While I was doing some housecleaning yesterday and listening to Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a number of things I’ve recently seen and heard started swirling through my head, and spinning themselves together. I wish I had time to write a proper essay, but I’m afraid it might have more in common with a jumbled list. Still, I want to at least have a record of this set of echoes, however thin and insubstantial it might look.
In Raskolnikov’s dream, he is a child again, with his father. A man is mistreating his mare, and encouraging others to do the same. He whips her, then begins beating her with a bar, while others whip and strike her as well. The boy Raskolnikov is horrified, and is one of the few onlookers who speaks against this man and his actions. The mare’s owner keeps saying, “She’s my property!” He owns her, so he can do as he likes with her, including injuring her severely, and even killing her. After she is dead, Raskolnikov approaches and kisses her head. When he awakes, he is very relieved to find it was only a dream. Raskolnikov seems to have a decent grasp of right and wrong, and yet not long after this terrible dream, he will commit murder.
I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles many years ago, maybe close to 20 years. They recently had a new version on Masterpiece Theatre (specifically, “Masterpiece Classic”), which I watched this past week. During the first hour of the program, Tess is raped by Alec. Early in the second part, Tess marries Angel, then tells him about her past. Although he seems to believe that what happened was against her will, Angel leaves her for Brazil anyway, and their future is uncertain. When she and Alec cross paths again, he begins pursuing her. In the film, he says things like, “If you’re anyone’s wife, you’re mine,” and, “I will have you.” She finally gives in, so that her mother and sister and younger siblings will be taken care of – and because she hasn’t heard from Angel since he left, well over a year earlier, and Alec says Angel will never come back. When Angel finally returns and tracks her down, she tells him she is with Alec, and says, “I am his creature,” and also, “I am already dead.”
Tomorrow, Barack Obama will become the first African-American President of the United States. Less than 200 years ago, those who looked like Obama were slaves, the “property” of other men who happened to have lighter-colored skin. (I hear the horse’s owner again: “She’s my property!”) I am proud of our nation’s progress, and hopeful that race relations will continue to improve, that all people will have opportunities to better themselves, no matter their heritage or the color of their skin.
But then again…last week, a man who works in Jeff’s department was found dead. Two days later, after the autopsies were done, the sheriff held a press conference, finally verified the identities of the four people found dead on Monday morning. They said this man killed his three children, attempted to take his own life, then started a fire inside the house. He died of smoke inhalation, and his death has been ruled a suicide. Jeff was friendly with this man; he participated in Jeff’s online fantasy football and basketball leagues, so Kyle was acquainted with him, too. Jeff said, “If you’d asked me to pick out the most normal guy I work with, I would have picked Mike.” He and the others in the department are stunned, they can’t believe the Mike they knew could do such a thing. Could he have really harmed his own children? If he did, then what on earth could have driven him to it? They said he’s never seemed depressed, and he’s never shown signs of having a bad temper. And yet, the evidence is pointing to him, that he ended the lives of his own children, and himself, and tried to burn his house down.
So much progress has been made in the areas of race relations, in the status of women, and even in the rights of young people, many of whom had to work from a very young age back when Dostoevsky and Thomas Hardy were writing about Raskolnikov and Tess. I can understand losing your head, doing something you probably shouldn’t do – heaven knows, I’ve done a lot of things without thinking, even sometimes when I should know better. But to physically harm someone (or an innocent animal, as with the horse) without provocation, to impress one’s will on that of another person using physical strength and brutality, or with weapons — why, why would someone think they have the right to do that?