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Crime and Punishment -an Invitation for Discussion

Atsushi Sakaniwa
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Dostoyevsky Boom

I have noticed a few things in particular recently as I lecture on Russian language, literature, and culture. For one thing, the number of students learning Russian language has increased. Business ties with Russia have been strengthened, and students who diligently study to earn certificates and improve their Russian language skills have come to stand out from the crowd. For another thing, while there are literary youth and history buffs, as ever, overall opportunities for students to encounter Russian literature and culture are waning.

Notwithstanding this decline, however, Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) is in a class by himself.

When I ask: Who has read the works of Dostoyevsky?, hands go up all over the classroom, and I feel relieved. I have fresh memories of the release of the new translation of the best seller The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), and with the release of the new translation of Crime and Punishment (1866) this summer, it seems that the Dostoyevsky boom will continue going strong. Along with these releases, works by Russian authors such as Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, and Tolstoy are in the spotlight again as well.

This time, I would like to reflect on the significance of modern literary study by focusing on the appeal of Crime and Punishment, which was written nearly 150 years ago.

The Appeal of Crime and Punishment: Dostoyevsky’s Characters

I am currently reading Crime and Punishment along with all the students in a civics class. The class has a lively atmosphere, and I heard an opinion the other day that was particularly interesting. The story of Crime and Punishment revolves around the murder of an old lady by a former student named Raskolnikov after he had borrowed money from her, and the mental anguish he suffers after he has committed this crime. While the reader’s attention would seem to be drawn to Raskolnikov, a woman in this class said that she was “moved by Raskolnikov’s mother, Pulkheria, particularly the letters she wrote to her son.” Upon hearing this opinion, many other students said that they agreed with her. They pointed out that the long letter that arrives at Raskolnikov’s residence before he commits the crime poignantly conveys the worries of a mother for her son living away from home. Pulkheria’s worries seem odd to me, since her son is old enough to be a university student, but the woman in this class views Raskolnikov from the perspective of his own mother.

Hearing this discussion, I recognized once again the power of Dostoyevsky’s character development. Dostoyevsky carefully develops supporting characters where other writers might give a cursory development and be done with it. The characters are wholly independent from their author, Dostoyevsky, betraying paradox at their core—so realistic that they seem to be real flesh-and-blood people. This is the very reason that Pulkheria captivates readers. And there is a host of other fascinating characters in Crime and Punishment such as Marmeladov, who turns to the bottle after losing hope in society and in his life, and his wife Sonja, who becomes a prostitute in order to support her family. Readers of all ages—men and women, boys and girls—can explore the world of Dostoyevsky’s stories from the various vantage points that he creates. I believe that this is the key to unlock the mystery of the Dostoyevsky boom.

An Invitation for Discussion: Dostoyevsky as Prescription for the Mind

In his Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Art, the literary scholar Bakhtin (1895-1975) uses the term polyphony (i.e., many voices) to describe Dostoyevsky’s novels. According to Bakhtin, in nearly all novels other than Dostoyevsky’s, the writer controls the characters and the voice (consciousness) of the writer is reflected in the monologic, unified world within the story. For Bakhtin, the characters in Dostoevsky’s novels, on the other hand, have independent voices which resonate in polyphonic discussion, unending and existing on equal footing with the writer’s voice in the world that he created. In this way, the reader too can be drawn into the characters’ discussions.

I believe this construction stimulates each individual modern reader. Let us consider the reader’s vantage point in light of Bakhtin’s ideas. In monologic novels, the reader is confronted with the writer’s voice emanating from the work. This is akin to a one on one conversation, and for a reader who has very different ideas from the author, or who is not equipped to handle the interlocutor, such a conversation can become drudgery.

Polyphonic novels, on the other hand, involve many participants in friendly group discussions and debates. The reader is free to relax and participate in the exchange, free to sympathize with the various ideas voiced (and at times oppose them), or free just to listen to what others have to say, which is also fine on occasion (I have listened to many a roundtable on Dostoyevsky’s works, and the lasting impression I have is of truly enthusiastic participants voicing their opinions, but I digress.)

Literary works foster the capacity for discussion and provide an arena for rigorous training toward that end. Above all, Dostoyevsky’s polyphonous novels open numerous avenues and extend invitations for discussion to readers. It has been pointed out in recent years that interpersonal relations have become shallow, and the capacity for discussion and ability to imagine one’s counterpart are deficient. In spite of the profound content of these full-length novels, Dostoyevsky’s works function as a symbol of the yearning for rich interpersonal interaction which can be seen as a prescription for the mind of modern man, who craves discussion among others.
(Although I was not able to treat them due to the amount of text, it would be wonderful if your interest has been piqued regarding aspects such as the Christian motif expressed through Crime and Punishment, the 19th century Russian society—rife with irony—where these works were created, and further, Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries.)

Atsushi Sakaniwa
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Sakaniwa was born in Tokyo in 1972 and graduated from the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences 1 at Waseda University, completing the Special Course in Russian Literature in 1996. Professor Sakaniwa also completed the Doctoral Program in Russian Literature at Waseda University, earning his PhD (in Literature). After serving as an assistant in the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, he began his current position in 2008. Professor Sakaniwa specializes in 19th century Russian poetry and philosophy. His works include: A Study of Fyodor Tyutchev: Self-Awareness in 19th Century Russia (Manual House, 2007), Gestures of Modern Russia (Toyo Shoten, 2003); and his translations include: Arseny Tarkovsky’s, Before the Snow (Choeisha Co., Ltd., 2007), and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Russia under Avalanche (Collaborative translation, Soshisha Publishing Co., Ltd., 2000)