The Protagonist and Antagonist of Crime and Punishment


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The Protagonist and Antagonist of Crime and Punishment

 
      Crime and Punishment is considered by many to be the first of

Fyodor Dostoevsky's great books.  Crime and Punishment is a psychological

account of a crime.  The crime is double murder.  A book about such a broad

subject can be made powerful and appealing to our intellectual interests if

there is a link between the reader, the action, and the characters.

Doestoevsky makes all these links at the right places.  The action takes

place between the protagonists and the antagonists.  The protagonists

include Dounia, the Marmeladovs, Sonia, Razumhin, Porfiry Petrovich, and

Nastaya.  The antagonists of the story are Luzhin, Ilya Petrovich, and the

landlady.  Raskolnikov could be considered to be the primary protagonist,

while Svidrigailov could be thought of as the primary antagonist.

 

      In every story the protagonist is the character that the reader

cares most about.  In Crime and Punishment the reader cares about Rodion

Raskolnikov.  He is the primary and most significant character in the novel.

We are introduced to this complex character in Part 1.  We get to know the

poverty stricken condition that he resides in, and we get to know his

family situation as we read the long letter from Raskolnikov's mother.

Then we witness the murder as it is graphically described by Doestoevsky.

After reading this graphic description of the murder, how can the reader be

sympathetic towards Raskolnikov?  How can the reader believe that a

murderer is the protagonist?  It is, in fact,  not hard to accept this

murderer as the protagonist.  Raskolnikov believed that by murdering the

pawnbroker, he rid society of a pest.  We realize that if the victim would

have been someone other than an evil old pawnbroker the crime would never

had taken place.  He could never have found the courage to kill an innocent

person.  It would not prove anything to him.  So, Raskolnikov was not a

criminal. He does not repent because he does not feel that he had sinned.

All he did was violate laws that were made by society.  Raskolnikov

definition of crime was evil will in action.  Raskolnikov knows that he

possesses no evil will, and so he does not consider himself a criminal.  He

is capable of justifying his crime.

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  He murdered a pawnbroker that was of

no use to society and wanted to use her money to improve his life and

career.  Not only was he helping himself by attempting to improve his

career, but he was also helping society as society would benefit from his

career.  He would also free his mother and sister from the encumbrance of

financially supporting him, and thus maybe even prevent the marriage of his

sister to the evil Luzhin.  We are introduced to Raskolnikov's thoughts

about mankind when we read about Raskolnikov's published article.  He

divides man into two classes:  the extraordinary man and the ordinary man.

He considers himself extraordinary and the pawnbroker to be ordinary.

Presumably, the murder of the pawnbroker was an experiment of his theory.

One could argue that his experiment failed because he had to rely on his

family and friends and because he confessed, unlike how his theory suggests.

 Maybe he was not the extraordinary person he thought he was.  Maybe his

theory was bogus.  In either case, his theory proved that Raskolnikov had

an intellectual side.  From this we can believe that he did not murder for

the money but he really believed that he was superior and he was doing

society a favor.  Perhaps he was not superior, but it can be safe to say

that he did society a favor.  The same society that he did a favor for does

not believe in Raskolnikov's explanation.  Society believes that murder is

wrong.  Society's morals and rules dictate that crime is wrong no matter

what the circumstances.  It is evident that Raskolnikov did not believe in

society's definition of crime and he proved this by murdering the

pawnbroker.  We still find sympathy for him, as deep down inside we

perchance realize that Raskolnikov may have a valid point and society may

be at fault.  At the end we are able to forgive Raskolnikov for he has

finally confessed and will go through a moral rebuilding process.  We

realize that Raskolnikov is the protagonist of Crime and Punishment.

 

      As it is necessary for a story to have a protagonist, it is also

essential for an antagonist to be existent.  Oddly enough, the primary

antagonist in Crime and Punishment is the kind of character that the

protagonist would like to be.  Arkady Svidrigailov is Dounia's (the sister

of Raskolnikov) former employer.  Svidrigailov enters in the life of

Raskolnikov about half-way through the story.  Ironically, he enters into

the story right after Raskolnikov awakens from a nightmare in which he

tries to kill the pawnbroker but she refuses to die!  Prior to his entrance

the reader is already under the notion that Svidrigailov is evil because

there is mention of him being responsible for the death of his wife, and

also a carnal crime involving a young girl.  We are left with an impression

that is sensual and callous, a perfect description of an antagonist.

