The Goldfinch in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (+ Final Thoughts)


Here it is: Fabritius’ goldfinch. Funny. After reading this book twice now, I imagined that the picture would have a eerie kind of bioluminescence–a living glow that would flow through the rectangle in Google images, bounce around some rods and cones and register in my brain as a masterpiece so bright these mortal eyes should be averted. (Also, was I wrong to think the goldfinch would be bright yellow?)

But maybe the reason it doesn’t have that effect was because Google handed me a screen that looked like this:


Professional deep thinker Walter Benjamin wrote a rather dense piece called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in the 1930s. It explores the role of art in an era capable of producing film, photography, and — most interestingly (to me) — machine copies. He posited that a work of art has an aura, and that that aura is based in its uniqueness. Therefore, every time a student puts up a poster of The Persistence of Memory in their dorm or every time someone sips coffee out of a mug imprinted with Monet’s lilies, the original’s aura is depleted.

Benjamin isn’t saying this is necessarily bad, and there’s a lot more to the essay — most of which I’m too obtuse to really wrap my head around, even after reading it several times. But seeing all these reproductions on my computer screen…is that what takes the magic out of the painting? Not according to Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

I was struck by how many twists on Benjamin’s essay come rolling in at the end of The Goldfinch (novel). When Theo is in the Netherlands, escaping from the scene of a heist-on-heist, he knows that the painting is authentic the moment he looks at it during the car ride to Amsterdam. It glows with an ethereal light he knows so well. The entire book seems to imply that The Goldfinch (painting) has a soul inside it, defying all of Benjamin’s claims that a painting’s aura is depleted in an age of mechanical reproduction. Surely the painting has been photographed thousands of times, as indicated by my Google image search. In Tartt’s book, Theo sees reproductions of the painting in art books, newspapers, and even a photograph of Welty in a room with a counterfeit. (Which, by the way, is an image of an image of an image of an image. The last image is the bird itself. Intense.)  Yet the soul of the thing doesn’t seem the least bit damaged by all its reproductions, at least not to Theo.

Even the painting is a reproduction, as Theo knows. He has no doubt that the artist had a live subject, and Boris mentions his certainty that, in a cage full of goldfinches, he could point out with ease the goldfinch. Theo and Boris both seem to believe that they know the bird, as presumably do the many others bewitched by the painting: Welty, Theo’s mother, Lucius Reeve. And yet, at the end, Theo comments that the painting is a trick, a “joke” — these globs of paint and scratches into the canvas and brushstrokes that, as you stand back, transform from what is really just deposited paint into a very convincing representation of a bird. One might point to the painting and say, “It’s a bird,” though really all the viewer is seeing is patterns of paint.

How can this reproduction not be a thing that takes from the soul of the bird? How can the painting have a aura its own, if Benjamin is correct?

Theo even sees the glow of the painting in a forgery, placed on a wall in an old photograph of Welty as a child. It’s difficult to get further away from the original goldfinch (or original goldfinch painting, even) than this image four times removed. But Hobie, the book’s good-hearted creator of forgeries that he never intends to sell, has an answer for Theo. He guesses that it isn’t the originality or uniqueness of art, as Benjamin suggests, that gives art its aura. It’s the beauty of line. If there is a particularly beautiful shape, it doesn’t matter if the object is reproduced or original. That’s why his lovingly created reproductions of antique furniture were so charming — he was reproducing a thing that had beauty, and he was able to preserve the thing that made it beautiful. It seems that Hobie doesn’t buy into Benjamin’s theory at all. But both believe that the original goldfinch painting in itself would lack the mystic quality Theo assigns it.

If Hobie or Benjamin speak true on the subject of the original piece of art lacking a soul–in Hobie’s mind, because it’s the beautiful image of the goldfinch, not the object that is the painting, that’s important; in Benjamin’s mind, because the painting has been reproduced enough to have had its soul depleted)–why is it that Theo so passionately felt that if The Goldfinch (the painting) was destroyed, the world would have lost something important? Why was it so necessary that what he held in his hand was the real thing on the way back to hotel in Amsterdam? I don’t have an answer for this, and I certainly don’t think the novel does, either. And, on another subject, that might be one of my few complaints about the book.

