5. “Vous trouvez que l’assassinat est grandeur d’âme?”
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73 5 “Vous trouvez que l’assassinat est grandeur d’âme?” In the Epilogue of Crime and Punishment, after Raskolnikov has confessed and been tried for the double murder, there is a niggling discrepancy between the crime as a “brute fact” and as a “social fact.” To all appearances, the crime was an ordinary one, but the criminal, on the other hand, “did not quite resemble the ordinary murderer, outlaw, or robber, but . . . here was something else.”1 The perplexity turns upon that “something else,” that excess that makes Raskolnikov something other than an ordinary criminal. The problem, however, is that that excess is excessive. Critics have struggled valiantly with this excess in trying to solve the enigma of Raskolnikov. Some, such as Vladimir Nabokov, have thrown up their hands and blustered that Raskolnikov has simply too many and too contradictory motives to be psychologically plausible.2 Others have repeated the same procedure that Raskolnikov performs in his confession to Sonya, when he produces and then rejects (“That’s not it!”)3 one explanation after another, proceeding from the most altruistic motivation (he killed for his mother and his sister, to save them from “grief” and “offense”)4 to the most egoistic (“I simply killed, killed for myself, for myself alone”).5 The mistake here is to assume that this procedure constitutes a process of elimination, 74 Part One: Enigmas of A-synchrony whereby all the other reasons and motives are systematically excluded (like suspects exonerated), leaving the last, often least suspected suspect as the guilty party. Whether this is a legitimate investigative technique, it is standard narrative practice in crime and detective fiction, but in Crime and Punishment we needn’t mistake technique for the truth of Raskolnikov, the novel, or of the indefinite, unresolved “something else” to which Dostoevsky referred. Dostoevsky himself was perturbed by the excess and in his notebooks for Crime and Punishment gave himself a harsh ultimatum: to clarify Raskolnikov’s motive, one way or the other.6 However much Dostoev­ sky might have liked to strike from the record certain inconvenient facts, “the record” was the product of a third person omniscient narrative technique that he had developed expressly for the purpose of “seeing into Raskolnikov’s soul” while at the same time maintaining the necessary distance for crucial technical maneuvers. In other words, to adequately delineate the “something else” would necessitate reproducing the complexity of the entire novel, a complexity that Dostoevsky himself apparently regretted but could not avoid. In the interest of striking a balance between the opposing inclinations for the single and reductive versus the multiple and complex, I propose that the most fruitful approach to Raskolnikov’s “something else” is through Raskolnikov’s questions.7 In the novel, these questions, undeniably, are urgently relevant to Raskolnikov, to his personal situation and identity. They are all introduced with varying degrees of elaboration in Part I, in accordance with the necessities of the unfolding narrative. This renders moot the genesis of any single question, its external source or point of origin in Raskolnikov’s biography or psychology, and for that matter, the question ’s original form. But as the narrator notes, “none of the questions was new or sudden, however, they were all old, sore, long-standing.”8 These are indeed the old, sore questions regarding identity (the type of man) and action (the type of deed) that Turgenev, Dobroliubov, Chernyshevsky , et al. had been posing for almost a decade, and that constitute the coordinates of an image that was coming into sharper focus. The questions undoubtedly have a familiar ring to them: 1) Is he mad? 2) Is he an extraordinary man? 3) Does he dare? 4) Is there justice in it? 5) Can he endure it? Ultimately, or so the narrator tells us, Raskolnikov’s questions coalesce “into a horrible, wild, fantastic question that tormented his heart and mind, irresistibly demanding resolution.”9 In a signature move, Dostoevsky gives us ellipses rather than the question. Only much later, “Vous trouvez que l’assassinat est grandeur d’âme?” 75 in Part V, does Raskolnikov put it in words “AM I a trembling creature, or do I have the right . . .” Ironically, even though he did it, he cannot say it: it is the “pure” Sonya who must say it for him. “To kill? The right to kill?”10 In what follows below, I will show how each question establishes a critical component of he who would claim the right to kill. Is...


Subject Headings

  • Russian literature -- Political aspects.
  • Terrorism -- Russia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Terrorism in literature.
  • Alexander II, Emperor of Russia, 1818-1881 -- Assassination.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 1821-1881 -- Political and social views.
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