The Progression of the Double Motif In Dostoevsky

When reading Dostoevsky’s work in a certain order, one realizes there is a progression in his writing and that certain books fit in nicely in developing his ideas. Just like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album is one sequential track where each song on its own has its merit yet comes more to life as a whole album; so does Dostoevsky’s work, as it contains themes that develop and reveal themselves throughout multiple novels. One of these themes is the motif of Doubles which starts with the fitting novel The Double, continues in Notes From Underground, and progresses in his best known novel, Crime and Punishment.  I propose that throughout these novels exists the development of a comparison and contrast between two characters which grows and becomes relatable and then breaks through in Crime and Punishment, where the double motif finds itself not only between different characters but collapses within the individual.  With the character of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky uses the double motif to create one of the first successful examples of combining the man of thought and the man of action in one picture, rivaling and possibly surpassing Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

In The Double, the protagonist Golyadkin descends into madness as his doppelganger manifests itself. To express his point on the duality of man, the young Dostoevsky creates two different but identical physical characters. Golyadkin wants to be original, yet the society he lives in crushes his individuality. We all sacrifice some of our personality to be part of society but Golyadkin is the extreme case, where he is unable to express any part of it. Thus he splits into two distinct personalities. While one side is extremely neurotic, unable to escape his thoughts, and acts inappropriately in social situations; the other side is a free spirit, able to express himself and act accordingly in society.  We all attempt to fit in and be one thing or another, but the reality is that we are light and dark, conscious and unconscious, good and evil in one. Because Golyadkin is unable to escape the prison of his own mind, he has a break to let out this hidden side which has been suffocating. At the office, it is the double that takes over and finishes his work, communicates with his boss, and converses with his co-workers. The double is extroverted and able to behave without the acute rational control of the original. Golyadkin could never believe himself to behave that way, and so must see the double as someone outside himself. The problem with such an extreme case is that it becomes an abstract work of art to those not suffering a similar illness. One cannot show someone a different colour.  Although the novel is a regarded by some as being a perfect work of art, for the majority of readers it will be jarring and discombobulating.

A much more mature Dostoevsky progresses this idea in the novella Notes From Underground to create a more appealing notion of the doubling motif.  The man from the Underground has opinions about society which seem rather true and makes him more charismatic than Golyadkin, even though like his predecessor he is also a man of acute conscious. He specifically compares the man of action to himself. He speaks constantly about his hate and envy of the man of action and his inability to do anything. Unlike Golyadkin, he is completely aware of his illness himself. We are introduced to the story with “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man”(Dostoevsky, “Notes”, p. 1). The underground man knows what is good for him, but purposely does the opposite in spite of himself. Golyadkin is someone most people cannot relate to, but everyone can recall a time when they did something even though they knew it would harm themselves in the future. The difference is the underground man happens to do it all the time. Nonetheless, we can still see our own reflection in him and can imagine a situation where we too would be bitter and hateful and unable to do anything because of it. Society once again plays a huge role in creating this underground man as he can’t stand the rationality and utopian view of the world.  The idea of this perfect enlightened society that took on so much power across Europe, especially with French intellectuals and filtered through to the Russian intellectuals was very problematic for Dostoevsky . The underground man creates his own dystopian life to counteract the idea of the Crystal Palace. The underground man is not someone to strive for, but he is the type of person that will appear everywhere if the notion of the Crystal Palace and rationality is idealized in society. Man possesses both a rational and irrational side and to strive for one and ignore the other will only cause disturbances to the human psyche. We see this all over the place today in the form of school shootings and other mass killings. Dostoevsky then took his underground man and put him in what most consider his greatest story, bringing together the man of action and the man of thought.

In Crime and Punishment the double motif reaches a form of expression that was almost unheard of at the time in literature. Dostoevsky continues to develop the double motif in different characters but also masterfully combines the notion in a singular person.  It is Inspector Porfiry that tells Raskolnikov that “Human nature is a mirror, sir, a mirror, of the most transparent kind!” (Dostoevsky, “Crime”, p.403). People reflect each other and more often than not it is easier to see part of oneself in someone else. I once had a guest staying with me who was quite dirty.  He would drink my coffee and not empty out the coffee maker, spill water over the washroom floor, soil the toilet and not clean up after himself. His behavior made me clean my whole house, including all those areas I had neglected. I emptied out my fridge, cleaned the washroom and behind the oven, wiped the floors and vacuumed every nook and cranny . Although I have some aversions to cleaning, this man was a level of filth I had never experienced. But I saw that part of me in him. I was coming face to face with my shadow side, and that is what triggered my cleaning frenzy. I did all that, just so I could be as different to him as possible.

