Crime and Punishment Creative Writing

by Anna A. Berman and her RUSS 224 students

When the students in my Russian literature course, RUSS 224: Russian Literary Giants 2, finished reading Crime and Punishment I gave them the opportunity to respond to the novel in a more creative form than the traditional essay. They had two options to choose from: one focused on narrative voice and the other on characters and ideology.  The samples included here capture the richness and diversity of their responses.


FIRST PERSON PASSAGES

Dostoevsky originally planned to write Crime and Punishment in the first person and we spent time in class looking at samples from his notebooks of this aborted version.  So the first option I gave students was to rewrite a passage of the novel in Raskolnikov’s voice and then to reflect on how the experience of writing in the first person changed their understanding of Raskolnikov’s character or Dostoevsky’s choice to switch to third-person narration.  Included here are four passages from very different points in the novel that capture a range of approaches to depicting Raskolnikov’s psyche.

Part I, Chapter 7, Raskolnikov has just committed the first murder

All at once, the clouding and dizziness ceased. My body was numb, but my mind was clear, yes, that I could be sure of. I remember even feeling some satisfaction from how careful I was not to stain myself. But these hands, these miserable hands would not stop trembling. They utterly repulsed me.

Fearing above all that my lucidity would escape me, I intently focused on the next step. The keys, the keys in her pocket. Yes, I had to go open the drawer in the next room – ah, but these wretched keys! Their jingling was like torture to me, and in a flash, I felt the urge to drop everything and leave. Ha! Fool! It was too late now. I grinned at the absurdity of it. But another horrifying thought struck me – she could still be alive. Why that ludicrous idea came into my mind then, I will never understand, but I was suddenly overcome with immense panic, with the conviction that she might be recovering her senses, that perhaps at this very moment, she was bending over my back with an axe herself.

In utter fear, I ran back, and then the axe was somehow raised over it. But it was all red – I stopped myself and bent down. Perhaps if I touched it… I jerked my hand back. No, it was obvious enough without that. It was done, it was done, there was no doubt about it.

I remember only fragments of what came next, pieces that I was desperately latching onto as my focus was starting to flee. One moment her purse was around her neck, and then it was in my pocket. I remember the string that was holding it was red too. Or was there no string? And then came those wretched keys again, and I was fumbling with them… Why, why would they not go into the keyholes! And these cursed hands that would not stop shaking! God, how they repulsed me! Distractedly, I noticed that they were red too. But this key… the largest key had to fit into some other trunk. Yes, that had to be it, old women always kept their trunks under their beds! Ha! It fit perfectly. I immediately began wiping my hands on some red silk coat I found in the trunk, reasoning that the blood wouldn’t be so noticeable on red, before suddenly coming to my senses with a pang of fear. Lord! Even then, I remember wondering if I was losing my mind.

Marie Hardouin is a fourth-year student at McGill completing an honours degree in biology.

Part II, Chapter 6, Raskolnikov goes back to visit the apartment after it has been renovated/cleaned and rings the doorbell

The workers conversation ruined the apartment almost as much as the flowered wallpaper and the cleaned living room. I stopped listening to their conversation and moved to the bedroom, hoping it would be just how I left it. The wallpaper in this room was the same, but it didn’t feel as it had without the furniture. I stared at the room that suddenly felt smaller, it was the same place, but the feeling I experienced the last time was gone. This room I had thought about so often, the locked trunk and chest, was now just a room. It no longer had anything to do with me or that lady. I went back to sit on the window again, I was even more disappointed now. Suddenly, I remembered the doorbell. I ignored the workers and went straight to the landing outside the apartment. I grabbed the bellpull and rang; the tinny sound pulsed in my ears and my heart began to pound. I began pulling the bell again and again, shuddering as I felt the blood rush through my veins, this, this bell, it was the same! It was as if my body was back in that apartment holding the door shut, the ringing coursing through my body. The panic I had felt welled up inside me, it was the same hideous and painful sensation; the physical feeling was the same, but this time with no threat of capture, the feeling was euphoric.

“What do you want? Who are you?” cried the workman, coming out towards me.

The feeling I had experienced couldn’t be hindered now by this workman, or even the renovations. Despite it all this was the same place, and the rush was the same. I stepped back inside the apartment, a wave of calm washing over me even though my heart continued to pound as the ringing of the bell played over and over in my head. I smiled to myself as I responded, “I want to rent this apartment, I’m looking it over.”

Kari Hollett is a fourth-year student at McGill in the Honours Biology Program.

