Crime and Punishment as a Polyphonic Novel


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The term 'polyphony' was introduced into literary theory by Mikhail Bakhtin in his Ïðîáëåìû ïîýòèêè Äîñòîåâñêîãî. The polyphonic novel is dialogic rather than monologic; this means that multiple voices can be heard, and each voice represents an alternative version of 'the truth'. (NB. The use of dialogue as a formal device does not make a novel polyphonic in the Bakhtinian sense; genuine polyphony entails a sense of ambivalence, a situation where the different voices compete with one another and represent alternative viewpoints between which the reader cannot make a straightforward choice.)

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is the main focalizer: his point of view is adopted by the third-person narrator almost throughout (exceptions include a small number of episodes involving Svidrigaylov, and the relatively impersonal first chapter of the the Epilogue). The reader is thus allowed access into Raskolnikov's inner world, and although third-person narration is used, the novel as a whole comes close to being the central character's interior monologue. Nevertheless, there is also a strong tendency towards dialogue. This has several manifestations:

(1) Actual dialogues between characters are of central importance in shaping not only the events but also Raskolnikov's mental processes; in relation to Raskolnikov, the other characters with their distinctive voices all represent alternative truths and alternative points of view. The other characters, and their ideas and values, are perceived through the prism of Raskolnikov's consciousness: their voices echo in his mind, and he reacts to the ideas put forward by these external voices, often entering into a mental dialogue with them.

(2) Raskolnikov also conducts an endless dialogue with himself (frequently addressing himself in the second person); the voice of his shrewd intellect alternates with the voice of conscience, and a lucid understanding of his situation coexists with unaccountable (even contradictory) emotional reactions.

(3) The reader also has access to Raskolnikov's subconscious mind (the voice of the subconscious) in the context of his nightmarish visions (see especially chapters I:5 and III:6)

In all, Raskolnikov's mind becomes a battlefield where a number of different internal and external voices (representing different ideas and world-views, or different facets of Raskolnikov's personality) keep vying for supremacy.

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The narrator's relationship to the hero may also be perceived as a manifestation of polyphony: although Raskolnikov's mental processes are shown to the reader, it is not always clear whether the narrator's assessments of Raskolnikov's circumstances and mental states are the narrator's own, or whether they emanate from Raskolnikov (cf. the very first sentence of the novel). The narrator adopts a descriptive approach: the author/narrator does not impose his own values on his hero, i.e. does not attempt to suppress the hero's autonomous voice.

 


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