Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Alienation from Society
Alienation is the primary theme of Crime and Punishment. At first, Raskolnikov’s pride separates him from society. He sees himself as superior to all other people and so cannot relate to anyone. Within his personal philosophy, he sees other people as tools and uses them for his own ends. After committing the murders, his isolation grows because of his intense guilt and the half-delirium into which his guilt throws him. Over and over again, Raskolnikov pushes away the people who are trying to help him, including Sonya, Dunya, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, Razumikhin, and even Porfiry Petrovich, and then suffers the consequences. In the end, he finds the total alienation that he has brought upon himself intolerable. Only in the Epilogue, when he finally realizes that he loves Sonya, does Raskolnikov break through the wall of pride and self-centeredness that has separated him from society.
The Psychology of Crime and Punishment
The manner in which the novel addresses crime and punishment is not exactly what one would expect. The crime is committed in Part I and the punishment comes hundreds of pages later, in the Epilogue. The real focus of the novel is not on those two endpoints but on what lies between them—an in-depth exploration of the psychology of a criminal. The inner world of Raskolnikov, with all of its doubts, deliria, second-guessing, fear, and despair, is the heart of the story. Dostoevsky concerns himself not with the actual repercussions of the murder but with the way the murder forces Raskolnikov to deal with tormenting guilt. Indeed, by focusing so little on Raskolnikov’s imprisonment, Dostoevsky seems to suggest that actual punishment is much less terrible than the stress and anxiety of trying to avoid punishment. Porfiry Petrovich emphasizes the psychological angle of the novel, as he shrewdly realizes that Raskolnikov is the killer and makes several speeches in which he details the workings of Raskolnikov’s mind after the killing. Because he understands that a guilt-ridden criminal must necessarily experience mental torture, he is certain that Raskolnikov will eventually confess or go mad. The expert mind games that he plays with Raskolnikov strengthen the sense that the novel’s outcome is inevitable because of the nature of the human psyche.
The Idea of the Superman
At the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov sees himself as a “superman,” a person who is extraordinary and thus above the moral rules that govern the rest of humanity. His vaunted estimation of himself compels him to separate himself from society. His murder of the pawnbroker is, in part, a consequence of his belief that he is above the law and an attempt to establish the truth of his superiority. Raskolnikov’s inability to quell his subsequent feelings of guilt, however, proves to him that he is not a “superman.” Although he realizes his failure to live up to what he has envisioned for himself, he is nevertheless unwilling to accept the total deconstruction of this identity. He continues to resist the idea that he is as mediocre as the rest of humanity by maintaining to himself that the murder was justified. It is only in his final surrender to his love for Sonya, and his realization of the joys in such surrender, that he can finally escape his conception of himself as a superman and the terrible isolation such a belief brought upon him.
Nihilism was a philosophical position developed in Russia in the 1850s and 1860s, known for “negating more,” in the words of Lebezyatnikov. It rejected family and societal bonds and emotional and aesthetic concerns in favor of a strict materialism, or the idea that there is no “mind” or “soul” outside of the physical world. Linked to nihilism is utilitarianism, or the idea that moral decisions should be based on the rule of the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. Raskolnikov originally justifies the murder of Alyona on utilitarian grounds, claiming that a “louse” has been removed from society. Whether or not the murder is actually a utilitarian act, Raskolnikov is certainly a nihilist; completely unsentimental for most of the novel, he cares nothing about the emotions of others. Similarly, he utterly disregards social conventions that run counter to the austere interactions that he desires with the world. However, at the end of the novel, as Raskolnikov discovers love, he throws off his nihilism. Through this action, the novel condemns nihilism as empty.
More main ideas from Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment and Raskolnikov's article, On Crime
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Crime and Punishment and Raskolnikov's article, "On Crime"
Raskolnikov's article, "On Crime," is vital to the understanding of his beliefs. This article also has a profound effect on Crime and Punishment as a whole, the subject matter being one of the main themes of the novel. The idea of the "extraordinary man" is referred to literally throughout the book, but also notable is the subconscious effect the idea has on Raskolnikov. Sometimes Raskolnikov is not even aware of this influence. It is important to note originality, or the ability to "utter a new word," as a defining characteristic of the extraordinary man. Therefore, we must take into account the presence of similar ideas, those of Pisarev, Nietzsche, and nihilism, as these might bring to light the possibility that Raskolnikov is not original, a possibility that haunts him throughout the novel.