This same idea comes to life in much higher stakes with Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov.  Raskolnikov wants to believe he is different than Svidrigailov, that he is a better person able of being redeemed.  But when he sees Svidrigailov face to face, he recognizes how similar they both are and Raskolnikov’s own reflection stares right back at him, which disgusts him. This is one of the factors that keeps him from commiting suicide, that he still thinks he can be a help to society and wants to prove to himself he is better than Svidrigailov.  Then there is Sonya, she too has sinned, and who is another reflection of Raskolnikov. While Svidrigailov is Raskolnikov’s shadow side, Sonya is the bright side of the mirror. She is able to live with her sins because she believes in redemption, suffering and love. At the end of the novel when Raskolnikov finds out Svidrigailov is dead and walks down from the stairs of the police station unwilling to confess, he sees Sonya standing there. At that moment, both the reflections come to life in Raskolnikov’s subconscious. If he leaves, then he is no different than Svidrigailov, but if he surrenders, then there is a solution for him and Sonya.

These are just two examples of the double motif that are found throughout the novel.  None of the characters in this story are ever one thing or another. They are each (perhaps with the exception of Luzhin) sinners and saints. Not only is there a double between characters, but characters are within themselves a double as well. Raskolnikov not only sees his double in others but is both the man of thought and the man of action. While Dostoevsky brought the idea of the duality of man to life in The Double, he had to conjure up a whole new person to do it. After 20 years, Dostoevsky brings it all together in Raskolnikov and gives birth to this duality in one picture. Here is a character who is not only capable of murder (without a significant motive) but also able to give all of his remaining money to impoverished strangers while still being completely believable to the reader.

Dostoevsky was among the first to bring the duality of man to light, with such well known stories as Dr.Jekyll and Hyde following 20 years after Crime and Punishment.  Beginning with The Double, he introduces a somewhat docile, harmless and unrelatable man who has a split personality. In Notes From Underground, the potential for harm is increased, even if the man himself is unable to act.  The dangers of having a society value only one side of man is prophesized. Finally with Raskolnikov, who happens to be the most relatable of the three protagonists, the most dangerous person also has the most potential to do good.  It is here in Crime and Punishment where Dostoevsky reaches his most prophetic heights, telling the world what would happen if man chases after ideologies.  Dostoevsky then develops a different type of duality in The Idiot, comparing the notion of good and evil in man, “But at this point a new story begins, the story of a man’s gradual renewal, his gradual rebirth, his gradual transition from one world to another, of his growing acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. This might constitute the theme of a new narrative – our present narrative is, however, at an end.” (Dostoevsky, “Crime”, 630).




Works cited


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by David McDuff, London: Penguin Books, 1991.


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. Translated by Jessie Coulson, London: Penguin Books, 2006.


Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double (Two Versions). Translated by Evelyn Harden, Michigan: Ardis Publishers, 1985.



You Should Be a Monster

The Inner Animal Self in MidSummer Night’s Dream

Humans life is full of mystery. We act a certain way, then we look back at it and wonder in bewilderment what drove us to such behavior. Throughout the generations we have tried to makes sense of our minds and why we do the irrational things we do.   In Midsummer Night’s Dream, by transforming the characters while integrating the animal and the human soul, Shakespeare is able to delve deep into the human mind. Using the Elizabethan idea of animals to express the psyche, the Bard is able to subconsciously let his audience realize that each and everyone of them has an unconscious force that they will do well to become self-aware of. One must first become a Monster and then learn to control it or else one will be liable to do heinous acts.
The play begins with two separate women in the same condition being treated like pets.  First we are introduced to Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The name itself comes from Greek roots meaning “horse” and “let loose”. The Amazons have always been portrayed as great warriors, almost a hybrid between human and animal. Although it seems like she is the Monster, it is in fact Theseus that has conquered her and has forced her hand in marriage. Then we are introduced to Hermia being treated like property by her own father, who is willing to sacrifice her life if she doesn’t obey his demand.  During the Elizabethan era, the chain of being had mankind as a link between the animal realm and the divine above. Right next to the theater was the bear-baiting arena, where dogs were unleashed to a chained up bear. The fact that these women are paralleled to the bears, being chained up and fed to a beast is made explicit in act two when Oberon puts the curse on Titania. He says :

The next thing then she waking looks upon—

Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,

On meddling monkey, or on busy ape—

She shall pursue it with the soul of love. (2.1.179-82)


With the treatment of women as bestial we start to wonder about these apparently civilized men acting savage. Here, Shakespeare is purposely blurring the distinction between man and animal. Animals have instincts that drive their behavior. Insects know inherently which plant to fertilize, while cats know instinctively to use the litter box; neither had to be taught. It may be harder to notice, but we are similar to the animals in our biological nature, thus we still possess instincts that determine some of the decisions we make. Even with reason and possessing consciousness, we are emotional and irrational creatures. These instincts are usually quite primitive, and unless we aware of them it can lead to destructive behavior. Without awareness of one’s own unconscious, a person can only possess a limited degree of self-knowledge, and unable to realize her own capacity for evil, will be ruled by those unconscious desires.

