Crime and Punishment

Themes

Dostoevsky's letter to Katkov reveals his immediate inspiration, to which he remained faithful even after his original plan evolved into a much more ambitious creation: a desire to counteract what he regarded as nefarious consequences arising from the doctrines of Russian nihilism.[37] In the novel, Dostoevsky pinpointed the dangers of both utilitarianism and rationalism, the main ideas of which inspired the radicals, continuing a fierce criticism he had already started with his Notes from Underground.[38] Dostoevsky utilized the characters, dialogue and narrative in Crime and Punishment to articulate an argument against westernizing ideas. He thus attacked a peculiar Russian blend of French utopian socialism and Benthamite utilitarianism, which had led to what revolutionaries, such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky, called "rational egoism". The radicals refused to recognize themselves in the novel's pages, since Dostoevsky pursued nihilistic ideas to their most extreme consequences. Dimitri Pisarev ridiculed the notion that Raskolnikov's ideas could be identified with those of the radicals of the time. The radicals' aims were altruistic and humanitarian, but they were to be achieved by relying on reason and suppressing the spontaneous outflow of Christian compassion. Chernyshevsky's utilitarian ethic proposed that thought and will in Man were subject to the laws of physical science.[39] Dostoevsky believed that such ideas limited man to a product of physics, chemistry and biology, negating spontaneous emotional responses. In its latest variety, Russian nihilism encouraged the creation of an élite of superior individuals to whom the hopes of the future were to be entrusted.[40]

Raskolnikov exemplifies the potentially disastrous hazards contained in such an ideal. Frank notes that "the moral-psychological traits of his character incorporate this antinomy between instinctive kindness, sympathy, and pity on the one hand and, on the other, a proud and idealistic egoism that has become perverted into a contemptuous disdain for the submissive herd".[41] Raskolnikov's inner conflict in the opening section of the novel results in a utilitarian-altruistic justification for the proposed crime: why not kill a wretched and "useless" old moneylender to alleviate the human misery? Dostoevsky wants to show that this utilitarian style of reasoning had become widespread and commonplace; it was by no means the solitary invention of Raskolnikov's tormented and disordered mind.[42] Such radical and utilitarian ideas act to reinforce the innate egoism of Raskolnikov's character, and help justify his contempt for humanity's lower qualities and ideals. He even becomes fascinated with the majestic image of a Napoleonic personality who, in the interests of a higher social good, believes that he possesses a moral right to kill. Indeed, his "Napoleon-like" plan impels him toward a well-calculated murder, the ultimate conclusion of his self-deception with utilitarianism.[43]

In his depiction of Petersburg, Dostoevsky accentuates the squalor and human wretchedness that pass before Raskolnikov's eyes. He uses Raskolnikov's encounter with Marmeladov to contrast the heartlessness of Raskolnikov's convictions with a Christian approach to poverty and wretchedness.[42] Dostoevsky believes that the moral "freedom" propounded by Raskolnikov is a dreadful freedom "that is contained by no values, because it is before values". In seeking to affirm this "freedom" in himself, Raskolnikov is in perpetual revolt against society, himself, and God.[44] He thinks that he is self-sufficient and self-contained, but at the end "his boundless self-confidence must disappear in the face of what is greater than himself, and his self-fabricated justification must humble itself before the higher justice of God".[45] Dostoevsky calls for the regeneration and renewal of "sick" Russian society through the re-discovery of its national identity, its religion, and its roots.[46]


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