Within the article Raskolnikov analyzes the psychology of a criminal before and after the crime. This main portion of the article is not discussed, but it is likely that the psychological explanation that Porfiry gives Raskolnikov later, in the examination, is very similar. During this later examination, Raskolnikov appears resentful, but never disputes what Porfiry tells him, perhaps because it is a regurgitation of Raskolnikov's own thoughts. In the last meeting of the two men, Porfiry admits that he liked the article very much, and actually felt a connection with it. The one part of the main body of the article that is mentioned is "that the perpetration of a crime is always accompanied by illness" (225). Porfiry comments that this idea is very original; Raskolnikov welcomes this praise.
Shortly, Porfiry moves on to the main topic of their discussion, a topic only mentioned briefly in the article, the idea that "certain persons...have a perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes" (225). Raskolnikov immediately realizes that Porfiry is intentionally exaggerating the idea, and "decided to take up the challenge" (226). Dostoevsky lets the reader know that the conversation will be a battle of wits. The ensuing argumentative dialogue makes the passage very entertaining, especially in contrast to later interviews between the two, in which Porfiry does nearly all the talking (he loves to hear himself talk). Raskolnikov attempts to clarify his idea, explaining that the "extraordinary" people have the right, but are not bound, to "overstep obstacles" if it is "essential" for the fulfillment of their idea.
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Raskolnikov Crime Punishment Profound Effect Subject Matter Subconscious Notable Originality Characteristic Meeting
He recognizes that these ideas should be for the benefit of all humanity. We have to take note of the words Raskolnikov uses, for he does not adhere to his own guidelines. He doesn't need to kill Alyona, unless for money - but this is never proven to be his motive, nor is Raskolnikov sure of his idea.
Raskolnikov cites certain leaders - Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon - as criminals. He asserts this simple fact by showing that if these leaders created new laws, they must have broken the old ones in doing so, not to mention that they killed as well. Raskolnikov vaguely refers to the moral quirk that killing many honorable men - those who are fighting for their respective cause - is not a crime, yet killing one person, and a dishonorable one at that, is without a doubt a criminal offense. In order to get out of the so-called "common rut," one must be a criminal, and if he is extraordinary he ought to do so. Much later in the novel, the reader learns that the urge to take the first step, out of the rut, is one of Raskolnikov's underlying motives.
Without going into many sub-divisions, Raskolnikov divides people into two categories. There are the masses, the ordinary, who love to be controlled and serve only to reproduce. (Interestingly, the men who are generally accepted as extraordinary do not have children and, to go even further, are rather disgusted with the thought of reproduction). Then there are the extraordinary, who have "the gift or talent to utter a new word" (227). The theme of the "new word" weighs heavily on Raskolnikov when he reflects on whether he is an extraordinary or not. These extraordinary ones transgress the law, destroying (not necessarily physically) the present for a better future. Raskolnikov holds that both groups have an equal right to exist.
Raskolnikov ends the speech strangely and emphatically, saying "vive la guerre eternelle - till the New Jerusalem, of course!" (227). This translates 'live the eternal war' (alluding to life), until one goes to heaven. This statement prompts Porfiry to ask a few religious questions. He asks if Raskolnikov believes in heaven, in God, and in the story of Lazarus, to which Raskolnikov answers firmly each time, "I do." This confuses Porfiry, who has been thinking Raskolnikov more of an atheist, but these questions prove he is not. Raskolnikov's literal belief in the Bible is instrumental in bringing about his confession. As Raskolnikov points out to Sonia, there are three ways to go: suicide, insanity, or depravity, but he doesn't realize at the time how strong her faith is. Dostoevsky portrays his own belief by making religion the saving grace.
Porfiry makes the witty remark that if the extraordinary are not executed, they begin executing others. The witticism exchanged shows that the two intellectuals are enjoying their conversation thus far. Porfiry asks for some external definition of the extraordinary. Raskolnikov doesn't get around to answering this, but clearly there are no external signs. Napoleon, for instance, was a very small man in stature. The deciding factor is intelligence. The extraordinary ones simply know it.
