A Chat with Greta Matzner-Gore about Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form

Today we’re sitting down with Greta Matzner-Gore to talk about her book, Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form: Suspense, Closure, Minor Characters, a fantastic new contribution to Dostoevsky scholarship and to our understanding of the novel, form, and nineteenth-century Russian literature.

BK: First, congratulations on the publication of your book last month! Tell us a little about your book. How would you describe it to a layperson? What questions do you ask in it? What would you say is its overarching narrative?

GMG: My book is about how Dostoevsky’s works work on us.

From the very beginning of his career (I’m talking 1847 here), Dostoevsky’s readers were comparing his novels to moral mirrors—look into the hearts of his most unlikeable characters, and you’ll see yourself there. My book asks how he creates this mirroring effect, how he draws us into the ethical dramas that play out on the pages of his novels.

I argue that Dostoevsky uses a slew of innovative narrative techniques in order to do so. He ratchets up the suspense, experiments with different kinds of endings, adds or subtracts minor characters from the plot—all in a bid to better control our reading experience and, ultimately, to transform us.

BK: How did you first become interested in the question of how Dostoevsky constructs his novels?

GMG: When I was 16 years old. It was a hot day in July (really!), and I was lying on a hammock devouring Crime and Punishment. I was already a fan of detective fiction, and I was struck by how different Crime and Punishment was from anything I’d read before. What impressed me most was the powerful justification Raskolnikov had for committing his crime. In most detective stories I’d read, the motive for the murder was the weakest part of the plot—in the end you find out that so-and-so killed x number of people in order to win an inheritance, in revenge for a personal humiliation, out of jealousy, etc. The motive is never anything very convincing, and it never really matters: the point is the intellectual exercise of solving the crime, not the crime itself. But in Dostoevsky’s novel, the crime matters, and Raskolnikov’s justification for it matters too. His justification is (at least on the surface) rational and compelling: the pawnbroker is cruel, destructive, and parasitical, and the world would be better off without her in it. At one point, I even caught myself agreeing with Raskolnikov’s thought processes. Then I immediately felt horrified with myself. “Did I really just think that? Did I really just think that the premeditated murder of an elderly woman was, well, maybe not so bad after all?”

By the time I finished the novel, I was convinced that I hadn’t simply come to this thought of my own accord. Instead, the novel was designed to lead me to it—to make me feel the full logical power of Raskolnikov’s justifications for murder, and then ultimately to reject them (and the part of myself that found them convincing). That’s when I started getting interested in how Dostoevsky did it, in the artistic sleight-of-hand that makes the readerly manipulation possible. That was my first serious encounter with Russian literature, and it set the course for my entire future career.

Many years later, I learned that Robert Belknap had been teaching Crime and Punishment along more or less those same lines for decades. So my “discovery” as a 16-year-old wasn’t exactly original, but at least I was in good company!   

BK: You call Dostoevsky’s novels “maximally interactive” – what do you think is the result of this kind of art? Why does Dostoevsky pursue it?

GMG: Dostoevsky believed that art changes us, and changes us for the better. In his polemic “Mr –bov and the Question of Art” (1861), he imagined what might happen to a young man who sees the Apollo Belvedere for the first time:

And because the youth’s impression was, perhaps, an ardent one, convulsing his nerves and making his epidermis turn cold; perhaps—who knows!—perhaps as a result of such sensations of higher beauty, as a result of this convulsion of the nerves, some sort of internal change even takes place in a person, some sort of shifting of particles, some sort of galvanic current, which, in one instant, makes the past not what it was before, turns a piece of ordinary iron into a magnet.

Twenty years later, Dostoevsky insists, that (no longer young) man may still be acting under the magnetic influence of this “majestic and infinitely beautiful image,” albeit in ways that he may not fully recognize or understand. According to Dostoevsky, works of art like the Apollo Belvedere can “form” people and form them for good.

Of course, Dostoevsky knew that his own work had little in common with the Apollo Belvedere. He wrote long, messy, disorienting narratives, where the moments of “higher beauty” are few and far between. (After all, he considered himself a realist, a writer committed to portraying 19th-century Russian life in all its chaos and disorder). But he still dreamed that his novels would have a positive moral impact on the people who read them, that they would produce their own kind of ethical-aesthetic shock.