I connect so wholeheartedly to this novel. Just about every page of The Goldfinch absorbs me fully. But there is a lot of incoherence in it. That’d normally be fine with me; life is rather incoherent. But it seemed so important to Tartt, especially at the end, to become some sort of lecturer/philosopher. You have to have a special kind of brain for that. A Walter Benjamin brain. One capable of working out a theory, however crazy, to a certain level of completeness. A brain that can reach beyond bland platitudes and reach a hypothesis that, for instance, isn’t so broad that it can’t be wrong. Tartt is a glorious, deep feeling, intelligent author, but she doesn’t have that brain.

The end of The Goldfinch could have saved if Tartt stayed in-novel. The parts where Boris and Hobie sit down and start talking about “You know, maybe bad deeds can result in something good” is pretty cheesy in a folksy, from-the-mouths-of babes, “Well, little ‘ol me don’t know much about ____, but I’s been thinking…” type of way. But it was tolerable. The whole meta-lecture from Theo at the end, on the other hand, (which goes on for pages and pages) is insufferable. I just went tearing through it the first time, since it was two in the morning and I could see I was close to finished. But this time I sat through every word, focused. It isn’t horrible writing, but it’s patronizing, and it takes you waaaaaay out of the novel to treat you to some “big thought,” stoner ending. The end of the book meant well–it meant to bring us closure after all these pages filled with Theo’s ongoing, unspeakable sadness. But it was reminiscent of–horror of all horrors–John Galt’s speech (a.k.a. Ayn Rand’s excuse to bluster incoherently about her personal world view for a sickening number of pages) in Atlas Shrugged.

Ending aside, I remain firm after my second reading.  The Goldfinch is a spectacular book, full of aching feelings and beautiful intricacies. It contains endless starting points for conversation with others, but it will at the same time be a deeply personal experience for the reader to have. It brought to my mind many philosophies of which I’ve read–not just those of Benjamin, but also those of aesthetes and critics from many fields and varied time periods. It’s a great introduction to ways of thinking about art. as well as to good literature.

Theo’s Spiritual Connection to Objects in The Goldfinch

To lift one of my favorite introductions (Simon Jarvis, from an essay in PMLA), “Reader! No time for pleasantries!”

It’s easy to assume Theo is attached to the goldfinch painting because it’s his last connection to his mother. And that may be so. But I think there’s more there.

I’m really struggling for a word here–totemism comes to mind, but it’s not exactly right. It might do for our purposes here though, if you’ll allow for some flexibility. Totems are symbols of one’s spiritual connections to things of the earth. The term is mostly used in reference to animals. But here, Theo connects to manmade objects the way tribes have connected to a specific creature or element. His goldfinch painting is the most obvious example–and it isn’t the animal he connects with as much as it is the painting. He feels differently with it around, looking at it, holding it. He obsesses over the weight and feel of it, and he feels as if it glows in a way that’s almost unearthly. But he does this with other things, too, starting from a very young age. About Welty’s ring, he says this:

For reasons I would have found hard to explain, I had taken to carrying the old man’s ring with me almost everywhere I went. Mostly I toyed around with it while it was in my jacket pocket…I ignored [Mrs. Barbor’s] advice to put it in a safe place, and continued to carry it around in my pocket. When I hefted it in my palm, it was very heavy; if I closed my fingers around it, the gold got warm from the heat of my hand but the carved stone stayed cool. Its weighty, antiquated quality, its mixture of sobriety and brightness, were strangely comforting; if I fixed my attention on it intensely enough, it had a strange power to anchor me in my drifting state and shut out the world around me…

And Theo, especially after his trauma, continues to find objects, not people, his anchor. He feels utterly lost when he realizes he no longer has access to his painting. He immerses himself in the touch and feel of the furniture he works on with Hobie. Certainly he finds solace in a few people here and there, but what he finds the deepest connections with are not people, but things.

There is one exception. The way he describes Pippa in the book is very similar to the way he describes the objects he attaches to. He notes her attributes, like her hair and clothing, with the same sort of fetishism with which he describes his totems. I wouldn’t probably go as far as to say Theo sees her as an object. In fact, I think part of what draws him to Pippa is the fact that he cannot possess her like he can an object. Theo’s a deep-feeling, intensely spiritual person, even from childhood, so it makes sense that he doesn’t objectify people quite in the context that we’d usually use the term.

He does not always know why he experiences the attachments he does–he just records his feelings and leaves them unsorted and unanalysed. I find it understandable, this reluctance to wonder too hard about the reasons behind his emotions. I don’t quite think of him as psychologically insightful, but that’s one of the great things about this character and about the book. It allows the reader to do the psychological work.

