Crime and Punishment at 150 (2016)

Crime and Punishment and the Vitality of Folklore Walker, Clint


Vladimir Propp’s seminal work on the morphology of the folktale has received considerable attention from scholars around the world, but Aleksandr Afanas'ev's substantially older three-volume study of Slavic folklore remains virtually unknown outside Russia. The first volume of Afanas’ev’s study, Poetic Views of the Slavs on Nature (Poeticheskie vozzreniia slavian na prirodu), appeared in 1865—the same year Dostoevsky began serious work on Crime and Punishment. Afanas'ev is better known as the great nineteenth-century gatherer of Slavic folklore; his magisterial anthology of Russian fairytales remains the standard read around the world today. Yet rarely are these folkloric gems carefully collected by Afanas’ev read in conjunction with Russian novels. This artificial separation of genres must be bridged. Fairytales are vital for understanding Dostoevsky’s mature fiction, particularly beginning with Crime and Punishment. This paper will revisit Dostoevsky’s novel in the context of Afanas’ev's study and folklore in general by connecting central themes, motifs and passages from Crime and Punishment to Afanas’ev's work and to several key Western and Russian folktales. A few of the motifs I will consider include: 1) the crossing of boundaries and thresholds, including Afanas’ev’s discussion of roots connected with stepping (stup and its connection to Baba Yaga, the verbs stupats’ and prestupat’ and their implied link to the moral behavior of the hero, etc.); 2) Afanas’ev’s discussion of ringing bells, a central symbolic motif in Crime and Punishment, in the context of driving away unclean spirits, witches, and devils; 3) the link between ringing bells and a terrible pestilence or plague (morovaia iazva) that appears in both Afanas’ev and Dostoevsky; 4) several key folkloric motifs connected with Sonia, but especially her symbolic links to both the Firebird (Zhar-ptitsa) and the magic water of life.

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