The Monster motif reamerges when the story shifts to the forest.  It is there, in the unknown darkness where the four educated upper-class lovers let out their inner animals.  Because of love and jealousy Hermia threatens to gouge her supposed friend’s eyes out. “How low am I? I am not yet so low But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.” (3.2.297-8).

Near the end of the scene she is reduced to crawling like an animal, thus completing her transformation as she falls asleep in the forest. This is where Shakespeare demonstrates his poetic mastery as he displays animal instincts being in control of the human in the darkness of a forest–the universal symbol for the unknown.  The parallel to the subconscious and human psyche is undeniable. The same subconscious lurks behind the conscious of today’s scientists that has driven them to create weapons that can annihilate the entire human race.

The climax of the animal representation of humans takes place when the commoner Bottom is transformed into an ass.  When we first meet Bottom, he has a zest for life which becomes evident when he tries to take on every role in the Pyramus and Thisbe play. But after his transformation he is graceful and respectful to Titania and just as he is able to adapt to every role in his play, he too can adapt in the forest, to any unknown situation he might face. Here is a character who seems to be aware of his subconscious and willingly turns himself into a Monster every time he is on stage. And so being able to identify with the Monster inside him, when he is confronted with it, he is able to unite his conscious and unconscious, in other words his human and animal soul, and fully experience what it is to be a human being. This becomes quite obvious when he wakes up from his dream and is left in bewilderment, incapable of putting his experience into words. In terms of his psyche, he has accepted and integrated his subconscious into his everyday life. Unfortunately, the lovers wake up oblivious of each of their own animal side and return to their upper-class life no wiser. They are the ones still living in the illusion that their conscious rational mind runs their lives.

Being able to recognize your instinctive desires is crucial to human agency, otherwise your unconscious may throw your life into chaos. The upper-class people in the play don’t have agency in their own lives and hence the evil they are doing. How can you fight evil if you aren’t aware of your evil desires?  I believe the story is telling us there is more. Not being aware of your subconscious actually means no human freedom at all. And then the question becomes, why do the more educated upper-class people prefer to hide their unconscious from themselves? And what is causing us to forget our dreams after we wake up? Modern science says it is the business of our lives, but Shakespeare shows us that it’s much deeper than that.  We are a society being dominated by primitive instincts instead of being one where each of us is developing our own minds. As usual Shakespeare leaves you with more questions than answers. “A great work of art is like a dream; for all its apparent obviousness it does not explain itself and is always ambiguous.” There is no doubt that many of the Elizabethan audience would be scratching their heads about this play specifically the lovable character of Bottom, and  wondering to themselves what it all means. After 400 years, the human psyche is still a mystery, so it’s no surprise that Midsummer Night’s Dream is considered one of the most frequently performed Shakespeare plays and continues to be remade into films.

La Fin


Works Cited

Shakespeare, William . Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oxford University Press, 1981.


Jung, G. Carl,  Psychology and Literature. The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghislen.  Berkeley: University of California Press. 1985. 217-232. Print.

All Time Is Not Equal

The Psychology of Time in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

Throughout The Idiot, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky visibly distorts time. Part 1, in its entirety, takes place over the course of a mere 48 hours. In contrast, the ensuing six months are fully covered by just the first chapter of Part 2. This aspect, which may be jarring to a new Dostoevsky reader, feels quite natural to his devotees. Using the unequal distribution of time, certain events in The Idiot unfold for the characters that emphasize a greater impact on their psyche than others. In an instant, a single decision can reshape the foreseeable future of one’s life; those moments are at the core of The Idiot. Dostoevsky is not one to waste “time”  in getting to the soul – to the depth of profundity. He signals to the reader that those parts in between are self-evident and better left unsaid. They are mundane and unimportant, and he chooses not to bore us with them, and we tend to agree with him.

