Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov's Prevailing Spirituality
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment documents the internal struggle of tormented Raskolnikov, a young man who murders an old pawnbroker and her sister. Raskolnikov believes that his intrinsic status as one the few elite men among all others gives him the right to break the standard rules of society. He decides to murder out of self-interest and egoism in his own desire to test his greatness. At the same time, when Raskolnikov actually kills the old woman, he loses control of himself, his mind completely devoid of any logic or lucidity. In this moment, his impulses fully overcome him.
Finally, the humanitarian side of Raskolnikov emerges in his reasoning for committing this crime. Raskolnikov, devastated by the suffering of the people around him, plans to remove this nasty pawnbroker from his impoverished community and distribute her riches to the poor. However, after he commits the murder, Raskolnikov physically cannot stand his suffocating guilt and his isolation from the people he loves. He finally confesses to gentle and pious Sonya, a young woman who has sacrificed herself as a prostitute in order to feed her starving family. Raskolnikov rejoins society, achieves redemption and regains once more the capacity for emotion.
In this way, humble and pious Sonya reflects how spirituality overcomes the sensual and intellectual elements of Raskolnikov’s tripartite soul. Luzhin, the fiancee of Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, reflects Raskolnikov’s intellectuality. Luzhin speaks in a “dry, businesslike” (33) tone that distances him from the people he interacts with. In addition, he wants to understand all the new social theories about progressivism and socialism only to seem knowledgeable to others, to “ingratiate himself with these people and pull the wool over their eyes, if they really had any power” and to “further his own career” (307). This demonstrates the complete self-absorption in his reasoning.
In the same self-centered way, Luzhin desires Dunya only because of her potential position as a social and asset to him. He had hoped that for a wife who would “attract friends to him” and help him “climb little by little into higher social circles” (260). Lastly, Luzhin cruelly frames Sonya in order to make himself look better than Raskolnikov and underhandedly gain back the favor of Dunya and Pulkheria Alexandrovna. His actions demonstrate his detestable, egoistic self-interest and the disdainful arrogance that makes him feel superior to others. Luzhin reasons that by marrying this beautiful and poor woman, he will achieve greater social standing and glorification as her benefactor. He reasons that by falsely accusing Sonya, a poor and meek prostitute, he can indirectly denigrate Raskolnikov and interest Dunya once more.
In this way, Luzhin’s intellect feeds his selfish, ostentatious and egotistical character. Svidrigaylov, the former employer of Dunya who had advanced on her, represents Raskolnikov’s sensuality. Svidrigaylov has experienced nothing more meaningful in his life than acting solely on his instincts. This renders him strange and impudent, incapable of normal human relationships and responses. For example, his unnerving attempts at friendliness and his enigmatic behavior repel Raskolnikov.
Svidrigaylov’s desolate belief in eternity as “one little room…black with soot, with spiders in every corner” (244) and his statement that he “would certainly make it like that” (245) represents his lack of any spiritual sense outside of himself. Svidrigaylov’s repugnant narration of the beating that he gave to his also wife reflects his depravity and complete moral inability. He twistedly asserts that “women are highly gratified at being outraged…it’s their only amusement” (239). Lastly, Svidrigaylov’s engagement to a young girl of “sixteen years”, with “still childish eyes, this modesty and tearful shyness” (405) portrays his perversion and passion. Oblivious to decency or values, he possesses no capacity for love or remorse. Svidrigaylov symbolizes the evil of living without conscience or values.
Finally, kind and humble Sonya represents spirituality. Her “meek nature” (341) and her humble disposition reflect her goodness. Abject poverty forces her to become a prostitute in order to feed her younger siblings and pathetic, consumptive stepmother. Her self-sacrifice demonstrates her selflessness and her unconditional care for the wellbeing of the people she loves. Katerina Ivanovna heartbreakingly describes Sonya as a girl who “would strip off her last garment, and sell it, and go barefoot, and give you everything, if you were in need” (335). Raskolnikov’s agonized confession does not repulse Sonya, but saddens and overwhelms her with compassion and pity for him.
She “[flings] herself…on her knees” (347) and embraces him, immediately understanding his confliction and suffering. Ironically but movingly, Sonya, a poor and scorned prostitute, serves as Raskolnikov’s path to rebirth. When Raskolnikov confesses to Sonya, “long unfamiliar feelings [pour] into his heart and [melt] it in an instant” (348). Sonya symbolizes the triumph of the human spirit over logic and senses. Her devoutness also reflects the theme of religion and salvation.
Even in the face of poverty and misery, Sonya holds on to the faith that God will deliver her and her family. She determinedly tells Raskolnikov that only when he repents of his sin “aloud to all the world” will “God…send [him] life again” (355). Luzhin, Svidrigaylov and Sonya represent each extreme of Raskolnikov’s complex personality. Raskolnikov’s intellect, represented by Luzhin, relates to his sense of pride. This vanity causes Raskolnikov to reason that he, an intelligent student, is justified in his murder of the two women. His theorizing emerges in his nihilistic attitude: he believes that because he belongs to an elite group of men, his status as an exceptionally “extraordinary” man grants him power as a “benefactor and law-giver of society” (220).
