Tag Archives: Russian literature

The Role of Bills: Marxist Implications in Chekhov’s “A Woman’s Kingdom”

22 Aug
Anton Chekhov

Image via Wikipedia

Chekhov’s short story “A Woman’s Kingdom” opens not with a wry physical description of the liege of the titular kingdom, nor a rapturous, cinematic bird’s eye view of the natural landscape of the kingdom itself, but instead with the image of a roll of banknotes; prosaic, commercial, and dirty. This roll of fifteen hundred roubles plays a central role in the unfolding story. Far from being presented as a positive treasure, the roll of roubles serves as a bitter talisman, an emblem of shame and guilt for the story’s protagonist, Anna Akimovna, a young newly-rich bourgeois “benefactress” who finds herself unable to truly help anyone, least of all herself.

The roll of bills, we are told, was sent to Anna by a bailiff at her “forest villa,” and is the award from a lawsuit, the details of which Chekhov does not share with us, and of which, indeed, Anna likely does not even want to know. From the very start, Anna is painted as an unhappy young woman who remains completely mystified and alienated by her great wealth. Of her relationship to the roll of banknotes and its source, Chekhov tells us:

Anna Akimovna disliked and feared such words as “awarded damages” and “won the suit.” She knew that it was impossible to do without the law, but for some reason, whenever Nazaritch, the manager of the factory, or the bailiff of her villa in the country, both of whom frequently went to law, used to win lawsuits of some sort for her benefit, she always felt uneasy and, as it were, ashamed. On this occasion, too, she felt uneasy and awkward, and wanted to put that fifteen hundred roubles further away that it might be out of her sight.

Anna’s uneasiness seems to arise from her knowledge that she didn’t earn this money through any kind of labor, but instead garnered it through the efforts of others–efforts not on her behalf, precisely, but through the anonymous machinations of a legal system which, according to both Chekhov and Marxist doctrine, will always favor the owning class. In other words, Anna is a capitalist, and came by this sum simply by being a member of the owning class. Tellingly, this particular roll of banknotes was not even generated by any kind of physical or industrial labor at all, but by the legal processes of capitalism itself.

Anna’s emotional unease from this roll of bills, and more broadly, from the “role” of bills and of money in her life in general, dramatizes another important Marxist doctrine, which holds that alienation is a fundamental characteristic of capitalist society. Under capitalism, workers have no inherent stake in the fields they till but do not own, nor in the products they manufacture but do not profit from. Meanwhile the owners of the land and of the means of production likewise have no cause-and-effect human relationship with the money they rake in. Illustrating this economic disconnect, Chekhov shows us Anna recalling a past visit to her factory she owns, and which she perceives as

…an impression of hell. It seemed to her as though the wheels, the levers, and the hot hissing cylinders were trying to tear themselves away from their fastenings to crush the men, while the men, not hearing one another, ran about with anxious faces, and busied themselves about the machines, trying to stop their terrible movement.

All labor functions as crushing exploitation of humanity for purposes of capital; conversely, all capital results from exploitation of humanity. The “hot hissing cylinders” of capitalism are not seen to be making anything beneficial; the workers could as well be endeavoring to stop the “terrible machines” rather than to run them. Indeed, confronted with the absurd spectacle of labor in the factory: Anna looked, listened, did not understand, smiled graciously, and felt ashamed. To get hundreds of thousands of roubles from a business which one does not understand and cannot like — how strange it is!

Also, as if to underscore her appointed role in this capitalist system, Chekhov tells us that Anna receives “anonymous letters,” telling her “that she was a millionaire and exploiter — that she was devouring other men’s lives and sucking the blood of the workers.” This wording recalls the most extreme Marxist revolutionary rhetoric. Interestingly, Chekhov very well may be using the rhetoric of this anonymous letter to illustrate a flaw in Marxist revolutionary thought; after all, Anna isn’t purposefully sucking anybody’s blood; she’s not brutal, but helpless.

