Crime and Punishment Essay
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s work in Crime and Punishment can be cited as largely autobiographical. Although the author never committed anything like the atrocious murders depicted in the novel, the nihilistic traits of his protagonist, Raskolnikov, closely resemble his own ideals as a youth. In 1947, Dostoyevsky joined the revolutionary Petrashevist cause. The author and this group of radical socialists narrowly escaped death after being arrested by police. They received a pardon from the czar only moments before a firing squad was to take aim. They were sentenced instead to four years in a Siberian labor camp. In his penal servitude Dostoyevsky examined his revolutionary intents and was swayed by the Russian nationalists whom he encountered (McDuff 13). He became aware of the apparent sinfulness of his rebellious socialist efforts. The author embraced God and invested himself in promoting the Russian people’s sobernost. Dostoyevsky uses his novel Crime and Punishment to call for this return to traditional Russian values.
After the Petrashevists’ 1848 revolt, during the rule of Nicholas I, educated Russians became divided in their values (Brown 52). One group advocated a western approach of politics and economics. Another group demanded a return to "old Russia." Their objectives included the re-establishment a czarist regime, a return to simple country life, and the re-institution of a strong church. After years of revolutionary action the new, conservative Dostoyevsky, the Dostoyevsky who wrote Crime and Punishment, endorsed the latter faction. The author of this novel had become a highly reactionary activist who promoted a movement uniting the Russian people in spirit: sobornost.
At the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel is his rejection of Western ideas. He reproached many egalitarian ideas that supported democracy and laid the grounds for communism. Dostoyevsky also rejected the scientific method that was popularizing the West and challenging dogmatic practices. He preferred a Russian spiritual approach that did not quantify and "dehumanize" (Smith). Through the characters of his book, the author makes his persuasions known. When Raskolnikov first encounters a drunken Marmeladov, the civil service officer rambles to quote Lebezyatnikov’s contemporary ideas: "...the science of our day has actually declared compassion a social evil, and that this notion is already being put into practice in England, where they have no political economy" (Dostoyevsky 45). Raskolnikov also criticizes Western preference for statistics when he speaks of the prostitution trend:
They say that each year a certain percentage has to go off down that road...in order to give others fresh hope and not get in their way. A percentage! Nice little words they use, to be sure: They’re so reassuring, so scientific. Just say: ‘percentage’ and all your problems are over...(Dostoyevsky 85).
Crime and Punishment’s central character, Raskolnikov, is a Western sympathist who has an awakening similar to Dostoyevsky’s. Raskolnikov’s justification of his crime is the principal example of his radicalism. His theory of the ‘extraordinary being’ having a "private [right], to allow his conscience to step across certain...obstacles...if the execution of his idea...requires it" (Dostoyevsky 312) is that of a liberal extremist. In discussing his published article with Porfiry Petrovich, Raskolnikov argues that "human beings in general may be divided into two categories: a lower one (that of the ordinary), that is to say the raw material which serves exclusively to bring into being more like itself, and another group of people who possess a gift or a talent for saying something new" (Dostoyevsky 313). Throughout history, extraordinary people such as Kepler, Newton, Lycurgus, Salon, Mahomet, and Napoleon have instilled their new ideas only by violating the old (Dostoyevsky 313).!
Raskolnikov believes that it is the responsibility of these progressive future thinkers to challenge the masses that suppress them. In Raskolnikov’s opinion, the ends justify the means. This in mind, he murders the old pawnbroker in a political statement. He attacks the power and corruption that Alyona Ivanovna represents and, thus, her death serves a higher purpose.
Raskolnikov’s extraordinary man theory closely parallels the radical work of one of Dostoyevsky’s contemporaries, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Nietzsche, a German philosopher and classical scholar, was also a precursor to Existentialism. Like Raskolnikov, he was an atheist who promoted a sort of "master morality." He opposed Christianity for venerating the weak and humble and believed that one should celebrate his time on earth without striving for a heavenly after-life. Nietzsche believed each person possessed a "will to power." While the common people chose to exert power over their passions, Nietzsche’s "superman" was able to channel his passions for a purpose. In this way, the "superman" was able to "live dangerously" and rule with dominance.
