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Literature and Crime - The Criminal Mind

theory conscience evil hunchback

Literature has a rich tapestry of criminal identities, and is particularly good at depicting the guilty conscience. In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark has a play about a murder performed to see if Claudius will betray his guilt, which he does. Similarly, Macbeth strains out loud under the burden of his heavy conscience. And, of course, we have Dostoevsky's portrayal of Raskolnikov's eventual unburdening of his guiltridden conscience in Crime and Punishment.

Raskolnikov's confession comes after a series of interviews with the psychologically astute prosecutor Porfiry. In the most striking of those sessions, the young, intellectual murderer explains his distressing theory that great men—presumably including himself—are above the law and that they have the moral right to take the lives of others. Merely to be exposed to that theory is to glimpse how the mind of a criminal works in distorted ways.

No one theory explains the variety of the criminal mind. Robert Louis Stevenson gave the world Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and thereby tried to show that all human beings are simultaneously made up of good and evil. In Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the sexually repressed priest Claude Frollo vents his passions: "when one does evil it's madness to stop halfway. The extremity of crime has a certain delirium of joy. . . . But an evil thought is inexorable and strives to become an action" (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame 173–174 (Lowell Bair, trans. Bantam Books, 1981)). In The Stranger, Albert Camus depicts how the criminal mind may simply be alienated. In Balzac's Père Goriot, Vautrin is an articulate, intelligent escaped convict, full of practical experience and honorable to his own code.

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