There is a relationship between intelligence and crime. Pisarev shares this conviction, that "crime is placed on exactly the same footing as outstanding intellectual achievement or important transformations of social life." Porfiry wonders what happens when a member of one category imagines himself in the other. Raskolnikov asserts that this can only happen among the ordinary, probably because he considers them much less intelligent. These ordinaries might break the law, but Raskolnikov says, "you really need not be uneasy, for they never go very far" (228). This proves true of Raskolnikov.
Another of Porfiry's concerns is the number of extraordinary ones, as a great amount would be very dangerous. Raskolnikov answers that they are extremely rare. He assumes there is a law of nature controlling the output of extraordinary ones:
The vast mass of mankind is
mere material, and only exists in
order by some crossing of races
and stocks, to bring into the
world at last perhaps one man
out of a thousand with a spark of
independence. One in ten
thousand perhaps - I speak
roughly, approximately - is born
with some independence, and
with still greater independence
one in a hundred thousand. The
man of genius is one of millions,
and the great geniuses, the crown
of humanity, appear on earth
perhaps one in many thousand
Razumihin breaks into the conversation for the first time at this point. He confirms that the theory of ordinary/extraordinary persons is not new, "but what is really original in all this, and is exclusively your own, to my horror, is that you sanction bloodshed in the name of conscience" (229). Often the "new word" of an extraordinary is a twist on someone else's doctrine. The general themes of these new words are somewhat consistent, about humanity, society, religion, etc. The ideas frighten people, and they might bother an ordinary person just to think about it, supporting the belief that only a select few would be able to come up with the new ideas.
Porfiry decides to test Raskolnikov's patience. He says he is afraid of the practical possibility that a man pictures himself as a future Mahomet, and begins to remove all obstacles. Raskolnikov consents that such cases arise, but what can he do about it? "The vain and foolish are particularly apt to fall into that snare; young people especially" (230). Ironically this description is what Raskolnikov later pictures he is, when he finally concludes that he was wrong. Raskolnikov continues that society is protected by assorted punishments, so that this mistake isn't a common occurrence. Raskolnikov believes the criminal will get what he deserves. He will suffer for his mistake and for his victim, as well as by his punishment.
At the end of the interview, Raskolnikov makes an observation incongruent with the rest of the conversation, that "pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart" (230). Dostoevsky points out that the tone of this statement is "dreamy," also contrasting with the rest of the conversation. Perhaps Raskolnikov already suspects that this is his fate. Later in the book Raskolnikov loses sight of his own beliefs, pretending that he is depraved for the sake of protecting himself. We know though, even at this early stage, that he won't need the motivation of Porfiry or Sonia to make him confess. He will bring suffering upon himself of his own accord.
Raskolnikov realizes his mood has changed greatly since his entrance, and although he doesn't mention it, he knows he has given a clue to Porfiry. Catching this psychological clue, Porfiry expresses his "playful, psychological idea," that in Raskolnikov's writing he might have considered himself an extraordinary. Indeed, Raskolnikov's article is in some ways, at the least, quite original. Raskolnikov answers, "Quite possibly," but once again more important is the tone he employs. He says it, as Dostoevsky writes, "contemptuously." Porfiry, if he doesn't already know, will soon find out that Raskolnikov is much too intelligent to be trapped. He won't slip up on a trifling detail and in doing so prove his own guilt. On the other hand, it is Raskolnikov's pride that will give him away, and perhaps it is this moment when he gives Porfiry the answer. It is pride also, as Raskolnikov tells Dounia, that prevents him from surrendering even when he is prepared to face suffering.
The article is brought up again in several instances later in the book. When Porfiry comes to Raskolnikov's flat to make everything clear, he mentions how he felt about the article. He tells Raskolnikov sincerely, "Your article is absurd and fantastic, but there's a transparent sincerity, a youthful incorruptible pride and the daring of despair in it" (389). Porfiry knows before meeting Raskolnikov that, as he says, "that man won't go the common way" (389). The mere acquaintance of Raskolnikov to the pawnbroker is enough to arouse Porfiry's suspicion. Porfiry admits that the article touches something close to home in his heart, proving that the men are very similar. Porfiry likes Raskolnikov, and urges him to surrender to mitigate the sentence. Pulcheria also reads the article, and although she doesn't completely understand it, she nonetheless sees its inherent power and originality. She proclaims that she knows Raskolnikov "will soon be one of the leading - if not the leading man - in the world of Russian thought" (442).
