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19th Century Theories in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

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19th Century Theories in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

 

"I teach you the Superman. Man is something that has to be

surpassed. What have you done to surpass him?" These words said by

Friedrich Nietzsche encompass the theories present in Dostoevsky's

nineteenth century novel, Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoevsky, living

a life of suffering himself, created the character of Raskolnikov with the

preconceptions of his own sorrowful and struggling life. Throughout his

exile in Siberia from 1849-1859, his sentiments of suffering, sorrow, and

the common man surfaced and heightened, inspiring him to begin writing

Crime and Punishment in 1859.

 

      The main motif in this novel is that of suffering. It is apparent

that all characters, major and minor, experience some sort of internal or

external affliction. The overall theme of the work is that all mortal men

suffer, and that salvation can not be obtained unless this anguish is

present. Dostoevsky's protagonist, Raskolnikov, must evolve and realize

this fact to overcome his conflicts and reach the salvation of peace and

tranquillity. Volumes and volumes of critique can be written on where this

suffering originated, but Dostoevsky's main concentration and focus is not

where, but why suffering must exist and how this suffering can be

overcome. This is seen from the fact that throughout the six sections of

the novel, only one section is focused on the origin of the torment - the

Crime, and the remaining five sections are concentrated on Raskolnikov's

path to overcoming this anguish - the Punishment.

 

      By focusing solely on the punishment, the internal and external

conflicts that arise within the novel do not only provide Raskolnikov's

own philosophy of the path toward salvation, but encompasses that of the

German philosopher Nietzsche, as well as his contemporaries. Raskolnikov's

justifications for his actions are relayed in his own Extraordinary Man

Theory, which states that there are two classifications of men in the

world: ordinary, and extraordinary. He wanted prove that he was

extraordinary, that he could commit a crime as horrid as murder, but

because he did it for the betterment of society, he would feel no sympathy

or regret for his justified actions. In following Raskolnikov's theory, it

becomes apparent from where his conceptions originate. Though the whole

work encompasses the philosophies of all the nineteenth century theorists,

Raskolnikov's ideas spawn from that of Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg

Wilhelm Hegel. Since it has already been established that the entire novel

contains theories of its era, to begin an analysis in regard to the

novel's main ideas evolving from the concepts of merely Nietzsche or Hegel

would, in a way, belittle the importance of the remaining non-Hegelian

nineteenth century philosophers. By analyzing the ideologies of the major

theorists from Father to Fruitcake (Kierkegaard to Freud) with respect to

Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky's intentions, motifs, and ideas can be

interpreted with ease.  Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) believed that truth

is both power and suffering. He is often noted as the Father of

Existentialism, an innovated modern belief that life has no meaning, and

that we must live life just for the sake of living, and nothing else. To

know the truth about life and the individuals living it would be a form of

powerful knowledge incomprehensible to man. The truth is - Life is

suffering. Kierkegaard believed that man was blessed with the greatest

gift of all - free will, but this free will creates decisions, and

decisions generate emotions. Emotions are the key to the suffering of man.

Happiness creates a fear in losing prosperity, fear leads to anger toward

life's unjust ways, anger leads to hatred of life in general, and hatred

leads to the suffering of the individual mind. This is the path of the

common man, the man who "thinks" that life can be blissful. The

existential man "believes" that life has no meaning, no substance, and no

path for happiness. He is the man who knows and accepts that all things,

good and evil, exist, including suffering. This is why the existential man

is indifferent toward the benefits and consequences of life. Raskolnikov

believes that The Extraordinary Man feels no suffering and no pain. He is

the man who can break the laws, transgress the laws, and make the laws.

Raskolnikov believed that if he were extraordinary, he could commit any

crime, even the crime of murder, and walk away from it indifferent,

apathetic, and without emotion. What he did not realize was the main point

of Kierkegaard's philosophy, that no matter what - man suffers.

