Strategies for Teaching Literature 1: An Evolution of the Narrative Techniques of Dostoevsky by Wes Schaller

Crime and Punishment: An Evolution of the Narrative Techniques of Dostoevsky

by Wes Schaller

The notebooks of Fyodor Dostoevsky have both complicated and enriched the analyses of Crime and Punishment. Whereas some writers may employ the notebooks to supplement and illuminate their ideas, others may regard them as irrelevant territory—not to be used within the realm of critical analyses. This dilemma will necessarily be addressed later on, for the disparity between an author’s evolving intent and his final product is indeed significant, though I will endeavor to make relevant what some may perceive as irrelevant. Nevertheless, the driving purpose of this essay is to shed light on certain narrative techniques by comparing Dostoevsky’s rough draft of Crime and Punishment—written as a first-person narrative—to the final product—written in third-person omniscient. Incorporating such a comparison into creative-writing courses entails numerous advantages, precisely because the change in narration yields significant effects; illustrating these effects can ultimately broaden a writer’s understanding of how the narrative voice functions in any given novel.

One writer in particular has done well to build a foundation for this study: Gary Rosenshield, in his article “First- versus Third-Person Narration in Crime and Punishment,” juxtaposes passages from the rough draft and the final version, bringing evolving elements of narration into focus. Rosenshield’s choice of passages follows a simple logic: only so many pieces of the rough draft are comparable to the final version, such that they “result in significantly different effects” (399). Upon comparison, it becomes clear that Dostoevsky made a wise decision in switching to third-person narration, for the advantages of the final product are irrefutable and abundant. Yet Rosenshield’s analysis, despite its accuracy, is incomplete and potentially misleading; it suggests that third-person narration is invariably preferable, and fails to acknowledge the advantages of the first-person original. Thus, I will revisit the same passages juxtaposed by Rosenshield,[*] explain and examine his analysis, and then cast light on certain comparisons that have yet to be illuminated.

But first, the issue of relevancy. An author’s intentionality is a subjective requisite for interpreting literature, and Dostoevsky’s intent has been the subject of much debate. The notebooks of Dostoevsky, however, seem to make possible the merging of intent with content—that is, they make possible an objective interpretation of the author’s work. Consequently, Edward Wasiolek, in “The Notebooks for Crime and Punishment,” raises a valid question: “Is not the work enough? … Many have told us, again and again, that to go outside the work, whether to life or time or rough draft, is fruitless, unilluminating, perhaps even dishonest” (5). Of course, Wasiolek is in favor of stepping “outside the work,” but the warning he echoes is apt to be considered by instructors. I argue that the relevancy of the notebooks is entirely dependent on how they are used; in the present case, the differences between the passages from the rough draft and those of the final product can only inform, not confuse. Other portions of the notebooks suggest alternative modes of narration, plot, and character development. Ultimately, the notebooks have become almost necessary companions to Crime and Punishment—instructors who are reluctant to incorporate them into the classroom risk withholding gold mines of knowledge, and thus risk rendering their lessons incomprehensive. This essay is an example of how visiting the notebooks—contrary to what many have told us—can prove fruitful, illuminating, and honest.

The following passages illustrate Raskolnikov’s escape from the murder scene. Whereas the final version emphasizes action, the notebooks feature a retrospective analysis:

Notebooks: In the streets. How did I have enough strength for that! My strength was leaving me so quickly that I began to lose consciousness. Remembering now in detail everything that happened there, I see that I have almost forgotten not only how I walked in the streets, but even in what streets. I remember only that I returned home by a completely opposite way. My strength and my memory were leaving me with extraordinary speed. I still remember that minute when I managed to get to V. Prospect, but after that I remember only badly. I remember as if in a dream someone hailing me close by: What do you know; he’s drunk. I must have been very pale or was swaying. (Dostoevsky 106-107)

Final Version: And yet by no means did he dare to quicken his pace, though there were about a hundred steps to go before the first turning. “Shouldn’t I slip through some gate and wait somewhere on an unfamiliar stairway? No, no good. Shouldn’t I throw the axe away somewhere? Shouldn’t I take a cab? No good! No good!”

