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Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky's Economy of Salvation and Anti-semitism.

Redemption and the Merchant God: Dostoevsky s Economy of Salvation and Anti-semitism. By SUSAN MCREYNOLDS. (Studies in Russian Literature and Theory) Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 2008. xii+241 pp. $69.95. ISBN 978-0-8101-2439-4.

Susan McReynolds's starting-point for an unusual reading of Dostoevskii is the assumption that the author's doubts concerning his faith had their origins in discomfort with the Crucifixion as a vehicle for redemption. Three central tenets of Dostoevskii's belief system--the sanctity of children, and the rejection of both utilitarianism and the right of individuals to transcend the moral law--receive their paradigmatic representation, according to McReynolds, in the Crucifixion, where redemption is 'bought' by the suffering of the innocent. Rebellion against this transaction is connected to Dostoevskii's heroes, and ultimately the Russian people itself, while the utilitarianism of the 'merchant God' is linked to 'European' and then 'Jewish' thinking, as his journalistic works become increasingly anti-Semitic.

Part I of the study focuses on the development of Dostoevskii's ideas, linking the author's feelings on the death of his children and concerns that he was a bad father to his attitude to Europe. Part II deals with his fiction. Chapters on Poor Folk and The Insulted and Injured demonstrate that the suffering of some is presented as the price for the salvation of others. The chapter on Notes from the House of the Dead suggests that suffering is not redemptive and that the Russian people are viewed as having no spiritual value. Moving on to Crime and Punishment, McReynolds argues that Raskol'nikov simultaneously rejects and participates in a 'sacrificial exchange logic' (p. 117), and shows how the contradictions in his thinking are linked to the perceived unsatisfactory nature of the epilogue of the novel. The chapter on The Idiot, dealing with the failure of the Christ-ideal and the problem of resurrection, is the weakest. The final two Chapters, on Demons and The Brothers Karamazov, again focus on redemption based on the suffering of children, and attempt to rehabilitate the characters of Stavrogin and Ivan as the moral centres of those novels.

McReynolds's analysis is bold and engaging, if not always entirely effective. The attempt to reconcile the dubious views of Diary of a Writer with the author's fiction is promising, but ultimately privileging the journalistic voice as the source of Dostoevskii's 'true' beliefs merely repeats in reverse the same fault of which she accuses other critics. Another problem lies in the central assumption that the Crucifixion was an overriding moral problem for Dostoevskii. Such a view appears to originate in an incomplete understanding of the Crucifixion, particularly as it is conceived within the Orthodox Church, as in McReynolds's terms the focus is entirely on the suffering of humanity through Christ, whereas Orthodoxy also sees the suffering of God. Thus the overarching idea of the study, connecting the suffering of innocent children to a utilitarian merchant God, is unjustifiably reductive, and misrepresents significant elements of the novels. For example, Zosima is viewed as epitomizing the calculating mentality that believes there is 'adequate compensation' (p. 167) for the suffering of children, yet his exhortation to the grieving peasant woman not to be comforted for the loss of her child is overlooked. Equally, the fundamental argument of the final two chapters, that Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov alone are truly concerned with the suffering of children, ignores the fact that Stavrogin is motivated above all by self-justification, not repentance, and that Ivan chooses the example of children primarily for the efficacy of an abstract argument, and disregards entirely, as indeed McReynolds does, the concrete and continuing effect of grief on the living, which is Zosima's focus.

Even if we accept McReynolds's view, such a radical reassessment of the novels' morality demands a much broader focus; the absence of comprehensive interpretations based upon this conception (there is no discussion, for example, of where it leaves Zosima's doctrine of universal responsibility, while only Stavrogin's confession from the disputed chapter At Tikhon's' is addressed) raises the suspicion that it would not in fact stand up to the scrutiny of consistent analysis. Thus while Redemption and the Merchant God represents a brave attempt to tackle a sticky subject, it ultimately fails to convince.


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Author:Young, Sarah
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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