Crime and Punishment: The One Against Whom Raskolnikov Has No Chance

Porfiry, Part II!

You know, I think Raskolnikov could have gotten away just fine with fainting at the police station. That wasn’t what started it all, as far as the police suspecting him. He’s clearly sick and weak when he goes to the station (and perhaps even a little off his rocker, one might assume).

If you’ve read the book, you know that Raskolnikov does a number of things throughout the book that make you scream, “Why!? Why are you saying this? No one suspects you!” And that, in itself, is another discussion*. But there was one big, initial mistake that really doomed him, as far as getting caught. And it wasn’t fainting at the police station.

That big mistake was his ridiculously ill-advised discussion with Zametov in the restaurant. Raskolnikov purposely steers the conversation toward the police blotter (or whatever the 19th-century Russian equivalent to the police blotter is). He proceeds to makes Zametov very uneasy, forcing his companion to consider the possibility that the murderer sits before him. But this isn’t a big mistake because it made Zametov suspect Raskolnikov. Zametov isn’t really a very good detective. He’s too young and too easily shaken, and he doesn’t trust himself. He very easily could have convinced himself that Raskolnikov was just in need of serious mental and physical help. After all, what guilty person would ever act like that? That’s the talk of a crazy, not a criminal.

No, the problem with that conversation with Zametov is that Zametov was shaken enough to tell Porfiry about it, and Porfiry knew instantly that Raskolnikov was likely to be his man. Once that conversation with Zametov was relayed, it was just a matter of finding evidence. Porfiry, unlike Zametov, is psychologically brilliant, both in perception and in manipulation. He is seasoned and perceptive enough to have taken note of Raskolnikov’s article some time ago and filed away the author’s name in his memory, considering him someone from whom he’s not heard the last. Porfiry can tell just from the article what kind of person Raskolnikov is and what he might do to prove himself worthy of his own words.

Porfiry loves his job. I think he has a barrel of laughs catching people in his web (and I think the references to spiders throughout the book supports this nicely). But I don’t think he’s sadistic. He’s just a chess player. He enjoys the competition, he enjoys figuring out his opponent, and he loves winning. But he sees his opponents as people. While Porfiry was rather cruel, deliberately torturing Raskolnikov in their first few encounters (one at Porfiry’s house, one at the police station), the third encounter at Raskolnikov’s apartment proves that he finds Raskolnikov quite interesting, and he doesn’t want Raskolnikov’s life to be ruined by what he did. That being said, Porfiry still wants to win, and he will do what he needs to in order to be the victor. And frankly, Raskolnikov is smart, but he never had a chance against Porfiry. Even at his full strength and mental capacity, Raskolnikov is too young to have really sorted out a way to deal with life, and especially with other people. He’s plagued by the need to develop theories about where he stands in relation to others and how to divide folks into hierarchies. At the core of his struggle is how to reconcile the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people. Porfiry, no matter his age, is decades ahead of Raskolnikov in his maturity, adjustment, and view of human beings.

Young people want to fight the system. As people get older, they become more interested in how to rise within or above the system instead of focusing on rejecting it entirely. Raskolnikov and Porfiry are both smart, but Porfiry wins every time in this contest.

* Ah yes, I haven’t forgotten–why does Raskolnikov continually bring himself into conversation about the murder when he could just as easily say nothing or change the subject? When no one suspects him, why does he routinely demand that people suspect him, despite his terror of being caught? There’s probably a million theories you could come up with, and I’d be delighted to hear other people’s take on this.

My own tendencies influence my thoughts on this. I’m reminded of a time I was in the car with someone, and I was doing something–drawing money out of a drive-up ATM or something. On the way out, I very slowly, and one might have though deliberately, coasted right into a mailbox. I was looking right ahead of me and I have no idea how it’s even possible for any human being to do something this dumb. (The mailbox was fine, by the way.)  I nearly died of embarrassment. I made the person in the car to swear never, never to tell anyone.

Then, the next day, I went out of my way to tell pretty much every person I knew about it.

Why did I do that? God, I don’t know. I do things like this all the time–every time I do anything I’m embarrassed about, I go out of my way to make sure everyone knows. It’s as if seeking out enough people to make fun of me diffuses the embarrassment, takes away some of its power. It’s threatening force as a terrible, shameful secret disappears. Maybe Raskolnikov cannot help but try to relieve the pressure of that swelling threat by leaking bits of his secret, conversation by conversation.

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