Crime and Punishment
A Critical Analysis
Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a world-renowned 19th century mystery/murder novel that has captivated readers for generations. With the identity of the murderer revealed from the very beginning, but his intentions far from being clear, the novel keeps the reader at the edge of their imagination. Every chapter is full of uncertainties, but no other element of the novel causes greater irritation and annoyed curiosity than what drove Raskolnikov to commit the murders in the first place. This classic novel has an unusual appeal, which is very different from other legendary texts, and it is the densely emotional and constantly evolving themes, motifs, and symbols. This paper examines in detail the themes of alienation from society, the very psychology of the novel, the idea of extraordinary humans, and nihilism; the symbols that represent abstract concepts such as the city and the cross; and of course one of the motifs of the novel that represent the environment and social condition of St. Petersburg, and of course Russia as a whole, during 19th century – poverty.
Alienation from society is the primary theme of Crime and Punishment that continuously evolves and reappears in every chapter of the novel. Raskolnikov believes that certain superior people within society stand out above the other ordinary humans and their moral law. From the very beginning Raskolnikov’s pride alienates him from the rest of the society. He sees himself as a different, perhaps superior, compared to all the other people, so he cannot relate to them in any way. It is his philosophy that consists of two groups of people in a society, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Raskolnikov believes that both have an equal right to exist, that without one the other would fail, so they are dependant on one another and contribute equally to the workings of the world. He believes that some extraordinary humans, like himself, have the right to go against the ordinary social laws in order to keep the world evolving. Raskolnikov believes that without the extraordinary individuals the whole human race would be stuck. However, without the ordinary men then the ideas and findings of the extraordinary would be nonexistent. He is so attached and obsessed with this theory that it consumes him whole, and he begets the pride of being above the rest of society.
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With this philosophy, Raskolnikov sees other people as simply tools that he can use to achieve his means. However, after committing the murders his isolation instead of diminishing in his mind only grows stronger and alienates him even more. This strong isolation is the result of the guilt and nightmares that haunt him, and his attempts to find redemption without telling the truth. Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov pushes away the people that try to help him. In the very end however he finds himself unable to take the isolation anymore, it becomes so intolerable that he opens up to Sonya, and slowly makes him so weak that people easily can suspect him of the murders. Nevertheless, it is Sonya and his surfacing love for her that drives him to accept the daunting sentence, which is the only way out to relieve him of the overwhelming guilt and isolation. Her love allows Raskolnikov to understand that his philosophy was wrong all along, and makes him an ordinary human in his mind.
The psychology of Crime and Punishment is one of the most evident and important themes that can relate to anyone no matter the time difference. The crime, murder of the greedy moneylender, takes place in the very beginning of the novel, whereas the punishment, the imprisonment in Siberia, happens in the very end, to be exact the Epilogue of the novel. This organization of the events by Dostoevsky has a clear message to the audience, and that is the fact that real focus lies no in these two points but on the very events that lye in between them, which is at its core the deep examination of the haunting guilt and the psychological effects on the mind of Raskolnikov. The main focus lies not in the repercussion of the murder at the end of the novel, but at how Raskolnikov deals with the guilt throughout the story. The very fact that Dostoevsky does not focus much on the actually imprisonment of Raskolnikov shows that the real punishment is much less compared to the stress and tormenting anxiety of trying to justify the actions and thus avoiding the punishment. The theme is explained in the ideal human psyche, how the mind functions, Raskolnikov has two choices either to confess or go mad from the anxiety and guilt.
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Two themes of Crime and Punishment are intertwined, the theme of alienation from society and that of the idea of being ‘superman’. As mentioned earlier, Raskolnikov sees himself as a ‘superman’, extraordinary, different, and thus above the rest of humanity which enables him not to go by the social laws that govern the rest. His pride and ego absorb him so much, that he finds asylum within himself only, completely isolated from the rest of humanity. Raskolnikov believes that the duty of the ordinary men is to simply exist to form the core of society. Whereas, the extraordinary men have another function, which is a step above the normal, they have the ability to overstep the normal bounds of social law, and violate the rights of those who are ordinary. They have the right to cross normal societal structures to accomplish ideas that they have determined to be valid in the consciousness. Raskolnikov further mentions Napoleon and other men who have changed the world, who were different, like himself. They have overturned laws and followed up on their beliefs. Essentially, they had the right to uphold their ideals even if it meant killing innocent men in the process. Raskolnikov used this philosophy to justify his actions, he had to oppose the ordinary social order, and create new one just like the previous legendary leaders have done. However, late as the story progresses Raskolnikov comes to a realization that he is not extraordinary at all, he is not a ‘superman’ in any way, and this is only because of the supreme guilt and the anxiety he could not let go of no matter how hard he tried. He realizes that he failed in his identity, but he does not let go of justifying his actions until the very moment he understands that he loved Sonya all along. It is in his love to Sonya that Raskolnikov lets go of the idea of ‘superman’ and the sufferings that he had to endure mentally because of his philosophy.
