Murder in Crime and Punishment and The Grapes of Wrath
IB English Assignment 2: Murder in Crime and Punishment and The Grapes of Wrath
Murder is a common occurrence, although it occurs for various different reasons and has different effects upon the people who commit it. For example, there are similarities and differences in the reasons for and reactions to murder in the novels Crime and Punishment and The Grapes of Wrath by Fyodor Dostoevsky and John Steinbeck, respectively. In Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov murders Alyona Ivanovna, a pawnbroker, and her sister Lizaveta, in a premeditated attempt to steal their money. Tom Joad, a main character in The Grapes of Wrath, kills a man in a bar fight in self-defense and goes to jail for four years. Later in the novel, he also kills the man who kills Jim Casy, a former preacher, in a desperate act of revenge. The motives and subsequent reactions of the characters vary greatly, although there are some similarities between them as well.
Early on in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker for her money, because he is broke and has a grand delusion that her money could be dedicated to helping the poor in St. Petersburg. This idea partly arises from a conversation he overhears at a tavern, “‘A hundred thousand good deeds could be done and helped, on that old woman’s money which will be buried in a monastery! Hundreds, thousands perhaps, might be set on the right path…and all with her money’” (63).
However, after Raskolnikov kills her, Alyona’s sister Lizaveta comes home unexpectedly and walks in on the murder scene as Raskolnikov is robbing the house. He kills the woman to protect himself from getting caught, in a desperate act of self-preservation. This is demonstrated in, “In the middle of the room stood Lizaveta….She was gazing in stupefaction at her murdered sister…The axe fell…She fell heavily at once” (76-77).
After the murders, Raskolnikov does not regret murdering Alyona, but slightly regrets killing Lizaveta, because she was an unplanned and unintended victim, and turns out to have been a friend of Sonia, Raskolnikov’s friend. Also, instead of using Alyona’s money to better himself and his situation, he hides the trinkets he managed to steal under a boulder, because he is possessed with paranoia about getting caught, as shown in, “He bent over the stone, seized the top of it firmly…and he immediately emptied his pockets into [the hollow below it]” (104). He wants to rid himself of any evidence of the murders, and even imagines evidence that is not there. For example, “Then a strange idea entered his head; that, perhaps, all his clothes were covered with blood…but he did not see [the stains], did not notice them because his perceptions were failing” (87). Furthermore, the bulk of the woman’s money is left to a monastery, which she dedicated the money to in her will. This is demonstrated in, “All the money was left to a monastery in the province of N-----, that prayers might be said for her in perpetuity” (62). Thus, her death does not even achieve the desired effect of helping the poor and impoverished people of the city.
Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov is paranoid and delusional, sick with guilt, and yet tries to evade law enforcement. He even taunts them, going in to talk to them, and they dance around the subject of the murders, until finally he says, “‘Porfiry Petrovitch…I see clearly at last that you actually suspect me of murdering that old woman and her sister Lizaveta…I am sick of this. I will not let myself be jeered at to my face and worried’” (319). Raskolnikov’s crazy behavior leads the detective Porfiry Petrovich to suspect him. In the end, however, Raskolnikov turns himself in and serves out his prison sentence in Siberia.
In contrast, Tom Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath, kills a man at a bar fight out of self-defense. It was not a premeditated attack. However he, like Raskolnikov, has no regret for the murder, and even says in the novel that if he were to do it all over again, he would do the same thing. As he tells Jim Casy, “‘I’d do what I done—again…I killed a guy in a fight... I got seven years, account of he had a knife in me’” (25).
He is sentenced to seven years of prison, but only serves four years at McAlester State Prison, because he is released early for good behavior. As he tells a truck driver, “‘Seven years. I’m sprung in four for keepin’ my nose clean’” (13). He, in contrast to Raskolnikov, does not obsess over his crimes and never planned to kill anyone.
Later in the novel, when the former preacher Jim Casy is killed for striking outside a peach farm, Tom Joad strikes back at the man who killed Casy in a desperate act of revenge and anguish. “Tom looked down at the preacher. The light crossed the heavy man’s legs and the white new pick handle. Tom leaped silently…The first time he knew he had missed…but the second time his crushing blow found the head” (386). Just like when Raskolnikov kills Lizaveta, Tom’s actions are dictated by emotion and the immediacy of the circumstances; he wasn’t thinking about its long-term consequences. As he later tells his family, “‘They killed ‘im. Busted his head. I was standin’ there. I went nuts. Grabbed the pick handle…I—I clubbed a guy’” (390). Tom is almost apologetic that his emotions got the best of him and led him into more trouble.
Tom only regrets this murder because he becomes recognizably injured during the scuffle and must hide from those who are out looking for him. His family hides him, but he puts them in danger by remaining under their protection. “‘Ya can’t do that, Ma. I tell you I’m jus’ a danger to ya’” (391). Here Tom is protesting to his mother that by staying with them, he is putting them in danger. However, he allows them to convince him to stay, to keep the family together. He, like Raskolnikov, hides his guilt from those who would punish him for his actions. However, Tom is never afflicted with paranoia and guilt, or any physical symptoms caused by mental anguish, the way Raskolnikov is. Tom is much more matter-of-fact and down-to-earth about his situation. As he tells his mother, “‘[I] don’ feel no worse’n if [I] killed a skunk’” (399).
In both novels the killers hide from the authorities, and both serve a jail sentence for their actions at one point or another. The characters are also both poor young men, and both kill two people. However, Raskolnikov kills two women and Tom Joad kills two men. Also, Raskolnikov makes himself psychologically and physically ill as a result of his actions, but Tom Joad is much less affected by guilt or remorse.
There are certainly some obvious similarities between how these two novels portray murder. However, Dostoevksy’s Raskolnikov obsesses over his crimes and makes himself ill, crazy with guilt. John Steinbeck’s character Tom, on the other hand, is much less affected by what he has done. He does not become ill, nor does he think constantly that people are out to get him. Also, he acted mostly in self-defense, and in defense of his friend, whereas Raskolnikov killed out of greed and self-interest. However, both authors explore the concept of, motivations for, and reactions to murder in very unique and original ways.
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Books: New York, 1992.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. Bantam Books: New York, 1987.