Truth and Reality in “Crime and Punishment” and “Midnight’s Children”

“What’s real and what’s true,” for both the postmodern Salman Rushdie and the Russian Orthodox Fyodor Dostoevsky, “aren’t necessarily the same” (Rushdie 87). Although separated by 120 years, the two writers’ epic novels struggle with the same questions about the relationship between the physical world and truth. By the end of Midnight’s Children (1981) and Crime and Punishment (1865), both Rushdie and Dostoevsky promote “truths” that contradict the historical-physical world’s “facts.” The different “truths” determine the novels’ different ends: Rushdie’s multiplicitous, relative “truth” leads to despair, while Dostoevsky’s irrational, absolute “truth” leads to hope. 

In Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, truth is independent of facts. Truth does not reside in the physical world’s facts, but in how one interprets the facts. Thus, the same historical fact can mean different true things to different people. Early in the novel, Rushdie’s narrator Saleem defines truth: “True, for me, was from my earliest days something hidden inside the stories Mary Pereira told me: Mary my ayah who was both more and less than a mother…True was a thing concealed just over the horizon” (Rushdie 87). Truth, for Saleem, is not something imbedded in historical events, but in the stories one tells about the past. Saleem mentions his ayah Mary to clarify his view of truth as separate from historical or physical facts. Mary Pereira switched Saleem and Shiva when they were infants; therefore, while Saleem is the illegitimate child of William Methwold and Vanita Winkie in fact, Saleem is the son of Ahmed and Amina Sinai in truth. Saleem’s true identity is not constrained by the physical facts of DNA. Therefore, truth for Saleem resides in the story one tells about facts, not in the facts themselves.

Thus, Saleem does not become distressed when he accidentally reports erroneous facts. After he records the date of Gandhi’s assassination, he realizes he has offered the wrong date. The “error in chronology” (Rushdie 189) however, does not scandalize Saleem: “But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time. Does one error invalidate the entire fabric?” (Rushdie 190). No, Saleem implies; one unintentionally incorrect fact does not undermine the story’s truth. After all, Saleem is telling the story of his “India”—not the historically factual India, but the true India that Saleem knew and experienced. Since Saleem cares more about the truth in his story than the facts of Gandhi’s assassination, he will not correct his mistake. The one historical error cannot disrupt the true story because truth is independent of facts.

On the other hand, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, truth for Rodya and Porfiry—a former law student and a police officer, respectively—is rooted in facts or pieces of evidence: one can use one’s logic to reason from facts to truth. Influenced by nihilist and rationalist philosophies, Rodya believes truth is located in the physical realm—in facts such as events, objects, or actions. He repeatedly contrasts a tangible fact with an ephemeral and ethereal idea: “They have no facts, however,” he thinks, “not a one—it’s all a mirage, all double-ended, just a fleeting idea” (Dostoevsky 268). The image of a “mirage” that is “fleeting” emphasizes that a fact, its opposite, is physical and adamant. Moreover, Rodya characterizes a “fleeting idea” as “double-ended”—unlike a fact, an “idea” is uncertain and equivocal; it can mean more than one thing. Thus, in contrast to a “mirage” or “fleeting idea,” a fact according to Rodya is physical, absolute, permanent, and conclusive. For example, Rodya accepts Porfiry and Zamyotov’s behavior at the police station as facts; he attempts to reason from those facts to the true motives behind their behavior. When “Porfiry Petrovich suddenly looked at him somehow with obvious mockery,” Rodya analyzes Porfiry’s glance (Dostoevsky 253). According to Rodya, the fact that Porfiry would “wink” (Dostoevsky 254) proves a certain truth—that “he knows” of Rodya’s crime (Dostoevsky 251). Likewise, when Zamyotov says that Rasolnikov spoke “cunningly” (Dostoevsky 253), Rodya accepts Zamyotov’s choice of words as a fact and then tries to interpret it: “Why did Zamyotov add that I spoke cunningly?” (Dostoevsky 254).  According to Rodya, if truth exists, one can only reason to it by starting with facts.

But facts, according to Porfiry, are unreliable and deceptive. Thus, Porfiry’s definition of a fact includes intangible things such as psychology and human nature. Unlike Rodya, who believes that ideas are “double-ended” or inconclusive (Dostoevsky 268), Porfiry suspects physical “evidence” that can stand up in court as “double-ended”—from personal experience (Dostoevsky 340).  In one case, a man turned himself in for murder. Although the man “presented facts” and “described circumstances,” in the end the man turned out to be innocent (Dostoevsky 345). “When he learned that he had given a pretext to the murders,” Porfiry says, “he became anguished, stupefied, began imagining things, went quite off his head, and convinced himself that he was the murderer!” (Dostoevsky 345). If an insane but innocent man can use accurate physical facts to prove his guilt, then a wise policeman will not wholly trust facts.

Instead of trusting physical facts as a place to begin looking for truth, Porfiry turns to psychology: “It’s human nature that helps the poor investigator out” (Dostoevsky 342). Porfiry believes that psychology enables detectives to predict with “mathematical” precision what a criminal will do (Dostoevsky 340). He describes an intelligent and educated criminal’s behavior to Rodya, explaining why a good policeman would not bother to arrest such a murderer: “Psychologically he won’t run away on me, heh, heh!…He won’t run away on me by a law of nature, even if he has somewhere to run to” (emphasis in original, Dostoevsky 340). A sophisticated murderer, Porfiry says, will continually return to the police station because he wants to see how well he has tricked the policemen. As a “moth” will always hover by a “candle,” the intelligent murderer will never be very far from the police station (Dostoevsky 340). Therefore, even if the intelligent murderer has left the police with no physical evidence, the murderer’s own psychology will work against him, forcing him to surrender himself to the police. Psychological facts, for Porfiry, are a reliable source of truth.

