Escape in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

The destruction of human life resonates on a deeply personal level. Despite utilitarian principles of aggregate happiness, the heart refuses to believe that a person is a dispensable commodity, to be weighed on scale or quantified with arithmetic. Cannibalism, infanticide, or like practices have been stigmatized as egregious or inhumane by nearly all societies throughout all of history because they violate the deep, bedrock commonness of humanity. They violate human brotherhood. “Reason,” the magnificent cornerstone of human uniqueness, is also a corrosive force that wears away this bedrock common ground. It can be used to dignify transgressions beyond the confines of humanity. When situations are most dire, the antagonism between brotherhood humanity and reason is most profound. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s haunting, allegorical novel Crime and Punishment critiques action motored by cool rationality alone as hollow and chillingly misguided. According to Dostoevsky, to escape hopelessness, one must appreciate the limitations and powers of humanness.

Crime and Punishment is set within St. Petersburg destitution, an environment of poverty and sadness, of desperation trenchant and seemingly inescapable. In a humid, dark bar, Semyon Zakharovitch Marmeladov, a drunkard who wantonly wastes money at the expense of his family’s wellbeing, remarks that “hopelessness” is the state of existence where there is “nowhere else one can go!” and that though “compassion is forbidden nowadays by science itself,” there is always an escape, “For every man must have somewhere to go” (I.2). To be elevated above their circumstances, their hopelessness, each character in the novel must disturb the course of his personal world. To Dostoevsky, reason alone cannot achieve escape, and thus each character fails to the degree that he distills emotion from action, external morality from internal motives, humanity from humans.

“Theories” – political, mathematical, or scientific – depend on the application of an objective set of rules on a confined set of data points. Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, the novel’s wayward protagonist, attempts to rationalize murder, pushing a person, multifarious, nuanced and unique, into a formula. His theory that one life can be exchanged for the elevation of other lives fundamentally objectifies his human brethren. “One death, and a hundred lives in exchange - it's simple arithmetic! Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in the balance of existence! No more than the life of a louse, of a black beetle, less in fact because the old woman is doing harm” (I.6). To Raskolnikov, passion and emotion obfuscate analytical reasoning and clear analysis, “It was his conviction that this eclipse of reason and failure of will power attacked a man like a disease” (I.6). Raskolnikov violates the human spirit by reducing humanity’s labyrinthine complexity to a set of arithmetic figures. There is no morality in calculus.

One of the most difficult feats of the human intellect is to understand its own limitations. Raskolnikov implicitly assumes that his paths need not be illuminated by concepts of right and wrong, that man can escape his circumstances and destitution with rationality alone. In doing this, he fails to appreciate that actions must be buttressed by morality and external forces of guidance. He fails to understand that the mind is limited by the heart. “‘Granted, granted that there is no flaw in all that reasoning, that all that I have concluded this last month is clear as day, true as arithmetic.... Why, why then am I still...?’” (I.4). He does not understand why he is hesitant to act on logic alone. Raskolnikov ultimately fails because, absent of ethical constraint, his logic, pushed to its limitations, affects consequences that do not meet the world’s moral demands. This is the limitation on the human mind.

Believing in the ultimate, sovereign power of reason, Raskolnikov develops a theory to prove to himself that logic supersedes humanity. His theory “that an 'extraordinary' man has the right... that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep... certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea" (II.5) aggrandizes the role of the individual in the process of engineering fate. Like John Milton’s fallen angles in the epic poem Paradise Lost, Raskolnikov believes that he can escape his destitution by gabbing at his fate from the ground up, that he can prevail against hopelessness absent of godly aid or forgiveness or external interaction. He believes that, in a society of dependence, he is a unilateral force, an extraordinary man. “Yes, that's what it was! I wanted to become a Napoleon, that is why I killed her....” (V.4). It is clear that Raskolnikov’s murder cannot be brandished as utilitarian altruism; it was nihilistic egomania, the desire to prove himself above the benevolence of others and beyond the moral guidelines of society. He destroyed life in order to vindicate his own. He neglected passion and human togetherness in order to prove the prerogative of the individual over society, not the other way around.

This rejection of external aid and interconnectedness alienates him from society and removes him from humanity’s bedrock brotherhood. “He felt clearly with all the intensity of sensation that he could never more appeal to these people in the police office with sentimental effusion like his recent outburst, or with anything whatever; and that if they had been his own brothers and sisters and not police officers, it would have been utterly out of the question to appeal to them in any circumstance of life” (II.1). Asserting himself as a sole arbiter of right and wrong, he is no longer able to work within the confines of the human identity. He is alienated from the human spirit by his own delusions of superiority.