Raskolnikov appears to recognize the fact that he has more in common with

Svidrigailov than he would like.  The reader feels that Svidrigailov may

be showing what Raskolnikov is capable of doing.  Svidrigailov appears to

fit Raskolnikov's definition of the extraordinary man.  Svidrigailov stands

alone without the comfort of family and friends.  He believes that he is

omnipotent, and the reader reluctantly believes that.  Svidrigailov does

not believe in right or wrong.  The only thing he believes in is him being

right.  Along with fitting Raskolnikov's definition of the extraordinary

man, Svidrigailov also fits his definition of a criminal.  Svidrigailov

possesses evil will.  He is evil will in action.  He is under the

impression that society is evil and, in order to survive, it is essential

that he be evil.  So, he wants to fulfill his desires and he is willing to

hurt anybody to achieve them.  The most unappealing trait of Svidrigailov

is the fact that he does not suffer from any moral doubts about his actions.

He felt no remorse when he raped the young girl, or when he beat his wife

and maybe even killed her. He does not fear God.  After observing the

character of Svidrigailov, the reader realizes that the extraordinary man

theory may not be a myth.  When we see Svidrigailov attempt to rape

Raskolnikov's sister, we realize that the antagonist is Svidrigailov.

 

      In every story it is interesting to note the similarities and

differences between the protagonist and the antagonist.  Rodion Raskolnikov

and Arkady Svidrigailov are two exciting and original characters that have

many similarities and one critical difference that make them what they are.

Upon a close inspection of Svidrigailov, we realize that he is but an older

variation of Raskolnikov.  Upon looking at Svidrigailov, the reader fears

that Raskolnikov, the protagonist, is capable of doing the dishonorable

deeds that Svidrigailov has done.  It is acknowledged that Svidrigailov is

omnipotent in his own eyes.  He is capable of doing anything without fear

or remorse.  Raskolnikov wishes to be this way.  In fact, he comes close.

He did not repent after he murdered the pawnbroker.  He felt no remorse

when he ended the life of the innocent sister of the pawnbroker.

Raskolnikov does evil for the same reason that Svidrigailov does evil.

They both want to be beyond good and evil.  They both wish to be beyond the

laws created by society.  They both exhibit moral indifference after crimes.

 Just as Svidrigailov does evil because he believes that society is evil,

Raskolnikov commits murder because of his extraordinary man theory. Would

this mean that Raskolnikov is no different from Svidrigailov? Does this

mean that Raskolnikov is the antagonist along with Svidrigailov?  It would

if it were not for one major difference.  Raskolnikov would like to be an

extraordinary man.  He would like to commit any crime without remorse.  The

critical difference that differentiates Raskolnikov from Svidrigailov is

that Raskolnikov is not the extraordinary man.  Raskolnikov has morals

while Svidrigailov has jettisoned his morals.  Raskolnikov is sickened by

acts of violence.  He is able to accept crime intellectually, but he is

unable to be "extraordinary" because his moral sense prevents him from

being a monster. Raskolnikov did not repent after he murdered the

pawnbroker because he accepted the crime intellectually.  He firmly

believed that the murder of the pawnbroker would be good for society.

Because of the ordeal that Raskolnikov went through after the crime, he

would never be able to hurt another soul as long as he lived.  Raskolnikov

knows that his theory may be correct, but he cannot be the extraordinary

man.  He knows now that evil cannot satisfy intellect.  His ethics prevent

him from coming in terms with his crime and open the way for moral

regeneration.  About 90% of Crime and Punishment is about punishment,

Raskolnikov's punishment.  The suffering of Raskolnikov leads to his

confession and salvation.  Svidrigailov does not confess to any wrongdoing.

Instead, he takes the easy way out by committing suicide.  We find that we

are willing to forgive Raskolnikov for his crime because he has confessed

and is going through moral regeneration while in Siberia.  The reader

realizes that Raskolnikov is but an incomplete Svidrigailov.  So,

Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov are two people with many similarities but one

critical difference that makes one the protagonist and the other the

antagonist.

 

      After reading Crime and Punishment one is quick to realize the

authenticity of both, the protagonist (Raskolnikov), and the antagonist

(Svidrigailov).  Dostoevsky uses supporting characters to show the reader

the thoughts of both these characters.  The reader is able to feel close to

all the characters and this contributes to making Crime and Punishment the

kind of tale that it is.  Dostoevsky has successfully created two

characters that realize that they are alike yet they also know that they

can never be the same because one is willing to suffer as suffering leads

to salvation while the other, in a cowardly fashion, commits suicide.

 

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretations. New York, New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Dostoevsky, Feodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Jessie Coulson. Ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1989.

Gale Research Co. Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism. Detroit, MI 1984, Vol. 7.

Kjetsaa, Geir. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer's Life. New York, New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1987,

Magill, Frank. Masterplots. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1976.

Terras, Victor. Handbook of Russian Literature. New Haven, CT; Yale University Press, 1985.


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