Dostoyevsky’s novel is the culmination of grey morality
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not only the most famous novel in Russian literature, but one of the most renown in world fiction. It tells the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a twenty-three year old peculiar, student who leaves law school prematurely due to financial burdens and lives in a small, destitute flat in Russia’s then-capital Saint Petersburg.
Raskolnikov hatches a plan to murder Alyona Ivanovna, an old pawn-broker hag for her money. However, despite all his planning and internal moral justification for the impending crime, he isn’t prepared for the mental anguish that follows when he realises it isn’t all black and white, but dirty shades of grey.
Crime and Punishment exceeds the linearity of being a murder-mystery and actually peaks as a novel with its focus on philosophical notions instead. To truly appreciate Dostoyevsky’s work, it’s imperative to understand this philosophy behind it. In 19th century Russia, nihilism was growing, equating to a notion of people no longer believing in God. With the disregard of this upper-being’s existence, someone more powerful than mortal humans that’d shape their ethics and morals with a religious code, it left an unanswered question; who would replace this creed? The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche provided a solution in his 1883 book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”, with the concept of an “Übermensch” – which, in English, translates to ‘superman’ and ‘overman’.
Nietzsche believed that in the wake of these new revelations about God and what ethical tenets humans should abide by, it’s now the task of extraordinary ‘super’ men to take up the mantle and create the new values that humanity would follow – i.e. they become someone who shapes society so drastically they’re God-like consequently. Dostoyevsky, being religiously conservative, stuck by the conventional view that there was still an existing God who shaped human morals. Whilst Nietzsche wrote that “God is dead”, Dostoyevsky instead stated that “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. Much of Dostoyevsky’s strong religious faith can be linked back to the time he was almost executed, and his following years in a Siberian labour camp:
Having been sentenced to death by Tsar Nicholas I for being part of an underground group of intellectuals, Dostoyevsky was taken along with twenty-one others to Semyonovsky Square to be shot. However, as he was third in line, new orders were issued by the Tsar: he stated that as opposed to execution, all prisoners were instead to be sentenced to Siberia for four years hard labour. The trauma behind this near-death experience was so severe that a prisoner, Grigoryev, lost his mind and never recovered. This brush with death and his duration in Siberia made Dostoyevsky believe that it gave his existence a purpose. He began to see the need for a thing that exceeds the common person, a thing that humanity should strive for and zealously praise, but never fully obtain. In a sense, he was so convinced in the belief of a God, that he wrote Crime and Punishment as a testament to his disregard of Neitzsche’s nihilistic Übermensch theory and to religion’s power in the path of redemption.
Raskolnikov epitomises Dostoyevsky’s perception of the flaw in Nietzsche’s theory. This is done so in many ways, most notably by Raskolnikov’s hubris and disdain for society, whom he deems as sheep following the herd. Raskolnikov himself believes that he is an Übermensch destined for greatness and the novel mentions that he had even previously written an article about this idea – this acting as Crime and Punishment’s way of relaying it to the reader. He cites historically-extraordinary figures as templates to be inspired by and to follow, such as Napoleon:
“I simply hinted 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 fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity).”
“… legislators and leaders of men, such as Lycurgus, Solon, Muhammad, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people, and they did not stop short of bloodshed either, if that bloodshed – often of innocent persons fighting bravely in defence of ancient law – were of use to their cause.”
Unlike Napoleon’s campaigns of war with the French army, Raskolnikov’s test of Übermensch endurance is of course about whether or not he should murder Alyona Ivanovna. Following Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s idea of the extraordinary man – which parallels Neitzsche’s Übermensch – ‘elite Hegelian men’ are inherently good and should always try eradicate all that is bad in society, with a quasi-Machiavellian emphasis on if the ends justifying the means (the ends, of course, only being for good and not for one’s self).
Though Hegel’s theory is perhaps fundamentally naïve, following it, all the signs of Alyona being bad for society are there: she hoards money, doesn’t give back to any charitable cause except for appearances sake and routinely abuses her disabled, half-sister, Lizaveta, who slaves away tirelessly for her. Raskolnikov also assumes Alyona’s money could be used to benefit society: for example, he could continue his law studies and thus form a career that helps humanity, or alternatively, altruistically give away to the poor and needy.
