Exposing Nihilism in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky Essay

Exposing Nihilism in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky Essay

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A paragon of realist literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky deftly exposes nihilism in his novel, Crime and Punishment, published in 1866. Its protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, is intelligent yet bitter and unfeeling, having denounced his morality and bonds with society. He embodies the qualities of nihilism, the desertion of all emotional and ethical concerns. This philosophical doctrine is historically ubiquitous, particularly with the Nihilist Movement, one of Imperial Russia’s Great Reforms, and the growing apostasy and atheism of postmodernity; both instances aptly highlight the abandonment of virtue, individual and societal.

Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex-student living in St. Petersburg, the grimy, plagued, and urbanized capital of the Russian Empire. He “is nothing but a poor half-crazed creature, soft in temperament, confused in intellect” (Waliszewski), a maverick who believes he must deliver society from mediocrity. Deluded, he murders Alyona Ivanovna, a pawnbroker, and her unsuspecting half-sister, Lizaveta. Throughout the story, Raskolnikov undergoes transformations in all facets of his life, many of which are attributed to his infatuation with Marmeladov’s humble daughter, Sonia. Forced into prostitution, she is seen by Raskolnikov as a fellow transgressor of morality, but also as a savior that will renew him. This new development causes him to decry his nihilistic lifestyle as desolate and insufferable and to expiate, ending his self-imposed alienation and long suffering. Notwithstanding the title, the story has little to do with the crime or the punishment; the true focus is the turbulent internal conflict of Raskolnikov - the constant doubting of his motives and the psychological torment he endures.

Raskolnikov’s ego...


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...urg, which is expelled near the close of the book when he accepts his mortal status. Utilitarianism is commonly linked to political nihilism, “the belief that the destruction of all existing political, social, and religious order is a prerequisite for any future improvement” (Nihilism). An ethical principle initially conceived to promote the greatest happiness, utilitarianism has been polluted by the revolution, where it “served to bludgeon opponents of reform” (John Stuart Mill). A nihilist “in the popular stereotype, became a revolutionary who believed that the end justified any means, including terror” (Nihilistic Sentiments). This is the most significant parallel between Crime and Punishment and the movement. Dostoevsky, having an aversion to nihilism, embraces this stereotype. Raskolnikov’s claim of societal benefit belies his dangerous nihilistic tendencies.

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