The outside opinion of Raskolnikov's theory is that it is original. This pacifies him, at least for the moment. What bothers Raskolnikov more than anything is his subconscious fear that he is not an extraordinary, because his idea was unoriginal. He is brought to anger when Porfiry tells him, "You made up a theory and then were ashamed that it broke down and turned out to be not at all original" (395). Then Raskolnikov is "disgusted" when Svidrigailov makes a similar comment:
"the Schiller in you is in revolt every moment, and now you tell me not
to listen at doors. If that's how you feel, go and inform the police that
you had this mischance: you made a little mistake in your theory. But if
you are convinced that one mustn't listen at doors, but one may murder
old women at one's pleasure, you'd better be off to America and make haste" (418).
To expand on the importance of originality, my own theory suggests that an author bases his best characters on himself. The characters of Raskolnikov, Porfiry, and Svidrigailov are very similar, and reflect Dostoevsky. There are so many obvious similarities between Dostoevsky and Raskolnikov. Svidrigailov is like the author in his aristocratic views. Porfiry is somewhat like a father figure, examining Raskolnikov as Dostoevsky examines his own youth. So Dostoevsky too, perhaps feared unoriginality. In one sense Dostoevsky was very original, writing from the third person perspective of an omniscient being that always stays with Raskolnikov. But in his theory of the extraordinary man, Dostoevsky was not completely original. He seems to have learned some of this idea from Pisarev, who elevates the character Basarov, from Turgenev's novel Fathers and Children, "to the level of a Nietzschean superman, standing beyond good and evil" (Frank xiv). Dostoevsky's own fear of unoriginality and fear of failure is seen in Raskolnikov.
But Raskolnikov is not unoriginal. His conviction that he was not wrong grows, which he expresses to Dounia and later reflects on in prison. Raskolnikov begins to see more clearly that his idea was original; therefore he is an extraordinary, and therefore he is right. When first confessing to Sonia, Raskolnikov is still unsure of his motives, thinking of several possibilities, but later when he talks to Dounia he is well aware of his driving forces.
I too wanted to do good to men
and would have done hundreds,
thousands of good deeds to make
up for that one piece of stupidity,
not stupidity even, simply
clumsiness, for the idea was by
no means so stupid as it seems
now that it has failed...
(Everything seems stupid when it
fails.) By that stupidity I only
wanted to put myself into an
independent position, to take
thee first step, to obtain means,
and then everything would have
been smoothed over by benefits
immeasurable in comparison. (447)
Raskolnikov is convinced (and I too) that it was his compassion, his "deep heart" that failed him in achieving his potential as an extraordinary. In prison he comes to the conclusion, "It was only in that that he recognized his criminality, only in the fact that he had been unsuccessful and had confessed it" (467). He could have gotten away with murder, especially after Svidrigailov's suicide. Porfiry had perfect psychological explanations, but the one fact he supposedly had up his sleeve was never shown and I believe it didn't exist. In the dramatic situation of the novel, I wanted Raskolnikov to confess, for his mother and his sister, for Sonia, for Razumihin, and even for Porfiry. His sentence would be mitigated, and as Porfiry pointed out, Raskolnikov had his whole life ahead of him still. If it weren't for his loved ones, if he had nothing to turn to, so to speak, I think he could have gotten away with it and he could have become a Napoleon. It was only the first step.
In the much-criticized epilogue, the only part I disliked is how Raskolnikov gives up his theory in the end. In the dream, a plague infects all of mankind, making every individual both mad and intellectual, an extraordinary. Everyone is so sure of himself that he kills others, and everything falls apart. Raskolnikov realizes the vulgarity of his belief and so changes. As the book finishes, Raskolnikov is a nice guy, capable of love and faith, but I don't think this is an equal trade for being an extraordinary; perhaps one can be so versatile as to possess both attributes. This dream exaggerates Raskolnikov's theory and whole-heartedly adopts the principles of nihilism, that there is no objective ground of truth, and existence is senseless.
The reader must be careful when examining the theme of nihilism in the article and the novel. In many ways Raskolnikov is a nihilist: he doesn't believe in traditional values, he thinks the existence of ordinary people is senseless and only useful in the most simplistic way, and he believes that conditions of the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable. Dostoevsky is not preaching nihilism, but warns against the dangers inherent in it, despite seeing the impulses of young radicals, like his Raskolnikov, as self-sacrificing and altruistic. In a letter to his friend Katkov, Dostoevsky writes, "you know they are helpless against these stupidities [radical ideology] and take them for perfection." For this reason Dostoevsky makes Raskolnikov come to the final conclusion that his idea is incompatible with itself - one cannot go about helping humanity through being unkind to everyone, and that he is wrong. The character of Razumihin - honorable, intelligent, compassionate, altruistic and so on - is the ideal of Dostoevsky or Nietzsche.
