In morbid states dreams are often unusually palpable and vivid, bearing an exceptional resemblance to reality. The resulting picture may be quite monstrous, but the setting and the unfolding of the entire spectacle are so credible, and the details so fine and unexpected, while artistically consistent with the picture as a whole, that the very same dreamer could not invent them in his waking hours, were he even an artist of the order of Pushkin or Turgenev. (I.5, 51)
I am quoting not a textbook but Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky is introducing the first of the many dreams in the novel – the first in a long series stretching through The Brothers Karamazov. Much of what looks to me like Dostoevsky’s best writing, the most “fine and unexpected,” I find in the dream scenes.
Part of this first one is on the back cover of the new Penguin edition – axe murder on the front, but something more surprising on the back. The feverish Raskolnikov, not yet a killer, is a child in his dream, revisiting a traumatic scene that may have happened to him, when he witnessed a drunk peasant beat his old horse to death.
Aside from the psychological relevance to Raskolnikov’s later decision to murder a woman, the scene is packed with elements that reappear throughout the novel. The scene is even replayed much later in the book, with a woman, the prostitute Sonya’s mother, driven to despair by the cruelties and burdens of her life, breaking down in the street, like the horse, even if she is killed by untreated tuberculosis rather than a beating. “The nag stretches out her muzzle, sighs heavily and dies” (55); “She gave a deep, deep sigh and died” (V.5, 408). That sort of thing.
Maybe the dream sequence is too easy. A writer can pile it full of any old junk, without constraint, and then loot it later. An axe, flies, specific colors, a “horned headdress,” even a prophetic or coincidental name (the peasant who kills the horse has the same name as a nutcase who turns falsely accuses himself of Raskolnikov’s crime). But in Crime and Punishment, the dreams keep coming, bleeding into the “real” world. The most unusual thing about the horse dream is the first part I quoted, the announcement that the character is dreaming. Usually it is harder to tell.
A minor character, Svidrigailov, is for much of the novel used as a stock villain, a plot device (eavesdropping, for pity’s sake), plus he serves the dual purpose of creating some phony sympathy for Raskolnikov by being even worse. He is a melodramatic parody double of Raskolnikov. At the climax of the novel, when we should be following Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky gives an outstanding chapter (VI, 6) to Svidrigailov, which I called his “Nighttown” chapter a couple of posts ago. As in the chapter in Ulysses, Dostoevsky frees himself from the “reality” of the novel by pumping up the strangeness, especially by inserting a sequence of interlocking dreams which are only barely distinguishable from the “real” events.
Svidrigailov is in his oddly shaped little hotel room, preparing to do – well, something dramatic. There are “strange, continuous whispers form the adjoining cell – at times, they were more like shouts.” Through a crack, Svidrigailov eavesdrops –his recurring device – and witnesses a scene from some other parallel novel, one drunk man lecturing another. “His friend sat in a chair, with the look of a man who desperately wanted to sneeze but couldn’t.” All of this is, as far as I can tell, meant to be real. The dreams have not started yet.
When they do, they pull in a number of elements from other dreams and scenes, plus some new imagery that strongly suggests Svidrigailov is working out his psychological expiation for some horrible crime that Dostoevsky has hinted at previously but otherwise not described. An aggressive mouse, a drowned girl in a coffin, and so on, weirder and weirder, yet it is outside of the dream where Svidrigailov “looked at them [the flies] for a long time and eventually began trying to catch one with his free right hand” (479, Svidrigailov is often associated with spiders).
The difference between the dream and otherwise becomes arbitrary in this great chapter, just a convention of fiction.