Here at last was the side street; he turned down it more dead than alive; now he was halfway to safety, and he knew it—not so suspicious; besides, there were many people shuttling along there, and he effaced himself among them like a grain of sand. But all these torments had weakened him so much that he could barely move. Sweat rolled off of him in drops; his whole neck was wet. “There’s a potted one!” someone shouted at him as he walked out to the canal. (Dostoevsky 85-86)

There exists a multitude of narrative disparities between these two passages. As Rosenshield argues, the notebooks compromise the experience by filtering it through the “consciousness of the narrating self,” the result of which is a certain “temporal and psychological distance” (400). Indeed, with the notebooks, Raskolnikov the Narrator is not in harmony with Raskolnikov the Experiencer; iterating the phrase “I remember” reinforces that this is a reflection of a past event, thus evaporating suspense and removing the reader from the action. The final version closes this distance by merging Raskolnikov’s consciousness with the experience—or as Rosenshield puts it, “the interior monologue and … the surrounding narrative describe the same moment in time” (401). This fusion is achieved in several ways. One, the use of dialogue to convey emotions keeps Raskolnikov in the moment. Iteration of words—each question beginning with “Shouldn’t I” and answered with “No good”—indicates a crippling mental acceleration; Raskolnikov’s consciousness is shuffling through options at lightning speed and discarding them all the same, until relieved by the sight of the side street. Secondly, the final version shows rather than tells, allowing the reader to ‘hear’ the shout of a passerby (“There’s a potted one!”) as opposed to merely being ‘told’ that the shout occurred. Furthermore, as Rosenshield notes, the final version maintains a “chronological continuum” (401), such that events are reported, not as they are remembered, but as they actually occur.

What Rosenshield fails to acknowledge, however, is the unique psychological insight that the first-person narration provides. “Raskolnikov” is derived from “raskol,” which in Russian means “split” or “schism.” This theme of division is evident in Raskolnikov’s personality—his oscillating between crime justified by intellect and altruism justified by emotion. Therefore, I argue, Dostoevsky wrote the notebooks with the intent of rendering the narrative equally schismatic. The “temporal and psychological distance” results in two Raskolnikovs—the narrator and the experiencer—engaging in a sort of dialogue, unlocking certain psychological insight not present in the final version. For instance, Raskolnikov in the final version, given his iterated questioning and dismissal of options, seems to be experiencing a sort of mental acceleration; the rough draft, however, reveals that this panic is derived not from acceleration, but rather from fatigue. His “strength” is waning rapidly, insofar that he is beginning to “lose consciousness.” He is unable to execute a rational decision, because each passing second is the loss of physical and mental energy. Moreover, the spectator in the final version suspects that Raskolnikov is drunk because he is sweating, but the ‘dialogue’ between the narrator and experiencer yields extra details: “as if in a dream … I must have been very pale or was sweating.” Rather than listening to an omniscient narrator judging these events from a distance, the reader ‘hears’ the voice of Raskolnikov, instilled with painful retrospection, revisiting the disturbed vision of a dream-like state of mind. Indeed, it is the converse of the final product: it tells rather than shows. Nevertheless, Raskolnikov’s presence in the notes is genuine and powerful. Whereas in the final version we judge and analyze him, in the notes we are invited to appreciate, if not empathize with, his psychological condition.

This notion of psychological insight is particularly evident in the next set of passages. What follows is an unambiguous difference between cognitive reflection and omniscient narration:

Notebooks: I became myself again when I went through the gate of our house; no one was there. But I was in such a state as to be past fear and taking precautions … I had already started up the stairs, but suddenly I remembered the ax. I don’t understand how I could even for a single moment forget about it; it was after all necessary. It tortured me now. It was the last pressing difficulty I had to take care of. I had to put it back, and that was of first importance, and yet I was so exhausted I had forgotten about that. Oh God what torments they were! How difficult it all was, and it was only a miracle that it was all accomplished, that I passed through all those terrors then without being noticed. (Dostoevsky 107)

Final Version: He was not fully conscious when he entered the gates of his house; at least he did not remember about the axe until he was already on the stairs. And yet a very important task was facing him: to put it back, and as inconspicuously as possible. Of course, he was no longer capable of realizing that it might be much better for him not to put the axe in its former place at all, but to leave it, later even, somewhere in an unfamiliar courtyard. (Dostoevsky 86)

The narration of the notebooks is again schismatic; Raskolnikov continues to share his story as if he were now an evolved being, using the phrases “such a state” and “I don’t understand how I could …” to qualify his self-analysis. The final version, instead, evaluates Raskolnikov externally, employing the omniscient tone in “Of course,” and the hedged assertion “might be” to illustrate how Raskolnikov could have acted otherwise. Rosenshield does well to note that the third-person narrator “makes this statement as if it were fact, not commentary”—the difference lying in the choice of words: “no longer capable of realizing” rather than “should have realized” (403-404). The result of this omniscience is a fusion of narration and analysis—a more concise paragraph that facilitates characterization without compromising action.

Nonetheless, where the final version succeeds in what Rosenshield calls “immediacy,” it is weak in its psychology. The notebooks again provide valuable insight about Raskolnikov’s mental state, telling us that he is “past fear and taking precautions.” This explains why he doesn’t consider leaving the axe in the courtyard. The final version generalizes Raskolnikov as “not fully conscious,” but the notebooks make clear that his emotions are oscillating—his apathy is established (“past fear”) and then immediately replaced with anxiety when he remembers the axe (“It tortured me now”). Although they narrate the same event, the two versions paint entirely different pictures of Raskolnikov and his emotions. Again, it is this dialogue between the narrator and experiencer that unlocks psychological insight; the retrospective “I” voice grants the reader access to the cognitive rhythms of the murderer.

