Emerging From Claustrophobia: The Landscape of Redemption

The Bible’s notion of the “promised land” has had a profound influence on secular literature. Modern authors have reinterpreted this biblical ideal to include any land of redemption or salvation. This is an important concept in both Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Kafka’s Amerika. While these novels present very different images of the Promised Land, both focus on the protagonist’s sense of claustrophobia until the moment of deliverance. Thus, whether their deliverance is mental or physical, both protagonists’ salvations lay ultimately in a sense of spatial freedom.Amerika begins with a corrupted ideal of America as the land of redemption. Karl goes abroad because he has inadvertently impregnated a servant; he is sent away to escape from paternity charges and his societal sin. Parallels can be drawn between Karl and the biblical Joseph, who also must leave his home because he is similarly blamed for an older woman’s sexual advances. When Karl arrives in America, he is greeted by a bright light: “a sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he saw it in a new light. (3)” This can be likened to the Israelites’ exodus, which is guided by a pillar of fire: “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light. (Exodus 13:21)” However, a crucial difference between the biblical guiding light and Kafka’s is that, despite its brilliance, the latter illuminates a foreboding entrance—the Statue of Liberty holds a sword instead of a torch. Despite this detail, America, for the moment, remains a landscape of freedom: “The arm with the sword rose up as if newly stretched aloft, and round the figure blew the free winds of heaven.” This image suggests that America, the Land of Freedom, may also be Karl’s House of Bondage. Joseph has a similar experience—he escapes Potiphar’s wife’s advances only to be thrown in prison. When he manages to get out of prison, he becomes an important figure in Egypt, the land where his people will eventually become slaves. Thus, Karl too goes unknowingly into a new land which may prove the antithesis of the Promised Land he thought it to be. His alienation is underscored in biblical terminology. He describes himself as “fighting for justice in a strange land (22)” as Moses refers to himself as “a stranger in a strange land. (Exodus 2:22)”Despite his idealized image of America, no doubt stemming from the European conception of America at the time as the land of opportunity, Karl discovers a country of oppression. At first, under his uncle’s tutelage, he feels well received and safe. But even then, he begins to be claustrophobic. In fact, before disembarking from the ship, he finds himself “squeezed uncomfortably (5)” in the stoker’s bunk. It is under this physical oppressiveness that Karl makes his first personal connection, with the ship’s stoker. This friendship soon disintegrates as Karl trades it for alliance with his Uncle Jacob. Despite his uncommonly plush lodgings at his uncle’s, Karl is almost a prisoner. His only contact with the city outside his room is the view from his balcony and windows, but he is kept from enjoying this pleasure by his uncle who “frowned with annoyance if he ever found Karl out on the balcony. (40)”The first time Karl leaves New York City, he goes to Mr. Pollunder’s country house. It is here that Karl feels the most overwhelmed by his claustrophobic surroundings. The house itself is oppressive. Mr. Pollunder says, ” ‘Don’t you find that one gets a kind of free feeling on coming out of the town into the country?’… ‘He talks,’ thought Karl, ‘as if he knew nothing about this huge house, the endless corridors, the chapel, the empty rooms, the darkness everywhere.’ (80)” But it is not just the labyrinth of dark corridors that contributes to Karl’s claustrophobia: “everything cramped him here (82).” He feels attacked by Clara, to the point where he sees Mack, her fiance, “as a deliverer. (69)” He is physically trapped by his host when Mr. Pollunder questions him: “And he put his arm round Karl and drew him between his knees. (79)” When they are done talking, Karl finds that Mr. Pollunder has his arm tightly around him, “and involuntarily he struggled to free himself from Pollunder’s arm. (82)” He envisions a clear but impossible escape: “the road leading to his uncle through that glass door, down the steps, through the avenue, along the country roads, through the suburbs to the great main street where his uncle’s house was, seemed to him a strictly ordered whole, which lay there empty smooth and prepared for him, and called to him with a strong voice. (82)”However, once Karl leaves his uncle and his uncle’s friends, his journey leads him to more oppression and labor comparable to slavery. He finds work in Rameses, a town that shares its moniker with the biblical city the Israelites built while in bondage in Egypt: “Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses… And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigor. (Exodus 1:11-14)” Karl describes the hotel’s workers with similar narrative force. He is shocked by the intensity of the work: “he had had no conception of such work as this (198)”. “After a twelve-hour shift, coming off duty at six o’clock in the morning, he was so weary that he went straight to bed without heeding anyone. (148)” The grueling work contributes to Karl’s progressive sense of enclosure and alienation. When Karl leaves the hotel, he finds himself trapped once again in a compromising position serving Brunelda, a domineering, obese woman whose puppet-like lover, Delamarche, Karl knows from his previous journey. As their mutual friend Robinson, who had been Brunelda’s servant until Karl’s arrival, points out, “this isn’t service here, it’s slavery. (242)” Karl finds himself literally suffocated by Brunelda’s fleshiness when he tries to escape: “he flinched in an involuntary but unsuccessful attempt to escape from the pressure of her body. (248)” She