Crime and Punishment, it has been said, has a misleading title, since the book is about neither the crime nor the punishment. By the first page of the novel, the crime has already been committed: Raskalnikov’s intention is set, and he executes his murderous plan mechanistically, as though he had no other choice. At the end of the epilogue, we quit Raskalnikov just as he accepts his guilt and prepares to move on, ready to serve another seven years in Siberia and pay for his eventual freedom with “great and heroic struggles yet to come.” The book is really about everything between the crime and the punishment.

So, as the argument goes, the title is a misnomer. I disagree. It is not that I think the title accurately reflects the content of the book; it is that “Crime and Punishment” is brilliantly evocative of the novel’s thesis, precisely because of what it omits. In his short story The Marquise of O—, Heinrich von Kleist managed to squeeze an act of sexual violence into a dash. Fyodor Dostoevsky does him one better. In “Crime and Punishment”, three months of a man’s psychological self-torture are compressed into a space. It’s right there between “Crime” and “and Punishment”. Now when I imagine the name of the work in my mind, I cannot but imagine a little gap there, a bump, a pause. Crime (bup!) and Punishment. The whole subject of the book, the entire 530-page treatise, is squeezed into that interstice.

[Aside: I like the word interstice (OED: an intervening space, especially a very small one) because its pronunciation suggests its own meaning. At in- the tongue presses against the teeth; the -t- sets off an explosive charge inter tongue and teeth and sends the tongue back; the -er- draws the tongue further back, all the way to the soft palette; the -s- glides the tongue forward from its erstwhile position to hit another explosive -t- which sends the tongue flying off the roof of the mouth to slide to a stop on the ice of -ice. The two -t- sounds bookend the tongue-withdrawal of the -ers- sound. If you were to graph the position of the tongue while saying “interstice”, it would look like a flat wall with a little recession, an intervening space, right between int- and -tice.]

Why does this squeezing relate to the novel’s thesis? For one thing, Raskalnikov is all about the interstice. He is a man who lives outside society: between human relationships, but only rarely within one. His morality is between good and evil, and indifferent to both. He is named for the Russian word meaning schism, a split.

Interstitial imagery is everywhere in the novel. Raskalnikov lives in a cramped space between two other rooms. Svidrigaylov, during a delirious night in a hotel room, looks through the spaces between the wooden slats which comprise one of the walls to spy on other guests and feels a draught coming through the spaces around his window. The characters wander through narrow streets, alleys, and hallways. But it is more than that.

If you were to describe the events of Crime and Punishment—the murders, the dramatic encounters, the final confession—you would be leaving out the most important part of the book. Everything that happens between events, everything interstitial, is what makes it so valuable. Dostoevsky meticulously chronicles the little run-ins between people on the street, the random coincidences, the inner monologues, and the slightly bizarre experiences that contribute so much to our daily existence and to our psychology, but which are almost never talked about.

Take, for example, the usual answer to the question “how was your day?” The questioned person will typically reply with adjective so general it borders on a lie, and maybe recount a few events to illustrate. Not that we blame him. Usually it seems there is not enough time to say anything meaningful.

But what do we leave out when we give such an answer? For me, the big events of each day certainly constitute, in broad strokes, what happens; but they can hardly account for the experience of living through what happens. It is the tiny unexpected surprises, the hundreds of small plans made and unmade, the promises to self and others kept or not kept, the pangs of anxiety or regret, the thrills of unexpected joy and the sudden beautiful sights, the delight of inquisitiveness rewarded, the random encounters with old friends (and sometimes, the struggle to remember their names!) that form the real reality, for me.

The interstices of my life are where the big things happen. That is why I enjoyed reading Crime and Punishment: because it dealt so directly with the paradoxical importance of unimportant things.

23 April 2009 — 6:45 pm