Theo in some ways reminds me of a character from a book I haven’t read in a long time: Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Theo is an aesthetician (an old-school one, not the kind you find at the Clinique counter), but there’s a desperate quality to his appreciation of beauty. When he learns that people can be lost, he connects instead with objects. Then, when he realizes objects can also be lost even when the greatest care is taken to preserve them, well, that’s pretty rough.

The Goldfinch: Also…

There are a lot of negative reviews of The Goldfinch out there from those who find contrarian delights in raging against the literary machine. There are accusations of juvenility and uninventive language. Props to them for their reluctance to accept a well-acclaimed book simply because it is well-acclaimed, but in this case, they’re just bitter. The book makes us take a juvenile seriously, and any moments of cliche (“tip of the iceberg,” for example) add an element of conversation and authenticity.

Take this as a clearly biased report from Camp Goldfinch. “Think for yourself; question authority,” as the great band Tool advises, but read the book. You’ll decide.

Here is a much better synopsis than my own from the New York TImes‘ Book Review.

The Goldfinch: All it’s Cracked Up to Be

As a loud and proud feminist, this is the worst thing I will ever say. (Yes, leave it to me to think of the worst thing I will ever say and then immediately put it on the internet.) I finished The Goldfinch before even looking to see who the author was, and I was shocked to learn it was written by a female.

I had a discussion with a very forward-thinking teacher once about why I don’t like female writers as much as male ones, historically. He, too, very much resented himself for feeling like male authors seemed to create more depth in their work. But, as ashamed as it made us, it just seemed true. There are glowing exceptions, of course (Eliot, Chopin, the Brontes), but even they seemed to have heteronormative-relationship-driven plots, with romance being at least one of the major (if not the) key theme. In fact, I think this is why I resented Anna Karenina. It seemed to me a very “female author” book–all about man-woman pairings and dynamics. I think about Whitman’s claim that he contained multitudes, and it seems to be the anti-anthem of the novelists I don’t like (who, unfortunately, often tend to be women). “I contain the potential for romance” seems to be the driving force behind it all.

We have been and are entering a new era of women writers. I don’t know why, after reading books from Jennifer Egan and Toni Morrison, I still have lower expectations. But The Goldfinch solidifies it. This is a deep and rich book that explores so many facets of human existence, with an absolutely riveting plot the whole way through. It’s multidimensional and complex psychologically while carrying with it a story that captivates. The climax of the book went on forever, and I got four hours of sleep one night because I couldn’t put it down. In fact, this whole enormous book was enrapturing the entire way through. In fact (x 2), the reason I haven’t posted about it yet is because I accidentally started reading the whole thing again. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be back in this world of multitudes.

Have you heard anything about the book? There was a lot of hype around it. Let me say, the Pulitzer will not lead you astray here. Every bit of the hype is well-founded. I can’t say enough about how good this book is. It’s the realest, freshest thing I’ve read since…oh…well, since Crime and Punishment. But still…

First off, this book even the sentence level is fresh. You know what’s really hard to do without entering cliche-land? Similes. Try writing a simile that doesn’t sound like bad poetry. Do it, right now. I’ll wait.

It was bad, wasn’t it?

This book is filled with similes that are gorgeous and vibrant and don’t stick out as similes. Here is where I would put examples, but I’ll just make that another post if need be. This sucker’s gonna be long enough.

Second of all, the book paints so many beautiful portraits of people, and it does so by showing, not telling. The main character is a prime example of this.We get to know him so well, and yet we don’t even understand what the goldfinch painting held so dear by the narrator means to him. Not even he knows, really. It just does, for reasons seemingly obvious but that will escape articulation if we try to explain it. Again, deserves an entire post in itself. Every one of the characters is complex and yet understandable, even the bit players like Tom Cable.

Third, author Donna Tartt does the passage of time so amazingly well. There is an “eight years later” jump at one point, but I think it helps character development. All of a sudden, our poor hero is in an unexpected place, and we learn how he got there. It all makes perfect sense, yet it’s surprising. The most amazing example of the passage of time is the way the author explains the development of what winds up being the extremely close friendship between the main character and Boris in Las Vegas. It develops naturally and beautifully. Speaking as someone who has a friendship very much like the one described in the book, the coverage of the time was so natural and the closeness that developed made so much sense. It all rang authentic in my mind. That, like the non-cliched simile, is very, very hard to pull off.

