I read Crime and Punishment in 2013 and liked it,although not so much as most people.The truth is that I found the plot too simple for a writer of Dostoevsky’s standard and was sure that there was something more complex lying behind Raskolnikov’s mental and ultimately physical punishment as a result of committing a crime.Having read much about Dostoevsky’s life and influences,I think I have acquired enough knowledge to write a post about this book.
Born in a pious family and having reconciled with Christ during his time in prison,Fyodor Dostoevsky did not view in a favorable light the rise of such movements as atheism,nihilism and utilitarianism during the 19th century.Crime and Punishment was an opportunity for him to address the contradictory nature of these doctrines.
During his time in Siberia,Dostoevsky also became acquainted with Hegel’s idea of the Extraordinary Man.Hegel opined that there are two categories of men: the mundane individuals who are bound by morality,and the ‘Heroes’ whose actions determine an era and who are above any law- Hegel was particularly fond of Napoleon,having said of the latter : ” I saw the Emperor -this soul of the world- go out from the city to survey his reign; it is a truly wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it.” Although not a ‘Hero’,Raskolnikov does embody Hegel’s idea of the Extraordinary Man.Indeed,in his book Philosophy of History, Hegel argued that only our conscience can determine whether an action is right or wrong.For instance,murdering for one’s own gain or for one’s sadistic pleasure is wrong as the conscience is well aware that the motive behind such an act is to cause pain.On the other hand,the conscience regards murder to prevent suffering or to save an innocent’s life – thus utilitarian in nature – as a laudable act,for the motive behind it is well-intended.If you have read Crime and Punishment,you will note that Raskolnikov shares the same ideas as Hegel,hence strengthening the idea that Dostoevsky wrote this book as a response to Hegelian philosophy.
Now,you may wonder how Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Raskolnikov shows the loophole in Hegel’s concept of the Extraordinary Man.According to Hegel,in order for a crime to be deemed righteous,it has to be utilitarian in nature,that is,it must benefit a good deal of people.Raskolnikov had to resort to his sense of morality to determine whether the murder he would commit was ‘righteous’; he saw that the miserly pawnbroker was a vermin to the world and deemed it good to get rid of her.The irony is,how can one who holds a sense of morality remain indifferent after committing such an act as murder? In depicting Raskolnikov’s state after the crime – the character goes through a psychological turmoil as he endlessly needs to justify his crime to his conscience – Dostoevsky shows that Hegel’s concept of the Extraordinary Man is merely idealistic in nature,as it is too self-contradictory to be actualized.Moreover,in the book,when Raskolnikov comes across of Svidrigailov,the author drops a heavy hint that the latter might have committed several murders in the past,for which surprisingly he doesn’t bear any remorse; he is the opposite of Raskolnikov.In short,Dostoevsky’s response to Hegel is that a crime can never be righteous;this is why the ‘moral’ murderer will always suffer mentally while the immoral murderer won’t.
Fyodor Dostoevsky also attacks another emerging doctrine of the 19th century: nihilism.Although holding some typical atheistic traits,Raskolnikov is not an atheist; as he informs Porfiry Petrovich,he does believe in God,heaven and the story of Lazarus.However,Raskolnikov is a nihilist,that is,he rejects societal,familial and emotional bonds and believes that there is no ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ beyond the physical world.Yet he suffers from an inner turmoil as a result of his soul’s being stained by the murders while his bond with Sonya gives him comfort as he sees all his ideals crumbling before his eyes.Once again,there is a subtle irony from Dostoevsky’s part:Raskolnikov experiences the manifestation of the soul,whose existence he has always denied,and is saved by the emotional bond – he has always rejected attachment with anyone – between Sonya and him; Sonya’s Christianity saves him from a meaningless life by giving him the chance to redeem himself and to start life anew.
All in all,Crime and Punishment is way more complex than it looks.It is an ode to God and a rebuttal to movements that place man ahead of Him.Even though I am an atheist myself, I was charmed by the way through which Dostoevsky subtly and convincingly achieved his goals in this novel.This is why,I opine, Crime and Punishment is regarded by many as one of literature’s masterpieces.