Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Raskolnikov Killed

Recently, I went through many of my favorite book blogs out of curiosity to see what you all think about Crime and Punishment.  At this point, I've done this for several books before I've written my own post in order that I could try to offer a unique perspective.  Yet when I wrote my first post about Crime and Punishment, I was not yet connected in this wonderful book blogging community.  That said, I want to talk about what I believe to be the most misunderstood aspect of this novel - the motive behind Raskolnikov's murder.

I should warn you that this post may contain some spoilers, but I don't think it's a problem to acknowledge that the protagonist Raskolnikov commits a double axe murder.  It happens early in the novel and would probably be written on the back of any copy of the book.  The marvelous irony of the novel is that despite this gruesome crime, we love him anyway.  It's certainly clear that he is guilty, but he has so many other good actions and good people in his life that we tend to forgive him.  How is this possible?  To understand this, I think we must uncover his motive.

Raskolnikov himself ponders this very question.  He justifies the crime in his mind for a number of different reasons before he reaches the root cause of his action.  At first, he tried to tell himself that he needed the money and he would be doing everyone a favor because the pawnbroker was a miserable person.  However, this reasoning was quickly and resolutely rejected for several reasons.  First, he didn't steal much money at all, and he buried the money he did take without using it.  Second, he felt physically and emotionally sick about his crime, which negated the sense that her life had no meaning.  Third, he himself dismissed the idea explicitly much later in a conversation with Sonia.  Because of all these clear reasons, most people agree that this was not the true motive for his crime.

The most popular explanation for his murder is the theory of the "extraordinary man."  We find out in the story that Raskolnikov had written an article about people being divided as either ordinary or extraordinary.  According to this article, Raskolnikov believed that extraordinary people possess the ability to transgress the law without guilt or second-guessing.  Thus, it is often believed that Raskolnikov killed in order to test whether or not he was one of these extraordinary people.  Indeed, Raskolnikov himself indicates that this is his motive in that same conversation to Sonia, which is why so many readers accept this explanation.  And yet rightly so, many of you are not satisfied with it.  I read many responses in which people loved the book but were unsettled with Raskolnikov's motive.  It didn't sit right with you, and I believe that's because it shouldn't.  It doesn't make sense with the rest of the novel because it's not true.

In my mind, the real reason Raskolnikov decided to murder the pawnbroker is that he was suffering an existential crisis.  This is a fancy and pretentious way to say that he was torn within himself between polar identities.  He was trapped within his own philosophical thinking so deeply that he had lost the power to act in his life.  His fiance was gone, he dropped out of his education, he stopped working, and he holed himself up in an old lady's attic to wallow in his own listlessness.  It is clear from the very first page that Raskolnikov is already experiencing crisis and depression.  Reread the third paragraph if you aren't sure.  If Raskolnikov had merely tested a theory and failed, he would only have experienced crisis after the murder.  However, it is absolutely critical to be aware that his crisis exists long before the murder.  Raskolnikov murdered because he was so deeply entrenched in inaction that he desperately needed to do something.  In his own words, "I wanted to dare, and I killed.  I only wanted to dare, Sonia - and that's the whole reason!"

I don't want to lose you by making this too lengthy, so I will try to wrap it up.  The other significant evidence of this motive is that he is not cured by his confession.  If he was only miserable because he felt guilty, he should have been relieved once he turned himself in.  But the mightily important epilogue tells us that he has reverted back to his initial state of listless depression.  He has not found an escape from his existential crisis because his attempt (the murder) proved wholly unsuccessful.  It is only when he lets go of himself and his need for control that he experiences redemption.  And he does this through accepting the love of Sonia.  I have heard many people complain that this ending is too happy or fairytale, but I think with a fuller understanding of the novel, you can see that's not its purpose.  The point is that for the first time in the entire novel, Raskolnikov stops thinking about himself and gives himself over to another person.  He has found a way to get outside of the polarizing despair of his identity and grasp a more holistic view of what life means.  It's not about the romance as much as it is about the symbolic escape of one's self.  This becomes his solution and his only relief from the despair that drove him to act in the first place.

If you worked your way through this whole thing, thank you.  It's very significant to me because I love this book so much.  And it would also mean a lot to me to hear your feedback, because that's what blogging is all about!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Anna Karenina

I think I can safely return to Russian Literature now without seeming too one-dimensional.  I was worried I would overwhelm you at the beginning if I wrote about too much at once, but I have a corner in my heart reserved just for Russian Lit.  In an earlier post, I offered my list of the great Russian authors of the 19th century.  As I've already written about Crime and Punishment and Dead Souls, I now turn to Anna Karenina.