But my main takeaway from this book is that, even though the world of The Goldfinch is a fairly sad one, it’s a place I love to be. It envelops me. It rings true and real and beautiful. It’s heartbreaking without being sentimental, and it’s raw without being dramatic.The Goldfinch doesn’t pull any punches. It’s as complicated and involving as it is without gimmicks.

Clearly, this is a vague overview. I haven’t really said much of anything about the book. This is a real challenge for me to write about because it’s like someone asking me to try to describe my existence on this planet in a blog post. I’d just be left dumbfounded. There’s too much, far too much. The Goldfinch contains multitudes, and all we can hope to do it examine it piece by piece, I think. The whole of it is too far beyond words. That the author created these multitudes in the 700+ pages of this book is an impressive feat in itself. 700 pages wouldn’t be enough for me.

Spoiler Alert: Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk is About Poor Folks Who Talk About Being Poor

But cookie cutter poor folk they are not. They are well-spoken and complex. Nonetheless, this book has been a snoozefest. And you know how I feel about Dostoyevsky. (If you don’t know, refer to a series of posts celebrating every single moment of Crime and Punishment. Beware: it’s literary fangirling to the extreme.)

So here’s Poor Folk. Pen pals/distant cousins Makar Dievushkin and Barbara Dobroselova are involved an awkwardly one-sided May-December relationship.  December’s Dievushkin constantly sends his love to May’s Dobroselova–but not like that, he emphasizes. He loves her like a daughter. A sexy, sexy daughter. Have some bon bons! (This is paraphrased, clearly–I don’t possess anything like the powers of lyrical and subtle prose of my beloved Dostoyevsky. Speaking of which, Dostoyevsky and I are involved in the ultimate May-December unrequited romance. In this case, it’s May that loves, and December died 100 years before May was born.)

I have to be honest. I’m not really in a good position to give this book the same kind of analysis I’ve given many others because I’ve been in skim mode since about 50% in. The writing is beautiful, so I’ve just been kind of soaking it in without processing much of the message. It strikes me as kind of a shame because it seems like this book meant so much when it was published. It was well-received, and it was considered a much-needed, sensitive, humanistic look at poverty. The author of the blog “Read, Write, Now” (who does a much better job of explaining this book that I do here, including why it’s second-tier Dostoyevsky) says, “Dostoevsky gives “Poor Folk” the human dignity to participate in the process of their own damnation.” I see that, but only after it was pointed out to me. I just can’t find much value on my own. Perhaps I’m just not in the right state of mind.

Or maybe it’s because I find both the characters annoying as all get out, and the plot (with the exception of the mini-autobiography recounting Dobroselova’s teenage years) is…well, there isn’t really one. There’s just the same message back and forth. I love you. I’m so poor. But it’s not so bad. But, man, I’m poor. I would do anything for you. I would give my last penny for you. In fact, here’s my last penny. Don’t feel guilty about that, though. Did I mention I’m really poor? But don’t worry, it’s not so bad. Actually, it’s terrible.

ad infinitum.

It’s my opinion that both of these people are codependent and manipulative. And I can only read the same codependent and manipulative message over and over before I zone out. There has to be more movement, more character development than this for me to stay engaged.

I hear echoes of the beauty of Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground  in Poor Folk. There is the psychological element, and clearly there is the frank, empathetic portrayal of suffering I find so compelling underneath the sentences I’m reading. But it’s buried too deep under endless, lovely-but-repetitive words. The rawness of later works goes missing in this first one.

I’m sorry, Dostoyevsky. I’m sorry, my love. But I don’t think I can finish this one. But don’t feel bad. Well, feel kind of bad. And have some bon bons.

Ella Minnow Pea–Surprisingly Serious

I forgot my current read (Mary Roach’s charmingly macabre work of nonfiction, Stiff,) at home this weekend, but there’s always the Kindle app on the phone to get me through. I had recently downloaded a book under blinder circumstances than usual: I had never heard of the title (Ella Minnow Pea) or the author (Mark Dunn). But a friend–the brilliant editor-in-chief of local art and lit journal East on Central–had recommended it, and I know her to have excellent taste.

She described the plot a bit to me, and it seemed like a fun curiosity. In essence, the book sounded like a written experiment in literary constraints, akin to Oulipo darling Georges Perec’s A Void. (or, in his native tongue, La Disparition. But the literal English translation of the French title, The Disappearance, would not do–the entire book is written without a single use of the letter ‘e.’)

