an intro to end on

A couple of things to note: (1) Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment in the mid 1860s; (2) the edition of Crime and Punishment that I read was published in 1991, with an introduction by David McDuff presumably written in the same year.

After finishing Crime and Punishment, I went back to the start of the book, and read the introduction to see if it could elucidate the meanings of the novel, or perhaps reveal things that I had missed. 

Side note: It never made sense to me to read introductions before reading the actual story because, assuming the story is new to you, you wouldn’t know what is being referenced, and it would also spoil the story. It seems more fitting to put the “introduction” at the end, like a “discussion” section. You know, like how research papers and journal articles are set out as Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, Conclusion. Perhaps a novel’s introduction should just talk about the context of the novel, or events leading to the creation of the novel.

Anyway, I digress.

In one part of the introduction, McDuff points out that one part of the epilogue is quite “prophetic in its horror”. The section he refers to is a vivid dream that the protagonist (Raskolnikov) has while he is ill and hospitalised. Let me quote some of the key points:

  • “In his illness he had dreamt that the entire world had fallen victim to some strange, unheard of and unprecedented plague that was spreading from the depths of Asia into Europe”
  • Those infected “became rabid and insane. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and in unswerving possession of the truth as did those who became infected”
  • “Entire centres of population, entire cities and peoples became smitten and went mad”
  • “All were in a state of anxiety and no one could understand anyone else, each person thought that he alone possessed the truth and suffered agony as he looked at the others, beating his breast, weeping and wringing his hands.”

And it goes on and on like that. You can see some parallels to the last few years, right? (Except maybe it was certain people who were not infected that were so convinced of their own intelligence …until they got infected.)

The main point of difference is that the plague in Raskolnikov’s dream was caused by a trichina — a parasitic worm — rather than a virus. But throughout our pandemic, there were constant speculations about the efficacy of certain anti-parasitic medicines in treating this new viral infection. Indeed, there were reports of it improving outcomes in certain populations, but those populations had high incidences of worm infections, so it’s completely confounded.

I just thought this was interesting because McDuff said it was “prophetic” even though he was writing about it in 1991, before covid and before SARS1. But I suppose there were other plagues before then, and he could be referring to the madness of the masses as a general thing.

The introduction also went through various interpretations of Crime and Punishment and analysed various other scenes and characters. The only one I think worth mentioning is attributed to Helen Muchnic: “It is hard when reading the critical literature on Dostoyevsky to avoid feeling that interpretations of his work tend to say more about those who make them than they do about the novelist himself”.


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