The decision to go to University, quit smoking, or finally saying hello to who ends up being your partner, are all examples of a single moment that reverberates into the future of one’s life. When these types of situations are put into motion, the consequences can unravel through an extended period of time, until the next momentous occasion emerges. To Dostoevsky, all these extraordinary moments added up are what makes a person’s life worth living.  It is only after we read the ending of The Idiot that we can understand why the beginning on the train is remarkable.  Describing the meeting between the Prince and Rogozhin, the narrator says “If they had but known why, at this particular moment, they were both remarkable persons, they would undoubtedly have wondered at the strange chance which had set them down opposite to one another in a third-class carriage of the Warsaw Railway Company” (Dostoevsky 1).  This chance meeting sets off a series of events that ends with the murder of Nastasya.  Right from the start, Dostoevsky introduces the notion of the importance of particular moments over others as a motif in his novel.  He continues his uneven distribution of time when he conveys the experience of his mock execution through the stories the Prince shares with the Epanchin sisters. During those final five minutes before the execution, time doesn’t fly but on the contrary, it stands still. “That those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time” (56).  He goes on to elaborate that those five minutes were split up into three separate parts to occupy his thoughts.

Yet for Hypolite, another example of someone sentenced to death, his final three weeks is not nearly enough time for him.  He says “nature has so limited my capacity for work or activity of any kind, in allotting but three weeks of time, that suicide is about the only thing left that I can begin and end in the time of my own free will” (403).  We can get a glimpse of the psychological differences between the two situations. It is magic, and not reason, that the psyche needs to have the strength to overcome the horrors of existence. Through Hypolite’s speech Dostoevsky shows that religion cannot stand up to rationality. “Admit that without such perpetual devouring of one another the world cannot continue to exist” (402).  Yet , it is necessary for the human soul to have belief in God, that having it brings every moment back to life, gives it significance; otherwise life is cruel and pointless and one is vulnerable to end it like Hypolite tried.

After Nastasya’s birthday, the events of the next six months are swiftly covered in a few pages. “The prince was away for six months, and even those who were most interested in his destiny were able to pick up very little news about him all that while” (170). The characters in The Idiot are so thoroughly developed psychologically,  that when major events take place between them, the outcome and the effect on the characters becomes obvious enough that there’s no purpose in explaining them.  At the start of part 2, it becomes apparent to the acute reader that for Nastasya, Myshkin and Rogozhin are the physical manifestations of her twisted psyche. From a psychological standpoint, it is clear that Nastasya would be going back and forth between the Prince — the manifestation of good, the ideal that she is redeemable and can have true happiness- and Rogozhin–the manifestation of evil, giving into passions and the torment of a maddening love. The details of how those events played out are unimportant. There could be variations of their actions, hence the rumours, but the significance on everyone involved would be the same outcome. A small recap is all the reader needs to situate herself and draw herself a picture of what went on in the minds of the characters during the interval.  This jump in time feels natural because after such an intense scene, the reader needs to collect his emotions, quite similar to the characters needing time to let the incredible events of the night unravel in their lives.

Dostoevsky himself had his own issues dealing with time. He was terrible with money, and so he had to write The Idiot with deadlines in mind.  In a letter to his brother, Dostoevsky wrote “It was only the desperate situation in which I found myself that made me embark on an idea that had not yet reached full maturity. I took a chance, as at roulette: ‘Maybe it will develop as I write it!’  Here was a man who himself was struggling with what must have been immense pressure to produce. In those moments when his own life was in disorder, where survival was inexorably mixed in with his art, and he was fully aware that all time is not equal, he somehow managed to write The Idiot.  It is no wonder that time is explicitly distorted throughout the novel.

“He had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up to vigour and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever (215)”.  Each of us has had a similar religious experience to Myshkin, and by extension Dostoevsky, had in the moments before his epileptic seizures. That single moment gave him the strength to go on in the face of all the suffering the world could throw at him. These few moments of beauty that we do experience, those are not delusions or consequences of a diseased mind, but rather a miracle which should be enough to last a lifetime. “What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree–an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?” (216)



You Are Looking at the Problem

The Animal Representation in The Duchess Of Malfi

“If this world were populated with really thinking beings, it would be impossible for all kinds of noise to be permitted and given such unlimited scope…but like the rest, man is really a poor animal whose powers are calculated merely for the maintenance of his existence.”  This sentiment is expressed throughout John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, with 86 different animal references found over the course of the play. The plethora of bestial references leaves no doubt of a message Webster was conveying to the audience. It is wise to look into the significance of these metaphors to find the deeper meaning that the authour intended. The main characters compare one another and even themselves to animals, as if, in this constructed, corrupt world, people have completely lost all human agency. Everyone, including the virtuous characters, live like common beasts. We, rational human beings, think our frontal lobe controls us, but under the human brain there is a mammal brain, and even a reptilian one under that.  In this essay, I propose that Webster uses the animal comparisons to show us that although we possess reason, we share biological similarities with animals, that while we quickly spot the animal instinct in others, it is much harder to admit our own bestial instincts, and that even in a horribly evil world, the only path for the soul is if we live virtuously.