Ella Minnow Pea (sing it out loud with me…q, r, s…t, u, v) is likewise a book about literary constraints and is likewise adorably titled. It takes place on a fictional island that reveres the inventor of the sentence “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” and has built a monument with lettered tiles spelling out his masterpiece. But the monument is old. One by one, the letters from the sentence begin to fall. In response, the government forbids use of the letters, believing the sentence-writer is speaking from beyond the grave.

The author tells the story through the townsfolk’s written correspondence, so he uses increasingly fewer letters of the alphabet as the book progresses. Cute, right?

Then there’s the cover.


See? Awww. Don’t you want to pinch its little cheeks?

Folks, this book is not cute. It’s an Orwellian allegory.

It’s about the inquisition. It’s about free speech. It’s about the crusades. It’s about McCarthyism. It’s about what happens when superstition trumps science. But I think it’s mostly about the power of language and what happens when it’s taken away—about the human need to connect with one another and how vital written and verbal communication is to that connection.

In the book, a people living on a separatist island of the U.S. coast have founded a whole culture based on letters. Consequently, they all toss around these unconventionally eloquent turns of phrase–their speech patterns are swirling loops of lovely. Their writing is a delight to consume. All you learn of the island, you learn directly from its inhabitants, as the author chooses to convey the plot of his novel solely through the letters written by characters to one another. (And by “letters,” I mean “missives,” “notes,” “emails but with pens,” etc. It’s poignant, in the context of the book, that the word “letters” can mean two different things and that both are so significant in the novel. But, boy, does it make it difficult to write a clear blog post about the book.) As mail becomes subject to government inspection, and the use of, um, alphabetical characters becomes removed bit by bit from the vocabulary of the inhabitants of the island, the reader can see these elegant people reduced to baby talk. Yet they never stop trying to communicate, even when their usable alphabet consist of letters you can count on one hand. And hats off to the author who insists on playing by the rules of his own game–on living this struggle to communicate, along with his characters.

This book isn’t just play, the way some postmodern and otherwise experimental books are. The plot is solid, well-told, and deeply moving. The draconian measures taken against violators of the law remind the reader of all the shudder-inducing censorship and stripping of rights we’ve learned about from history (both our own in the U.S. and that of other nations/empires), and it reminds us of that which we hear of present totalitarian and theocratic states. The government of this island has declared itself the interpreter of god’s will, and the people in charge feel the execution of punishment justified, even holy. Neighbor turns in neighbor for using banned letters. Some do it to satisfy old grudges, and some honestly buy into the religious rhetoric. Even insurrection is discussed with increasingly limited language, and communication is reduced to nonsense. The names of days and months become downright comical.

The book has a good ending, and I won’t say any more about it than that. I will say that it’s a great read for many reasons:

1. It’s entertaining. I read it in an afternoon easily, and I couldn’t put it down.

2. The author is an excellent writer. He himself has a grasp on the English language that’s just breathtaking to read. And he uses his self-imposed constrains to develop an empathy with his characters that shows. He manages to communicate clearly, elegantly, and cleverly the entire way through, even while showing the struggle to communicate.

3. The commentary on superstition, tyranny, censorship and our need for language is just stellar.

4. It’s not one bit cute. That’s a great deal for me. If I want cute, I’ll do an image search for baby bunnies: I’m not really looking for cute in my books.

One final though—find your reading soulmates and have them recommend books. You’ll have a steady supply of custom delights that you would have never discovered on your own.

Discussion Questions/Food for Thought to Help Understand Crime and Punishment

So (as I’m sure I’ve made it abundantly clear over the last few weeks) Crime and Punishment is my absolute favorite book. As I’ve said before, it’s my bellweather. It’s helped me define what literature is to me, and it’s a big–maybe the main–reason I love literature enough to have made it my major.

That being said, I don’t think it’s an easy read. And I don’t think it will, or even should, be everyone else’s favorite book. My tastes can run morbid, and I value characters and psychology much more than I value plot. I know this.

I also know that everyone has different preferences. And I know there are several blockades that make this book less accessible then most people’s regular reads, such as language difficulties due to century of publication and unfamiliar customs/naming conventions (unless you’re Russian, of course).

But I think, with guidance, everyone can appreciate what Crime and Punishment brings to the table. You can understand why it’s stuck around this long, and you can have some really, really great conversations about it with interesting people. You don’t have to like it as much as I do, but I think I can help you extract value from reading it.

Questions coming up. First, the most important thing to making Crime and Punishment more accessible: keeping track of who’s who.