“I simply hinted 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…“
BY ben kourakis: literature columnist
Even though these seem like individual thoughts at first, it’s not until he hears a student have an exact same hypothetical conversation with a police officer about Alyona that his resolute on the matter is complete:
“Kill her [Alyona], take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. 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.”
So with Hegelianism to convince himself, and the student forming society’s wider-justification, Raskolnikov is willing to commit murder. However, it is in fact these very same influencing factors that foreshadow the reality that Raskolnikov is not who he thinks he is, and it’s this hypocrisy that Dostoyevsky uses to show perhaps the transparency of the theory. This hypocrisy comes from the fact that the process of becoming ‘extraordinary’ includes a complete mental dissociation/independence from the will of others, and to be able to do what one feels is right without a need for gratification – essentially, being completely cut off from humanity. Though, the ultimate test of Raskolnikov’s will doesn’t even come until after he’s committed his crime.
Going to Alyona’s flat with a stolen axe, he brutally murders her. Half-way through the robbery, the entirely-innocent Lizaveta walks in and so is consequently also killed. Even though he escapes with the money and successfully eludes the judicial system, it’s now a matter to try do the same for his conscience. In the days and weeks after the murders Raskolnikov begins to enter fits of delirium, and remorse, he subconsciously maybe wants to be caught.
The guilt consequently eats at him and it’s through this that he begins to realise that he isn’t the Übermensch he’s made himself out to be. This tear away from humanity proves to be so fierce and tough for Raskolnikov that he can’t handle the disconnect, and it eventually leads him to confess to the authorities so he can be sentenced to prison. Although he fails his test to become an extraordinary man, he now is able to enact redemption for his crime in the eyes of society, and God, and importantly, can reconnect with humanity again to start anew. It’s almost symbolically a way of reinserting God into their position as the upper-being, showing that no human could replace them.
Though Raskolnikov was all about a person internally battling with their-self about trying to fulfil an idea of what they should be – and therefore the unrealistic expectation to try be a thing that exceeds God (at least in Dostoyevsky’s eyes), it is perhaps Svidrigalov who represents an even greater flaw with the Übermensch theory. Svidrigalov is almost an exaggerated caricature of the same theory, an Über-übermensch of sorts. See, with this idea of there being no God, and thus no wider moral code, Svidrigalov knows that he can exert his will all he wants and can continue doing so as there is no greater will beyond his own.
This philosophy leads him to sexually-assault a fifteen-year old and cause the demise of one of his servants because he knows he can simply get away with it without wider, afterlife punishment. It’s a complete paradox to Hegelianism because unlike Hegelianism, which supposedly is meant to be humanity at its very best, Svidrigalov is it at its worst. It’s this lack of definitiveness that equates to the flaw that Dostoyevsky maybe wanted to point out after all.
Crime and Punishment can inherently be reduced down to a scenario: is an act of murder justifiable if the consequences will help better society? And following this, Neitzsche’s Übermensch can also be put to the same standing: essentially that there is no black and white, only shades of grey. Sure, society could create and abide by its own new doctrine themselves and set out to make sure it’s only for humanity’s betterment, but with the gamble of the evil alternative, perhaps it’s a risk too big to take. This is why Dostoyevsky saw the need of a boundary, religion, that was more than humanity’s will, as it allowed it to remain in moderation consequently.
Even throughout history when we look at people who mightn’t have necessarily been familiar with Nietzsche’s theory, but had themselves similar self-illusions of grandeur, we can see that it’s not all so simple. Whilst Napoleon was successful in helping establish France as a republic and assisting in overthrowing the aristocracy, he turned into the very thing he once aimed to abolish, becoming a dictator and declaring himself the First Emperor of France. It’s examples like these that form the argument for figures like Fyodor Dostoyevsky as to why there is truly no being that can exceed God, because if there is no God, everything is permitted.
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