From the onset of the play, Webster sets the animal metaphors in motion. Bosola –the character who references animals the most– compares himself to a bird: “Blackbirds fatten in best in hard weather, why not I, in these dog days?”(Webster 1.1.37-38).  Here, we are at once introduced to both the setting of the play and the most persistent voice of animality lurking below the surface of man. While Bosola appears to simply describe the conditions of his environment, his comments on the hard weather and dog days refer not only to the hottest time of the summer, but also of a hard society. Concurrently, he compares himself to blackbirds, invoking an image of ravens or vultures scavenging to survive. It becomes obvious that the society in which Bosola finds himself is one of corruption, full of deeds done in the dark, and that he is a shifty character willing to survive off the misery of others. Soon after that, Bosola shows us the hypocrisy of man.

Could I be one of their flatt’ring panders, I would hang on

their ears like a horse-leech till I were full, and then drop

off. I pray leave me. Who would rely upon these miserable

dependences, in expectation to be advanced tomorrow?     (1.1.49-53)

Bosola possesses the rational capability to understand the situation he lives in, yet he is still willing to behave like a beast.   He compared himself to a leech who takes as much as he can, but then denounces people who behave in that manner. Although he speaks against the social system, Bosola takes part in perpetuating that same status quo. He is one example that Reason alone is not enough to make a human being live properly.  Another example in Webster’s work is the Duchess and her two brothers being compared to low level beings. One brother, the Cardinal, “is nothing but the engend’ring of toads”(Webster 1.1.151), within his brother Ferdinand, “a very salamander lives in’s eye”(Webster 3.3.48) , and the Duchess is “a box of wormseed” (Webster 4.2.119).  We see that the two brothers are compared to amphibians while their virtuous sister is their sustenance in the form of wormseed. Even the Duchess is not exempt from her biological parallel and is subjugated to the will of her brothers, being served up as food for them. Despite possessing consciousness, will and reason, human beings still  operate within the framework of general biology.  Thus, even the most magnanimous person would be wise to be aware of her biological predispositions, and come to terms with the fact that we are both human and subhuman. Although the virtuous Duchess herself is incorruptible, evil infects her family and is consequently able to influence and change the path which her life takes.

It is the Cardinal and Ferdinand giving into their different primordial instincts that destroys the lives of the Duchess and everyone in the court. The brothers are quick to blame others for their behavior, but are unable to look inside themselves.  When they become aware that the Duchess has given birth, Ferdinand loses his temper only to have the Cardinal scold him for it.

Yes, I can be angry

Without this rupture. There is not in nature

A thing that makes man so deformed, so beastly,

As doth intemperate anger. (2.5.55-58)

The Cardinal is conscious enough to realize his brother’s behavior is dehumanizing and foreshadows Ferdinand descending into madness. While Ferdinand ends up turning into a werewolf, it is important to note that Webster decided not to change Ferdinand’s physical appearance. Unlike Dr.Jekyll, who transforms on the outside when he becomes Mr.Hyde, Ferdinand’s metamorphosis is purely a psychological transformation. Although the Cardinal notices the bestial behavior in his brother, he is unable to perceive the animality driving his own behavior, and cloaks it with his rationality.

In the case of Ferdinand, his hypocrisy is most apparent after he has ordered Bosola to kill the Duchess. When Bosola reminds Ferdinand that it was his authority that executed the sentence, Ferdinand denies the responsibility and puts the blame squarely on Bosola’s shoulder.

Mine! was I her judge?

Did any ceremonial form of law

Doom her to not-being? Did a complete jury

Deliver her conviction up i’ the court?

Where shalt thou find this judgment register’d,

Unless in hell?    (4.2. 292-296)

People think that repenting for one’s faults always remains as a final way out, that anyone can be evil for their entire life and then just before death, they can simply choose to apologize and their sins will be forgiven. Nothing is further from the truth as Webster poignantly points out. When someone like Ferdinand has lived his life giving into the evil of his heart, nothing– not even the death of his own twin sister– will bring him back to the light.  He will find ridiculous reasons to justify his behavior and put the blame on others, as Ferdinand does mercilessly with Bosola. It is eerily similar to Satan in Paradise Lost, who knows God exists, but still is too stubborn to admit he is at fault.