Russian Naming Conventions

It’s really hard to keep who’s who straight because everyone has at least four names (well, in the sense that us Anglofolk have two or three names–a first, a last, and possibly a nickname). And Russians have seemingly endless combinations of those names.

I can’t recommend this enough: say the characters’ names aloud in your head. Like, sound them out, syllable by syllable. It really helps keep them straight in your head.






(That’s kind of a cool name.)

Also, this (adapted and then quoted from a U Virginia site) will help you understand the names better:

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

Rodion = first name

Romanovich = patronymic

Raskolnikov = family name 

Russian names generally consist the three parts: the first or given name, the patronymic, and the last or family name. The patryonymic is created by taking the given name of a person’s father and adding a suffix to it. This suffix means “son of” or “daughter of.” Thus the patronymic takes a different form for men than it does for women. The most common men’s suffixes are -ovich or -evich while for a woman they are -ovna or -evna.

Russians call each other by first name and patronymic. Often, however, Russians will use a shortened form of the first name, a diminutive that connotes more familiarity. Often friends and children will be addressed in this way. One can think of the patronymic and name being equivalent to “Mr. So and So” in our culture.

So calling Raskolnikov “Rodion Romanovich” is like calling him “Mr. Raskolnikov” in the English-speaking world. His dad’s name is Roman. So his sister, who is most often called Dounia, has the patronym “Romanova” as a female version of the dad’s name. But a person not close to her would call her by her non-nickname first name and patronymic, Avdotya Romanova.

Women are never called by their last name. For instance, Dounia isn’t who we think of when we say Raskolnikov, but that’s her last name as well. So Katarina Marmeladov is (obviously) a Marmeladov, but when “Marmeladov” is mentioned as a character in the book, it’s a reference to the patriarch.


Questions to consider while reading Crime and Punishment

There are no cut-and-dry answers to these questions, which, in my mind, is what makes the book so great.

*Note: I consider these questions spoiler-free, unless you consider the murder of the pawnbroker a spoiler. If you’re picking up Crime and Punishment and you don’t know the main character is going to kill a pawnbroker…um, sorry for that. You would have figured it out pretty soon, though. I promise.

1. This is my favorite question, so it’s going first on the list.

Raskolnikov gives a number of reasons throughout the novel for killing the pawnbroker, especially when he goes to visit Sonia the second time. Some of them are clearly just not true. Others are more plausible. The one most often believed is his idea that he is somehow the embodiment of Nietzsche’s idea of the ubermench, or superman, who is above the common man and therefore need not abide by their rules. If you believe this, then Raskolnikov killed to prove to himself that he was, indeed, above the common man and would not suffer their common consequence, including guilt or remorse. Do you think that’s the real reason? What evidence would you give for what you think?

2. Does the guilt Raskolnikov feels manifest itself in ways you imagine guilt would? Is it guilt that he is experiencing, or is it something else? If it is guilt, why was he so disturbed before the murder as well? Was the thought of killing tearing him apart, or is he mentally unbalanced in a different way?

3. I would argue that 90 percent of the characters in the novel are delusional. Raskolnikov has literal delusions in the form of hallucinations, but he also holds broader, more philosophical delusions. Katerina has delusions. Raskolnikov’s mother certainly has delusions. Think of Sonia. Svidrigailov. Razumihin. What is each character’s particular delusion? What role does the delusion play in helping them cope or destroying them? Are any of the delusions healthy?

4. Think about Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse and the way he spends his money. Is Raskolnikov a compassionate person? Or is simply ruled by impulses that swing more wildly than those of most people? Is it too complicated a question to answer?

5. Does Raskolnikov seek absolution or credit for what he did? Both?

6. Both the pawnbroker and her innocent, good-hearted sister are murdered. One might think that the focus of the novel would be on the death of the innocent woman, and that this would be the murder that troubles Raskolnikov the most. Yet, she seems not to be the focal point at all.  Why is Raskolnikov’s guilt and the murder of the pawnbroker such that the sister is just a byproduct, not the true tragedy?

Here’s the real question: is it important to the novel that Raskolnikov feels the way he feels after killing a pretty awful person that did more harm than good?

7. If you were going to argue that Raskolnikov was a good person, what would you use as evidence?

If you were going to argue Raskolnikov was a bad person, what would you use as evidence?

What does it mean that you could make a good argument for either side?

8. Svidrigailov. Is he evil? Are you glad when he is no longer in the picture? If not, why? Either way, why do you think he departs from the novel the way he does?