One can hardly mention Russian Literature without immediately thinking of Leo Tolstoy.  He has been a figurehead of the genre for over a hundred years, launching the Russians onto the literary scene on a global scale.  And I do feel that he deserves this recognition, for he is definitely a skilled writer who can harness stories on an epic scale.  Unfortunately, I have not yet read War and Peace, so I can't speak of that, but I think Anna Karenina is a good sampling.

"Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  This iconic opening line instantly brings readers to the grim reality of the dissolving relationships which are about to unfold.  The novel primarily follows the relationships of Anna and Levin.  Anna gets wrapped up in a love triangle between her husband and her lover, and Levin's story with Kitty is full of ups and downs.  They each experience happiness and heartbreak, but their endings are drastically different.

For the most part, I associate Tolstoy's writing style as more British in nature than Russian.  The Russians tend to incorporate a fair amount of black comedy, with humorous descriptions and ironies.  They also have a unique narrating style in which the narrator breaks in and out of his third-person mode in order to add personal commentary from time to time.  Tolstoy, however, writes in a consistent third-person narration and maintains a serious tone in his work.  His language is also quite proper, (in the English translation, at least), and together with his subject matter of the more elite social classes, he reminds me of his British contemporaries.  Nevertheless, there are a number of features in his writing that are quintessentially Russian.  For example, Russians love to talk about the physical landscape.  They often devote time to describing the land or mentioning the ground.  Tolstoy makes this particularly evident in his narrations of Levin at his farm.  Personally, I am a big fan of Levin, and I could feel something admirable about his devotion to his fields and workers.  And I'm a city girl!  Anna's life revolves more around St. Petersburg, which I would absolutely love to experience, but the pure farming lands are much more romantic and idyllic in this novel.

This is quite a lengthy book, so I must control myself before I write a review much longer than you'd like to follow.  Thus, I will just mention one more aspect of it that appeals to me - Tolstoy's representation of women.  I suppose I've brought up feminist themes quite a few times in my blog, but I find it fascinating these days.  In an age before women's rights were appreciated, Tolstoy illustrated just how unfairly the social system was structured.  Anna was trapped by societal expectations and prejudices much more dramatically than any of the other characters.  Her plight passionately evokes sympathy from readers, and I was definitely taken in.  In fact, I felt for many of the characters in the novel, even though they were all quite different.  I think Tolstoy did a wonderful job characterizing them and making their stories feel real.

I think Anna Karenina is a great Russian book.  Like many of its kind, it's fairly dark, but I believe it's worth reading.  There's a great story in there as well as a great author to experience.

Friday, January 21, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Last year, I decided to read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and was delighted to discover that I found it a quick and entertaining read.  Written in 1962, the novel is not very old but is often recognized as a piece of great literature.  I whipped through the story and finished the final chapter with thorough satisfaction.  Yet when I happily shared with a literature scholar I deeply respect that I had read this novel and liked it, he quickly wrinkled up his face and said, "Really?  I find it awfully anti-feminist."  All of my good feelings about the novel instantly crashed to the bottom of my gut and left me speechless.  After years of ignoring the values of feminism, I was finally on my way to great appreciation and respect for it.  How could I have loved a book that is so anti-feminist?

I'll back up for a minute and summarize the plot quickly in case you aren't familiar with it.  This is a story about a group of people in a mental institution.  They lived very quiet and routine lives until a prisoner named Randle McMurphy pretends to be mentally ill in order to serve his sentence in the hospital rather than prison.  The mental ward is run by Nurse Ratched, a cold and severe woman who controls all the patients quite strictly.  My friend saw this character as the source of anti-feminism.  She is the only significant female character in the novel, and she fulfills the "bad guy" role with a cloud of fictional evil.  She repeatedly emasculates the patients (who are all male) and essentially oppresses them.  Yet at the same time, she has an unusually large chest, which exploits her stifled sexuality and eventually acts as her Achilles heel.  When my friend pointed this out, I couldn't defend his objections and fell into quiet contemplation.  Despite his legitimate concerns, I couldn't turn my feelings against the novel, so I spent some time pinpointing the aspects of it I like.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this novel is the message that the way people perceive you can dramatically shape your own definition of yourself.  In a way, I feel that this is a concept many African American authors have addressed in literature, but Kesey also illustrates it through patients in a mental hospital.  The most significant example of this is the narrator, Chief Bromden.  So many people treated him as though he were deaf and mute that he eventually took on that persona.  Although he could hear everyone perfectly well and had the ability to speak, he spent years pretending otherwise.  Yet after McMurphy started treating him like a person, (i.e. encouraging his participation and talking to him), Bromden spoke back to him so naturally that it came out completely by accident.  Another good example of this kind of behavior is in the character Billy.  He is a nervous young man who is so self-conscious that he has developed a severe speech impediment.  However, as McMurphy builds up his confidence, even helping him gain the attention of an attractive woman, Billy's stutter disappears and his attitude is strengthened.  Sadly, the Nurse is able to radically reverse Billy's progress with just a few words near the end, resulting in tragic consequences.