Interestingly, the following passages show how psychological insight can maintain suspense in the narrative. Chronologically, the two follow an identical linearity:

Notebooks: Coming down again through the gate I saw that the door to the caretaker’s room was ajar but not locked. Therefore the caretaker was either there or somewhere close by in the yard. But I had so lost by then the capacity to reason and control myself that I walked up directly to the door and went down the usual three steps into the caretaker’s place and opened the door. What I would have said to the caretaker if he had asked me: “What do you want?” I would have said nothing; I would not have been able to say anything, and would have betrayed myself by my strange look. But the caretaker was not there. I took out the ax and put it in its former place under the bench, covering it with a log, so that it lay as before. I remember as in a dream that I was even glad and satisfied when I was finished with the ax. Then I went out, closed the door, and went home. I met no one, not a single soul right up to the apartment itself. The landlady’s door was closed. Entering my room I immediately threw myself on the bed. I didn’t fall asleep, but fell into unconsciousness or semi-unconsciousness, because if at that time anyone had entered my room, I would have leaped up at once and cried out. Scraps and fragments of thoughts swarmed in my head … a whole storm of them … I don’t remember a single one … (Dostoevsky 107)

Final Version: Yet everything worked out well. The caretaker’s door was closed but not locked, meaning that the caretaker was most likely there. But by then he had so utterly lost the ability to understand anything that he went straight up to the door and opened it. If the caretaker had asked him, “What do you want?” he might simply have handed him the axe. But once again the caretaker was not there, and he had time to put the axe in its former place under the bench; he even covered it with a log, as before. He met no one, not a single soul, from then on all the way to his room; the landlady’s door was shut. He went into his room and threw himself down on the sofa just as he was. He did not sleep, but was as if oblivious. If anyone had come into his room then, he would have jumped up at once and shouted. Bits and scraps of various thoughts kept swarming in his head; but he could not grasp any one of them, could not rest on any one, hard as he tried … (Dostoevsky 86)

The third-person narration succeeds in almost all ways, mostly due to its conciseness. This is the final moment of the crime, in which the fate of Raskolnikov will be determined by his next few actions; to hinder its pacing with psychological reflection would be counter-intuitive. Rosenshield acknowledges, correctly, that the constant awareness of Raskolnikov’s retrospective tone in the notebooks “diffuses suspense and divides the reader’s attention” (405). Indeed, suspense is amplified in the final version, but with the glaring exception of its opening sentence: “Yet everything worked out well.” It is not the sudden revelation that undermines suspense—Dostoevsky’s anti-climactic idiosyncrasy has its intentionality—but rather the manner in which it is presented. It reads more as a dismissive statement—an omniscient tone that hastens to invalidate Raskolnikov’s concerns about his fate. Looking back to the previous passage of the notebooks, this same revelation appears, yet the suspense is maintained by emotions (“Oh God what torments they were!”) and hyperbole (“it was only a miracle that it was all accomplished”). With access to Raskolnikov’s psychology, we are galvanized to explore the subsequent archive, curious to know exactly why the narrator is recalling these events in agony.

It is clear that third-person narration is better suited for the overall purpose of Crime and Punishment. As Rosenshield argues, the novel’s “broad canvas, including characters, episodes, and background material … could not be presented easily or objectively through the distorting prism of Raskolnikov’s consciousness” (405). Nevertheless, we should not overlook the advantages offered by the notebooks; psychology is an essential ingredient in fiction and, for some, the reason why fiction is read altogether. Also, the disadvantages of the notebooks illuminate the advantages of the novel.

Application

Raskolnikov is arguably one of the most complex characters in literature. His schismatic nature, both as an egoist-altruist and as a metaphor for the historicity of Russia,1 is what makes Crime and Punishment a timeless evaluation of the human condition. By reading the book and then its notes, one can gain a new understanding of this character—unlock a new layer of verisimilitude. Therefore, instructors are recommended to assign the reading of the notebooks after the reading of the novel, and then have students think critically about the differing narrations. The following questions, each with their own subjective answers, can facilitate discussion and promote new ways of thinking about narrative techniques:

  1. What significant advantages were gained in Dostoevsky’s choice to switch from first-person narration to third-person narration?
  2. Consider the retrospective tone of the narrator in the notebooks. How does the separation between the past and present versions of Raskolnikov affect the reader’s experience of the events?
  3. Think about the psychological insight that the notebooks provide. What new information—emotional, intellectual, or otherwise—is learned about Raskolnikov in the notebooks? How does this contribute to the narrative?
  4. How, if possible, could the advantages of the notebooks (e.g., psychological insight) and the advantages of the novel (e.g., pacing, immediacy) be combined with a new narrative approach?