Raskolnikov thought that he could avoid the truth and avoid suffering. It

is not until he confesses to both Porfiry and Sonia, which coincidentally

is the same instant that his own pain begins to vanquish, that he fully

understands and believes in the suffering of man. Georg Wilhelm Hegel

(1770-1831), another prominent philosopher of the nineteenth century,

hypothesized a dialectic method for the analysis and comprehension of

history. He believed that all events in time move in a teleological

fashion contrary to the popular belief of a circular path. Hegel stated

that history, rather than repeating itself, learns and moves forward

toward a purpose. In his theory this purpose is the freedom of all men in

a rational state, and moving toward such a beneficial purpose justifies

all good and evil events in history. The dialectic method also consisted

of a diagram regarding this teleological path. Hegel believed that history

is made up of a series of events all corresponding to a thesis,

antithesis, and synthesis. The thesis and antithesis serve as the conflict

in history, while the synthesis becomes the result.  In Crime and

Punishment, Raskolnikov is the thesis, the symbol of good intentions,

while Svidrigailov is the antithesis, the epitome and reality of evil and

suffering. With the battle of good and evil comes salvation, or the

synthesis, in this case - Sonia, the representation and key to

Raskolnikov's salvation. This method can also be viewed in the perspective

of Dostoevsky's primary concentrations. With that respect the crime can be

viewed as the symbol of good intentions. Raskolnikov killed Alyona because

she represented the evil in society. Because her death would be a blessing

and benefit to the world he believed his crime would be justified. The

punishment can be viewed as the reality of suffering. It is not until

after he commits the crime that Raskolnikov realizes that all men in fact

do suffer. The key is to overcome this suffering instead of avoiding it.

The salvation can be viewed as the redemption and end to suffering - the

result of the crime and of the punishment. This analysis also maps Hegel's

teleological perspective because the novel moves in a linear fashion. The

Crime (thesis) encompasses Part I of the novel, the Punishment

(antithesis) is demonstrated in Parts II-VI, and the salvation (synthesis)

is introduced in the epilogue. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900) did not

believe in the suffering of all men. He believed that there existed a

superman, a powerful individual that lived for self-gratification and

nothing else. The Nietzschean superman asserts his own power to situations

while he watches the common and ordinary man suffer because of life's

imperfections. This man needs no justification in his actions, because as

long as he has satisfied himself, then his dominance over others requires

no reason.  Nietzsche also believed that in order to become a superman, an

individual must surpass the common man. He must have no qualms or regrets

in his actions, and above all, he must not fear his actions or

consequences. "Fear is the mother of morality," it is an emotion only

known to ordinary men. A superman has no fear. Perhaps the character of

Svidrigailov emits the best example of a Nietzschean superman in the

novel. He is the epitome of evil and lives only for self-gratification.

His downfall to his superman visage is suicide. Death is the escape to

suffering. Svidrigailov feared its company, and in turn, took his own life

to avoid it. Raskolnikov on the other hand, did not avoid suffering - he

conquered it. Though before his crime he did ask the Hegelian question of

"Will this crime serve a noble purpose," he also asks the Nietzschean

question of "Do I dare commit this murder and therefore prove myself to be

a man by proving that my will is strong?" It is after this that he commits

the crime and begins to endure this suffering. Unlike his rival,

Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov overcomes his pain through salvation with the

help of Sonia, ends his isolation, and returns to the humanity of society. 

Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that society was the root of suffering. His

common man, the proletarian, struggled because of the capitalistic

bourgeoisie. He believed that "the proletariat goes through various stages

of development." The first stage is the struggle against the bourgeois,

which later turns to suffering. Through the growth of the masses, the

final stages of the common man of strength and victory evolve.  The goal

and path of the Marxist man is to emerge from being a mere commodity of

society into being a creative and active member of it. The strength that

allows him to do this is the realization that he is suffering because he

lives for others, and his victory is obtained by overcoming this anguish

through the bond of the proletariat. Though Raskolnikov does not face the

same pain of worthlessness as the proletariat, he develops in the same

fashion. He struggles against his inner emotions of reason and morality,

and suffers because of it. Though Sonia and Porfiry contribute to his

salvation, it is Raskolnikov himself that overcomes his emotions. He does

not need the bond of the masses to aid him in his survival and path toward

salvation; he only needs the bond of his inner rational and emotion

states. This is why Raskolnikov survives.  In 1859 the theorist Charles

Darwin (1809-1882) published a controversial book of survival entitled The

Origin of Species. In this work Darwin established that an organism's

evolution or devolution in life is representative of their ability to

conform, adjust, and survive within the harshness of its environment. This

theory of "survival of the fittest," later became the coined theme of

Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism believes that man survives and prospers