is the ultimate contribution to Karl’s claustrophobia: “his head, which was pressed against her breast, he could move neither backwards nor sideways. (252)”Thus, instead of a land of freedom, America becomes Karl’s land of bondage from which he must escape. His escape mirrors the biblical Exodus in its dramatic composition. Karl follows a job offer for the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma claiming, “Everyone is welcome! … Our Theatre can find employment for everyone, a place for everyone! (272)” Karl notes that even “destitute, disreputable characters (295)” are hired. In the biblical exodus, Moses also insists on everyone’s inclusion. He will not even accept Pharaoh’s offer to let all but the cattle go: “And Pharaoh called unto Moses, and said, Go ye, serve the Lord; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed: let your little ones also go with you. (Exodus 10:24)” The Israelites leave Egypt in a hurry; they cannot take anything with them, or even wait for their bread to rise. Similarly, Karl notes that “no one carried any luggage; the only thing that could be called luggage was the perambulator. (296)” The dramatization of the hiring process recalls more biblical significance. The prospective employees’ journey is begun by passing through a field of women on pedestals: “hundreds of women dressed as angels in white robes with great wings on their shoulders were blowing on long trumpets that glittered like gold. (274)” These angels, signifying redemption, blow trumpets, which is a biblical signal to the Israelites to assemble and continue their journey: “Make thee two trumpets of silver; of a whole piece shalt thou make them: that thou mayest use them for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps. (Numbers 10:2)” Trumpets also indicate deliverance: “And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies. (Numbers 10:9)”The Israelites, like the new employees of the Nature Theatre, have no concept of where they are going, but trust in the unknown promised land. Karl’s excitement is underscored by a long-awaited release from the confines of his previous life in America. “Only now did Karl understand how huge America was. (297)” The America Karl crosses on his way to Oklahoma holds new promise. Even the confines of his train compartment cannot take away his newfound feeling of freedom: “Everything that went on in the little compartment, which was thick with cigarette-smoke in spite of the open window, faded into comparative insignificance before the grandeur of the scene outside. (297)” Images of wide-open landscapes abound in the novel’s final scene. “Masses of blue-black rock rose in sheer wedges to the railway line; even craning one’s neck out the window, one could not see their summits. (297-8)” This landscape of mountains, valleys, and streams is in sharp contrast to the view from the balcony in Karl’s room at his uncle’s in New York, where he had “little more than a view of one street, which ran perfectly straight between two rows of squarely chopped buildings. (38)” Thus we expect Karl to find in the promise of Oklahoma the land of redemption his initial experiences in America did not offer.Crime and Punishment presents a character in a similarly claustrophobic environment whose redemption comes not in wide-open landscapes, but in prison in Siberia. However, for Raskolnikov, the protagonist who mentally torments himself after murdering a pawnbroker, prison provides release from a mental, rather than physical, claustrophobia and anguish.Like Karl, Raskolnikov is completely alone and poor in a strange environment. He lives in a small room, “more like a cupboard than a place to live in… tucked away under the roof of the high five-storied building. (1)” The small enclosure contributes to Raskolnikov’s claustrophobia: “It was a tiny little cubby-hole of a place… and so low that anybody of even a little more than average height felt uncomfortable in it. (23)” This environment also contributes to Raskolnikov’s isolation: “A more slovenly and degraded manner of life could hardly have been imagined, but it suited Raskolnikov’s present mood. He had resolutely withdrawn from all human contacts. (23)” But Raskolnikov is also mentally alienated because he thinks himself superior to everyone else and therefore cannot relate to others. He agrees with a conversation he overhears: “Kill her, take her money… don’t you think that thousands of good deeds will wipe out one little, insignificant transgression? …Nature must be guided and corrected. (56)” He uses this “superman” philosophy to justify his actions: “What he contemplated was ‘no crime’. (61)”After the murder, Raskolnikov’s sense of isolation grows due to his intense guilt and feverish delirium. Initially, he questions his sanity: “A dark and tormenting idea was beginning to rear its head, the idea that he was going out of his mind and that he was not capable of reasoning or of protecting himself. (69)” He feels so culpable that he doubts his own faculties: “The conviction that everything, even memory, even the simple power of reflection, was deserting him, had begun to torment him unbearably. ‘What if it is beginning already? Can this really be the beginning of my punishment?’ (76)” Intense self-condemnation leads Raskolnikov to new lows: “In his soul he was tormentingly conscious of a dreary feeling of eternal loneliness and estrangement. (87)” Even though he is conscious of his situation, Raskolnikov rejects all offers of help, friendship, and support. “He had cut himself off from everybody and withdrawn so completely into himself that he now shrank from every kind of contact. (1)” He is so guilt-ridden that he expects impending accusation from everyone, and is thus unable to trust anyone—even his mother and sister.The city of St. Petersburg adds to Raskolnikov’s oppression and alienation. It is dirty and crowded and the people are poor. The intense, “stifling” July heat contributes to the claustrophobia, and causes the smell of sewage to pervade the city. “The stuffiness, the jostling crowds, the bricks and mortar, scaffolding and dust everywhere, and that peculiar summer stench… all combined to aggravate the disturbance of the young man’s nerves. (2)” There is no way Raskolnikov can be free of his physical and mental oppression while remaining in the city.Raskolnikov’s only escape from his mental prison is his dreams. Their hallucinatory quality is a far cry from the city’s dirty bustle and the murderer’s guilty conscience. “He [loses] himself in a maze of waking dreams (58)” that represent the antithesis of his world—an Egyptian oasis, “clear and cool” water running over brightly colored stones. The bright, pure dream imagery has biblical resonance. The clean water, contrasted to St. Petersburg’s dirty diseased canals, represents the pure baptismal water of the New Testament: “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Revelations 22:1)” However, even his dreams are invaded by the claustrophobic imagery of his doomed reality. During one delirious hallucination, “A fly woke up, bumped against the window pane, and set up a whining buzz. (235)” This same fly appears when Raskolnikov wakes from his dream: “Only a large fly buzzed and bumped against the pane. (236)” Like the trapped fly, Raskolnikov is trapped within the confines of St. Petersburg and of his tormented, guilty conscience.Thus, the only way Raskolnikov can escape his doomed existence is to leave St. Petersburg and morally cleanse his conscience through confession. Confession is the biblical path to redemption: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)” Confession is also linked to baptismal purification, and the “wide, solitary river (463)” in the Siberian prison camp is suggestive of the Jordan’s biblical significance: “and [they] were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:5)”However, it is difficult for Raskolnikov to actually confess. Once he does, he finds himself reliving his murderous act: “the moment had come… This moment felt to him terribly like that other, when he had stood behind the old woman, after he had freed the axe from its loop. (345)” Raskolnikov’s confession allows him to cross the boundaries he has been struggling with since committing the crime. But even if the confession acts as a catharsis for his mental anguish, he still must escape from the claustrophobic confines of St. Petersburg. Porfiry, the policeman who is following the psychological aspects of Raskolnikov’s case, tells the criminal that after a legal confession, after he does “what justice demands… you will regain your self esteem. Now you need only air, air, air! (388-9)” Porfiry recognizes that Raskolnikov is both mentally and physically stifled in St. Petersburg. Raskolnikov asks Porfiry, ” ‘What sort of prophet are you?’ (389)” It is interesting to note that Porfiry, the policeman who will send the criminal to Siberia, is seen as the prophet who will send him to the land of redemption. While it is paradoxical that Raskolnikov’s land of redemption is in fact a Siberian prison, Siberia proves infinitely less confining than St. Petersburg and, moreover, it is the mental rather than physical oppression from which Raskolnikov must escape. Despite the physical encumbrance of his “crowded little room,” he feels “refreshed and renewed” once a legal confession is imminent. “A way out had been found! Until this, everything had been too oppressive and confining, had crushed him with its overwhelming weight… he had begun to feel suffocated and hemmed in, without escape… he could not live alone with such a deed on his mind! (376-7)”Once he is imprisoned in Siberia, Raskolnikov still struggles to attain complete redemption. He watches the nomads’ tents across the river. “Freedom was there, there other people lived, so utterly unlike those on this side of the river that it seemed as though with them time had stood still, and the age of Abraham and his flocks was still present. (463)” This alludes to John 8:32-33: ” ‘and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?'” Raskolnikov seems unable to fully achieve his freedom—“an anguished longing disturbed and tormented him. (463)” However, all of a sudden, “how it happened he himself did not know (463)”, he attains the one element lacking from his redemption: love. “He loved her, he loved her forever, and… now at last, the moment had come… (463)” The importance of the “moment” recalls the moment of the crime and the moment of confession, which have somehow become entangled in Raskolnikov’s mind. Now, he is referring to the moment of redemption, “a perfect resurrection into a new life. Love had raised them from the dead. (463)” The biblical language indicates a final, complete redemption. Jesus says, “they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (John 5:29)” Raskolnikov is thus redeemed through love and resurrected, as proved by the numerous textual references to the raising of Lazarus. Like Martha’s confirmation of her faith in the Lazarus story, Raskolnikov’s realization of his love for Sonya leads to resurrection and renewal.Both Karl and Raskolnikov attain spatial freedom from their claustrophobic lives. Of course, we cannot be sure that Oklahoma will be the promised land Karl expects, since Kafka never finished the novel, but the imagery of limitless landscapes that we are left with suggests that Karl’s quest will soon come to fruition. Like the Jews leaving Egypt, Karl leaves a land of slave labor for unknown but promising territory. Raskolnikov, however, knows where he is headed but has trouble getting there. The moment of his confession and his realization of love finally allow him access to redemption, and as his delirious and guilt-ridden persona dies, one of love and “gradual regeneration (465)” is created. Like the gospels preach, confession purges one’s sins and leads to renewal; thus Raskolnikov, despite being physically imprisoned, is emotionally redeemed and can now strive for a new life.