“A Woman’s Kingdom” is set at Christmastime, and the traditional holiday of giving only serves to underscore the bitterness at the story’s heart. While Anna regards herself, despairingly, as “silly” and “frivolous,” she does entertain a sense of responsibility, or at least noblesse oblige, regarding the roll of bills. However, she struggles with how to make the roll of bills actually benefit anybody. She considers breaking up the sum and distributing it to the workers, or to the poor, but each portion would be uselessly tiny. Here, Chekhov seems to suggest, is the fundamental, absurd tragicomedy of capitalism, laid bare: even a relatively well-meaning person, who may grasp the idea that the capital they have witlessly accumulated is a result of an unjust system, may have little power to ameliorate the exploitative conditions of the people from whose labor they profit.

Musing over her troubles, Anna becomes nostalgic for her childhood, at which time she had yet to become rich:

Anna Akimovna looked at the women and young people, and she suddenly felt a longing for a plain rough life among a crowd. She recalled vividly that far-away time when she used to be called Anyutka, when she was a little girl and used to lie under the same quilt with her mother…and she longed to wash, to iron, to run to the shop and the tavern as she used to do every day when she lived with her mother. She ought to have been a work-girl and not the factory owner! Her big house with its chandeliers and pictures … the young people of both sexes who came almost every day to ask her for money, and with whom she always for some reason felt guilty; and the clerks, the doctors, and the ladies who were charitable at her expense, who flattered her and secretly despised her for her humble origin — how wearisome and alien it all was to her!

The traditional Chekhovian theme of childhood nostalgia is made all the more poignant by the Marxist implications in “A Woman’s Kingdom.” Anna is further alienated in her capitalist wealth by being “of humble origin”; she experiences a kind of survivor’s guilt at having emerged from the working class into the owning class, and seeks a soulful connection with some kind of work, such as she felt she had as a child. Chekhov tells us that Anna sees the factory workers as not entirely foreign, as some in her exalted position might, but instead “was constantly recognizing in the crowd her own father or mother or uncle,” and that “she was no more afraid of peasants or workpeople, drunk or sober, than of her acquaintances of the educated class.” Here Chekhov shows sympathy for Anna, in that she recognizes the fellow humanity of the peasants and workpeople, and perhaps is not irretrievably identified with the “educated class”. But her flashes of empathy and idealism serve no social good.

For example, wanting to exorcise her guilt and shame at the roll of bills, Anna finally decides to award the entire sum to some disadvantaged person as a Yuletide windfall. She considers this an “amusing” idea, and takes “at random” from a pile of begging letters that of Tchalikov, an unemployed petty official with a tubercular wife and five daughters. However, upon visiting the family, Anna becomes disillusioned with her intended act of charity. The arbitrarily-chosen family aren’t as bad off as Anna hoped; Mrs. Tchalikov doesn’t appear to be consumptive, and the girls are “chubby,” not underfed. Most importantly, Anna takes issue with Tchalikov’s grasping entitlement. Though he maintains an obsequious facade, he makes continual “disparaging phrases about his gentle birth, and it was evident that he was humbling himself because he considered himself superior to her.” Tchalikov enacts yet another Marxist preoccupation, that of social class; Tchalikov is bitter at his fate as a fallen member of the gentry, and believes that due to his “gentle birth,” capitalism (as symbolized by Anna, the “benefactress,”) owes him a living. He, like Anna, is alienated from labor, but unlike the bourgeois-rich Anna, he has no capital.

