19th Century Theories in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

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19th Century Theories in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

19th Century Theories in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that has to be surpassed. What have you done to surpass him? ” These words said by Friedrich Nietzsche encompass the theories present in Dostoevsky’s nineteenth century novel, Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoevsky, living a life of suffering himself, created the character of Raskolnikov with the preconceptions of his own sorrowful and struggling life. Throughout his exile in Siberia from 1849-1859, his sentiments of suffering, sorrow, and the common man surfaced and heightened, inspiring him to begin writing Crime and Punishment in 1859.

The main motif in this novel is that of suffering. It is apparent that all characters, major and minor, experience some sort of internal or external affliction. The overall theme of the work is that all mortal men suffer, and that salvation can not be obtained unless this anguish is present. Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, must evolve and realize this fact to overcome his conflicts and reach the salvation of peace and tranquillity. Volumes and volumes of critique can be written on where this suffering originated, but Dostoevsky’s main concentration and focus is not where, but why suffering must exist and how this suffering can be overcome.

This is seen from the fact that throughout the six sections of the novel, only one section is focused on the origin of the torment – the Crime, and the remaining five sections are concentrated on Raskolnikov’s path to overcoming this anguish – the Punishment. By focusing solely on the punishment, the internal and external conflicts that arise within the novel do not only provide Raskolnikov’s own philosophy of the path toward salvation, but encompasses that of the German philosopher Nietzsche, as well as his contemporaries. Raskolnikov’s justifications for his actions are relayed in his own Extraordinary Man Theory, which states that there are two classifications of men in the world: ordinary, and extraordinary.

He wanted prove that he was extraordinary, that he could commit a crime as horrid as murder, but because he did it for the betterment of society, he would feel no sympathy or regret for his justified actions. In following Raskolnikov’s theory, it becomes apparent from where his conceptions originate. Though the whole work encompasses the philosophies of all the nineteenth century theorists, Raskolnikov’s ideas spawn from that of Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Hegel.

Since it has already been established that the entire novel contains theories of its era, to begin an analysis in regard to the novel’s main ideas evolving from the concepts of merely Nietzsche or Hegel would, in a way, belittle the importance of the remaining non-Hegelian nineteenth century philosophers. By analyzing the ideologies of the major theorists from Father to Fruitcake (Kierkegaard to Freud) with respect to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s intentions, motifs, and ideas can be interpreted with ease. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) believed that truth is both power and suffering.

He is often noted as the Father of Existentialism, an innovated modern belief that life has no meaning, and that we must live life just for the sake of living, and nothing else. To know the truth about life and the individuals living it would be a form of powerful knowledge incomprehensible to man. The truth is – Life is suffering. Kierkegaard believed that man was blessed with the greatest gift of all – free will, but this free will creates decisions, and decisions generate emotions.

Emotions are the key to the suffering of man. Happiness creates a fear in losing prosperity, fear leads to anger toward life’s unjust ways, anger leads to hatred of life in general, and hatred leads to the suffering of the individual mind. This is the path of the common man, the man who “thinks” that life can be blissful. The existential man “believes” that life has no meaning, no substance, and no path for happiness. He is the man who knows and accepts that all things, good and evil, exist, including suffering.

This is why the existential man is indifferent toward the benefits and consequences of life. Raskolnikov believes that The Extraordinary Man feels no suffering and no pain. He is the man who can break the laws, transgress the laws, and make the laws. Raskolnikov believed that if he were extraordinary, he could commit any crime, even the crime of murder, and walk away from it indifferent, apathetic, and without emotion.

What he did not realize was the main point of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, that no matter what – man suffers. Raskolnikov thought that he could avoid the truth and avoid suffering. It is not until he confesses to both Porfiry and Sonia, which coincidentally is the same instant that his own pain begins to vanquish, that he fully understands and believes in the suffering of man.

Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831), another prominent philosopher of the nineteenth century, hypothesized a dialectic method for the analysis and comprehension of history. He believed that all events in time move in a teleological fashion contrary to the popular belief of a circular path. Hegel stated that history, rather than repeating itself, learns and moves forward toward a purpose.

In his theory this purpose is the freedom of all men in a rational state, and moving toward such a beneficial purpose justifies all good and evil events in history. The dialectic method also consisted of a diagram regarding this teleological path. Hegel believed that history is made up of a series of events all corresponding to a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The thesis and antithesis serve as the conflict in history, while the synthesis becomes the result.

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov is the thesis, the symbol of good intentions, while Svidrigailov is the antithesis, the epitome and reality of evil and suffering. With the battle of good and evil comes salvation, or the synthesis, in this case – Sonia, the representation and key to Raskolnikov’s salvation. This method can also be viewed in the perspective of Dostoevsky’s primary concentrations. With that respect the crime can be viewed as the symbol of good intentions. Raskolnikov killed Alyona because she represented the evil in society. Because her death would be a blessing and benefit to the world he believed his crime would be justified.

The punishment can be viewed as the reality of suffering. It is not until after he commits the crime that Raskolnikov realizes that all men in fact do suffer. The key is to overcome this suffering instead of avoiding it. The salvation can be viewed as the redemption and end to suffering – the result of the crime and of the punishment. This analysis also maps Hegel’s teleological perspective because the novel moves in a linear fashion. The Crime (thesis) encompasses Part I of the novel, the Punishment (antithesis) is demonstrated in Parts II-VI, and the salvation (synthesis) is introduced in the epilogue. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900) did not believe in the suffering of all men.

He believed that there existed a superman, a powerful individual that lived for self-gratification and nothing else. The Nietzschean superman asserts his own power to situations while he watches the common and ordinary man suffer because of life’s imperfections. This man needs no justification in his actions, because as long as he has satisfied himself, then his dominance over others requires no reason. Nietzsche also believed that in order to become a superman, an individual must surpass the common man.