9. It’s tempting to think this a story about redemption through suffering, especially by the end–a very Christian theme indeed. The most religion-focused family is the Marmeladov family. There’s Katerina’s blasphemous rejection of it near the end, Sonia’s embrace of it, Marmeladov’s love of his righteous punishment, almost like self-flagellation (and his “confession” to Raskolnikov in the bar in beginning of the book). Does anyone have the right of it? Do any of them wind up the better for it?

10. Do you find the ending–either the non-epilogue or epilogue version–satisfying? Was there a better way to end it? Does anything remain unresolved, in your mind?

11. What do you think of the women in the novel? Why are they all so self-sacrificial? Do you think it’s cultural, or do you think it says something about the author?

12. Would you argue that Raskolnikov would be in a different state of mind and would have perhaps chosen another path if he were less broken by poverty, hunger, and illness? Or is it simply his personality that makes him who he is? Any evidence for your reasoning?

These are just a few of the things I like to contemplate as I read. There’s so many more questions worth exploring. But I hope this gives you a launching pad and that wondering about these questions along with me makes your experience reading Crime and Punishment more meaningful.

Crime and Punishment: Svidrigailov as Raskolnikov’s (Rich) Doppleganger

I’ve finished Crime and Punishment, and I’m more certain than ever that Svidrigailov is what Raskolnikov would be if he’d been born into different circumstances. Well, let me qualify–the two are hardly twins in their core values, and their social personas are quite different. But their nature is composed of the same stuff, I think.

Yes, Svidrigailov disgusts Raskolnikov. Notice Dounia and Raskolnikov are both extremely chaste and seem fairly scandalized by anything that has to do with sex. So in this sense, Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov are nothing alike. But by the time that he and Svidrigailov meet in the pub (their last interaction), Raskolnikov knows that he doesn’t have much moral high ground. His former hope that he is an exceptional person is unfounded, and he knows it. So Raskolnikov calls Svidrigailov base due to his disgust for Svidrigailov’s particular vice. But Raskolnikov has his own vices–pride, indulgence of sadism, etc.

And, really, think of the interactions that go on in Sonia and Svidrigailov’s building. Svidrigailov makes it quite clear that Dounia is completely at his mercy. In fact, he comes right out and declares his intent to assault her then and there, noting that his physical strength is much greater than hers. It’s certainly true that Raskolnikov would never do anything of that sort. But think of the way he treats Sonia in her room. Doesn’t he seem to come there just remind her how helpless she is? Make her feel trapped? Doesn’t he come to there outrage and horrify her?

And as hostile as we might feel toward Svidrigailov due to the nature of his threats, consider this–all Svidrigailov’s anecdotes point to his psychological power to seduce. He knows exactly what his target is thinking, he understands what governs their behavior, and he knows how to manipulate people. During the bar conversation, Svidrigailov claims to have had a woman completely convinced that she was innocent of any wrongdoing throughout an affair, only to tell her afterward that he believed her to be just as eager as he. Now, Dounia couldn’t sacrifice her purity willingly–he knows that she is too chaste. And he truly believed that they had shared some kind of chemistry back when she was his governess. What Svidrigailov was doing was attempting to seduce Dounia by giving her a way out, a guilt-free way to give in to her feelings for him without hating herself. When Svidrigailov saw from the look in her eyes that she was completely cold to him, he quickly let her go on her way. He’s never wanted to have any woman against her will, and especially not Dounia. He gets off on consent. He likes to manipulate his way there, true, but he wants to be wanted back.

And I think that Svidrigailov felt differently toward Dounia than he did toward other extramarital prospects, I really do. I mean…

PAUSE FOR SPOILER ALERT. Do not read on if you aren’t finished with the book.





…he does kill himself afterwards, and how many other women have there been and could there be int the future? Dounia was special. (I think there was another reason he killed himself as well, since he showed his suicidal intent before being rejected by Dounia. But I’m just saying. He doesn’t do it until after seeing if she’ll have him.) Just as Raskolnikov is not as bad at heart as he seems, neither is Svidrigailov. It’s proven in other ways, too.

Think of Svidrigailov’s last night. If Raskolnikov was rich, couldn’t you see him doing the same thing? Giving away everything he had, spending a feverish night dreaming of children with lost innocence, hallucinating that he is helping people only to find them turning on him…tell me that isn’t Raskolnikov through and through.

