Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a psychologically charged novel in which the primary element that plagues the protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, is not a person but rather an idea; his own idea. Raskolnikov has an unhealthy obsession with rendering himself into what he perceives as the ideal, supreme human being, an ubermensch. Raskolnikov forms for himself a theory in which he will live purely according to his own will and transcend the social norms and moralities that dominate society. Raskolnikov suggests that acts commonly regarded as immoral are to be reserved for a certain rank of “extraordinary” men.
Raskolnikov’s faith in his theory is put to the test when he meets a man that is utterly amoral, seemingly unrepentant, and the very epitome of his “extraordinary” man, Arkady Ivanovitch Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov is a man characterized by his immunity to moral responsibility. Superficially he is a man with a calm and collected demeanor with a certain refined nature about him.
Raskolnikov himself refers to Svidrigailov as a “man of very good breeding or at least know[s] how on occasion to behave like one” (p. 56, Part 4, Chapter 1). Svidrigailov’s “good breeding” is but a thin veil that enshrouds his true character; that of a hedonist absorbed in his own pursuits of personal pleasure to the point of complete and total licentiousness. However, he is a patient man and he uses this fact to his advantage in order to better disguise his various plots and intrigues. His efforts have proven to be extremely successful in regards to the several murders that he committed over the years; including the suggestion that he poisoned his own wife.
While any normal person’s psyche would be torn to shreds in the tireless effort of maintaining a lifestyle based around lies to conceal their inner hedonist, Svidrigailov fails to exhibit any degree of remorse to assert himself as a true “extraordinary” man. Raskolnikov’s insatiable desire to find himself among the ranks of the “extraordinary”, drives him to commit a murder as some kind of litmus test to determine whether or not he has what it takes to be an ubermensch. However, Raskolnikov cannot stifle his own nclinations to clemency and charity. Similar to Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov attempts to mask his own natural moral tendencies to validate his self-applied status above the common man. Raskolnikov’s close colleague, Razumihin describes him as “morose, gloomy, proud, and haughty” (p. 253; Part 3, Chapter 2). Despite Raskolnikov’s coarse exterior, he is often found committing charitable acts such as giving to the needy when some might argue that he himself should receive aid rather than hand it out.
Even in his rationalization of the murder of the pawnbroker he claims that he had done the entire world a favor by eliminating another “louse…a useless, loathsome, harmful creature”(p. 486; Part 5, Chapter 4). His opinion regarding the pawnbroker’s murder reveals his insatiable ardor to determine whether or not he could truthfully proclaim his status as an ubermensch with the murder acting as a validation because he has the “extraordinary” privilege to scrub another “louse” from the surface of the earth.
Ultimately, his guilt begins to consume him, and drive him to the point of feverish madness, thus invalidating every semblance of his perceived status as an ubermensch. Raskolnikov understands this all too well and it plagues him because even if he has proven himself unworthy of being “extraordinary” he wants to believe that his theory still holds true. Despite his obsession, he fails to notice the very model of his theory living among the people of Saint Petersburg. Svidrigailov is undoubtedly a selfish man, “he is a man always [with] some design, some project”(p. 41; Part 6, Chapter 3). His every decision is based around his own pursuits of pleasure in one way or another.
Raskolnikov never had any reason to think highly of Svidrigailov, primarily because of the horrific stories of the sexual abuse that Raskolnikov’s sister Dounia had endured during her tenure as governess in the Svidrigailov household. Keeping this in mind, it comes as no surprise that Raskolnikov would feel utterly abhorred when Svidrigailov refers to them as “birds of a feather”(p. 40; Part 4, Chapter 1). While Svidrigailov is rather keen of their shared similarities, such as their status as murderers, Raskolnikov willingly fails to realize these associations. Raskolnikov’s better side objects to the hedonistic behavior of Svidrigailov, decrying him as a man of the most abject nature. The dramatic irony lies in the fact that Raskolnikov desires to be an “extraordinary” man, the very epitome of Svidrigailov, a man he holds in no high regard. Despite their superficial variances and issidences, Raskolnikov had slowly rendered himself into a facsimile of the man he detested, Svidrigailov. Although both men, whether knowingly or unknowingly, desire to transcend above the ordinary masses, it is only a matter of time before self-realization indicates the folly of their ways. Raskolnikov’s brusque affectation eventually yields to his predilection for salvation and redemption. He ultimately comes to the realization that he is not worthy of being “extraordinary” because of the crippling guilt that followed his murder of the pawnbroker.
Raskolnikov reflects upon the implications of his crime on his psyche, “I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, forever…”(p. 490; Part 5, Chapter 4) Raskolnikov’s cognizance brings him to the conclusion that his theory is ultimately incorrect and incongruous with true human nature. With this conclusion he begins to abdicate his hauteur and face the retribution that he so wholly deserves. Svidrigailov, contrary to his prior indications, is not without a conscience.
His own realization is not brought upon him by internal feelings of malefaction but rather his own convictions that living purely for pleasure will never satisfy him. Although much, if not all, he does is without remorse he often times reveals his own self-doubts concerning his lifestyle choice. When discussing the afterlife with Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov describes his own perception of his fate as “one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner” (p. 39; Part 4, Chapter 1). This revelation speaks volumes of Svidrigailov’s negative perceptions of his chosen lifestyle. He finds that as a result of his actions on earth, the very best he can hope for in terms of an afterlife is an eternity of a bleak and disgusting nature. On the surface, Svidrigailov is seemingly content with his hedonistic habits, but these words compromise his stolid exterior, revealing a Svidrigailov that is deeply disturbed and discontented.
In a conversation with Raskolnikov concerning Rodion’s status as an ubermensch, Svidrigailov foreshadows his own inevitable fate, “It’s no use taking up a job you are not fit for. Well you’d better shoot yourself, or don’t you want to? ” (p. 567; Part 4, Chapter 5). The irony that lies within Svidrigailov’s statement, reveals not only his own fate, but his self-doubt as well. All too often Svidrigailov is caught up in his own designs to realize the blaring similarities between himself and Raskolnikov; their shared desire for redemption, for something more.
Svidrigailov’s “something more” is human affection and when he realizes this fact, it is already too late for him to act upon his conviction. After being rejected by Dounia, he takes his own advice and shoots himself in the head. Svidrigailov realizes the impossibility of true satisfaction for anyone leading an “extraordinary” life and that those he had wronged over the course of his life would require some sort of restitution. He finds that the only path for his own redemption and the recompense of the others lies in him taking his life.
Despite Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov’s dissemblance, their living examples put the theory of the ubermensch to the test. Ultimately the theory is proven incorrect by one of its collective creators and the very epitome of its standards. There is no doubt that Dostoyevsky conjured these characters to demonstrate the dangers of unchecked nihilism on the human psyche. Is altruism compatible with nihilism? Can the good achieve the status of the ubermensch, or is that reserved for those ready and willing to rend themselves into something utterly abhorrent and vile?