Thus far, Rushdie’s and Dostoevsky’s views of truth have been opposites: Rushdie presents truth as independent of facts; Dostoevsky, as dependent on facts.  Yet by the novels’ ends, both authors complicate truth. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem makes ironic transition near his narrative’s end: Saleem began the story resigned to making factual mistakes if it meant avoiding life’s terrifying “absurdity” or meaninglessness (Rushdie 4); but he ends to story intending to distort historical facts to ameliorate his fear of Shiva. After relating his experiences during Indira Gandhi’s state of Emergency, Saleem informs the reader that his tale has not been completely accurate: “To tell the truth,” he writes, “I lied about Shiva’s death. My first out-and-out lie—although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps excessively romantic, and certainly contradicted by the available meteorological data” (Rushdie 510). In this passage, Saleem notes two ways that his story diverges from historical facts. First, Saleem’s “excessively romantic” details embellish the “meteorological data” (Rushdie 510); yet the essential facts of Indira’s Emergency remain intact, and Saleem’s flourishes highlight a truth about the Emergency’s facts. (Rushdie 510). Second, Saleem’s “lie” about Shiva rejects the historical facts (Rushdie 510); Saleem does not embellish the historical facts to communicate truth, but rather hides the facts to avoid the truth.

Saleem has defended the first case as tactic to fight the meaningless he fears: a fact “can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view” (Rushdie 230). Understanding a traumatizing historical event from one’s perspective helps one defeat “absurdity” (Rushdie 4). Yet Saleem cannot justify the second case; he calls his story of Shiva’s death an “out-and-out lie” for which he feels “shame” (Rushdie 510). Because he fears Shiva, Saleem has slipped from relativism into deception and knows his culpability. One historical “error” made to avoid “absurdity” is honorable (Rushdie 190, 4); but an “out-and-out lie” prompted by fear of death forces the liar into the absurd. Saleem’s story—which began as a war against “absurdity” (Rushdie 4)—ends with despair: Saleem describes his own ignoble death and the endless cycle of “midnight’s children” who are “unable to live or die in peace” (Rushdie 533). Once Saleem abandons his truth that is independent of facts, despair alone remains. 

Yet Sonya’s truth—also independent of facts—gives her hope. In contrast to Rodya and Porfiry, Sonya does not value the physical world as a source of truth.  With a faith that contradicts reason, Sonya clings to a spiritual truth that she cannot articulate: God is just and good. Sonya, in spite of her factual suffering and poverty, refuses to doubt God’s love and provision. When Rodya lists the horrible things that will happen to her, Sonya insists that God will protect her: “God won’t let it happen!” “God won’t allow such a horror!” “And what would I be without God? (Dosteovsky 320, 321, 323). Rodya realizes that Sonya—a young woman of “character” and “education” forced by poverty into prostitution (Dostoevsky 322)—should have gone mad long ago. “What sustained her?” Rodya wonders. “What does she expect, a miracle?” (Dostoevsky 323). Finally Rodya realizes that Sonya’s truth alone keeps her from going mad. He calls her “a holy fool” (Dostoevsky 324); Sonya cannot articulate the truth in which she has faith. When Rodya laughs, “But maybe there isn’t any God,” Sonya can only protest nonverbally: “She looked at him with inexpressible reproach, was about to say something, but could not utter a word” (Dostoevsky 321). She cannot speak the truth, because the truth is beyond rational knowledge, beyond physical facts.

Nevertheless, Sonya’s truth ultimately triumphs. Rodya—still convinced that Porfiry has no facts—confesses his crime to Sonya and tries to extrapolate from the facts of his crime to the truth of his motivation. He offers six possible “truths”: he killed Alyona to rob her (Dostoevsky 412), to become a Napoleon (Dostoevsky 415), to support his mother and sister (Dostoevsky 416), because he was mad (Dostoevsky 417), because he “wanted to dare” (Dostoevsky 418), and because he wanted to see whether he “was a louse like all the rest, or a man” (Dostoevsky 419). He can logically support each truth with the facts; yet not a single truth sufficiently explains his crime. Each truth is limited to physical phenomena (hunger) and human nature (desire for power); yet truth, as Dostoevsky wants the reader to understand, is metaphysical. In contrast to Rodya’s multiplicitous, inadequate explanations, Sonya finally speaks the single truth that neither Rodya nor Porfiry can see: “You deserted God, and God has stricken you, and given you over to the devil!…you understand nothing, simply nothing!” (Dostoevsky 418). Sonya’s spiritual truth, not Porfiry’s psychology or physical evidence, alone convinces Rodya to confess. In the end, her truth alone draws Rodya to repentance: “Can her convictions not be my convictions now?” (Dostoevsky 550). Sonya’s truth—though its “infinite happiness” still contradicts the factual, “unbearable suffering” she and Rodya must endure (Dostoevsky 550)—brings them both “new life” (Dostoevsky 549).

At the end of Midnight’s Children and Crime and Punishment, Rushdie and Dostoevsky have both abandoned facts—Rushdie, for a death-giving lie; and Dostoevsky, for a life-giving truth. Thus, Rushdie’s work reveals that relativistic truth ends with meaningless and despair, while Dosteovsky’s novel shows that metaphysical truth leads to hope. If Dostoevsky is right—that spiritual truth transcends the physical realm—how important are facts to truth?

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, F. M. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1993.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Random House, 1981.

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