Posts Tagged ‘Fyodor Dostoevsky’

“Beating a(n almost-) dead horse” in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Monday, February 8th, 2010 by

A mule in Bolivia

Since writing about Jon Stewart’s banter with Congressman Anthony Weiner about “beating” Michael Bloomberg “like a rented mule,” I haven’t been able to distance myself from the images evoked by this phrase. While our language is replete with speciesist terms and expressions, I find this one particularly troubling. After much contemplation, I think I finally understand why.

When I was younger, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was a favorite of mine. I first encountered the novel in either 10th- or 11th-grade English class, and it so appealed to my macabre, angst-ridden teenage sensibilities that I read it several more times over the years. I’ve long since forgotten all the story’s particulars, however, one scene has stayed with me, as if imprinted in my subconscious: protagonist Rodya Raskolnikov’s dream – related so vividly in the book – of watching his fellow townspeople beat an elderly and infirm mare to death in a drunken mob rage. While this scenario doesn’t quite line up with the idiom “I’d beat x like a rented mule,” the sights, sounds and emotions conjured up by the phrase are exactly the same – and horrifically so. (Ditto: “Beating a dead horse,” so charmingly illustrated on the Pocket English Idioms website.)

Adding another layer to the text is the dream’s symbolism:

Rodya’s dreams always have a symbolic meaning, which suggests a psychological view. In the dream about the horse, the mare has to sacrifice itself for the men who are too much in a rush to wait. This could be symbolic of women sacrificing themselves for men, just like Rodya’s belief that Dunya is sacrificing herself for Rodya by marrying Luzhin. Some critics have suggested this dream is the fullest single expression of the whole novel, containing the nihilistic destruction of an innocent creature and Rodion’s suppressed sympathy for it (although the young Rodion in the dream runs to the horse, he still murders the pawnbroker soon after waking). The dream is also mentioned when Rodya talks to Marmeladov. He states that his daughter, Sonya, has to sell her body to earn a living for their family. The dream is also a blatant warning for the impending murder.

After the jump, I’ve copied the entire dream sequence – but I should warn you that it’s extremely graphic and troubling. (And certainly nothing to laugh about, however much one may dislike Republicans who buy their way into public office.)

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