Anna leaves the Tchalikov’s without giving them the full roll of bills, instead resentfully granting them only a twenty-five roubles. Before leaving the Tchalikov’s apartment Anna encounters their lodger, Pimenov, an amateur watchmaker who works in her factory. Pimenov captures Anna’s imagination with his air of forthright, hardworking masculinity. Here Chekhov illustrates the sexual element of Anna’s alienation; devoid of a suitor from within her own class ( due perhaps in part to her humble birth,) Anna objectifies Pimenov, making of him a romantic fantasy. For her, this working man becomes the emblem of her longing to return to a “rough life among a crowd”, as well as a possible resolution of her loneliness. She feels that the traditional female role, that of a wife and mother subservient to a  husband’s “manly strength” would absolve her of her guilt and unease:

“If I could fall in love,” she thought, stretching; the very thought of this sent a rush of warmth to her heart. “And if I could escape from the factory . . .” she mused, imagining how the weight of those factory buildings, barracks, and schools would roll off her conscience, roll off her mind. . . . Then she remembered her father, and thought if he had lived longer he would certainly have married her to a working man — to Pimenov, for instance. He would have told her to marry, and that would have been all about it. And it would have been a good thing; then the factory would have passed into capable hands.

Later in the story, Anna even half-jokingly confesses to a spinsterish local gossip, Spiridorovna, that she would like to arrange a marriage with Pimenov, and takes comfort in her fantasy of a peaceful future with him.

Standing in stark contrast to the workingman fantasy of Pimenov stands the character of “the lawyer Lysevitch,” an erudite, smooth-talking schemer. On Christmas Day, after skipping church and receiving various visitors who pay homage and ask for money, Anna entertains this aristocratic lawyer (as well as a dull civil councilor, Krylin, who dozes through most of his appearance in the story.) Anna has a long history with Lysevitch, who knew her father and her uncle, and who is tied through the processes of capitalism to her financial concerns:

Anna Akimovna knew that [Lysevitch] had nothing to do at the factory, but she could not dismiss him — she had not the moral courage; and besides, she was used to him. He used to call himself her legal adviser, and his salary, which he invariably sent for on the first of the month punctually, he used to call “stern prose.” Anna Akimovna knew that when, after her father’s death, the timber of her forest was sold for railway sleepers, Lysevitch had made more than fifteen thousand out of the transaction, and had shared it with Nazaritch. When first she found out they had cheated her she had wept bitterly, but afterwards she had grown used to it.

Thus, Chekhov shows us once again that Anna recognizes the injustice surrounding her, but that she has “grown used to it,” and hasn’t the “moral courage” to effect change. She is the very model of what critic Ronald Hingley identifies in Chekhov’s oeuvre as “dreary resignation.”

In true Chekhovian form, the characters in “A Woman’s Kingdom” are dwarfed by the faceless social institutions surrounding them. Nobody, Chekhov seems to be suggesting, truly benefits from an unjust capitalist system. The workers are exploited in their labor and wretched living conditions; the well-born gentry are resentful and entitled of the newly-rich bourgeoisie; and the bourgeoisie are alienated from those of lesser economic status, and are ripped off by their lawyers:

[Lysevitch] laid his cheek on [Anna’s] hand and said in the tone commonly used in coaxing little children:

“My precious, why have you punished me?”

“How? When?”

“I have had no Christmas present from you.”

Anna Akimovna had never heard before of their sending a Christmas box to the lawyer, and now she was at a loss how much to give him. But she must give him something, for he was expecting it, though he looked at her with eyes full of love.

“I suppose Nazaritch forgot it,” she said, “but it is not too late to set it right.”

She suddenly remembered the fifteen hundred she had received the day before, which was now lying in the toilet drawer in her bedroom. And when she brought that ungrateful money and gave it to the lawyer, and he put it in his coat pocket with indolent grace, the whole incident passed off charmingly and naturally. The sudden reminder of a Christmas box and this fifteen hundred was not unbecoming in Lysevitch.

