Monday, March 12, 2007

The Appeal of Psychology in Mystery

posted by Julia Buckley

I teach high school English, and for the last three weeks my students and I have been reading and discussing Dostoevsky's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. I've always loved this book, ever since I myself read it as a high school senior (and then again in college, and then again as a grad student). The great thing, though, is that most of my students tend to agree with my assessment. They were prepared not to like it; some of them were even determined not to like it. It's big, it's Russian, it's intimidating. They had already checked to see how many pages it had and how small the print was.

They were surprised, therefore, when they realized that this was a book to which they could relate. The protagonist, granted, is a murderer, but he has much in common with seniors in high school: he often feels like an outcast; he regularly feels superior to almost everyone; he is uncertain of his own beliefs, and tormented by his uncertainty; he is continually paranoid; he is even uncertain about his feelings for a member of the opposite sex, and occasionally tormented by that, too. Oh, and there's the fact that he's killed people. That's not something they can relate to, but they can relate to the GUILT.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is very much about guilt and the way that it works on the psyche. It has recognizable parallels, in fact, to THE SCARLET LETTER, in that the unhappy minister in that novel shares many of the same responses to his crime that Raskolnikov has to his own. The girls are fascinated, not only by what motivates one to commit a serious crime, but how impossible life becomes once that crime is committed, and how inauthentic a human being becomes once he can no longer remember innocence.

I have one student in particular who has never liked English. I've taught her in three different classes, and it's an effort for her to even keep her eyelids open, much less to respond in class or manage to squeeze out more than a paragraph or so of excruciating essay. She's a nice girl with a great smile, but I always assumed that she had simply written off this particular subject.

But I was wrong--because CRIME AND PUNISHMENT has opened her eyes. SHE LOVES THIS BOOK. Her hand shoots in the air with every question. She is thrilled to be able to analyze Raskolnikov, thrilled by the dramatic irony that is the premise of the entire novel, and thrilled to be able to analyze the pyschology of another so fully, so satisfyingly. She sees his division and his torment, and Dostoevsky has given her the privilege of seeing herself as a scholar, as one who can and should analyze the written word, even as she enjoys it.

This sort of epiphany is rare; I only encounter it with one student, every few years. About ten years ago it was a boy who fell in love with HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and asked me, in awe, whether all of the books we read would be this good. Back in the eighties it was a young girl whose life was changed by DAVID COPPERFIELD. The book actually made her eyes shine. She had been getting an F, and she shot to A range because she could not put down that book.

These are the moments that make teachers want to weep, but it ultimately has nothing to do with us or our methods. These moments are brought to us by the great writers of history, and by the thing that makes mystery itself so endlessly compelling: the fascinating world of human psychology.



Lonnie Cruse said...

WOW! Having worked at various schools as a substitute teacher's aide, mostly with students struggling to keep up, I LOVED this post. Lovely moments for you, Julia! Thanks for sharing!

Regina Harvey said...

Wow, Julia - you made me tear up! Literature has always had the effect of making me feel connected and I always hope every person will feel that about at least one book in their lifetime. Good for you for recognizing and responding to your students' enthusiasm and engagement!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wow indeed, Julia. What a moving story. As both a writer and a therapist, I too need these moments as a reminder that my work has meaning, that it's worth everything I pour into trying to connect with others. It doesn't seem to matter if I do it as you did, by opening a door into the world of literature for a student, by writing something myself that makes a reader laugh or cry, or by listening, as I do as a therapist. "Only connect," as E.M. Forster said--that's the common thread for me.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks Lonnie, Regina, Liz--these really are moving moments, and they help to balance out the more annoying stuff. :)

That E.M. Forster quote is a good one--I should make it my mantra.