And that’s, I think, why Dostoevsky aims for “maximal interactivity.” He knows he isn’t going to electrify his readers with images of beauty, kindness, or love, so he pushes hard in the opposite direction. With the help of his seductive, morally ambivalent narrators, he immerses us in violence, cruelty, and ugliness; he encourages us to emotionally participate in them; and then exposes us to ourselves. It’s a little sadistic, to be honest. But then we’re talking about Dostoevsky here! 

BK: What are the stakes of “narrative ethics”? How does Dostoevsky bring them to the fore?

GMG: People have been arguing about the moral stakes of novel reading for centuries. For hundreds of years, the usual worry was that novels would have a morally degenerative effect on their readers. In the past few decades, however, the standard line has shifted. The most influential critics have argued that reading novels (at least certain classics, anyway) is regenerative instead. It is a kind of moral training ground, instructing readers in empathy, sympathy, and compassion; teaching them to withhold judgment and respect difference—lessons that they can then take into their day-to-day lives.

What makes Dostoevsky so interesting for me is that he plays on both of these possibilities. His narrators do seem to be “training” readers in particular habits of mind, but often in bad habits: malicious gossip, attraction to violence, hasty judgments and social stereotyping (to name just a few).

I think that Dostoevsky is still trying to write novels that will, in the final account, have a positive impact on the people who read them. But he takes his readers on a circuitous route toward that ultimate goal, pushing them to recognize their own complicity in sin first. In a sense, the plots Dostoevsky writes for his protagonists and the ones he imagines for his readers are structurally similar: we have to descend in order to ascend. 

BK: Your book focuses on three novels, mainly: Demons, The Adolescent, and Brothers Karamazov – why these three?

GMG: It happened organically. Each chapter grew out of a sense of uneasiness with each of the three novels, a sense that there was something wrong with them. As literary critics, we’re trained to look for resonances between form and content. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a fundamental disconnect between the ethical principles championed by the positive characters in these novels, and the narrative form of the novels—which often seemed to be working at cross purposes.

I could write a lot about this topic, so I will limit myself to one example: how I came up with the idea for chapter one (“Curiosity, Suspense, and Dostoevsky’s Demons”). It all started with Liputin, who always got under my skin. A self-declared “gossip” and “spy,” he is one of the nastiest characters in the novel. But nevertheless, he (through his gossiping and spying) fulfills an essential narrative function—exposition. His gossip provides insider information about Stavrogin’s secret past, which readers need to know in order to make sense of the novel’s plot. The novel is built on the very mechanisms of knowing and telling that it explicitly critiques.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that such disconnects between form and content were not the insoluble problems they seemed to be at first glance—they were the point. Dostoevsky’s novels are not written about, for, or by perfect people who have already realized his dream of universal brotherhood on earth. They are written about, for, and by people who haven’t, who are still struggling with their personal weaknesses and limitations, and who are trying to do better.

BK: What is the most exciting part of your book for you? How does this book change the conversation?

GMG: One benefit of focusing on just three novels is that it allowed me to write in-depth, holistic interpretations of each one, showing how even their tiniest textual details resonate with their biggest philosophical questions. That’s what I was aiming for, and that’s what I am ultimately most proud of. I am also excited about the new insights the book provides into Dostoevsky’s artistic process. Each chapter traces Dostoevsky’s work on a single novel, from his notebooks to the finished product: how he grapples with some question of novelistic craft, starts thinking through its moral stakes, and in the end creates a narrator who is struggling with the same challenges to ethical storytelling that he is.  

Ultimately, I hope that the book will help change the way not just Slavists, but also literary theorists and historians in general think and talk about Dostoevsky’s legacy. He has an international reputation for being an emotionally explosive writer and an influential religious philosopher. But he is also one of the nineteenth-century’s most subtle thinkers about the ethics of reading and writing fiction. He didn’t write much in the way of literary theory, but he was still a great narrative theorist in his own way.


Greta Matzner-Gore is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. A specialist in nineteenth-century Russian literature, her research interests include narrative theory, the ethics of reading, and the intersections between science and literature. She is also a founding member of the North American Dostoevsky Society’s Reader Advisory Board. Her first book, Dostoevsky and the Ethics of Narrative Form, is available now from Northwestern University Press.

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. 

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.

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