Monday, July 5, 2010

A Literary Mystery

by Julia Buckley
One of the fun things about teaching literature is that I have the opportunity to examine certain texts again and again, and often this gives me insights I never would have discovered with only one reading. It also brings to light certain mysteries within the novels or poems themselves.

For example, I teach the great Russian novel CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, which many of you reading this blog probably read in high school or college. Because I teach the novel, I have developed a deep love for it, and I have examined the moral dilemmas of poor, tormented Raskolnikov from many different angles. What I am about to write below references a crime that happens very early in the text. It's not really a spoiler, since the book's focus is less on the crime and more on the punishment. BUT if you don't want to read any mention about the crime, don't read on.

There are some mysteries within the text which, for me, have never been solved. Some of them are matters of differing translations. For example, one character, Lizaveta, is said in the Oxford version of the text to be pregnant, much to everyone's surprise. Lizaveta, a young and almost simple-minded character, has a kind heart, but lives with her much older and meaner stepsister, Alena Ivanovna. Her pregnancy, it is implied, means that some man has taken advantage of her.

However, in at least two other translations, Lizaveta is described as "always pregnant." This causes a great deal of discussion in our classes, as the second translation implies more that Lizaveta is of easy virtue rather than that one man managed to take advantage of her. But it also poses this problem: if she is "always pregnant," what becomes of all her children? There are no youngsters in the mean flat she shares with her sister. It would be difficult to believe that Lizaveta aborted them, since she is a devout Catholic and regularly reads the Bible with her friend Sonia.

The book never addresses this little mystery, and Lizaveta and her sister are murdered by Raskolnikov early in the novel. That brings us to another interesting mystery, although I think I know the answer. Lizaveta is pregnant when she dies; Dostoevsky goes to the trouble of including this little detail in the painting of her character portrait. But after Lizaveta is murdered, the baby is never mentioned again--not by police, not by Raskolnikov when he speaks of his crime. The child ceases to matter in the scheme of the novel with Lizaveta's death.

I understand that this may well be an issue of time period and of culture. An unborn child would be of little importance, since living women and children barely had any significance in society. In fact, one of Raskolnikov's friends is translating an article called "Woman: Is She a Human Being?" Still, I wonder why Dostoevsky bothered to mention the pregnancy if no one was ever going to make a point of saying that Raskolnikov ended three lives, not two.

Instead, the investigating magistrate says, at one point, "It's a good thing you only killed an old woman." It's an odd cultural contrast--think of Lacy Peterson and the huge focus that the media and society in general put on the fact that she was pregnant when she was murdered. When her husband Scott Peterson was eventually convicted of that murder, he was called a monster for killing his unborn child.

This is a far cry from the way that poor pregnant Lizaveta is treated in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. If I, in some alternate universe, were able to talk with Dostoevsky about his great work, this would be one of the first issues I'd raise. I have a feeling, though, that his answer would disappoint me.


Sandra Parshall said...

Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest novels ever written. I wish I could sit in on your class when you're teaching it!

Do your students react to the difference in the way women and children were treated in Russia at that time and the way we treat them, at least under the law, now?

Julia Buckley said...

They do. I happen to teach all girls, so the issue becomes even more prominent as we encounter, again and again, the ways that women are dismissed or discounted or abused.

In one scene, Raskolnikov approaches a group of women in the street, and the narration reads, "They all had black eyes." We debated briefly about whether this meant they were abused (and were probably prostitutes) or if this could actually refer to the color of their eyes.

But then a student with another translation read to us that "they all had bruises on their faces."

This, of course, leads them to question why ALL the women were beaten.