Part V, Chapter 4, Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonia

“Take a good look”, I uttered, and with it, my heart froze. I stared at Sonia, only it didn’t seem like Sonia. Lizaveta’s face appeared, and just like when I held the bloody axe, her emotions danced around on her face. I could almost smell her fear from that night, almost feel her hand that she thrust out to protect herself. She seemed to shrink, staring at me and quivering in fear as a scared child does. This, all of this, came through Sonia’s face, almost as if she was re-enacting that night. Only, she wasn’t pretending. She stared at me. Her eyes betrayed her terror. I drew a reflexive quick breath as she touched my chest with her left hand. I wondered if she could feel my heart, the cold emanating as it pumped stone-like ice through my body. She got up from the bed, backing away. Her eyes stayed locked on mine. My throat tightened as I felt her waves of fear flow towards me.  Her emotions, as well as mine from that fateful night washed over me, drenching me, drowning me until I could stand it no longer.

“Have you guessed?” I whispered, breaking the silence and with it, the horrible, fearful calm that had taken over Sonia.       

“Good God!” she wailed, a stab in the heart. Sonia sat back on the bed, her head in her hands. She jerked to up to her feet and quickly moved towards me. She took my hands in hers. She stared into my eyes, and I felt her question pass through them. But I saw her hope disappear as she realized the truth of my deeds. Her eye contact became painful as I felt the horror of her realization wash over me.

“Stop, Sonia, enough! Don’t torture me,” I begged her. It was over, the truth exposed, yet I felt no better.

Hannah Clarke-Andrews is a first year student at McGill University majoring in political science.

Epilogue, Chapter II, Raskolnikov’s resurrection

As soon as she sat beside me, the tormenting storm of thoughts relented; its fragments fell into the river like autumn leaves. I turned to her. Sofya Semyonovna, little mother, daughter, sister, how gaunt you looked in that poor old wrap! She smiled at me, and I braced myself for the familiar stirrings of scorn and frustration in my soul—but none came. Trembling, still sick, Sonya offered me her hand; taking it in mine, I glanced at her timid eyes quickly and fleetingly. In them, I watched eagerness battle restraint. New thoughts surfaced: that I had missed and worried about her, that her endurance outmatched the strength of all the world’s great men, that I may not be so alone. I looked down. Shame and anguish cracked open my heart…the nag’s legs gave way.

Suddenly I found myself kissing the sun-baked ground, except this time at Sonya’s feet—not in the Haymarket. How it happened again, I do not know; I wept openly and clutched at her knees. Sonya first jumped up in shock, but her quivering softened and melted into the excitement of an infinite happiness…her eyes flashed as she understood my love and repentance. And love it was! Through her I embraced those torments of the past, and felt their roughness begin to scrape my skin clean. Life replaced loathing; her soul lit up my own. I was struck by my idiocy: how stupid had I been to assume I contained and deserved greatness? …What had Porfiry Petrovich said? “The point lies in me, not in time.” Perhaps the point lies in neither; perhaps it lies beyond both. We tried to speak but could not, and so just stood there, two Lazarus brothers, tears standing in our eyes. Raskolnikov, come forth. And I that was dead came forth. At last, the moment had come…

Ethan Mendell is a fourth-year student at McGill majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Russian Culture.


RASKOLNIKOV AND BAZAROV WALK INTO A BAR…

Crime and Punishment (1866) was published less than five years after Turgenev’s Fathers and Children (pub. 1862, set in 1859), which my class read just before it. This means the heroes of the two novels were roughly contemporaries.  Both novels feature a young man with big ideas who considers himself to be above those around him.  The second option I gave students was to imagine a meeting of these two characters, beginning from the prompt “Raskolnikov and Bazarov walk into a bar…”. The dialogues students produced explored a range of questions:  What would the pair talk about?  Would they find points of commonality in their worldviews, or would their meeting result in a bitter clash?

Dialogue 1

“I have been ruined! Ruined… My wife, my friends, even my children have abandoned me because of a drunken, terrible mistake…. I never meant to harm my neighbour, only to teach him a lesson to be more respectful during sleeping hours… God will never forgive me, Oh Lord, what I have done!”

The drunken old man in the corner of the tavern was rambling away. Raskolnikov heard a malicious scoff next to him, belonging to a young man with sharp features and piercing green eyes.

“Fool,” muttered the green eyed man scornfully.

“What’s foolish, the crime or the man?” asked Raskolnikov. The green eyed man let out a distasteful laugh.

“The man clearly. He let his primitive emotions take over and control him and then has the gall to drivel about guilt and all this romantic nonsense. His emotions got him to this miserable place, and now they bind him there forever. If God is who he asks for forgiveness, I do not blame his family’s disloyalty. Bazarov is the name,” nodding a disinterested but courteous glance to Raskolnikov.

“Raskolnikov. So if reason not emotion drove him to the crime, would you despise him less?”

