maps” just as useful. Approaches have varied widely — from drawing Raskolnikov’s sequence of dreams in concentrated emblems, to sketching the floorplan of Alyona Ivanovna’s apartment, to designing a modified Meyer-Briggs system to classify the novel’s characters and reveal unexpected lines of affinity or opposition among them. While some students use digital tools, many choose to represent the scenes or patterns they have noticed by hand. The assignment encourages students to choose an aspect of the novel not to read sequentially — or at least, not in the sequence of Dostoevsky’s narrative — and in turn, to take on the challenge of compressing their observations into an image that fellow readers of the novel can grasp in a single glance.

For another course that includes Crime and Punishment, I have taken the opposite approach. The course, entitled “Serial Storytelling Across Media,” asks students to read Crime and Punishment as part of a continuing tradition of serial melodrama that is still evolving in the present day — together with Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837–39), Season One of David Simon’s The Wire (HBO, 2002), and Season One of Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder’s podcast Serial (2014). The course asks students to draw a connection between an experience that is no longer a common part of daily life (reading Dickens or Dostoevsky in serial installments, and perhaps later as a single-volume novel), and an experience that still very much is (waiting week-by-week for the next episode of a podcast or television serial, or — increasingly — “binge-watching” entire seasons online). Juxtaposing nineteenth-century serial narratives with contemporary ones, what emerges is the enduring power of serial form — to interweave fiction with the course of current events and the rhythms of everyday life, and to draw together (or in some cases, bitterly divide) diverse audiences of readers and viewers over the hard questions that these narratives frame. Assignments follow the divisions of original serial installments whenever possible, and throughout the semester, I ask students to keep “serial response diaries” in which they track their ongoing reactions to these narratives, and reflect on the techniques being used to shape them — from the construction and ending-point of a serial installment, to the manipulation of background music, to shifts in narrative perspective (textual, auditory, and visual alike). The course thus asks students to think about the temporality of reading, watching, and listening as an essential ingredient of the work’s effects on its audience: to analyze narrative in time and sequence, rather than abstracting them away.

Despite the clear thematic convergences across Oliver Twist, Crime and Punishment, The Wire, and Serial (crime, justice, innocence, childhood, the city…), differences of medium, style, place, and time can make their affinities hard to see. What nevertheless strikes home is the idea of serial melodrama itself as a modern forum in which audiences come together around moral, social, political, and existential questions — what Peter Brooks calls “the principal mode for uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era.”[4] The course thus offers an impetus to talk about and compare serial watching, listening, and reading habits, and to think about how ongoing experiences of the dozens of made narratives that surround us are shaping individuals and communities alike. More than any other course in which I have taught Dostoevsky, this one brings Crime and Punishment into the present — not just as a particular text, but as an experience of reading. The spiraling paths of the novel’s installments make a new kind of sense when juxtaposed with twenty-first-century narratives whose serial unfolding — with representational, rhetorical, and commercial motivations — is an intimate part of students’ lives. The sometimes-alienating length and complexity of nineteenth-century realist novels becomes, in this context, entirely contemporary, because serial form itself emerges as part of what there is to grasp.

I don’t think of these two approaches to teaching Crime and Punishment as mutually exclusive. Both strategies are attempts to address a single challenge: without compromising on the attention that novels like Crime and Punishment demand on their own inimitable terms, how do we also translate these novels into the many native languages of present-day readers? Scholars of Dostoevsky have been answering this question for decades, but it’s exciting to think about the evolving tools and cultural resonances that make this such a rich moment to confront it again.

[1] Cf. R.L. Jackson, “Philosophical Pro and Contra in Part One of Crime and Punishment” in R.L Jackson, The Art of Dostoevsky: Deliriums and Nocturnes, 189-207. Princeton University Press, 1981.
[2] Cf. M. Holquist, Dostoevsky and the Novel. Princeton University Press, 1977.
[3] I describe this project further in my forthcoming essay “Mapping the Networks of Crime and Punishment,Approaches to Teaching Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, ed. M. Katz and A. Burry (MLA “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” series, est. publication 2020).
[4] P. Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Columbia University Press, 1984 [1976], 15.

Chloë Kitzinger is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University. Her research focuses on the Russian and European novel, and she is currently completing a book manuscript entitled Mimetic Lives: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Character in the Novel. She is a member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Readers Advisory Board.

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