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In Chapter V of Part IV of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky uses the physical and emotional fluctuation of the characters to highlight the mounting turmoil within Raskolnikov and accentuate the semantic threshold at which he finds himself. To see this clearly one must understand that, though often the defining events in the novel — decisions, conversations, confessions — take place in what Mikhail Bakhtin qualifies as crowded thresholds, streets, corridors, etc, the particular confrontational scene between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich in Part IV unfolds in the rather ample and relatively open environment of Petrovich’s “neither large nor small” study. It is precisely because of this seemingly sudden expansion in the space of the novel that the physical, verbal, and emotional vacillations that follow are made all the more poignant. Raskolnikov mainly seems to be at an invisible threshold himself, a critical moment during which his nerves fail him, his reason betrays him, and he is left with alkaline tastes and feverish attempts at coherence for guides; the oscillations in the text mirror his condition.
From the onset the feeling between the two men is established by means of the diction Dostoevsky employs to stage the exchange, including words and phrases such as “pounce,” “control his overstrained nerves,” and “both were watching each other, but when their eyes met, quick as lightning they looked away,” which in turn makes the air dense with tension. Both characters appear to be struggling with far more than the interview at hand; they seem to be burdened by their internal attempts to grasp the ineffable interdependence between past and future, actions and consequences, punishment and forgiveness. And so, both “criminal” and “detective” — if their roles are to be simplified for the purpose of this analogy — are united by a common tension, if not a common search for dialogue and understanding.
Physically, both men hesitate between extremes. For instance, Raskolnikov is at first plagued by paranoia, and worries incessantly about what both his silence or speech may reveal, what his nerves may betray, and what his hatred for Petrovich will incite him to say. Several times he rises in indignation and prepares to leave, but even as the exchange eases into a more overtly accusatory tone, he seems simultaneously unable to control his own physical state and to follow his own desires. Fruitlessly, he strains to “penetrate Porfiry’s game,” picks up his cap to leave and, yelling, demands a formal accusation from Petrovich; immobilized by his own feverish state though, he proceeds to easily succumb to the latter’s pleas and remains in the study. Likewise, Porfiry Petrovich is caught in the ebb and flow of his own movements, at times approaching Raskolnikov and others staying aloof, often “running around the room, moving his fat little legs quicker and quicker” and then unexpectedly stopping to examine an object or listen for a sound, “at one moment avoiding Raskolnikov’s suspicious glance, then again standing still and looking him straight in the face.” He seems to be speaking not only with Raskolnikov, but with himself, testing the boundaries of not only his suspect, but his own strength of purpose.
The oscillatory nature of the physical descriptions of both the two men and their reactions combines with their verbal and emotional changes to elevate the sense of tension in the narrative and, in turn, mirror the breaking down of Raskolnikov’s frame of being and his arrival at a threshold all his own, one at which he must decide his own accountability under the law. At several points, Porfiry Petrovich appears to be no more than a conniving, sly man who utilizes various psychological techniques to force Raskolnikov to crumble. Even during the lapses when he gives the impression of feeling sympathy, his words echo the stern echo of a persecution, a patient hunt: “I’ll soon make you believe the whole.” At first he considers Raskolnikov an equal, a friend, a “dear,” a man whose company he enjoys and with whom he feels united in the difficulties intelligent middle class men face when trying to communicate with each other. At still other times his “alarm and sympathy were so natural that Raskolnikov was silent and began looking at him with wild curiosity.” But the poignant shift arises when Petrovich embarks on an elaborate and rather overt allusion to his plan of luring Raskolnikov to a confession by crippling his psychological and emotional stability. It is, however, precisely the combination of Porfiry Petrovich’s physical and emotional changes that prompts Raskolnikov to become acutely aware that not only has he not been capable to carrying the emotional burden that came with the double murder, he has, in his weakness, been the chief incriminator against himself!
Even Raskolnikov himself vacillates between feverish alarm and utter confusion, all the while altering his nerves even more: “He did not believe a word he [Porfiry] said, though he felt a strange inclination to believe.” For one, he instantly senses that “his uneasiness at the mere contact with Porfiry… had grown… to monstrous proportions,” but chooses to speak occasionally and with marked irony and insolence. His confusion escalates as Porfiry Petrovich continues to entangle him in a web of psychological stimulation and torment — first describing how he hunts a criminal, then stating he has no reason to suspect Raskolnikov of the murder at hand, and even proceeding to defend him against his own incriminations — but at a time when Raskolnikov seems to be on the verge of a nervous collapse, he unexpectedly composes himself and yells, “I am ready” just as the incident with Nikolay is about to unfold. And so, the confrontation between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich fuses together the dramatic elements of physical hesitancy and the more intrusively poignant cognitive instability of the characters to mirror Raskolnikov’s internal conflict.
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