I could continue along this line for just about every character in the story.  And that's what I love about this novel - the plethora of interesting and diverse characters.  Each person is very different and unique in his or her own way.  The setting of a mental hospital enables Kesey to unleash his creativity with the various personalities and disorders the characters display.  And in the end, he presents a powerful message: The only thing that truly holds each of us back is ourselves.  We are our own obstacles as well as our own sources of relief.  It is not an overly happy ending in which everything works out perfectly, but there is nevertheless a sense of great accomplishment in the end.  Even if we are physically detained or oppressed, we can nevertheless conquer the power within ourselves.  As for the anti-feminism, I'm not convinced that it's so strong in the story after all.  Yes, Nurse Ratched it awful, but if she were a male nurse, I don't think we would worry that the book is anti-man.  Instead, I think she represents part of this same message because she is not physically strong but is psychologically very powerful.

Although I would recommend the book first, I want to mention that the Hollywood movie version of this story starring Jack Nicholson is actually quite faithful to the book.  I found it to be a very good portrayal of the story if you enjoy film as well.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Literary Blog Hop Return

It's been a while, but I am happy to take part in the Blue Bookcase's weekly Literary Blog Hop today. This is a book blogging exploration and a great opportunity to hear other lit lovers' thoughts. I am always fascinated to read what you all think, and the variety in opinion is just remarkable.  This week is no exception. To check out the other bloggers, click the button below.

Literary Blog Hop

The prompt this week is: "Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it?"

I almost decided not to participate this week because I find this a tricky question.  Unfortunately, I won't give you a very direct answer, but please bear with me.  Naturally, I don't enjoy every book of Classic Literature I read.  However, the word "hate" has a particularly strong connotation that I don't attach very easily.  If I confessed some of the well-loved classics and authors I don't like, I imagine I would upset many of you.  Perhaps I will spill the beans about them one by one, but I'm certainly not going to list them all here without explanation.

Some books I don't like because I find them confusing, some I don't like because I find them dull, and some I don't like because I cannot find any meaningful significance in them.  If I experience all three of these reactions, perhaps that qualifies as "hate."  I mentioned in a previous blog hop that I hated reading Immanuel Kant, but that's because it requires incredibly slow reading and is very difficult for me to grasp.  I'm not sure it's fair for me to list him this week because I can see his significance... as long as someone explains it to me.  Occasionally, I have grown to appreciate literature that I initially disliked.  The first time I read Eliot's The Wasteland, I dismissed its merit because I didn't understand it.  But once I dug deeply into its meaning and studied critical analysis, I changed my mind.

Ok, ok, enough stalling - I'll tell you my "hated" book.  When I read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in high school, I hated it.  There, I said it.  I was thoroughly confused, unable to distinguish the past from the present in the book's dizzying back-and-forth timeline.  I was also bored.  In fact, I began reading it in study hall when I wanted to take a nap because I knew it would have that effect on me.  I didn't care about what was happening, (partly because I didn't know what was happening), and the language lulled me to sleep.  And perhaps worst of all, I didn't even finish it.  I was an over-achiever in high school, and this was the only book in my entire high school career that I couldn't even bring myself to finish.  So yeah, I hated it.

I know that I should try reading the book again.  A number of years have passed since I first read it, and I have heard so many people I respect praise the book that I believe there is something of merit to be found in it.  However, my memory of hating it is still quite strong in my mind, and I struggle finding motivation to try again when there are so many other books I'm interested to read.  Anybody want to help convince me?