In whose eyes is this grasping, entitled conduct of Lysevitch “not unbecoming?” Within the framework of the text, it is most obviously Anna who fails, or more accurately refuses, to see the injustice in Lysevitch’s request of the roll of bills. Anna hands over the “ungrateful money” without question. It is Chekhov who sees it as unbecoming, surely, and herein lies another Marxist principle; that the owning class keeps capital to itself. There is to be no redistribution of wealth in Chekhov’s story. Within the machinery of an unjust and exploitative capitalist system, labor goes unrewarded while capital generates more capital, which is always held firmly by those in power. Capital is exchanged from the wealthy to the wealthy in the form of bribes, crooked business deals, lawsuits, and “Christmas boxes.”

As for Anna’s alienation and loneliness, it only deepens after her parting with the “ungrateful” and “shameful” roll of bills. Alone on Christmas night, she reconsiders her fantasy of a simple married life with the workingman Pimenov:

…against her own will,[Anna] imagined Pimenov dining with Lysevitch and Krylin, and his timid, unintellectual figure seemed to her pitiful and helpless, and she felt repelled by it. And only now, for the first time in the whole day, she realized clearly that all she had said and thought about Pimenov and marrying a workman was nonsense, folly, and wilfulness. To convince herself of the opposite, to overcome her repulsion, she tried to recall what she had said at dinner, but now she could not see anything in it: shame at her own thoughts and actions, and the fear that she had said something improper during the day, and disgust at her own lack of spirit, overwhelmed her completely.

Try as she might to “escape the factory”, Anna Akimovna is mired in her woman’s kingdom. She is too rarefied to love a working man, too sensitive to enjoy her power and privileges ruthlessly, too fearful to effect social change, too newly-rich to escape snubbing. Marxist doctrines maintain that the machine of capitalism exploits the proletariat; but Chekhov illustrates its soul-numbing effect on its beneficiaries, as well.

Works Cited

Chekhov, Anton. “A Woman’s Kingdom.” Text found online at http://www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/1271/ 05/12/07

Editors, Marxist Internet Archive, online text at http://www.marxists.org/subject/students/index.htm 5/12/07

Hingley, Ronald (quote from class handout)

The Eyes of God: Guilt, Belief and Existentialism in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors

22 Aug
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In Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, as in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, a protagonist commits cold-blooded murder, after which he comes to grips with his guilt, and more broadly, with a Universe which seems to allow for grave human misdeeds. And whereas Dostoevsky asserts the necessity of suffering and atonement in accordance with Divine Law, Allen posits that in the seeming absence of an all-knowing God, individuals must bear responsibility alone in an indifferent Universe. Interestingly, both Dostoevsky and Allen uphold a moral code; but where Dostoevsky’s Orthodox Christianity dictates his terms, Allen paints an Existential portrait of sin that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.

The parallels between Crime and Punishment and Crimes and Misdemeanors are perhaps clearest in the divided consciousnesses of their protagonists. Raskolnikov, whose very name evokes in Russian the idea of raskol, or “schism,” can be seen to have two selves; one is a being of tremendous arrogance, who believes he may commit murder both as a means of ridding the world of a “useless old woman,” and to prove himself a Napoleon-like “great man” to whom the ordinary rules of common morality do not apply. But Raskolnikov contains as a humanitarian self as well, one inclined to help a drunken and abused girl on the thoroughfare, and who gives money to the impoverished Marmeladov family. Raskolnikov’s morally conscious self torments him after his crime, making him ill. He ultimately heals the psychic rupture he has inflicted upon his psyche by confessing the murders of the pawnbroker and her sister, and atoning through his suffering, thus submitting to the Law of God.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, interestingly, the role of protagonist is itself divided.  Half of the “role” of Raskolnikov goes to Allen’s character of Judah Rosenthal, as portrayed by Martin Landau. Judah is a successful ophthalmologist who arranges the murder of his unstable mistress, thus freeing himself (or so he believes) of the consequences of adultery. Unlike Raskolnikov, Judah is a wealthy man who can afford to hire his brother to commit the murder, though later Judah reflects that “God is a luxury I can’t afford.” Like Raskolnikov, Judah is tormented by guilt after his murder, but he does not confess and atone.

