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