Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment


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Life is a wheel rolling inexorably forward through the temporal realm of existence. There are those that succumb to its motion and there are a certain few, like Christ and Napoleon, who temporarily grasp the wheel and shape all life around them. "Normal" people accept their positions in life and are bound by law and morality. Extraordinary people, on the other hand, supersede the law and forge the direction and progress of society. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is the story of a group of people caught beneath the wheel and their different reactions to their predicament. One individual, Raskolnikov, refuses to acknowledge the bare fact of his mediocrity. In order to prove that he is extraordinary, he kills two innocent people. This despicable action does not bring him glory or prove his superiority, but leads to both his physical, mental, and spiritual destruction. After much inner turmoil and suffering, he discovers that when a person transgresses the boundaries of morality and detaches himself from the rest of humanity, faith in God and faith in others is the only path to redemption.
As the story unfolds, Dostoevsky introduces the reader to Raskolnikov, a troubled young man who is extremely isolated from those who surround him. He lives in a small, dingy, dusty, and dirty room in a small unattractive house. He lives in an abstract world neglecting the real. He is quite separate from all the people with whom he has contact. In the opening chapter, Raskolnikov is said to be, "so completely absorbed in himself, and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting, not only his landlady, but any one at all" (1). People come physically close to him, but everyone is forced to remain distant mentally. He walks through the crowded, noisy, dirty streets of St. Petersburg physically but somehow he never does so mentally, moving through the streets like a zombie, not a man. He is not aware of his location and often jostles bewildered pedestrians. Therefore, at the outset of the novel Dostoevsky illustrates the apparent schism between the mind and body of Raskolnikov.
While living in St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov adopted several of the many new ideas running through the intellectual circles of the time. He even published an article on one in particular. These ideas opened a rift in Raskolnikov himself.

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After a while, Raskolnikov became despondent due to the poverty and helplessness that surrounded him. In order to prove his superiority, he decided to murder a pawnbroker whom he did not like. Later in the novel, Raskolnikov admits to Sonya that, "Napoleon, that is why I killed her… I did not do the murder to gain wealth and power and to become a benefactor of mankind. I did the murder for myself and myself alone…I wanted to find out then and quickly whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man. Whether I can step over barriers or not" (387-388). He finally shares his emotions with another person, emotions that had been bottled up within him ever since he contemplated committing the murder. Furthermore, at this point, he reveals his true motives and admits their futility in accounting for the murder.
After the murder, his situation is analogous to that of Marmeladov. Whereas Marmeladov reacted to harsh times with passivity as a remedy, Raskolnikov chose action. One defied the wheel, the other begrudgingly approved of it. After the barbaric murder, Raskolnikov's conscience attacked him unmercifully, offering him no respite. Speaking of the murderer, Razumihin says that, "He is not cunning, not practiced, and probably this was his first crime...He did not know how to rob; he could only murder. It was his first crime, I assure you, his first crime; he lost his head" (142). Raskolnikov was anything but cool, calm, and collected after the murder. He was delirious, proving his incapacity to ignore morals, and, therefore, illustrating his normalcy. When he returned home, the moral blunder relentlessly hammered his rationalization and eventually toppled it. It became evident that though he was intelligent, he was not superior and above the laws and morals of man. Action disproved his belief in himself. His crutch, his belief in his own superiority, had been lost forever. It had sustained him through misery but now it had proven to be illusory. He had attacked the wheel with his intellectualism and he had been mangled.
Dostoevsky then brings Svidrigalov into the story to help the reader understand the character of Raskolnikov. The similarity of Svidrigalov to Raskolnikov in appearance and deed is obvious and serves to alert the reader to their relationship. When Svidrigalov visits Raskolnikov at his house, he says that, "When I came in and saw you lying with your eyes shut, pretending, I said to myself at once ‘Here's the man'" (285). At this point in the story, both Svidrigalov and Raskolnikov share a feeling of despair. In this dialogue, Svidrigalov constantly reasserts the notion of their similar characters, of their "kindred spirits." Both characters have been frustrated and broken. Aside from this, they are very unlike each other. Raskolnikov exists in a world of the intellectual and the abstract while Svidrigalov lives in a world of the sensual and the real. Raskolnikov is fundamentally good while Svidrigalov is fundamentally evil. Most importantly, Raskolnikov exists apart from the wheel while Svidrigalov lives on it. They both despair. They both lie at the crossroads where they must choose between life and death. Whereas Svidrigalov finds relief in death, Raskolnikov finds hope in life.
Despite the horrifying personal revelation of Raskolnikov's mediocrity and the ensuing realization of his destructive and meaningless murders, the story does not end in despair. In response to his confession, Sonya declares that he must, "Stand up! Go at once, this very minute, stand at the cross-roads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!' Then God will send you life again" (388-389). Raskolnikov must be humbled, he "must break what must be broken and take the suffering on [himself]." He must break his egotism, his vanity, and his selfishness. After this declaration, he confesses to the people on the street, to the "explosive lieutenant", and eventually to a grand jury, but he has yet to confess to himself.
While in prison, Raskolnikov gradually concludes that his crimes were immoral. The better side of him, the "Sonya side" feels that the crimes were wrong, but the selfish "Svidrigalov side" still clings to the idea of his greatness. However, when he sees Sonya while he is in prison, sees how she loves without expecting gratification, sees how others love her, he too wants to be loved. He then realized that he was not part of this circle of humanity, but he knew what he had to do. He "resolved to wait and be patient. [He] had another seven years to wait, and what terrible suffering and what infinite happiness [was] before him. But he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being" (541). He then accepted his guilt, and accepted his suffering as a punishment for the crime. Though he now knew the path to redemption, his moral ambiguity remained. He continued to be both the cold hearted, immoral, rational person as well as the compassionate and honest person. In the end, it is evident that his more empathetic side leads him to the path of salvation.
Raskolnikov must learn from the suffering caused by his detachment from humanity. He must learn to be more like Sonya. She is a character who is kind and compassionate at heart, but degrades herself out of love for others. Strangely, Raskolnikov seems this way as well, but he thinks he must stifle these emotions because it makes him weak. He must realize that these emotions are not signs of the weak, but are signs of humanity in a person. While Sonya is not someone who will change the course of history, she is an extraordinary person. She must endure the sour looks of others, the pain of her profession. She must endure the beating by her mother, and the drinking tirades of her father. Throughout the ordeal, she continues to love others more than herself. She does not destroy, she heals. She does not look toward her future, but the future of the people she loves. She has found redemption through her suffering and through her sacrifice. Raskolnikov gradually realizes he must become like Sonya, a loving, caring, self-sacrificing human being. That is what truly is extraordinary.
In this novel, Dostoevsky shows several different existences on and off the wheel and both their reactions and remedies to their positions in society. Many leap off as Svidrigalov did, but as Dostoevsky insinuates, this is not the remedy. What happens to those caught beneath the wheel? Are they relegated to lives of misery and despair or is there something to sustain them? Dostoevsky did not let these questions go unanswered. He states that man must embrace his suffering as Christ did the Cross and Sonya prostitution with hope that he will find happiness. Raskolnikov embraced his suffering and he now has the hope of finding contentment again. His path will not be easy. It will be filled with pain and degradation. Nevertheless, he bore the burden of the cross, symbolized by the crucifixes Sonya gave him, to the crossroads, where he was humbled and crucified. His compassionate self rose from these ashes as a new man. He has seven more years to wait in prison and many more to live on earth before he can truly ascertain whether he will be redeemed or not. All he can do now is endure his punishment and have faith, faith in Sonya, faith in himself, and faith in God.


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