My interpretation of The Interpretation of Murder

In defiance of an enormous amount of readings which had to be done shortly before last mid-term exam, I was indulging myself in devouring Jed Ruberfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder, which was supposedly only for leisure, as “reaction formation” to defend my sanity during the reading week.  The novel turned out to help me grasp the core Freudian ideas that we had gone through in class and compose my term paper.  Besides, Rubenfeld’s brilliant interpretation of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” mystery in terms of psychoanalytic tradition has even turned Oedipal Complex upside down. By setting his story against the background of Freud’s only visit with his protégés to America in 1909, Ruberfeld deftly illustrates his insight of psychanalysis and Shakespearean tragedy by embedding them within the closely-knitted plot in which Freud’s penetrating vision eventually led his follower, Stratham Younger, to solve a murder case that had never happened.

The Interpretation of Murder

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

Even when I reread it now a few days before my second term-paper is due (of course, not a single word has been committed to its completion so far), Rubenfeld’s interpretation of human nature on which Freud and Shakespeare have shed light still strikes me with fascination.

Rubenfeld portrays Stratham Younger, a well-bred American psychoanalyst who while receiving Freud and his entourage was appointed by Freud to solve a murder of a young lady implicated with erotic motives, as obsessed with psychoanalysis and Hamlet as himself.   In The Interpretation, Rubenfeld attributes his own thesis of the inner struggle that keeps haunting Hamlet to Freud’s and Younger’s different interpretation.

In an attempt to understand what keeps Hamlet’s vengeance towards his father killer, Claudius, at bay, Rubenfeld projects widely adopted view to Freud’s understanding of the question:

Claudius has done only what Hamlet himself wanted to do. “Thus the loathing which should drive him on to revenge’ – to quote Freud – ‘is replaced in him by self reproaches, by scruples of conscience.’  That Hamlet suffers from self-reproach is undeniable.  Over and over, he castigates himself – excessively, almost irrationally.  He even contemplates suicide.  Or at least that is how the To be, or not to be speech is always interpreted.  Hamlet is wondering whether to take his own life.  Why? Why does Hamlet feel guilty and suicidal when he thinks of avenging his father? No one in three hundred years had ever been able to explain the most famous soliloquy of all drama – until Freud.

“According to Freud, Hamlet knows – unconsciously – that he himself wished to kill his father and that he himself wished to replace his father in his mother’s bed, just as Claudius has done. Claudius is, therefore, the embodiment of Hamlet’s own secret wishes; he is a mirror of Hamlet himself.  Hamlet’s thoughts run straight from revenge to guilt and suicide because he sees himself in his uncle.  Killing Claudius would be both a reenactment of his own Oedipal desires and a kind of self-slaughter.  That is why Hamlet is paralyzed.  That is why he cannot take action.  He is an hysteric, suffering from the overwhelming guilt of Oedipal desires he has not successfully repressed.” (p.132)

On the contrary, Younger who stands for Rubenfeld’s own view reflects:

‘Last night,’ I said, ‘I solved To be, or not to be.’

‘Oh people have been trying to solve it for centuries. But no one has, because everyone has always thought that not to be means to die.’

‘Well, there’s a problem if you read it that way. The whole speech equates not to be with action: taking up arms, taking vengeance, and so on.  So if not to be meant to die, then death would have the name of action on its side, when surely that title belongs to life.  How did acting get on the side of not being? If we could answer that question, we would know why, for Hamlet, to be means not to act, and then we would have solved the real riddle: why he doesn’t act, why he is paralyzed for so very long.  I’m boring you, I’m sorry.’

‘You aren’t in the least. But not to be can only mean death,’ said Nora. ‘Not to be means’ – she shrugged – ‘not to be.’

I had been reclining on my side. Now I sat up. ‘No. I mean yes. I mean, not to be has a second meaning. The opposite of being is not only death.  Not for Hamlet.  To not be is also to seem.’

‘To seem what?’

‘Just to seem…The clue has been there all along, at the very beginning of the play, where Hamlet says, Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not ‘seems.’ Think of it.  Denmark is rotten.  Everyone ought to be in mourning.  He, Hamlet, ought to be king.  Instead, Denmark is celebrating his mother’s marriage to, of all people, his loathsome uncle, who has assumed the throne.

‘And what most galls him is the feigning of grief, the seeming, the weaning of black by people who can’t wait to feast at the marriage tables and disport themselves like animals in their beds. Hamlet wants no part of such a world.  He won’t pretend.  He refuses to seem.  He is.

‘Then he learns of his father’s murder. He swears revenge.  But from that point on, he enters the world of seeming.  His first step is to put an antic disposition on – to pretend to be mad.  Next he listens in awe as an actor weeps for Hecuba.  Then he actually instructs that players on how to pretend convincingly.  He even writes a script for them himself, to be played that night, a scene he must pretend is anodyne, but that will actually reenact his father’s murder, in order to surprise his uncle into an admission of guilt.

