Reflections of a silenced conscience
This past summer, I read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (specifically, the translation by Jessie Coulson). My recommendation is hardly necessary for a classic, but I give it anyway. This “psychological account of a crime,” as Dostoyevsky once described it, is one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve ever read. In this article, I’m going to focus on one recurring device that stood out to me: awkward silence.
Before I continue, I should mention that I no longer have access to the copy of the novel I read, so the quotations that follow are from the Constance Garnett translation. Her translation is in the public domain, so it’s freely available on Project Gutenberg, among other places.
As with any engaging novel, it’s difficult to read Crime and Punishment as though it were nothing more than a series of facts. You, the reader, quickly find yourself drawn into the world of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, witnessing everything from the unique vantage point of his unstable mind. Consciously or not, you try to understand his psychology, to decode his motives, and to anticipate his next actions, but his questionable sanity and his reluctance to communicate make this a challenging task. His mind is a confusing whirlwind of anxiety, self-hatred, and contempt for the world. These thoughts escape him in occasional outbursts, but more often than not, he remains silent. Abnormal silence is a recurring device in the novel, and I believe Dostoyevsky uses it deliberately to tell us something about the silence within Raskolnikov’s mind.
He was out of breath. For one instant the thought floated through his mind “Shall I go back?” But he made no answer and began listening at the old woman’s door, a dead silence.
Here we find the first significant mention of silence. The phrase dead silence is not so much an instance of foreshadowing as a fanfare announcing Raskolnikov’s next move. Even at this point, minutes away from achieving his goal, there is a fierce battle in his mind. Only by silencing his conscience at the crucial moment—if only temporarily—is he able to follow through with his plan. The dead silence gives way to violent murder, and then silence, truly dead, returns.
Nikodim Fomitch would have made some further protest, but glancing at the head clerk who was looking very hard at him, he did not speak. There was a sudden silence. It was strange.
This is the first reference to the strangeness of the silence. Significantly, it comes about by a deliberate silencing of protest. This mirrors the situation within Raskolnikov: believing himself to belong to the superior class of humans alongside Napoleon, that is, “persons to whom the law does not apply owing to their superiority, who make the laws for the rest of mankind,” Raskolnikov attempts to silence the protests of his conscience. We witness a strange tension as the battle between the criminal and himself progresses, and the strangeness is heightened in those moments where his conscience is reduced to silence.
Zametov looked at him steadily, without moving or drawing his face away. What struck Zametov afterwards as the strangest part of it all was that silence followed for exactly a minute, and that they gazed at one another all the while.
We’ve all experienced awkward eye contact, but the confrontation described here is remarkably prolonged and strange. Raskolnikov and Zametov stare at each other with an intensity that paralyzes both of them. Although Raskolnikov has temporarily silenced his conscience, his struggle to be free of it is by no means over. The image presented here is of two adversaries in a face-to-face conflict, neither willing to back down.
For ten seconds there was silence as though all had been struck dumb; even the warder stepped back, mechanically retreated to the door, and stood immovable.
This silence occurs immediately after Nikolay makes his false confession, an unexpected event that throws everyone off balance and into silence. Surely this is an exciting prospect for the true criminal, providing a new hope to escape unpunished. But at the same time, it compounds his unbearable guilt and intensifies his suffering. Raskolnikov’s principal enemy is not the police or the judges—it is his conscience.
“It was not I murdered her,” Raskolnikov whispered like a frightened child caught in the act.
“No, it was you, you Rodion Romanovitch, and no one else,” Porfiry whispered sternly, with conviction.
They were both silent and the silence lasted strangely long, about ten minutes. Raskolnikov put his elbow on the table and passed his fingers through his hair. Porfiry Petrovitch sat quietly waiting.
One of the longest silences in the novel occurs here, where Porfiry directly accuses Raskolnikov of murder. Ten full minutes of complete silence pass as the criminal silently wrestles with full weight of the accusation levelled against him. Porfiry’s patience is evident in all his confrontations with Raskolnikov. He is slowly and cleverly drawing him into his snare, not by physical force but by psychological manipulation.
Raskolnikov maintained a mournful silence and let his head sink dejectedly. He pondered a long while and at last smiled again, but his smile was sad and gentle.
More and more, Raskolnikov’s response to everything is silence. Silent anger, silent mourning, and in the last few pages, silent love. Disabused of his theory of his own superiority and crushed under the weight of his guilt, his dejected silence is understandable. However, that silence makes it difficult to parse his emotions, as evidenced by the confusion of his interlocutors. It’s easy to dismiss Raskolnikov as a psychopath, but this is not an insight: it is an admission of failure to understand his psychology. Beneath the silence, the battle within Raskolnikov’s mind rages on, though his dejection and his nearness to confession mark its final stages.
Strange, silent encounters occur again and again in Crime and Punishment. I’ve highlighted a few of them here, but there are many more. While silence is perhaps not a central motif of the novel, it’s worthwhile to examine because it sheds light on the dynamics of Raskolnikov’s mind and conscience. Given the near impossibility of viewing this work as a whole from all angles and on all layers at once—that is, as with anything, given the need for focus—I find the lens I have presented here, of focusing on silent moments interspersed in the novel, to be one of the more interesting ones. If you’ve read the novel, I hope you got something out of this too. And if you haven’t, I hope you’re now more inclined to read it. If the silence is this interesting, imagine what the chaos and noise must be like!