Near the end of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky makes a strange move that adds a new layer to the novel and threatens to destroy it:
For Raskolnikov. a strange time had begun: it was as if a fog had suddenly descended, trapping him in hopeless, oppressive isolation… He was absolutely convinced that he’d been mistaken about many things, such as the duration and timing of certain events… He had, for example, mixed up one event with another, and considered a third to be the consequence of something that had happened solely in his imagination… (VI.1, 413)
I do not know if I am supposed to identify those specific events. Should I work back through the novel, sorting events – real, imaginary, unclear? My sense is that the exercise is largely pointless. Other novelists will take care of the problem, writing the story where the murdered only imagines that he commits the murder and so on. Vladimir Nabokov wrote one. At least one.
But if Dostoevsky does not convert his novel into an E. T. A. Hoffmann story, he does destabilize it in a Hoffmann-like way. “Svidrigailov made him especially uneasy: he even seemed to get stuck, as it were, on Svidrigailov.” Svidrigailov is Raskolnikov’s most absurd, villainous double, his least “real” double. He exists, in that he is has scenes with other characters, so is not entirely a figment of Raskolnikov’s imagination, but it often seems like some aspects of him are projections of Raskolnikov’s.
After Svidrigailov brings his series of dreams to their expected melodramatic conclusion – the novel is almost over – Dostoevsky returns to Raskolnikov. What was he doing during that chapter? “He’d spent the whole night alone, God knows where.” He is “disfigured by tiredness, foul weather, physical exhaustion and almost twenty-four hours of inner struggle” (VII.7, 481). He was out in the rain that soaked Svidrigailov. This struggle, whatever he had been doing, occurred entirely while Dostoevsky gave his attention to a secondary character. Dostoevsky never does clear up what Raskolnikov did, except that he thought about killing himself; Svidrigailov did kill himself.
I wondered, why does Dostoevsky direct me away from the central character, especially at such an important moment? But now I see that he did not. Instead, he led me through a parody of Raskolnikov’s night, as enacted by his parodic double. Everything I need to know is there, but on reversed ground. This is a strange, bold effect. It makes the entire book more dream-like.
The grotesqueries work the same way. This is how a police detective interrogates Raskolnikov:
On and on he prattled with his meaningless, empty phrases, occasionally coming out with a few enigmatic words before immediately lapsing back into nonsense again. By now he was virtually running around the room, making his chubby little legs work faster and faster, keeping his eyes to the floor, tucking his right arm behind his back and continuously waving his left in a variety of gestures, all astonishingly ill-matched to his words. (IV.5, 315)
This is Svidrigailov’s view of the afterlife:
‘I don’t believe in the life to come,’ said Raskolnikov.
Svidrigailov was deep in thought.
‘What is there’s nothing but spiders there or something like that?’ he suddenly said. (IV.1, 271)
He means it. “’[S]ome little room… with spiders in every corner, and that’s it, that’s eternity.’”
Set scenes like this alongside the continual howling, shrieking, and strange gestures of the characters, like the police inspector laughing until he turns purple, take all of this as what is real in Crime and Punishment, hardly distinguishable from what is a dream.