Antonio and the Duchess are also aware of the animal instincts running through the court, but because of their good natures, they are unable to see the true depravity of the situation they find themselves in.  Even before Antonio discovers Bosola’s double dealing, he tells him “I do understand your inside”(2.1.79), but neither he nor the Duchess are prepared for what happens to them. The Duchess knows there will be a reaction from her brothers when she gets married to Antonio, but she believes they will grow to eventually accept it. Even when she is about to be strangled, she gives her servant orders on how to take care of her children, oblivious that her brother has ordered their execution as well. It is Pescara, a minor character, who sees the dark side of the court.

These factions amongst great men, they are like

Foxes: when their heads are divided

They carry fire in their tails, and all the country

About them goes to wrack for it. (3.3.36-39)

By comparing men to foxes, Webster is able to show the cunning nature of the courtly scene. These “great men” are all divided and fighting amongst themselves, destroying the court.  It is fitting that Bosola, the only character that continuously compares himself to animals, is the one used by Webster to convey the notion that human beings judge others but not themselves when he says:

Man stands amazed to see his deformity

In any other creature but himself.

But in our own flesh though we bear diseases

Which have their true names only ta’en from beasts,—

As the most ulcerous wolf and swinish measle,—

Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,

And though continually we bear about us

A rotten and dead body, we delight

To hide it in rich tissue                (2.1.46-54)

This sort of behavior is especially common today in our modern society. People are quick to judge others and ostracize them without hesitation. It is easier for one to tell others what is wrong with them, then it is to fix one’s own life.  By bringing others down we make ourselves feel better about ourselves. In the play, this is one of the factors motivating the brothers to take down their own sister. It is too difficult for them to look inside themselves, so instead they try to destroy the one person that transcends the animal instincts.

One thing that is clear at the end of the play is that good and bad people face the same terrible ending in such an evil world. While Ferdinand and the Cardinal want revenge against the Duchess for what they think is her infidelity, the Duchess only wants death for herself when she finds out her husband is dead. Even though she is kind hearted, she is also noble. Being forced to face the unknown, she displays the character of classic heroic males- bravery and honour. The evil surrounding her court ruined her life, but she chose not to  let it get the best of her. Unlike her servant, who begs for her life, the Duchess remains true to her virtues. She not only refuses to make a deal with the devil, but also welcomes her death. She takes responsibility for the evil in the hearts of her brothers, an evil which she is aware hides in her own heart as well. As Carl Jung so eloquently put it:

I am a man, who has his share of human nature;

therefore I am guilty with the rest and bear

unaltered and indelibly within me the capacity and

the inclination to do them again at any time.    (Jung. 95)

Unfortunately for Bosola, he didn’t take responsibility for his actions until it was too late to escape the self-inflicted hell he had constructed. He attempted to redeem himself by killing the brothers, but instead killed the only person in the entire play that he tried to save. His finals words express the hell he lived in.

Oh, this gloomy world!

In what a shadow, or deep pit of darkness,

Doth womanish and fearful mankind live! (Webster 5.5.99-101)

Bosola tried to play both sides throughout the play. He pretended he was better than the brothers because he convinced himself that he had no agency in the matter.  Even after personally ordering the murder of the children, he still held on to the belief that helping Antonio would redeem his soul. Unfortunately, when one goes so deep into the pit of darkness, everything becomes obscure, and there is no way to tell what is up and what is down.  For Bosola and the brothers, the life they lived wasn’t worth living; however, for The Duchess–even though she ended up with the same fate–her life had meaning and significance, and she was able to enjoy the few moments of happiness she had. From the outcome of the play, we can deduce that the moral of the story is not that one should be good so that positive things happen in one’s life, or that one is rewarded for it in the material world.  Instead, when one is confronted with the most evil situations, being virtuous will give peace to one’s soul to handle death forthrightly.

One could read this book and believe that Webster is a nihilist who sees no good in the world. I like to believe that he affirms life even in the presence of the worst kind of evil. Existence is full of tragedies, but overcoming the fear of death can transform a person to handle any situation without losing hope in life.  There are many devastating events that take place in the world. It would seem impossible to live virtuously in such a situation that the Duchess found herself in. Since life is evil, why does the Duchess still behave the way she did? It seems we can only continue living if we all make one assumption: That life, regardless of how bad it seems, is still better than the alternative. For people to fight against their animal side, for society to function like it has for generations, people have to live like there is a God, that life in its essence is good, that existence is a positive thing, and that therefore suffering at the hands of pure evil, and even dying by it, is better than not living at all.



Works cited:

Allison, Alexander. Ethical themes in the Duchess of Malfi. Studies in English Literature. Vol 4. No 2. 1964

Boyle, Connor. Ferdinand’s Self-Hood : Lycanthropy and Agency in The Duchess of Malfi. Florida Atlantic University. 2013

Jung, Carl. The Undiscovered Self. Trans. R.F.C Hull, London: Penguin Books. 1958

Schopenhauer, Arthur. On Thinking for Oneself.

