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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