Sunday, August 19, 2018

Crime and Punishment: "I am the Murderer!"

From the cover of a recent Russian edition.
Today I shall present and comment briefly upon two scenes from Dostoevsky's enduring masterpiece Crime and Punishment.

I am fascinated by a trio of characters (one of whom has only a minor role in the story) and how the drama of guilt, suffering, justice, and compassion plays out between them.

Personal guilt is a deep focus of the novel, but a peculiar and extreme character—Nikolay—enters in as one of the figures who represents (here in an exaggerated and unorthodox manner that is rich in poetic shock value) the sense of the universality of human sinfulness and the redeeming value of suffering. Other figures in the novel (e.g. Sonya) are more important for this theme, but Nikolay's short role has a crucial place in the story.

The scenario that connects these characters is difficult to sketch out for those who don't already know the book. Really, if anyone hasn't read this book yet, they should read it. Those who have read it should read it again.

Briefly, the police detective Porfiry Petrovitch is conducting a murder investigation which leads him into a battle of wits with the grim, idealistic proto-Nietzschean Übermensch-wannabe university student Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov.

Porfiry has a scheme to try to prompt Raskolnikov into some kind of "slip" that would reveal his involvement in the crime, and he is about to spring it when one of the house painters who was also at the murder scene, Nikolay, bursts into the room....

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Nikolay suddenly knelt down.

“What’s the matter?” cried Porfiry, surprised.

“I am guilty! Mine is the sin! I am the murderer,” Nikolay articulated suddenly, rather breathless, but speaking fairly loudly.

For ten seconds there was silence as though all had been struck dumb; even the warder stepped back, mechanically retreated to the door, and stood immovable.

“What is it?” cried Porfiry Petrovitch, recovering from his momentary stupefaction.

“I… am the murderer,” repeated Nikolay, after a brief pause.

“What… you… what… whom did you kill?” Porfiry Petrovitch was obviously bewildered.

Nikolay again was silent for a moment.

“Alyona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta Ivanovna, I… killed… with an axe. Darkness came over me,” he added suddenly, and was again silent.
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Some time later on, Porfiry Petrovitch meets Raskolnikov for an "open conversation" in which he discloses his own conviction about what really happened that night, about why Nikolay was taking the blame for something he did not do, and about who actually killed the two old women with an axe and what his real motivations were. Porfiry has no proof for his explanation. But he believes that the real murderer still has a conscience....

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Porfiry is speaking: “Do you know, Rodion Romanovitch, the force of the word ‘suffering’ among some of these people! It’s not a question of suffering for someone’s benefit, but simply, ‘one must suffer.’ If they suffer at the hands of the authorities, so much the better.

"In my time there was a very meek and mild prisoner who spent a whole year in prison always reading his Bible on the stove at night and he read himself crazy, and so crazy, do you know, that one day, apropos of nothing, he seized a brick and flung it at the governor; though he had done him no harm. And the way he threw it too: aimed it a yard on one side on purpose, for fear of hurting him. Well, we know what happens to a prisoner who assaults an officer with a weapon. So 'he took his suffering.'

"So I suspect now that Nikolay wants to take his suffering or something of the sort. I know it for certain from facts, indeed. Only he doesn’t know that I know. What, you don’t admit that there are such fantastic people among the peasants? Lots of them....

[Porfiry Petrovitch goes on to articulate all the holes and contradictions in Nikolay's strange fabricated 'confession,' showing clearly that the house painter couldn't have been the murderer. Rather, Nikolay was a religious enthusiast who wanted to 'take his suffering.']

"No, Rodion Romanovitch, Nikolay doesn’t come in! This is a fantastic, gloomy business, a modern case, an incident of today when the heart of man is troubled, when the phrase is quoted that blood 'renews,' when comfort is preached as the aim of life. Here we have bookish dreams, a heart unhinged by theories.


"Here we see resolution in the first stage, but resolution of a special kind: he resolved to do it like jumping over a precipice or from a bell tower and his legs shook as he went to the crime. He forgot to shut the door after him, and murdered two people for a theory. He committed the murder and couldn’t take the money, and what he did manage to snatch up he hid under a stone.

"It wasn’t enough for him to suffer agony behind the door while they battered at the door and rung the bell, no, he had to go to the empty lodging, half delirious, to recall the bell-ringing, he wanted to feel the cold shiver over again…. Well, that we grant, was through illness, but consider this: he is a murderer, but looks upon himself as an honest man, despises others, poses as injured innocence. No, that’s not the work of a Nikolay, my dear Rodion Romanovitch!"

All that had been said before had sounded so like a recantation that these words were too great a shock. Raskolnikov shuddered as though he had been stabbed.

"Then… who then… is the murderer?" he asked in a breathless voice, unable to restrain himself.

Porfiry Petrovitch sank back in his chair, as though he were amazed at the question.

"Who is the murderer?" he repeated, as though unable to believe his ears. "Why, you, Rodion Romanovitch! You are the murderer," he added, almost in a whisper, in a voice of genuine conviction.

Raskolnikov leapt from the sofa, stood up for a few seconds and sat down again without uttering a word. His face twitched convulsively.

"Your lip is twitching just as it did before," Porfiry Petrovitch observed almost sympathetically. "You’ve been misunderstanding me, I think, Rodion Romanovitch," he added after a brief pause, "that’s why you are so surprised. I came on purpose to tell you everything and deal openly with you."

"It was not I murdered her," Raskolnikov whispered like a frightened child caught in the act.

"No, it was you, you Rodion Romanovitch, and no one else," Porfiry whispered sternly, with conviction.


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I have read Crime and Punishment many times (more than I can count). The first time I read it was my Senior year of High School. I was 18 years old and going through my own crisis of growing up and faith and pride and (I now realize) mental illness. It left me with a vivid impression, one that seems exaggerated and strange and extreme, certainly, but which was not entirely lacking in truth, at least in the sense that poetry can communicate something of the great and awful mystery of things.

All I can say is that when I finished the book, I said to myself, "I am the murderer!"

I could not escape the powerful impression that I had just looked into a mirror and had seen my own sins, my own guilt, my own inescapable need for "all of it" to come out into the open, and for me to embark upon a path of humility, conversion, and penance.

"I am guilty! Mine is the sin! I am the murderer!"

But along with this dreadful impression, there was something else that struck me, something that was more powerful even though it felt more remote at the time: the possibility of forgiveness. Hope.

For I knew that I would not be making this journey alone.

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