Raskolnikov decides that he will do utilitarian good by distributing the despicable pawnbroker’s riches to the poor. Every time Raskolnikov aids people, such as when he gives money to beggars or the impoverished Marmeladov family, he immediately berates himself for giving away money when he has so little of it himself. This reflects his split personality and the power of his intellect over his sympathy. Raskolnikov’s sense of practicality also instigates his feelings of self-interest. He expresses feverishly to Sonya that he “simply murdered.
..for [himself] alone” (354), in order to see if he was truly a “Napoleon” type of man who could transcend the normal laws that bind all ordinary people. Raskolnikov’s philosophizing and egocentric desire to test himself impel him to commit his crime. Raskolnikov reveals his indulgence in the sensuous nature of his attraction to Svidrigaylov. Svidrigaylov’s imperviousness to moral responsibility attracts Raskolnikov, whose inner turmoil nearly engulfs him.
Raskolnikov, tortured by his isolation from his family and friends, almost wishes that he could live detached from humanity in the same painless way that Svidrigaylov does. When Svidrigaylov declares that his “conscience is perfectly clear” (238), Raskolnikov laughs bitterly, knowing that he can never dismiss his crime in the same way that monstrous, self-willed Svidrigaylov can. The sensual indulgence that Raskolnikov does possess gives him the impulse to commit the crime. The aggressive, lustful side of Raskolnikov’s nature feeds his fascination and thrill with murdering this old woman. A sense of fantasy and obsession with his actions possess him. As he kills the old woman, he is “hardly conscious of what he [is] doing” (65).
In this moment, he loses “all consciousness of his own body” (64) and succumbs to his sensory impulses. Lastly, Raskolnikov’s true ethical sense, represented by innocent Sonya, reflects his trait of spirituality. The poverty and hopelessness that plague Raskolnikov and the people around him devastate and depress him. Raskolnikov’s donations to beggars and the destitute Marmeladov family demonstrate his empathetic qualities. Part of Raskolnikov truly believes that by removing this evil “louse” of a pawnbroker from his environment, he will alleviate the suffering of the oppressed. Raskolnikov embraces suffering for what he thinks is the good of his community, even if it means transgressing laws and estranging himself from the people that he loves.
After the murder, Raskolnikov accepts suffering as part of redemption. His will to suffer motivates both his crime and his final confession. Raskolnikov’s true recognition of himself and his abilities also reflects his sense of spirit. He expresses this when he monumentally admits to Sonya that he “had not the right to travel by that road, because [he is] just as much a louse as everybody else” (354). He admits that truly exceptional men do not need to test themselves, and that he knew even before the murder that his would make him unable to withstand the guilt. Raskolnikov’s charitableness, will to suffer, and deeper self-understanding demonstrate the spiritual side of his character.
Raskolnikov’s dream in Part I, before he commits the murder, introduces his intellectual, sensual and spiritual attributes. He imagines a terrible scene in which he watches helplessly as a group of lowly peasants “mercilessly” (47) beat an old mare to death. His father tries to shield his son’s eyes and “draw the boy away” (48). Raskolnikov, a young boy, runs to the wretched horse, “wringing his hands and crying aloud” (49), and cradles her head in his arms before she dies. In this nightmare, Raskolnikov’s father, in his attempt to ignore the monstrous scene and turn a blind eye to the creature’s suffering, represents reason. The “grey-haired, grey-bearded old man, who [is] shaking his head in reproof” reflects this same rationale.
The sadistic peasants, who delight in the excruciating pain of the horse, represent impulsiveness. Their “rage at not having killed her with one blow” (49-50) demonstrates their hunger for immediate gratification. However, the compassion of Raskolnikov the child rings out most powerfully in this dream; the torture inflicted upon this sick, pitiful animal greatly disturbs and distresses him. Ultimately, the cruelty of men so disgusts and saddens Raskolnikov that he alienates himself from the humans he finds so repulsive. The spiritual side of Raskolnikov ultimately prevails, because his affliction and confusion teach him how to feel again.
An unbearable need to confess to his crime relentlessly torments him until his confession to Sonya, whose love represents Christian humility, reconnects him to mankind. Raskolnikov endures the natural suffering that all people experience, including the “lesser men” whom he abhors. In this way, Raskolnikov’s confession ultimately humbles him, rejoins him to humanity and gives him a reason to live. Raskolnikov’s will to suffer switches from his intellectuality and sensuality to spirituality. His attempts to suppress his spiritual side and act solely out of intellect and instinct fail. This represents his need for morals, love and human relationships in order to achieve peace and functionality in his life.
Raskolnikov’s surrender to the anguish in his soul demonstrates that his virtue eventually overtakes the flaws of his sensibility and his senses.