But thematically, in Allen’s film the “Raskolnikov role” is played also by the comic-relief character of documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern, portrayed by Allen himself. Judah may be seen to commit Raskolnikov’s crime of murder, whereas Cliff suffers some of the outward circumstances of Raskolnikov’s condition; Cliff, like Raskolnikov, is a struggling thinker who worries about money, aspires to greatness, and chafes at his connection to an arrogant  “self-made man.”

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is disgusted by his beloved sister Dounia’s engagement to the capitalist Luzhin, and hates the fact that his sister intends to sacrifice herself for Raskolnikov’s sake; in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Cliff’s “Luzhin” is his wife’s brother, Lester (portrayed by Alan Alda), who provides Cliff with the odious, though lucrative job of composing a laudatory biographical documentary about his tremendous success. Cliff would rather be working on his documentary about Professor Levi, a wise old existentialist philosopher, but he needs Lester’s money.

Both Cliff and Raskolnikov abhor their clownish brother-in-law’s grasping, self-congratulatory commercialism, and both reject it; Raskolnikov by rebuffing Luzhin’s offer of financial support, and Cliff by juxtaposing filmed scenes of Lester’s pomposity and crapulousness with stock footage of Mussolini and of Francis the Talking Mule. In both cases, the brother-in-law is portrayed as comic relief to the major moral themes—but, significantly, in the fictive universe of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alda’s Lester is seen to triumph. Cliff’s love interest, Halley, chooses to marry Lester instead of Cliff, whereas in Dostoevsky’s universe Dounia rejects Luzhin in the face of her brother’s disapproval. Thus we see once again that Dostoevsky’s universe is a far more just place than that of the Existentialist Allen.

Allen addresses (but does not resolve) his schismatic dual-Raskolnikov by having Judah “confess” his crime to Cliff in the film’s next-to last scene. Their conversation could be read as Judah confessing to a kind of alternate self. It encapsulates Judah’s coming-to-terms with his crime, as he recalls it to Cliff under the auspices of suggesting a plot for a film:

And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, transcribed from video)

This recalls a similar description of guilt-induced “mental collapse” in Crime and Punishment. After committing the murders, Raskolnikov falls into a profound state of soul-sickness—indeed, he has violated a “just and moral” Universe, and ultimately succumbs to “confessing the whole thing to the police,” an option from which Allen’s Judah willfully turns. Even in the midst of Raskolnikov’s suffering, Dostoevsky hints at the presence of God, and the eventual coming-to-consciousness necessary to the murderer’s salvation:

[Raskolnikov] was not completely unconscious, however, all the time he was ill; he was in a feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious. He remembered a great deal afterwards. Sometimes it seemed as though there were a number of people round him; they wanted to take him away somewhere, there was a great deal of squabbling and discussing about him. … he distinguished another person, too, whom he seemed to know very well, though he could not remember who he was, and this fretted him, even made him cry. Sometimes he fancied he had been lying there a month; at other times it all seemed part of the same day. But of that he had no recollection, and yet every minute he felt that he had forgotten something he ought to remember. He worried and tormented himself trying to remember, moaned, flew into a rage, or sank into awful, intolerable terror. Then he struggled to get up, would have run away, but someone always prevented him by force, and he sank back into impotence and forgetfulness. At last he returned to complete consciousness.

(Crime and Punishment, Chapter 10, italics mine)

In Dostoevsky’s rendered Universe, murder controverts God’s sacred law. Raskolnikov’s “feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious” in which he “distinguished another person, too, whom he seemed to know very well, though he could not remember who he was” represents Dostoevsky’s belief that mental illness arises from a spiritual disconnect from God, a theme introduced in the doppelganger plot of his brilliant novella The Double. Indeed, one could even read the unidentified “other person” to be God himself, watching over Raskolnikov’s deterioration until the sick young murderer, with help from the sainted prostitute, Sonya, confesses and accepts responsibility for his transgression.