Steffes, Michael.  The Wilderness Metaphor in the Duchess of Malfi. Cahiers Elisabethains. Vol 79. No 1. 2011

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays, New York: Oxford University Press. 1998

Usher, Penelope Meyers. “I Do Understand Your Inside” – The Animal Beneath the Skin in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England. Vol 30. 2017

The Perils of the Soul and the Necessity of Magic

Human behaviour is full of mystery. We believe we are rational, but when we look back at some of our decisions, we wonder in bewilderment what drove us to such actions. Throughout the generations of human history, we have tried to make sense of our minds and why we do the irrational things we do.   Both Gogol in Dead Souls and Dostoevsky in The Idiot  are able to delve deep into the human psyche by focusing on interactions between characters. In many ways, the novels are quite different from one another. Chichikov, the hero in Dead Souls, has all the superficial qualities that society admires, but, as the title suggests, lacks true depth in his soul. On the other hand, The Prince has a great depth of soul, but has none of the qualities that are deemed necessary by society, which is why he is labeled The Idiot.  What the stories share is the implication of the supernatural. They both postulate that for individuals to overcome being dominated by primitive instincts, they need to believe in a higher power – in magic. Only magic can express a man’s soul and give a person the courage to win victory over herself. We are all inexpressibly human and require the sacred for strength against suffering.

In Dead Souls, Gogol makes it a point to show that the characters who are confronted with Chichikov all judge him, and yet each of them shows their true shadow side with the way they respond to him. From the woman who thinks she’s losing out if she sells the dead peasants,  to the man who negotiates and raises the price, each of them have a Chichikov inside them. Gogol makes us ask ourselves “But might there not be some little bit of Chichikov in me too?”(Gogol pg.253). For Gogol, the way to overcome the Chichikov inside each of us is through a higher ideal.  Chichikov himself experiences such a moment when he runs into the pretty young girl in the troika and is overwhelmed to the point where he is unable to speak to her. “Everywhere a man is bound to encounter, at least once in his life, a phenomenon quite unlike any other he has seen hitherto, which – on at least this one occasion- will inspire in him a feeling quite surpassing any he has been fated to feel all the days of his life” (Gogol pg.89). Unfortunately, because of his rationality, Chichikov is unable to keep the feeling for long as he talks himself out of the higher ideal. “She can be shaped into anything, she can become a creature of enchantment- or just as easily turn into worthless rubbish, which is precisely what will happen!” (Gogol pg. 90). The soul is unexplainable, and if we are to analyze every inspiration, then all its power will be squeezed out of it.

Gogol makes his allusion to God more explicit when he mirrors and expands on the first verse of the Gospel of John. “And each and every nation, endowed with its own strength and creative abilities, its own vivid individuality and other gifts of God, sets itself apart from each every other nation by its own special word, a word which, no matter what object it describes, also reflects a facet of that nation’s own character”(Gogol pg. 107). The “word” is magic protecting you both from different interpretations and your own demons, and even becomes your God. Dostoevsky comes to the same conclusion but from the angle of good and evil and the motif of the double that cuts through the heart of every human being.

In The Idiot, The magical representation of humans takes place through the Prince.  When we first meet the Prince, he has a zest for life which becomes evident in his enthusiastic conversations with everyone he meets. Even when he knows others are using him for his money, he continues to show love to them. Near the end, he still continues to have compassion for Rogozhin and declares him his brother. By identifying with Rogozhin inside himself, Myshkin is able to unite his conscious and unconscious sides. In other words, he understands not only his potential to do good, but also his  capacity to do evil, and fully experiences what it is to be a human being. This becomes explicit when at the end of the novel, Dostoevsky allows the pure and innocent Myshkin to lapse into Rogozhin’s madness. The story leads in with Myshkin and calls for “magical” living and the acceptance of chaos. For man to save his soul, he must return to the incoherent, to the unconscious–to Rogozhin.

Even though Myshkin  consistently behaves out of compassion, much chaos resides within him. He could not decide between Nastasya and Aglaya, and throughout the story he found it hard to express himself.  On the flip side, somewhere in the soul of Rogozhin, there is a place of innocence and a Myshkin deep inside him.Together, the Prince and Rogozhin are two sides of the mystery of man. For Dostoevsky, his magic is in believing that beauty will save the world. Not  merely physical beauty, but beauty in all its manifestations. “There must have been something stronger than the stake or the fire, or even than the habits of twenty years! There must have been an idea more powerful than all the calamities and sorrows of this world, famine or torture, leprosy or plague—an idea which entered into the heart, directed and enlarged the springs of life, and made even that hell supportable to humanity!” (Dostoevsky pg. 366).

