Themes In Opening Passage Of Crime And
Punishment Essay, Research Paper
What important themes, characters, atmosphere and images are set out in the first chapter of Part one of Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ ?
From the very first word of this extraordinary piece of literature, the thoughts and transgressions of Raskolnikov penetrates the heart and mind of the reader with exceptional insight, skillfully constructed suspense plots and a dynamic, autonomous hero. It is true to state that ‘Crime and Punishment’ had a profound influence on the modern intellectual climate, sparking off a wave of existentialist writings, and it is not difficult to discover why. The intricate and enthralling exploration, carried out by Raskolnikov, of conflicting internal drives, personal motivations and philosophical justification of one’s existence leads to the impulsive testing of his rights to transgress moral law.
In my view, it is possible to recognise the introduction, is somewhat tentative, of five major themes in the first chapter of this novel. The first is the persisting and amaranthine struggle between good and evil. One demonstration of this conflict can be viewed through the instability of society in Russia at that time. The need for a moral force in an irrational universe is the theme which drives Raskolnikov to committing his crime. He feels so strongly that the world is ravaged by worthless creatures that he feels it is his job as a citizen of the world to do what he finally does. His frustration is what prevents him from going completely insane as it manages to suppress the outward anger that he is holding inside of him. The supreme value of an individual is obviously the reason for Raskolnikov’s seemingly proud and self-righteous mentality. The theme which is only partially introduced in the first chapter is the of the expiation of sin through suffering. Raskolnikov could be said to be punishing himself at the start of the novel by his decline into absolute poverty and his disregard for his appearance. However, it is only later on in the novel that the reader is able to see the true redemption carried out on Raskolnikov’s part. The ultimate question that is raised in ‘Crime and Punishment’ is of how one is to live and what one is to live by, this is only answered, unfortunately, fragmentarily by the closing of the novel. The search for truth and self-fulfillment and the investigation of hidden motives are the main drives of the novel and are clarified at the outset. The intuitive understanding that Dostoyevsky had of the unconscious is manifested in the irrational behaviour of Raskolnikov and his obvious psychic suffering. The rage directed against the optimistic assumptions of rationalist humanism is passionate and strong and is introduced with courage in the first chapter. The themes of ‘Crime and Punishment’, however, can be amalgamated into a singular movement, that of existentialism. The stress on concrete individual existence and consequently on subjectivity, individual freedom and the right of choice.
There are a total of three characters introduced in the first chapter. Although initially this may seem a small number, each of the roles are described with sufficient fluidity and depth that the reader is provided with a strong case for where their sympathy should lie. Having said that, in ‘Crime and Punishment’, it is not so much a case of sympathy but that of the ability to relate in some minuscule way to any one of the characters. Dostoyevsky has portrayed them in such a light that they all possess those universal features recognised by everybody across the world. Perhaps, if this is true, it would explain the reason for the unmitigated success of one of Dostoyevsky’s last great novels that is ‘Crime and Punishment’. This technique of familiarity and relation to the characters is especially distinct in Dostoyevsky’s portrayal of his central ‘hero’, Raskolnikov. A former student with atheistic and radical ideas and convictions whose character is primarily concerned with the themes of the novel and the problem of personality. It is possible to ask whether there is room for personality in such a society as the one lived in by Raskolnikov. The society was under heavy threat from bourgeois utilitarianism and radical socialism. With the human self being as susceptible and impressionable to such suffocating movements as it is, Raskolnikov was, and still is, a representation and image of every man. A man that has fallen from grace and, in order not to get crushed by these dark forces, in the disguise of political society, needs to regain it. Raskolnikov holds great contempt for the old woman, whom he refers to as a ‘louse’, for reasons not fully displayed in the first chapter. The initial description of this woman in the first chapter leaves the reader feeling utterly disgusted;
‘She was a tiny, dried-up old woman of about sixty, with sharp, hostile eyes, a small, sharp nose and no headcovering. Her whitish hair, which had not much grey in it, was abundantly smeared with oil. Wound round her long, thin neck, which resembled the leg of a chicken, was an old flannel rag of some description , and from her shoulders, the heat notwithstanding, hung an utterly yellowed and motheaten fur jacket.’
This frank visual portrait that is painted by Dostoyevsky provides the reader with plentiful reasoning for immediately sympathising with Raskolnikov, who has ‘infinite loathing’ for this disgusting old woman. The detail that is provided by Dostoyevsky is intricate and is obviously an accurate portrayal of the image a woman created in the mind of the writer. She is a suspicious woman who is cautious of committing herself or her money to anything other than completely stable. Unfortunately, her wariness does not pay off later on in the novel. The final significant character that is introduced in the first chapter is a suspected ‘retired civil servant’ who is also in ‘a state of some agitation’. The reader, although only given a brief glimpse of this figure in the drinking den, is able to sense his forthcoming importance and relevance in the remainder of the novel.
The atmosphere of the initial chapter can be described in a single word; heat. The inaugural sentence makes clear the climate in which the novel is set;
‘At the beginning of July, during a spell of exceptionally hot weather,…’
This is not merely a weather report but an indication of the political, social climate of Russia and the mental climate of Raskolnikov. It refers to the social pressure-cooker that was overheating the country and eating away at the core of the people. The sun, which is causing this heat, is not favoured by Raskolnikov, but is sensed to be creating an almost sickly, languid and unrealistic light. References are made to the heat throughout this chapter;
‘Outside the heat was terrible, with humidity to make it worse;’
The humidity, in my opinion, is what is causing Raskolnikov so much distress. He finds it difficult to clear and sort his thoughts with the air so close, surrounding and compressing his brain. Images, it can be said, do not play a huge part in this chapter but the colour of yellow is very predominant and appears regularly during the chapter. At this of the novel, it is difficult to interpret the meaning of the extensive use of this colour but the suggestion that it reflects the draining of life from Russia as a culture that consists of people who adhere to moral law and guidance.
In the first chapter of ‘Crime and Punishment’, by Dostoyevsky, the characters and themes are introduced and established with a strong and creative flair. It gives an indication of the urban social conditions in nineteenth century Russia, describing the horrifying conditions with disturbing detail and without bias. Without a doubt, this novel pushes and breaks down barriers and rules which instruct a primary chapter to be mundane and unexciting, producing an innovative and enthralling start to a novel of similar characteristics.