Like Raskolnikov, Judah is aware that he has committed a sin. Immediately after finding out his mistress’s murder has been accomplished, Judah announces to his wife and daughter  “I think I’ve done a terrible thing.” He also tells his hit-man brother, “It’s pure evil, Jack! A man kills for money and he doesn’t even know his victims! … She’s not an insect! You don’t just step on her!”  However, Judah eventually turns away from the implications of his crime.

The spiritual theme of sight and blindness is an important one in Allen’s film. In the  opening scene, Judah accepts a humanitarian award for providing a new ophthalmic wing of a hospital. In his acceptance speech, Judah muses:

I remember my father telling me, ‘The eyes of God are on us always.’ The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

Judah was raised in religious faith; but he, much like a later Dostoevsky character, Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, has willfully turned from belief to a cynical form of self-justification that Dostoevsky would have abhorred.

The last we see of Judah in Allen’s film, he is a guest at the lavish wedding of a young woman whose father, the morally upright rabbi Ben, Judah is treating for blindness. Ben’s blindness, and Judah’s status as an eye doctor, are profound ironic statements by Allen; Ben represents Judeo-Christian law, and at the beginning of the film, he tells Judah that

…[there is] a fundamental difference in the way we view the world. You see it as harsh and empty of values and pitiless. And I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel it with all my heart a moral structure, with real meaning, and forgiveness, and a higher power, otherwise there’s no basis to live.

Later, in an imagined conversation with Ben about the murder, Ben tells Judah: “But the Law, Judah. Without the law, it’s all darkness… It’s a human life. You don’t think God sees?” Dostoevsky would argue that while Ben himself is consigned to a physical darkness, he remains upright in the eyes of an all-seeing God, whereas Judah the ophthalmologist is blind by choice. Allen makes no such unambiguous argument, though the song he chooses to play in the final moments of the film, while the blind rabbi dances with his daughter, is “I’ll be Seeing You.”  One might ask, who is doing the seeing?

In the penultimate “confession scene” of Crimes and Misdemeanors, documentarian Cliff conveys to murderer Judah much the same ideal as the sainted, blinded rabbi Ben does, but framed in existentialist terms rather than religious ones:

Cliff: But can [the murderer] ever go back [to normal]?

Judah: Well, people carry sins around with them…I mean, maybe once in a while he has a bad moment, but it passes. And with time, it all fades.

Cliff: Yeah, but then, you know, his worst beliefs are realized…

Judah: I said it was a chilling story, didn’t I?

Cliff: I don’t know, you know, I think it’d be tough for somebody to live with that, you know, very few guys could live with something like that on their conscience.

Judah: What do you mean? I mean, people carry awful deeds around with them…what do you expect them to do, turn themselves in? I mean, this is reality! In reality we rationalize, we deny, or we couldn’t go on living.

Cliff: Here’s what I would do, I would have him turn himself in because then, you see, your story assumes tragic proportions…in the absence of a God, or something, he is forced to assume that responsibility himself, then you have tragedy.

Judah: but that’s fiction, that’s movies… I mean, you’ve seen too many movies. I’m talking about reality. I mean, if you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen et. al., transcribed from video)

Allen could be seen to relegate Dostoevsky’s ideal of a just and moral God to the status of a Hollywood formula happy-ending; a fantasy, itself a strongly Existentialist stance (per Nietzsche, especially).

Allen’s Judah and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov ponder similar questions — in a Universe seemingly absent immediate consequences, is all permitted? Is the killing of another human being ever justified? — but the characters come to very different conclusions. Allen’s film concludes with its protagonist/murderer having decided that his mistress’s murder was worth it, as his “life of wealth and privilege” had been protected. One could argue that while Judah is not an atheist — indeed, he invokes his belief in God several times throughout the film — he behaves as though there is no Divine Law to which he could be held accountable. Existentialism, in his case, can be seen to actively subvert a moral code.

