The First Part of the Novel – The Symbolism of Raskolnikov’s Dream
In “Part One” of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous 19th century novel Crime and Punishment, the beleaguered former-student Raskolnikov feverishly contemplates committing a “vile” crime, which is eventually revealed as the murder of local pawnbroker Alyona. Raskolnikov’s inner turmoil as he considers this crime takes the form of an ominous, frenzied delirium, manifested primarily by somatic symptoms. While this sickness paints a clear picture of Raskolnikov’s sense of agitation and unrest, it fails to elucidate any rational explanation of the terrible but nondescript crime he contemplates. This inability to vocalize his intentions leaves Raskolnikov feeling deeply conflicted but ultimately paralyzed to make any decision.
Before Raskolnikov can take any true action, he must acknowledge his murderous desires to himself. His drunken dream on the lawn serves as a clear turning point in this internal battle. It’s primary event — the beating to death of a mare unable to pull her heavy cart — stands in for Raskolnikov’s own potential crime and the conflict between its two main characters is analogous to Raskolnikov’s deep internal confliction. Able to symbolically articulate both his murderous desires and his resulting inner turmoil through a dream, Raskolnikoff overcomes his inability to explicitly name his crime, eliminating a vital internal barrier within himself and driving him towards his ultimate completion of the act.
Prompted by the letter from his mother, Raskolnikov’s dream returns him from the chaotic desperation of his adult life to his childhood, a place of clearer reality: “a setting so truthlike and filled with details so delicate [it] makes a powerful impression on the deranged nervous system” (106). Within this “singular actuality” of the dream, Raskolnikoff can finally articulate (through symbolism) his own inner turmoil regarding the crime he plans to commit (106). The initial description of the town’s landscape as “gray and heavy” with “a dark blur on the very edge of the horizon” and the presence of the graveyard creates a foreboding, arcane atmosphere that directly mirrors the reticent nature of Raskolnikov’s own internal world (107). Raskolnikoff navigates this dark landscape as a young boy, both attracted to and frightened by the “horrible figures” within the town (108). This too reflects Raskolnikov’s present internal conflict, as he obsesses over the “loathsome…thing” he wants to do but also remains so “intensely repulsed” by it, he cannot actually name the crime (19).
Raskolnikov’s sense of self polarizes further as the dream continues and his young, dream self takes interest in a group of peasants who plan to beat a “thin, sorrel” mare to death as she is unable to pull her heavy cart. It is here that the metaphor becomes clear (108). This beating represents the crime Raskolnikov considers committing. And Raskolnikov’s own representation is split between Mikolka, the mare’s owner, and his younger self. As Mikolka, Raskolnikov feels the mare is useless to society if she cannot perform her task and, therefore, should be beaten to death. As a child, however, Raskolnikov stands under the literal shadow of his father and the church (both moral influences on him ) and is overwhelmed with a sense of moral outrage, unable to understand why the people would torture “the poor horse” (115). This situation foreshadows Raskolnikov’s plans to murder pawnbroker Alyona, whom he feels is useless and parasitic (much like Mikiola does the mare). Similarly, the polarity between young Raskolnikov and Milkola demonstrates how deeply conflicted he feels about committing this crime. While the dream fails to resolve Raskolnikov’s conflicting feelings regarding the murder itself, its projects that confliction into an active visual, forcing him to witness his own inner turmoil. This confrontation of himself ultimately translates into a newfound ability to name him crime — Raskolnikov declaring, as he wakes up, his desire to “take an axe [and]…strike [Alyona] on the head, split her skull open” (116). This pivotal breakthrough ultimately leaves him with but one decision left to make — whether or not to kill the pawnbroker — a choice that he makes with new decisiveness, now that he has already admitted his true desire.
While most of part one is characterized by a furtive, unrevealing atmosphere of trouble to come, the dream signifies a major turning point that brings a new sense of clarity to both Raskolnikov and the audience about the true origins of his delirium. Finally confronted with the truth of his intentions and the polarity of his feelings, Raskolnikoff becomes newly able to articulate his criminal desires. Not only does this set the stage for Raskolnikov’s ultimate decision to murder the woman, but also works to define dreams within the novel as moments of ironic clarity, cutting through the fog of somatic delirium and revealing Raskolnikov’s true, controlling emotions.
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