Dostoevsky himself had epilepsy, and he mirrors Gogol’s presentiment about magic through the moments before Myshkin has his epileptic fit. “He had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up to vigour and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever” (Dostoevsky pg.215). The Prince has a moment where he rationally thinks those feelings are delusions due to his disease. But unlike Chichikov, he is able to overcome his own cynicism and accept them as the highest degree of beauty.

Society is daily expressing its monstrous, subconscious desires disguised as rational order. Most people are still living in the illusion that their conscious, rational mind runs their lives. Being able to recognize your instinctive desires is crucial to human agency, otherwise your unconscious may throw your life into chaos. I believe the stories are telling us that there is more.  You need belief in magic, in some form of Christ and the symbol of the Cross, and that will be the strength against the Rogozhin or Chichikov inside yourself. Magic is a way of life and without it, there is only the abyss. There is no doubt that many modern readers scratch their heads about these prophetic novels, specifically at the lovable character of The Prince, and wonder to themselves what it all means. The human psyche is still a mystery, so it’s no surprise that we are left with more questions than answers.

La Fin


Works Cited

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Translated by Eva M. Martin, Dent; Dutton, 1940.

Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. Translated by Christopher English, Oxford UP, 1998.

The Meaning of Life

I suppose there is a meaning of life, although I will never be aware of it as a human being. I use to constantly vacillate between meaning and no meaning until I came to the conclusion that it was not important, that what was more important was to love life instead of knowing the meaning of it.

On the one hand in the day to day life of a human being, there is many meaning one can create for oneself.  Accomplishments like writing a book, becoming a doctor or a political figure is easy ways to give meaning to one’s life.  Another way is to have children and find meaning through raising them; this choice is a very popular road to take. All of these reasons give one a purpose and desire to live.

Now if we look at the big picture, it may appear that none of these reasons are significant, that there are millions upon millions of stars and planets in the infinite space; that we are an irrelevant spec of life in an expanding Universe, and in relative terms we will go out of existence as quickly as we came to be.

Why care to be doctors or firemen or presidents or even raise kids properly, because none of it matters at the end.  We will all die, the world will be purged of life and nothing of us will remain. Except we are merely human beings in a Universe of Consciousness, and we are limited to the three dimensions. The same way you could never explain to a monkey what Quantum Physics happens to be, a human being will never be able to understand the deeper consciousness of life. A human being simply cannot see the purpose of this vast Universe and with its limited intelligence and knowledge can only come up with the logical solution that there is no definite permanent meaning to life.


The conclusion is to love life and to enjoy the fleeting moments on this planet instead of trying to figure out the meaning of all of this.  Purely discover the meaning that the world has just for YOU (which will probably change as you evolve in your own life as well) and let it take you through the experiences of a conscious visitor.

It is possible that one day we can come to grasp and understand the true meaning of this magical place, but until that moment arrives the mystery of life will always mystify our wisest spirits.


Rumi Anecdotes – Part 2

Lesson 6:  Life Keeps Turning & So Do You

A secret turning in us
makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
and feet head. Neither cares.
They keep turning

Lesson 7:  Live in the Present and Do Not let Fear Dictate your Life.

Keep walking, though there’s no place to get to.
Don’t try to see through the distances.
That’s not for human beings. Move within,
but don’t move the way fear makes you move.

Lesson 8 : Love is Enormous but Devastating

I am so small I can barely be seen.
How can this great love be inside me?

Look at your eyes. They are small,
but they see enormous things.

I have phrases and whole pages memorized,
but nothing can be told of love.

The way of love is not
a subtle argument.

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,
they’re given wings.

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absentminded. Someone sober
will worry about things going badly.
Let the lover be.

Lesson 9: Go Beyond Good & Evil

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in the grass,
the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t makes any sense.

Lesson 10:  Gamble for Love Even when You Know Not What You Do.

Gamble everything for love,
if you’re a true human being.

If not, leave
this gathering.

Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty

Do you think I know what I’m doing?
That for one breath or half-breath I belong to myself?
As much as a pen knows what it’s writing,
or the ball can guess where it’s going next.


Bonus Lesson :Spirituality

Spiritual experience is a modest woman
who looks lovingly at only one man.

it’s a great river where ducks
live happily, and crows drown.

The visible bowl of form contains food
that is both nourishing and a source of heartburn.

There is an unseen presence we honor
that gives the gifts.

When the ocean surges,
don’t let me just hear it.
Let it splash inside my chest!