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Nihilism is another major theme in the novel that opens up the audience to the Russian society of 1950’s and 1960s. Nihilism at its core is the idea of destruction of the social system just for the sake of it. It is a delusion that nothing exists, a complete denial of established institutions and authority; values are nonexistent but falsely proposed. Raskolnikov can de described as a nihilist in that he does not care a bit about the emotions and thoughts of others. His justification for the murder of Alyona was that she was useless either way, so it was good to remove her from society. Although this justification is more of a utilitarian one, where decisions concerning a subject are made for the greatest number of goods, still Raskolnikov is more of a nihilist. He completely disregards societal values and beliefs, as well as social order. His philosophy can also be simply described as a nihilist one. Nevertheless, just like all the other values that Raskolnikov deeply believed in, the nihilism one was also gone from his identity as he opened his heart to the love for Sonya.
To understand the many beliefs that Raskolnikov upheld with dubious justifications, one must understand the environment of the social order and society as a whole. The major symbols of the novel serve this purpose, to explain and open up to the audience the condition of the state and people as well as its effects on character’s minds. Dostoevsky represents the city of St. Petersburg as a very crowded, dirty, poverty stricken, and depressing place. The city serves to represent several concepts that surround the social environment of the characters; it explains the state of inequality, injustice, and perhaps immoral condition of the people, as we are presented with grimly images of women who beat their children and beg for money, and drunkards all over the city. Besides the harsh conditions and deficits of the state of society, the city also represents Raskolnikov’s state of mind throughout the novel. One might even consider that living within such a society one might simply lose their mind and thus justify the actions of Raskolnikov. In fact, it would be correct to suggest that all the chaos of the city contributed to an already ailing mind of many characters, from Raskolnikov to Marmeladov and his family. A great supportive argument for this would be Sonya herself and her willingness to go so far as prostitution to support her family. However, being sent to a different place, Siberia, not necessarily better in any way, but different and far from his environment of origin perhaps allowed Raskolnikov to regain his some form of empathy.
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The Cross is a very deep and meaningful symbol in the novel, which serves the purpose of representing redemption as well as Christianity and return to religion. Before leaving to the police station Sonya gives Raskolnikov the cross, which symbolizes perhaps rescue and release from the evil, for lack of a better description, for him. The Cross of course on its own symbolizes the selflessness and sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of humanity in the Christian belief. Raskolnikov however does not see the cross as such, as a religious entity the way Sonya understands it, but rather a symbol of confession, of understanding and admitting his crimes, and accepting the punishment for it. Sonya herself is also a symbol at this point, as she represents the selflessness and compassion of Jesus, as she is offering herself, perhaps sacrificing herself for her family. However, the very fact that it is her offering the cross to Raskolnikov also plays a symbol, that she offers herself to him, brings him back under the wings of Christianity, and renews his soul in essence.
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Poverty is a universal theme of Crime and Punishment that describes the social annihilation of society, and penetrates throughout time as it relates to the current world issues. Almost every single character in the novel is stricken with severe poverty, so deep that they have to go to extreme means in order to survive.
It also demonstrates how poverty does nothing to bring families together, only offers hatred, and sacrifice of destitute members, such as Sonya, who becomes a prostitute, and Dunya who decides to marry a rich man. Dostoevsky’s point becomes clear by the end of the novel as far as poverty is concerned and that is he is trying to address the social situations that leave men with only one choice, and that is self-sacrifice, which also shows their compassion and vigor.
Crime and Punishment is a 19th century novel that through its themes, symbols, and motifs penetrates through the hearts of mankind, as it flies past time and relates to all. Dostoevsky creates a truly literally masterpiece in his attempts to demonstrate and address the societal complexities and the people’s struggles to simply survive. The novel touches not only on the material concepts of the word but also on the emotional and compassionate side of human beings and their willingness to survive through any hardships.