“Yes,” Bazarov answered without hesitation. “If he killed for science, he would not moan like this and my ears would be spared.” Raskolnikov smirked. This Bazarov man was quite astonishing. Bazarov continued,

“You see, for the scientist (I, myself am a doctor) life and death are just part of an inevitable biological process. The heart beats or it doesn’t. If a scientist chose to stop a heart and dissect a warm body, he does so calmy by logic and thus does not torment himself with guilt. He knows man is a collection of organs – a spleen, an intestine, a stomach—which are not special to him, but common to everyone. The laws that protect this commonality are simply false authorities that he casts aside. But for majority– dolts like him,” Bazarov gestured to the old man, “life is sacred and boundlessly mystical; death is the evil that puts an end to it. He thus feels a double burden of ending this God-given sacredness,” Bazarov smiled sarcastically, “and being the evil that brought death.”

Raskolnikov grew agitated. Was he a dolt? Was his torment a mere symptom of this fact? He felt an irrepressible need for this stranger to comfort him.

“What if one kills for the benefit of everyone? Not for scientific progress, but for human progress.”

Bazarov frowned. “Scientific progress is human progress. How can one life be responsible for humanity’s progress on plainly social terms?”

Genevieve is a second-year student at McGill majoring in History and minoring in Russian studies. She is very passionate about Russian culture and literature, and currently holds the editor position of the McGill Russian student paper, Samizdat.

Dialogue 2

Interior, tavern. Enter Bazarov, walking very upright, dressed fairly sharply. Walks over to bar, standing next to a tall man, hunched over and dressed in rags. He puts some money on the bar top.

B: (to barman) Flagon of ale brother. (turns to leave with his drink, knocking into the hunched man as he nurses the last drops of his pint). Excuse me… unless… surely not

Raskolnikov: (looking up timidly) Evgeny Vasilovich?

B: Exactly, brother. It’s been a long time. You look terrible. Come, let me buy you a drink and sit with me. I have some questions for you

R: Bazarov, I insist, do not give me your charity. I can buy my own drink (scrapes some coins together from a fraying pocket)

B: (confused) My table is over there in the corner

(they walk over to the table.)

B: So, brother, I read your article.

R: My article? What do you mean (fearfully)

B: Your theory on extraordinary men? I have to say I thought it a waste of time in many respects. There are no extraordinary men, only slightly less ordinary ones, and why must the ordinary respect the law? It is as man made as this table, and just like the table if it is broken it should be thrown out in place of something new. You spend too much time grappling with morals when there is work to be done. One cannot change the world with words alone.

R: Oh… that article. I didn’t know it had been published. How did you know it was me? (takes a big sip)

B: It’s all the rage in our circles. You’ve caused quite a stir, if you look for it in the right places. Everybody knows it was you, it’s clear as day.

R: W-Wonderful (eyes darting sideways).

B: You could say it makes sense, which it surely does, but in my view its unnecessary work and unforgivable tangling with philosophy (grimaces). We don’t need moral justification like that; to which authority are you justifying yourself?

R: (stares in silence for a moment) To myself, to what is right?

B: Right? (laughs) My friend, there is no such thing as ‘right’. What works is what is right. Whether Napoleon was right on the Eighteenth Brumaire is of no more importance than whether a serf would be right to march on Moscow this evening. If they go to replace what needs replacing, they should do so with their consciences clear.

R: Surely you must set your morals by some standard? Napoleon could be justified by his greatness and his vision, but your serf has neither.

B: Brother, that is irrelevant. It infuriates me how close you are, yet you hang on to these outdated moral authorities. We land in the same place, but your route to get there is all wrong. Napoleon is justified by the failures of France, not by the strength of his mind.

R: How can you deny the existence of great men?

B: I am a scientist, Raskolnikov. I have examined countless creatures. Perhaps I dissected an ‘extraordinary’ frog once, but unfortunately you cannot tell from the inside. We are what we are made up of, and we are all made of the same flesh.

R: (sees a police officer through the window and shrinks somewhat into his chair. Finishes the last of his drink) Evgeny, we agree on a great deal but this I cannot accept. Spend some time in my area of the city and you will come to know the difference between people. Some are Napoleons, or Pushkin’s (Bazarov laughs), or Bazarovs, but where I live, they are in short supply. Mean and vicious moneylenders, squalid alcoholics and simple, selfless sinners live in their place.

B: Truly, I hear it can be brutal there, just like that murder the other day. But if you examine the open skull of that pawnbroker and put it side by side with Napoleon’s, the only difference would be in age.

R: (coughs, looks at his watch, goes pale) Perhaps… Evgeny I have to leave, I-I have an appointment. Give my regards to that friend of yours (stands up hurriedly)… what’s his name? Artur? No… (absentmindedly as he leaves) Artiom? (hurries off)

B: Arkady… (laughs to himself, shrugs and drinks his ale)

Fin.

Jack Preston is a second year Political Science Major from the UK, minoring in Russian Culture.


Anna A. Berman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University (Montreal, Canada). Her book Siblings in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: A Path to Universal Brotherhood was published by Northwestern University Press in 2015 (You can read our book interview with her here). She is a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society Readers Advisory Board.

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