in nature because he is the organism that is fit enough to do so. In a

battle between man verses nature, and even man versus society, only the

strong shall survive, while the weak will parish. Faith and belief no

longer have any bearing on the members of tomorrow's society, only

strength. This theory is presented many times in Crime and Punishment.

Alyona and Lizaveta both perish because they are not capable of defeating

Raskolnikov. Alyona also did not survive because Raskolnikov's beliefs

were stronger than her will and intentions. Svidrigailov cannot conquer

the constraints society has placed upon him, and in turn, he commits

suicide. The only exception to this theory is Raskolnikov. His inner

strength of intelligence may be strong, but his physical and emotional

abilities do not coincide with Darwin's notion of fit. Raskolnikov's

survival is from his redemption. He reaches salvation because he chooses

to, and therefore he survives because he chooses to. He does this through

his own realization and rationalization. The psychologist and theorist

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) believed that an individual's decisions are not

always determined by the rational state of mind. He believed that all

humans possess three distinct decision making chambers of human behavior.

He refers to the first of these as the id. The id is the childhood and

instinctual need of the individual. This is the sector that satisfies an

individual's wants and desires, accomplishing them at no fear of risk. The

second portion of human behavior is referred to as the ego. The ego is the

rationalist, the sector that makes decisions that benefit the individual

and society. Freud believed that the majority of all individuals make

decisions based on their ego. The final and third division of an

individual's behavior is called the superego. The superego is the ideal

individual. This individual makes decisions that should be made; he does

things the way they should be done in his opinion, and no matter what the

results may be, has no reason for regret. Though most of the characters in

the novel make decisions based upon their ego, it is evident and apparent

that Raskolnikov does not. He knows what he believes to be right and

wrong, and tries to right the wrongs in society with his superego. Though

he is the only one to use his superego, all of the other Freudian sections

of human decisions exist in the work. Throughout the novel, Svidrigailov

uses his id. His encounters with women, prosperity, and fortune are not

prolific because he deserves them, but because he wants them. It is his id

that leads him to his desire for an end to suffering, and his death near

the end of the novel. Sonia and Dounia both rationalize their actions

through their ego. Though Sonia does not and should not be a prostitute,

she knows that it is the only way for her family to survive. Dounia is in

a similar predicament. She did not wish to marry Luzhin, but his wealth

and proposal to help Raskolnikov rationalized her to stay. Later, her ego

permits her to marry Razumihin for his compassion, admiration, and

companionship. This use of the id, ego, and superego supply a Freudian

element to Dostoevsky's work. 

 

With all of these theories analyzed, computed, and settled, we can end this critique where we began: "I teach you the Superman. Man is something that has to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass him?" Is Raskolnikov a Superman?  Well, he follows Kierkegaard's existential statement of "I believe, therefore I am," which means that he surpasses the common man who merely "thinks." Through the ideas of Hegel, his teleological movements from crime to punishment all serve a justified purpose in benefiting his moral and rational states. He overcomes the common man through the salvation he obtains from this linear evolution of trials. He suffers not from Marxist classes, but from internal struggle, excluding him as a member of the proletariat, or common man. Though not physically or emotionally fit to survive, his confession becomes his salvation, his survival, and his disclaimer in the Darwin theory of surviving. The common man may survive because he is fit to survive, but Raskolnikov survives because he chooses to survive. Unlike Freud's theory that the everyday man lives his life through his ego, Raskolnikov makes his decisions based on his superego, doing things not just because it would be rational, but because that it the way it should be done.  So then, "Is Raskolnikov a Superman?" Yes.

 

 

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