Raskolnikov, on the other hand, submits to Dostoevsky’s Divine Law.  Dostoevsky ends his novel with Raskolnikov serving seven years in Siberia, but with the promise of Sonia’s (and God’s) love promising his salvation. Judah is consigned to Hell, at least in Dostoevsky’s theology. Allen is perhaps not so sure. In interviews, Allen has characterized religious faith as a “gift,” one he himself does not profess to have received.

This difference in Raskolnikov’s and Judah’s outcomes illustrates a fundamental difference in Dostoevsky and Allen’s worldviews; for Dostoevsky, the redemption of an individual human soul comes about through sin, atonement through suffering, and eventual repentance; in Allen’s world, the absence of an active God renders every human soul accountable only to itself, thereby allowing a man such as Judah to continue with his life with “a few bad moments,” but ultimately turning away from the idea of sin and repentance and, as Allen has said in an interview of Judah’s character, “choosing not to punish himself.”

Yet, while Allen’s cosmology is far bleaker that Dostoevsky’s, the end scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors m allows for a possible glimpse of a virtuous life. As Ben dances with his daughter, a voice-over of Professor Levi intones that:

We’re all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions, moral choices. Some are on a grand scale, most of these choices are on lesser points. But we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, Human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying and even try to find joy from simple things, like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

(Crimes and Misdemeanors, transcribed from video)

The character of Professor Levi seems to embody Allen’s Humanist-Existentialist worldview, much like the Christian doctrine of Father Zossima embodies Dostoevsky’s in The Brothers Karamazov. Unlike Dostoevsky (and Zossima), for whom the Universe turns on the just dictates of a compassionate, all-knowing God, Allen posits an “indifferent universe” in which work, family, and hope for the future must stand as their own ends. Whether this code is believable or not is up to the viewer—after all, Levy commits suicide, leaving the simple note “I’ve gone out the window,” whereas the Dostoevskian Orthodox elder, Zossima, despite his unexpected putrefaction, is lionized, and his precepts upheld. In any case, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov ultimately conforms to Christian Orthodox principles, and in this way stands for all humanity’s need to sin, atone and repent.

Addressing Raskolnikov’s atonement process, I am reminded of a class discussion in which a student asked, “Are we meant to like Raskolnikov?”

The professor answered,  “By the end of the novel, I believe we are meant to love him.”

By the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, the viewer is meant to love neither Judah, nor Cliff. Perhaps this is because love is not written into the precepts of the humanitarian Existentialism Allen espouses. This, Dostoevsky would say, is precisely Existentialism’s failure; that no set of principles devoid of Christ’s love could measure up to the enormous human capacity for sin. Without suffering, atonement and redemption, no true love exists.

Works Cited

Bjorkman, Stig. Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman New York: Grove Press, 1995. (quote regarding character of Judah “not choosing to punish himself”).

Dostoevsky, Fyodor.

The Brothers Karamazov. (Translation by Constance Garnett) Available online at www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/brothers_karamazov Accessed December 17, 2007

Crime and Punishment. (Translation by Constance Garnett.) Available online at http://www.online-literature.com/dostoevsky/crimeandpunishment/ Accessed December 17, 2007

The Double. (Transl. Constance Garnett.) Available online at http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/the_double.html Accessed December 17, 2007

Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dir. Woody Allen. Perfs. Woody Allen, Martin Landau. DVD. Orion Pictures, 1989.

Mairs, Tanya, PhD. The Novels of Dostoevsky class lecture, New School University, December 2006

” The Kraft Music Hall Woody Allen Special.” By Woody Allen, producer. Perf. Woody Allen, Billy Graham. ABC. WBCN, Boston. 21 Sept. 1969. (interview with Billy Graham about religious faith being a “gift,” clip available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6iAaxOAHCM )