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Awakening

I am happy to write another entry about a book by a female author.  Unfortunately, I realize that my male-to-female ratio is highly unproportional, but I am not doing it intentionally.  However, I recently read Kate Chopin's The Awakening for the first time and loved it.

I understand that there is a perspective you can take with this book that could potentially negate its literary significance.  On the surface, it may appear that this is the story of a selfish woman.  She falls in love with a younger man, neglects her husband and children, moves into her own place despite social appearances, and refuses to do anything except what she wishes to do.  If this were all there was to the story, I have no doubt that it would frustrate me.  At the time it was written, so many people objected to these very things that the book was  protested and repeatedly condemned.  Tragically, Chopin never wrote another novel and struggled to publicize any further writing for the rest of her life.  However, I believe that there is much more going on in The Awakening which makes it a Classic.

First of all, I think this book is deeply concerned with existential philosophy.  The main character, Edna, is "awakened" out of her listless pattern of life and thrust full throttle into an existential crisis.  The tipping point happened to occur at the same time she fell in love with a younger man, but the story is about so much more than love.  At the start of Edna's crisis, Chopin writes: "In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her."  Chopin consciously avoided mentioning Robert (the love interest) in the critical moment of "awakening" Edna experienced about herself.  I believe Robert exists merely to break Edna's spell of clouded listlessness, or "appalling and hopeless ennui", and wake her up to identifying matters of herself and her life.  Significantly, Robert is absent from the majority of the story, and I think Chopin does this to avoid overstating the love affair between them.  The despair of wanting something to happen, anything at all, overtakes Edna as it does to many existential characters in literature.  She may have neglected her friends and family, but she did so in order to discover her identity apart from the people and customs she had so long associated with it.

I think this is revolutionary in feminist literature, and it still contains poignant significance for our society over a century later.  Personally, I am fascinated by existential literature, and this is the first time I've discovered a book of this kind with a female protagonist.  Unfortunately, it fails to offer a positive outcome, which I believe was sadly suited with the negative reception of the book itself.  But I hope we can pick the book up again today and appreciate it for what it offers to literature.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Translations: A Play

I'm finally ready to get back to regularly keeping up with my blog.  I hope I haven't lost any of you while the blog was static because I am excited to start off again with this next piece of literature.  Up to this point, I have written almost exclusively about novels when discussing Classic Literature.  And while most of my favorites are novels, I do not think that they hold a monopoly on the classics.  So today I want to talk about one of my favorite plays: Translations by Brian Friel.

In general, I find it difficult to read plays and connect well with them on that level.  Indeed, plays are created in order to be performed, and I doubt that any playwright would be satisfied if people read his/her plays without ever watching them.  However, occasionally a script is so moving that I am captivated and satisfied just in reading it.  Translations is a story about language, which is exposed among the characters through compelling plot and meaningful insight.  It was written in 1980, so it borders on what I might define as a "Contemporary Classic," and although it is set in 1833, it speaks to a number of undeniably modern issues.  To summarize the plot quickly, a few English officers come into a remote part of Ireland in order to Anglicize the place names and culture.  One of these officers is an Irishman named Owen who grew up in this very town and yet has no qualms about the Anglicization.  Another officer is an Englishman named Yolland who ironically is more concerned about Ireland losing its culture uniqueness than Owen as he has fallen in love with the country and with one of its citizens, Maire.  This creates a typical Romeo-and-Juliet setup in which the opposing sides (English and Irish) are upset about the romance, and yet I believe that Friel nevertheless creates a fresh perspective on the drama.

The most significant aspect of the play is the role of language.  The characters all speak English in order for the audience to understand, but it is nevertheless clear in the story that they cannot understand one another.  Sometimes the language difference is such a barrier that the attempt at working together seems futile.  Yet in other scenes, the characters are able to transcend their language differences and understand one another on a deeper level, which is particularly evident in the interaction between Yolland and Maire.  It is only when language is threatened of extinction or becomes a barrier to one's life that we realize its powerful significance in our lives.  The way we speak - the words we choose and the expressions we utilize - becomes a part of our individual identities.  I am fascinated by linguistic study, which makes a story that emphasizes it of particular interest to me.

Now I recognize the potential cliches in the novel: the Romeo-Juliet romance I mentioned, the native who becomes a traitor figure in his hometown, the focus on the Irish language that Irish authors tend to enjoy, etc.  Nevertheless, I believe that the way Friel writes the story, including the stage directions, invigorates the plot with skill and wisdom.  For this reason, I rank it among other great works of Classic Literature.