He must have no qualms or regrets in his actions, and above all, he must not fear his actions or consequences. “Fear is the mother of morality,” it is an emotion only known to ordinary men. A superman has no fear. Perhaps the character of Svidrigailov emits the best example of a Nietzschean superman in the novel. He is the epitome of evil and lives only for self-gratification. His downfall to his superman visage is suicide. Death is the escape to suffering. Svidrigailov feared its company, and in turn, took his own life to avoid it. Raskolnikov on the other hand, did not avoid suffering – he conquered it.

Though before his crime he did ask the Hegelian question of “Will this crime serve a noble purpose,” he also asks the Nietzschean question of “Do I dare commit this murder and therefore prove myself to be a man by proving that my will is strong? ” It is after this that he commits the crime and begins to endure this suffering. Unlike his rival, Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov overcomes his pain through salvation with the help of Sonia, ends his isolation, and returns to the humanity of society.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that society was the root of suffering. His common man, the proletarian, struggled because of the capitalistic bourgeoisie. He believed that “the proletariat goes through various stages of development. ” The first stage is the struggle against the bourgeois, which later turns to suffering.

Through the growth of the masses, the final stages of the common man of strength and victory evolve. The goal and path of the Marxist man is to emerge from being a mere commodity of society into being a creative and active member of it. The strength that allows him to do this is the realization that he is suffering because he lives for others, and his victory is obtained by overcoming this anguish through the bond of the proletariat.

Though Raskolnikov does not face the same pain of worthlessness as the proletariat, he develops in the same fashion. He struggles against his inner emotions of reason and morality, and suffers because of it. Though Sonia and Porfiry contribute to his salvation, it is Raskolnikov himself that overcomes his emotions. He does not need the bond of the masses to aid him in his survival and path toward salvation; he only needs the bond of his inner rational and emotion states. This is why Raskolnikov survives. In 1859 the theorist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published a controversial book of survival entitled The Origin of Species.

In this work Darwin established that an organism’s evolution or devolution in life is representative of their ability to conform, adjust, and survive within the harshness of its environment. This theory of “survival of the fittest,” later became the coined theme of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism believes that man survives and prospers in nature because he is the organism that is fit enough to do so. In a battle between man verses nature, and even man versus society, only the strong shall survive, while the weak will parish.

Faith and belief no longer have any bearing on the members of tomorrow’s society, only strength.  his theory is presented many times in Crime and Punishment. Alyona and Lizaveta both perish because they are not capable of defeating Raskolnikov. Alyona also did not survive because Raskolnikov’s beliefs were stronger than her will and intentions. Svidrigailov cannot conquer the constraints society has placed upon him, and in turn, he commits suicide. The only exception to this theory is Raskolnikov. His inner strength of intelligence may be strong, but his physical and emotional abilities do not coincide with Darwin’s notion of fit. Raskolnikov’s survival is from his redemption.

He reaches salvation because he chooses to, and therefore he survives because he chooses to. He does this through his own realization and rationalization. The psychologist and theorist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) believed that an individual’s decisions are not always determined by the rational state of mind. He believed that all humans possess three distinct decision making chambers of human behavior. He refers to the first of these as the id. The id is the childhood and instinctual need of the individual. This is the sector that satisfies an individual’s wants and desires, accomplishing them at no fear of risk.

The second portion of human behavior is referred to as the ego. The ego is the rationalist, the sector that makes decisions that benefit the individual and society. Freud believed that the majority of all individuals make decisions based on their ego. The final and third division of an individual’s behavior is called the superego. The superego is the ideal individual. This individual makes decisions that should be made; he does things the way they should be done in his opinion, and no matter what the results may be, has no reason for regret.

Though most of the characters in the novel make decisions based upon their ego, it is evident and apparent that Raskolnikov does not. He knows what he believes to be right and wrong, and tries to right the wrongs in society with his superego. Though he is the only one to use his superego, all of the other Freudian sections of human decisions exist in the work. Throughout the novel, Svidrigailov uses his id. His encounters with women, prosperity, and fortune are not prolific because he deserves them, but because he wants them. It is his id that leads him to his desire for an end to suffering, and his death near the end of the novel. Sonia and Dounia both rationalize their actions through their ego.

Though Sonia does not and should not be a prostitute, she knows that it is the only way for her family to survive. Dounia is in a similar predicament. She did not wish to marry Luzhin, but his wealth and proposal to help Raskolnikov rationalized her to stay. Later, her ego permits her to marry Razumihin for his compassion, admiration, and companionship. This use of the id, ego, and superego supply a Freudian element to Dostoevsky’s work. With all of these theories analyzed, computed, and settled, we can end this critique where we began: “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that has to be surpassed.

What have you done to surpass him? ” Is Raskolnikov a Superman? Well, he follows Kierkegaard’s existential statement of “I believe, therefore I am,” which means that he surpasses the common man who merely “thinks. ” Through the ideas of Hegel, his teleological movements from crime to punishment all serve a justified purpose in benefiting his moral and rational states. He overcomes the common man through the salvation he obtains from this linear evolution of trials. He suffers not from Marxist classes, but from internal struggle, excluding him as a member of the proletariat, or common man.

Though not physically or emotionally fit to survive, his confession becomes his salvation, his survival, and his disclaimer in the Darwin theory of surviving. The common man may survive because he is fit to survive, but Raskolnikov survives because he chooses to survive. Unlike Freud’s theory that the everyday man lives his life through his ego, Raskolnikov makes his decisions based on his superego, doing things not just because it would be rational, but because that it the way it should be done. So then, “Is Raskolnikov a Superman? ” Yes.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 9 November 2016

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