An instructor can utilize these questions in a way that corresponds to his or her teaching style; such a truth is almost self-evident, and thus a prescriptive approach to the application of these questions is unnecessary. Learning theory, however, is a sort of inevitable theme of any essay with a pedagogical motive, regardless of its climate for prescription. It is with the learning objective, not so much the conceptual framework, that we are concerned here.

The immediate objective is to bring the contrast of the above narrations into focus. This can be achieved in several ways, ranging from assigning an essay on the above questions, to simply juxtaposing the passages on a projector and encouraging in-class discussion. But the ultimate and more prudent goal is to have students explore certain narrative techniques to their own advantage. After all, the aim of creative-writing courses is not to prescribe techniques, but to evolve one’s craft.* It is rare that we have the opportunity to study an author’s mind at work. Dostoevsky’s notebooks make this possible. And perhaps the most important truth to take away from the notebooks is that, with every story, even brilliant authors undergo a process: they brainstorm plots, hypothesize outcomes and reevaluate approaches; they materialize their characters through language, and only when their language is refined by a precise intentionality do their characters become ‘real.’ Becoming a “good writer” does not mean rising above this process. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Mastering one’s craft is tantamount to mastering one’s intent—students must realize that, as the content of their stories change, so, too, must their writing approaches. Instructors can teach this concept by allowing students to undergo a process similar to Dostoevsky’s. An example assignment, with three phases, would follow a distinct logic:

  1. Write a scene in first-person narration, the objective being to convey, in detail, psychological information (emotional, intellectual, or otherwise) about your character, while at the same time describing some sort of action taking place.
  2. Evaluate the scene (e.g., in the spirit of workshop). Pay close attention to the balance between the character’s thoughts and the action taking place. Is focus given to one more than the other? If so, how does this affect the reader’s experience of the scene?
  3. Rewrite the scene, only this time with a new objective: to facilitate the pacing and immediacy of the action. The essential psychological information about your character should be maintained, but in a more concise manner, as not to distract the reader from the action. Consider how you can integrate the character’s thoughts with the action, allowing for a seamless narration. You may, if desirable, rewrite the scene in third-person omniscient.

This being a sample assignment, instructors are encouraged to develop the individual tasks to better serve the edification of their students. What I want to emphasize, and essentially make static, are two aspects of the assignment: separate phases, and the notion of a “seamless narration.” The separate phases are precisely what render the assignment a process; rather than immediately seeing the assignment from start to finish, students will receive each task individually and thus undergo an evolution of their approaches. Ideally, in Phase One a student will already begin to notice the disadvantages of overemphasizing psychological reflection in a scene of action. By Phase Two, as students workshop their scenes, these disadvantages will become empirical. Finally, in Phase Three, the goal is clear: a seamless narration that integrates a character’s consciousness with a scene of action. Instructors are strongly recommended to reiterate the term seamless narration. For in attempting to conceptualize a narrative that doesn’t distract the reader—one in which consciousness and action work together, much like hydrogen combines with oxygen to form vast currents of uninterrupted water—no term is more accurate. Ultimately, when the connection between intent and technique is concretized, one can approach the page with a new sense of innovation.

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, and Edward Wasiolek. The Notebooks for “Crime and Punishment.” Chicago: University, 1967. Print.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. Crime and Punishment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.

Rosenshield, Gary. “First- versus Third-Person Narration in Crime and Punishment.” The Slavic and East European Journal. 17.4 (1973): 399-407. Print.

End Notes

            1. For an insightful study regarding the historical implications of Crime and Punishment, see Ilya Kliger’s article “Shapes of History and the Enigmatic Hero in Dostoevsky: The case of Crime and Punishment” (Comparative Literature 62.3 (2010): 228-245).


[*] In this essay, passages from the notebooks are taken from Edward Wasiolek’s 1967 translation, and passages from the final version are taken from Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s 1992 translation. Consequently, the passages may not be identical to those selected by Rosenshield. The effects of comparison, however, are the same.

* As a student, I have found that my craft has not so much improved as it has evolved. Here, I risk a discussion of semantics, though I believe that every story—fictional or nonfictional—has its own conceptual framework, an approach that is inherently connected to its purpose. Language has evolved us. Words and their infinite meanings shape the world around us, affect how we interact with our world, and in some ways change our way of thinking altogether. These ideas are especially true in storytelling. Generally speaking, I want to become a ‘master’ of my craft; but more accurately, as I foster individual stories, I find that a particular voice, narration or structure is being unlocked. This, as the notebooks make evident, is what Dostoevsky experienced himself—a parallel evolution of intent and technique.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s