The difference is that Svidrigailov is bored. He can afford to be bored because he is comfortable. He’s past his more youthful days where he might be more inclined to brood, rage against the system and try to find his identity through testing theories. And he wasn’t starving and sick. Imagine Raskolnikov growing up more comfortable than he is, marrying into wealth, and trying to adjust to life from there. He’s not much inclined toward sensuality, but surely he’d become lost in another passion in order to keep himself from dying of sheer boredom. It’s a world with too little to offer such a mind. Svidrigailov is terminally bored. He says so several times. And he doesn’t really care for the money. He just gives it all away. I think Svidrigailov is just what Raskolnikov would have become if he had developed under different circumstances and was fifteen years older. He’s maybe not the mirror image, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities.

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.

Crime and Punishment: Porfiry’s Ace in the Hole

First off, look at this.


If going on for eternity about Crime and Punishment is going to earn me magical gifts like this, I’m going back to posting per chapter.

I’m at the point in the book where Porfiry, the main detective in Crime and Punishment, has come to Raskolnikov’s room and flat out declares that Raskolnikov is the murderer. That he declares it as fact is important; he does not claim that he suspects it or that he is convinced of it. Porfiry’s own opinion does not matter, because it isn’t a suspicion. It’s simply the truth, to him. And, of course, he’s right. He gives Raskolnikov a few days to turn himself in to make it easier on himself because—and I think he’s being honest here–Porfiry claims to rather like Raskolnikov. He’s not in the least like Javert, the detective from Les Miserables, who believes so fully in good, evil, and clear-cut rules of justice that he cannot handle it when shades of gray are revealed. Porfiry knows that people are complicated. He knows Raskolnikov is more mentally unsetteled and broken than he is evil. And I think the detective feels sorry for him, in a detached sort of way. Nonetheless, the murderer must be convicted and serve his sentence.

Porfiry claims to have evidence but that he’d rather not be forced to use it. I can’t remember if this proof is revealed by the end. I’ll have to come back and adjust my thinking if this turns out to be wrong. But if I remember correctly, we never concretely learn what Porfiry’s ace in the hole is.

Of course, it could be a tactic. It would be more likely that Raskolnikov would confess and the case could be closed if he was pressured to do so by evidence, and whether or not the evidence existed would be ancillary if all Porfiry was aiming for was a conviction. But Porfiry, during this encounter, is quite blunt with Raskolnikov.  He admits to not knowing where Raskolnikov’s buried the stolen items, which I doubt he would do if he was bluffing. (That would likely be some of the best evidence of all, considering the stupid conversation with Zametov where Raskolnikov stated how he would hide the goods if he were the murderer.) And, after reading the chapter, I think I know what the evidence is. It’s confusing. But I can’t see any other way.

During this encounter, Porfiry drops several phrases that are exact references to past conversations Raskolnikov has had with other people. He talks about “taking his suffering”–an odd turn of phrase for someone who can see clearly that Raskolnikov is already suffering enough and who does not, I think, believe in the religious value of suffering for sins. Porfiry has echoed Sonia’s words exactly, and in the same context explains redemption through confession. It’s quite inconsistent with Porfiry’s character, and the exact turn of phrase repeated seems an unlikely coincidence. If there were better technology back in those days, I’d have said Sonia’s room was bugged. But since that’s impossible, that means Porfiry’s evidence is likely a witnesses to this conversation, of which there are two: Sonia, and the metaphorical-popcorn-eating eavesdropper next door, Svidrigailov. The next hint tells us which of the two is the source of the evidence.

Porfiry also quotes the exact advice Svidrigailov gives Raskolnikov about fresh air. It’s eerie, and that phrase never passed between Sonia and Raskolnikov. So Svidrigailov has to be the man–he must have talked to Porfiry already about the conversation, or he is otherwise the source of what Porfiry knows.

It’s so hard to see either of them talking to Porfiry. On Sonia’s end, what redemption can their be for Raskolnikov’s soul if he goes to his suffering unwillingly? And Raskolnikov himself seems convinced there’s no way Svidrigailov has talked, and it’s hard not to agree. One, it doesn’t seem to be in his character. Two, what has he to hold over Dounia’s head if he has already talked to the police on the matter?

Porfiry definitely has heard conversations that have passed between Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, and Sonia. How he got wind of those conversations…it’s hard to tell. Perhaps he’s done some eavesdropping of his own.

More about Porfiry in another post. He’s a rare intellect and a very interesting character. Raskolnikov’s biggest mistake was ever getting on such a man’s radar, if we’re talking purely in terms of getting caught.