Part of Nietzsche’s theory was his observation of a conflict between two human tendencies. The Apollonian tendency represents rational thinking and a desire for order, clarity, and restraint. The Dionysian tendency corresponds to irrationality and passion. Nietzsche believed that these two tendencies existed together. If either tendency were denied, chaos would result. These ideas can easily be related to Raskolnikov’s socialism. Raskolnikov’s argument for his piece in the Periodical is that, inevitably, people with new ideas will rise to power out of the obedient masses. These extraordinary beings (led by their Dionysian tendencies) must rebel against the restraint of common Apollonians. After some sort of a revolution occurs, the radical Dionysian and the conservative Apollonian principles will synthesize into a middle ground. At the end of Raskolnikov’s conversation with Porfiry he comments that this revolutionary cycle will continue until the New Jerusalem (Dostoyevsk!
y 314). This reference to a Utopian socialist paradise stresses Raskolnikov’s liberal interest in communism. Communism is the complete antithesis to the czarist regime the conservative author hoped to preserve.
Raskolnikov’s radical theory fails him. As the book progresses, his senses leave him. He is driven by the guilt of his crime to near insanity. After becoming gravely ill, he discovers that he is not the Napoleon figure that he hoped to be. Because Raskolnikov is not able to get past the murder he committed, he concludes he is not one of the extraordinary. Raskolnikov’s intense disappointment in his failure, his emotional and physical exhaustion, and prompting from Sonya to do ‘what is right’ leads him to confess himself. With Sonya’s crucifix in hand, he goes to ‘bear his cross’ and accept his responsibility.
In the novel, Dostoyevsky emphasizes the flaws of Raskolnikov’s radical objectives. When the main character is first imprisoned "he felt no remorse for his crime" (Dostoyevsky 623). All that he regrets is that he has failed to follow through with his plan and that he lacks "the courage of his convictions" (Dostoyevsky 623). His pride is the only thing shaken. Gradually, Raskolnikov begins to feel "in himself and his convictions a profound lie" (Dostoyevsky 624). He finally realizes that he only seemed extraordinary within the insanity of his illness. In a dream, Raskolnikov imagines that a plague of microscopic creatures affecting his mind is what has driven him to his actions (Dostoyevsky 626). Raskolnikov’s ideas are completely discredited when he, himself, doubts their merit.
Dostoyevsky’s themes of salvation epitomize traditional desire for religion. In prison, Raskolnikov enters into a sort of rebirth. His inmates, though criminals themselves, want to kill him for being "an unbeliever" (Dostoyevsky 625). They can sense his atheism but take a particular liking to the gentle, devout Sonya. Raskolnikov is perplexed by the love for life that he sees everywhere around him. This leads him to wonder what has kept him from suicide. He begins to appreciate the simplicities of life and Dostoyevsky fills the pages with descriptions of springtime beauty. The time and place of Raskolnikov’s catharsis is enormously symbolic. He enters the hospital, at the very depths of his illness, in a cold desolate Siberian Iceland. He realizes the faults of his actions during Lent, the time preceding Jesus Christ’s own resurrection (Dostoyevsky 626). Just as nature is regenerating itself, his health returns. Raskolnikov goes to Sonya to repent. In an act of humility, !
he throws himself at her feet and she lifts him up to take him in. Sonya is his savior and the heroine of the novel. The book closes with Raskolnikov reading the raising of Lazarus from Sonya’s copy of the New Testament. This parallel to a second chance at life is Dostoyevsky’s calculated intent. His message is to accept God and be redeemed:
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, hithero completely unknown reality. This might constitute the theme of a new narrative—our present narrative is, however, at an end (Dostoyevsky 630).
Raskolnikov’s political convictions are what rationalize the crime he commits. Over the course of the book and through his punishment, he transforms from a troubled, adolescent atheist to a contented, matured Christian. He rejects his socialist movement and chooses a sedate, satisfied life with family and God. The acute contrast of these two images demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s purpose in glorifying the conservative cause and condemning a radical youth. Crime and Punishment is more than a fictional masterpiece; it is the author’s device to make a social statement about Russia.
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