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Murder, Meaning, and the Crime of Clichés

On honest literature and genuine creation (and Raskolnikov)

We have all read the story in which the “classy detective with a sixth sense and an addiction,” accompanied by his “naive sidekick,” deduces that the “suicide case,” closed by the “bumbling policeman,” is obviously a murder. The author invokes “stormy skies” which reflect the detective’s mental state as he confronts a “secret from his past,” leading inevitably to redundant sequels, poorly parroting the style of the Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These well-worn clichés constitute the matter of what Annie Dillard would call dishonest literature.

In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard says that honest literature “generates its own power.” Dishonest or sentimental literature, on the other hand, “attempts to force preexistent emotions upon us. Instead of creating characters and events which elicit special feelings unique to the text, sentimental art merely gestures toward stock characters and events whose accompanying emotions come on tap.”

Novels like the one described above are dishonest because they mooch meaning from clichés and go no further. The “classy detective with a sixth sense and an addiction” has become a symbol: readers have seen the Sherlock Holmes stereotype so many times that they strongly associate thoughts, ideas, and emotions with it. Just by presenting the stereotype again, an author profits from the reader’s previous experience with it, easing his task immensely and removing the need to develop captivating, unique characters. This is lazy. The substance abuse of a protagonist detective is no replacement for actual substance in a novel.

The Russian masterpiece Crime and Punishment concerns a homicide, but Dostoevsky gets both the murder and the mystery out of the way in the first few chapters, using them as catalysts for the story rather than as the main event. Crime and Punishment is not about a crafty detective trying to catch a criminal; it is about a young man asking what it means to be human. The investigation of this profound idea, accomplished using a stock event like murder, sets Dostoevsky’s novel apart as genuine, honest literature.

Instead of offering the same old murder mystery, this book challenges readers to entertain a brand new perspective on a common crime. Raskolnikov, the murderer, has a psychological dilemma: He posited that great men break rules without hesitation and guilt. He wanted to emulate Napoleon and “step over” ordinary man’s moral guidelines to prove himself an extraordinary man. Although Raskolnikov transgresses the rules by killing, he feels guilty and cannot “step over.”

The murder in Crime and Punishment helps Raskolnikov explore an existential question: What kind of human being is he? He laments, “‘I wanted to find out then…whether I was a louse like all the rest, or a man? Would I be able to step over, or not?’” Raskolnikov wrenchingly concludes, “‘I’m exactly the same louse as all the rest.’” This personal failing throws him into a spiral of mental turmoil which persists through the story.

Murder means something entirely new in Crime and Punishment, nothing like the run-of-the-mill homicide in popular fiction. Raskolnikov’s predicament gives the reader original thoughts and feelings by convincing him or her to regard murder from an intellectual and existential standpoint. You identify with Raskolnikov. You are a murderer too. Why did you do it? What if you get caught? Are you a man or a louse? Everything in life, in the world, in your heart is at stake!

To write in a way that revitalizes mundane types is to drag a reader’s mind out of deep furrows. Freeing minds from such worn paths involves grueling labor. Because of the difficulty and skill necessary for this task, one can understand why many authors opt to exploit dull images and old associations. Pulp fiction does have a place in entertainment, but it should not dominate one’s reading life when so much thoughtfully composed literature exists. Genuine literature can convey the same images but redefine them in a complex and meaningful way that engages readers and allows them to experience distinctive feelings while interacting with it.

Resurrecting dead images and redeeming their meaning is a work God participates in too: the Roman cross; the pagan temple; the hardened sinner. Genuine literature imitates God, the original meaning maker, when it imagines new life into a timeworn idea.

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