Dostoevsky’s other characters tragically complement this theme, each illustrating a varied angle on the self-centered rejection of the human spirit. The demise of Katerina Ivanovna, Marmeladov’s wife, is the result of consciousness insulated by intense, unyielding pride. “Katerina Ivanovna observed contemptuously that all knew what her family was and that on that very certificate of honour it was stated in print that her father was a colonel” (V.2). She dies in the street, begging God for justice, “‘We will see whether there is justice on earth!’” (V.2). Consumed by her own victimization, she fails to comprehend that justice is brotherhood and love and togetherness not egotistical affirmation. Likewise, Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, the wealthy courtier of Raskolnikov’s sister Dounia, fails because he too is intensely wrapped up in his own wellbeing. He purchases humans like he might purchase cattle, “Pyotr Petrovitch had apparently not at all expected such a conclusion. He had too much confidence in himself, in his power and in the helplessness of his victims. He could not believe it even now. He turned pale, and his lips quivered” (IV.2). He is stunned by the power of a human to transcend her circumstance without dependence and exploitation. Arkady Ivanovitch Svidrigaïlov, perhaps the most tragic of all the characters, represents the hollow terrain of complete moral equivalency. To him, good and bad are equal, murder and generosity the same: “I never blame any one” (VI.5). Confronted with the utter purposeless of a life consumed in moral laxity and guided by nothing but hedonism, he takes the only option left to a man with no ethical foundation upon which to stand: “a trip to America,” self-wrought annihilation.

Raskolnikov’s suffering, like the gradual, systematic demise of Katarina, Luzhin and Svidrigaïlov, is a commentary on the vacuity of his ethos system. The tumultuous agony endured after his murder of the pawnbroker and her sister is a manifestation of the contradictions that arise when an ideology is taken to its logical extreme. Redemption is painful. It requires the abandonment of what Raskolnikov holds most dear: his pride, his arrogance, his despotism. His suffering is Dostoevsky’s warning to the world.

The alternative to complete logical supremacy is an acceptance of a meta-rational “faith” in moral guidance, in the power of the human spirit to guide, at least to some degrees, the human intellect. Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov, Katarina’s self-sacrificing stepdaughter, meager and illiterate, embodies the strength of meta-rational guidance over logical rationality. Though she cannot articulate it with her mind, she knows in her heart that action must be aided by higher-level interaction. She knows that no man is an island, that no individual is free from the limitations of human intellect and the needs of human interaction. When indicted as a “religious maniac,” she can say only, “‘What for? You don't believe?...’” (IV.4). The antidote to a world of vacant intellectualization is an acceptance of the beautiful power of this human spirit to overcome its circumstances. Dimitri Prokofitch Razhumikin, Raskolnikov’s close companion and guardian of Dounia, condemns the socialist doctrine that all crime is a product of circumstance. He recognizes the capacity of the individual human to break free of hopelessness, to disturb the contours of his universe with methods more rich and optimistic than chilling logicality. Of the socialists, he remarks “Human nature is not taken into account, it is excluded, it's not supposed to exist! … they believe that a social system that has come out of some mathematical brain is going to organise all humanity at once and make it just and sinless in an instant, quicker than any living process!...The living soul demands life, the soul won't obey the rules of mechanics, the soul is an object of suspicion, the soul is retrograde!” (III.5). Razhumikin’s words affirm, resoundingly, that the human soul is precious and not to be quantified or categorized. He affirms that to elevate oneself beyond one’s circumstances one must appreciate humanness, recognizing not only its limitations but also its magnificent powers.

Every man can see a little of himself in the eyes of his neighbor. Each understands that he or she is united with the other on a fundamental, richly human level. The interconnectedness of mankind depends on a certain degree of faith in the invisible hand of social morality. It depends on a willingness to guide one’s logic with emotion. Those who value the progress and survival of mankind in a world of shifty relativism and capitalistic initiative ought to take seriously Dostoevsky’s warning about moral bankruptcy. If these impulses towards fraternity and love are cauterized, then man is left with nothing but empty dogma and soulless calculus. Though aimed at 19th century Russian thought, the novel’s challenges are still relevant to humans at dawn of the 21st century, neither gods nor beasts.

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