‘He is falling into the domain of playing, of seeming. For Hamlet, To be, or not to be isn’t to be, or not to “exist.” It’s “to be, or to seem”; that’s the decision he has to make.  To seem is to act – to feign, to play a part.  There’s the solution to all of Hamlet, right there, in front of everyone’s nose.  Not to be is to seem, and to seem is to act.  To be, therefore, is ‘not to act.’  Hence his paralysis! Hamlet was determined not to seem, and that meant never acting.  If he holds to that determination, if he would be, he cannot act.  But if he would take arms ns avenge his father, he must act – he must choose to seem, rather than to be.’

‘All action is acting. All performing is performance.  There’s a reason these words have double meanings.  To design means to plan, but also to deceive.  To fabricate is to make with skill, but also to deceive.  Art means deception. Craft – deception.  There is no escaping it.  If we would play a part in the world, we must act.  Say a man psychoanalyzes a woman.  He becomes her doctor; he assumes a role.  It isn’t lying, but it is acting.  If he drops that role with her, he assumes another – friend, lover, husband, whatever it is.  We can choose what part we play, but that’s all.’” (pp.299-301)


At last, Rubenfeld even tip the entire Oedipal Complex over:

In fact, given my interpretation of To be, or not to be.  I dared to think I finally had upended the whole Oedipus complex.  Freud was right all along, yes, he had held the mirror up to nature, but he had seen in it a mirror image of reality.

“It’s the father, not the son. Yes, when a little boy enters the scene with his mother and father, one party in this trio tends to suffer a profound jealousy – the father.  He may naturally feel the boy intrudes on his special, exclusive relationship with his wife.  He may well have half want to be rid of the suckling, puling intruder, whom the mother proclaims to be so perfect.  He might even wish him dead.

“The Oedipus complex is real, but he subject of all its predicates is the parent, not the child. And it only worsens as the child grows.  A girl soon confronts her mother with a figure whose youth and beauty the mother cannot help resenting.  A boy must eventually overtake his father, who as the son grows cannot but feel the churning of generations coming to plow him under.

“But what parent will acknowledge a wish to kill his own issue? What father will admit to being jealous of his own boy? So the Oedipal complex must be projected onto children. A voice must whisper in the ear of Oedipus’s father that it is not he – the father – who entertains a secret death wish against the son but rather Oedipus who covets the mother and compasses the father’s death. The more intensely these jealousies attack the parents, the more destructively they will behave against their own children, and if this occurs they may turn their own children against them – bringing about the very situation they feared.  So teaches Oedipus itself.  Freud had misinterpret Oedipus: the secret of the Oedipus wishes lies in the parent’s heart not the child’s.” (p.325)


Despite the seriousness Rubenfeld has taken Oedipal Complex, he has not failed in producing scenes that gave a dramatic touch.  Here comes a joke when Freud was enquired after the nature of psychoanalysis by a Mrs. Banwell, an attractive lady who was one of the guests in a social dinner, he replied:

‘What women want,’ Freud replied to her question, as the guests took their seats at a table shimmering with crystal, ‘is a mystery, as much to the analyst as to the poet. If only you could tell us, Mrs. Banwell, but you cannot.  You are the problem, but you are no better able to solve it than are we poor men.  Now, what men want is almost always apparent.  Our host, for example, instead of his spoon, has picked up his knife by mistake.’

All heads turned to the smiling, bulky form of Jelliffe at the head of the table. It was so: he had his knife – not his bread knife, but his dinner knife – in his right hand. ‘What does it signify, Dr. Freud?’ asked an elderly lady.

‘It signifies that Mrs. Banwell has aroused our host’s aggressive impulses,’ said Freud.

‘This aggression, arising from circumstances of sexual competition readily comprehensible to everyone, led his hand to his wrong instrument, revealing wishes of which he himself was unconscious.’

There was a murmur around the table.

‘A touch, a touch, I do confess it,’ cried Jelliffe with unembarrassed good spirits, wagging his knife in Clara’s direction, ‘except of course when he says that the wishes in question were unconscious.’ His civilized scandalousness elicited a burst of appreciative laughter all around.” (p.194)


In addition, Rubenfeld has as well captured the very rationale behind women’s obsession with beauty in a smart remark made by Clara Banwell (Mrs. Banwell), the mastermind behind all the conspiracies happened in the story:

‘Well, since you force me, gentlemen,’ said Clara, ‘I’ll confess our secret. Women are men’s inferiors.  I know it is backward of me to say so, but to deny it is folly.  All of mankind’s riches, material and spiritual, are men’ creations.  Our towering cities, our science, art, and music – all built, discovered, painted, and composed by you men. Women know this. We cannot help being overmastered by stronger men, and we cannot help resenting you for it.  A woman’s love for a man is half animal passion and half hate.  The more a woman loves a man, the more she hates him.  IF a man is worth having, he must be a woman’s superior; if he is her superior, part of her must hate him.  It is only in beauty we surpass you, and it is therefore no wonder that we worship beauty above all else.  That is why a woman,’ she wound up, ‘is her greatest peril in the presence of a beautiful man.’” (p.196)


        Wonder if such an insight is derived from the Tiger Mom with whom Rubenfeld is sharing his life with?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s