The influence of Nietzsche and his theory of superman on the novel is nonexistent. Nietzsche's first published works came in 1865, and they were essays on Aristotle. Nietzsche's first personal theories were seen in 1867, a year after the publication of Crime and Punishment. The theory of the superman is expounded in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, published in 1885. Instead, the inverse is seen, that Dostoevsky had a profound influence on Nietzsche. In separating humanity into the two categories, Nietzsche applauds Caesar, Napoleon, Goethe, Dostoevsky, and the Sophists as healthier and stronger types.
To look at the relationship in this new way, it is interesting to see how Raskolnikov might have affected Nietzsche's principles. Nietzsche is a nihilist, like the former Raskolnikov, supposing that we invent "truths" for the purpose of security. Both Raskolnikov and Nietzsche rebel against these truths. Nietzsche's theory of the "will to power" as a cause of one developing his own morals and behavior is seen frequently in Raskolnikov. Although Nietzsche is an atheist, part of his purpose is to draw people away from escapism, heavenly otherworlds, and to show people their inherent freedom, much like the purpose of Raskolnikov's extraordinary. Nietzsche refers to the idea of the extraordinary as a "superman", one who is psychologically healthier beyond the common human condition. "What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that to the superman." The ideas differ in that Nietzsche's superman truly loves life, while Raskolnikov's extraordinary does not necessarily have this characteristic, but is more altruistic, accepting suffering. Nietzsche challenges the deeply entrenched moral idea that exploitation and destruction are objectionable behaviors - alluding to the Napoleon that Raskolnikov wants to be.
On some points, Raskolnikov and Nietzsche both agree and disagree, mainly on the topics of religion. Nietzsche says that traditional ideals set forth as morally good within Christianity are products of self-deception, and feelings of guilt arise because of this unhealthy Christian morality. Ultimately, Raskolnikov's contradiction arises because he can't combine or choose between his theory and religion. There are also some points on which Nietzsche opposes Raskolnikov. He is a hedonist, an atheist, and most significantly, one who believes that the superman must be healthy and powerful. However, in his unpublished manuscripts his superman is more like the extraordinary, characterized by spectacular mental capacities and willpower.
A philosopher that influences Dostoevsky and consequently Nietzsche is Pisarev. In many ways Dostoevsky disagrees with Pisarev, who is a materialist, rejects idealism, and does not believe in God. Pisarev adopts a practical atheism, in which his "new man" is concerned with improving society. Raskolnikov also has this as a motive, though ironically he believes in God and takes an unethical approach, whereas Pisarev looks for a passionate, ethical way to do things. Raskolnikov and Pisarev also differ in that Pisarev believes in a man-society relationship in which one will help others for the sake of self-satisfaction. Quite the opposite, Raskolnikov is a recluse, and usually gets angry with himself after a charitable gesture. The nihilistic view that Raskolnikov shares with Pisarev is that freedom must be attained in order to improve society. This leads into the theory of Pisarev that influences Raskolnikov's article. Pisarev separates people into "the mass" and "other people," generally described in the same fashion as Raskolnikov's respective categories. He says the "others" have the right to transgress moral law, as it encroaches on the liberty of others. Raskolnikov, slightly differently, restricts his transgression to legal crime. I would contend that Raskolnikov has very strong morals, but that they are rather untraditional.
Standing back to look at everything as a whole (which Nietzsche says is impossible), we can see that Raskolnikov's article "On Crime" is based on a unification of various thoughts, interwoven with original concepts. The article is the foundation of Raskolnikov's very strong beliefs, and thus heightens the reader's awareness of Raskolnikov's state of mind. With this great depth of character, Crime and Punishment reveals timeless characteristics of society, the individual, and of course, the themes of crime and punishment. From all this we can infer that the article strengthens the power of the novel. Researching the influences and beliefs that shape the article and novel provides even more depth of understanding. The reader can experience first hand the "will to power", gaining even more knowledge than the omniscient narrator of the story. The reader becomes an extraordinary.