Crime and Punishment remains the single most widely known Russian novel as well as one of the greatest works in world literature. It is first and foremost a fascinating detective novel, but one in which we know from the very beginning who committed the heinous crime.
It focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student in St. Petersburg unable to pay for his studies. He can be viewed as a materialistic rationalist, an oddity at that time and taken by the idea that God was dead. He was convinced that the only reason that anyone acted in a moral way was because of cowardice and tradition.
Dostoevsky wanted to set up a character who had every reason to commit murder: philosophically, practically, and ethically.
It starts of early with Raskolnikov formulating a plan to kill an evil and wealthy person after eavesdropping on a conversation in which a student claimed that the world would be better off if that person were dead and the money were given to someone who needed it more.
It is a book disguised as a murder mystery that delves deeply into the psychology and the mind of what a “murder” can be. The character development is fantastic. What fascinated me about Dostoevsky is his ability to make the opposite of his beliefs, the antithesis of what he believed, the strongest views possible – often making his characters the strongest, most handsome, smartest and most admirable people in his books, which takes great moral courage. Raskolnikov as a dissident and atheist nihilist, Razumikhin as the reasonable friend, Sonya as the wise one, and so on.
The book is focused on Raskolnikov’s moral dilemma between good and evil, he distinguishes between ordinary and extraordinary people (such as Napoleon). Raskolnikov’s pride separates him from society, he sees himself as a sort of “higher man”, a person who is extraordinary and thus above all moral rules that govern the rest of humanity, and so he cannot relate to anyone of the ordinary people, who must live in obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law.
After the murder, his isolation increases. The novel deeply explores the psychology of the inner world of Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky seems to suggest that actual imprisonment and punishment is much better than the stress and anxiety of trying to avoid punishment. One must eventually confess or go mad.
Dostoevsky portrays Raskolnikov as a nihilist, gloomy and with a feeling of deep emptiness, for the most part of the novel. He is a utilitarian who believes that moral decisions should be based on the rule of the greatest happiness for the largest number of people, thus justifying, in his mind, the murder.
“In general, an unusually small number of people are born with a new idea, or who are capable of even uttering something new…”
“…and great geniuses, the culmination of humanity – perhaps only as a result of the passing of many billions of people across the earth.”
Thus, he considers himself one of them, and in view of unfortunate worldly circumstances and the advancement of mankind in some way, he steps over the obstacles of murder and robbery.
However, things did not go as planned. After the carefully planned murder, he finds himself confused, paranoid and with disgust for what he has done. He enters periods of delirium in which he struggles with guilt and horror and has a series of disturbing dreams. In a way, along with the murder, he had also killed a part of himself. Add to that his atheism in a highly religious era and his nihilism.
In 19th century Russia nihilism became prevalent, espousing for the end of belief in religion and God and for it to be replaced by something new. At this time German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote that God is Dead, not a celebratory but a tragic statement. However, he believed that men could do without religion and create new values, rising up to the figure of the Übermensch or Overman. Thus, man becomes God.
Dostoevsky saw this new atheist movement as incredibly dangerous; it laid the seeds for the character of Raskolnikov, with his own superman beliefs. Nietzsche read and admired Dostoevsky, he called him “the only psychologist from whom he had something to learn”, and that he “ranks amongst the most beautiful strokes of fortune in his life.”
Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky had strikingly similar themes. Both are haunted by central questions surrounding the human existence, especially ones concerning God.
Can Raskolnikov endure to be extraordinary? How does he cope with life? Why should he go on living? What would he have to look forward to? To go on living merely to exist? Or is existence itself to little for him? Perhaps he wants something more than to merely exist among the ordinary people.
You’ll have to find out!