Some consider Crime and Punishment Dostoyevsky’s greatest work. I wouldn’t put it quite that high. I’d say The Brothers Karamazov is his most impressive novel. I probably enjoy The Possessed most of all, because of its viciously satirical, wonderfully comic characters, but I suppose it’s just a notch below The Brothers Karamazov in terms of serious literature. I’d also put The Idiot and maybe The Gambler at least at the level of Crime and Punishment.
Crime and Punishment is the story of a murder and its aftermath. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, is a 23 year old broke former student living in St. Petersburg. (But he’s one of those Russians of a social class such that even when he’s utterly destitute he’s still socially above peasants and such.)
He comes up with the idea to kill and rob an old woman pawnbroker, reasoning that she’s a despicable human being that no one will miss, and whatever morally might be said against his act, he’ll more than make up for it by using the money he gains to do good in the world.
He is an intense, passionate person, obsessed with philosophical and moral issues. (In other words, he’s a character in a Dostoyevsky novel.) He is in turmoil throughout the story—anxious contemplating the murder beforehand, guilty about the murder afterward, panicked about getting caught, physically ill, overwhelmed by sudden other emotionally powerful issues not directly related to the murder—and we experience with him his various dreams and delusions.
He partly botches the murder, in part because he panics after having to also kill the pawnbroker’s meek, innocent sister Lisaveta who shows up unexpectedly. He doesn’t take everything he could have of value, he doesn’t cover his tracks particularly well, he doesn’t look all that closely at what he took to ascertain the value of his haul, he stashes the loot in a random hiding place he stumbles upon, and—out of guilt, a sporting defiant nature, or a belief that no one would expect the murderer to take such chances—he engages in daring exchanges with the police where he hints about being the murderer.
Meanwhile, he becomes involved with the family of a sometime civil servant named Marmeladov, who cannot keep a job due to his alcoholism, and whose teenage daughter Sonya resorts to prostitution to keep the family from homelessness and starvation. Raskolnikov becomes obsessed with Sonya—even more humble and saintlike than Lisaveta—sensing at some level that she is the key to his salvation. He confides in her. She is shocked but vows to support him in atoning for his crime, which he may or may not be ready to do.
His mother and sister Dunya come to St. Petersburg to join him during this time. Dunya had recently been accused of engaging in inappropriate behavior with her employer Svidrigaylov while serving as a governess in his household. She was soon vindicated when Svidrigaylov came clean to his wife that he was the only one who had done anything out of line in pressuring her, saving Dunya’s local reputation. With her good name now intact, a marriage to a businessman with money named Luzhin is hastily arranged. She and the mother are struggling financially, and just as Raskolnikov is desperate enough to commit murder to financially save himself and them, Dunya is willing to enter into a loveless marriage with Luzhin (an altogether odious character) to financially save them and her brother. They have come to St. Petersburg for the wedding. Raskolnikov bitterly opposes the proposed union, feeling like even more of a loser that his sister would think she has to make such a sacrifice to provide for the family in a way he has proven incapable of.
The traumatized post-murder Raskolnikov is pulled in multiple directions. Sonya seeks to encourage him down a Christian path of confession and suffering. He has to manage his conflict with Luzhin over the latter’s intention to marry Dunya. He has to try to stay one step ahead of the police, most notably a savvy and relentless investigator named Porfiry Petrovich who seems to know just how to push a suspect’s buttons psychologically to get him to confess, or go crazy or both.
Svidrigaylov comes to town for mysterious reasons, leading to more drama for Raskolnikov. He soon learns Raskolnikov’s secret. Is he still after Dunya? (His wife has died in the meantime.) Will he blackmail Raskolnikov? Does he have some other scheme in mind?
My copy of Crime and Punishment happens to be from the Norton Critical Edition series. It includes a map of St. Petersburg showing all the key locations of the novel (Dostoyevsky was quite specific and literal about where the events take place; Raskolnikov’s shoddy, rented room is a place Dostoyevsky himself lived briefly in real life), and almost 200 pages of critical essays.
One of the more interesting of these essays is a Simon Karlinsky New York Times piece from 1971. Karlinsky notes that while most people who are knowledgeable about literature are diehard Dostoyevsky fans (I certainly am) and consider him one of the greatest writers of all time, that’s not quite a consensus position. Vladimir Nabokov was one detractor. Virginia Woolf too didn’t share the common fascination with Dostoyevsky, complaining that in his melodramatic, unrealistic books, “We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, the tutors of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the tops of their voices about their most private affairs.”
While people outside of Russia tend to be influenced by what they’ve read in Dostoyevsky’s books to think of Russians as somehow naturally given to histrionics, a passionate commitment to philosophical principles, and a go-for-the-gusto mentality, some Russians are insulted by this and contend that Russians are no more like that than any other people. Indeed, as Karlinsky points out, there is now a Russian word “dostoevshchina”—not an obscure word, but “a part of the normal Russian vocabulary”—that refers to just the kind of ludicrously passionate, overly dramatic behavior associated with Dostoyevsky characters.
There is indeed plenty to criticize about Dostoyevsky, as great a writer as he was. He routinely caricatures proponents of the intellectual and political movements that he disagrees with, basically mocking them. As I mentioned in my piece about The Possessed, that’s entertaining—indeed, he’s so good at it that it can be laugh out loud funny—but hardly fair. There are many editor’s footnotes in this Norton Critical Edition of Crime and Punishment explaining where such-and-such a line from this or that character is an oversimplification of this theory or a lampooning of that theory.
In some ways Dostoyevsky is really an unappealing fellow. He’s anti-Semitic. He’s unapologetically chauvinistic in supporting Slav—especially Russian—superiority. He’s a religious fundamentalist who is convinced that the ultimate truth that’s applicable to all mankind is contained, conveniently enough, in the religion of his own culture, which is to say not only Christianity but specifically the Russian Orthodox version of Christianity.
He seems especially contemptuous of people from Poland. They typically have no more than bit parts in his novels, but when they do appear they are pathetic, foolish, sometimes overly ingratiating—the sort of folks that don’t count for much and don’t deserve respect. They rarely if ever even have names. He’ll just dismissively describe the comic, ineffectual antics of “some little Pole” and leave it at that.
I think it’s easier for me to love Dostoyevsky’s writing because of the considerable political distance. Had he written in the 1960s instead of the 1860s, and as an American instead of a Russian, he’s the type whose every feminist character would be a man-hating, strident, bra-burning harpy, and whose every anti-war demonstrator would have been a fool parroting simplistic slogans and spitting on the returning troops. Mexicans in his books would all be disgusting little dishonest, ridiculous losers, and Jews would be, well, pretty much as the real Dostoyevsky wrote of them.
I suspect I’d find him too odious to bother reading. It would be too hard to get past his politics.
Anyway, getting back to Crime and Punishment, there is some dispute among commentators as to the true motive for Raskolnikov’s crime, as you can argue that it changes during the novel.
Initially, he justifies the murder in a utilitarian way, arguing (to himself) that with the money he gains through the crime he’ll do so much good that it’ll outweigh the evil of the murder itself.
In fact, that wouldn’t be enough to justify an act under utilitarianism. Utilitarianism doesn’t require just that an act have a positive “score”—i.e., more good than bad would result from it—but that its “score” be higher than that of any alternative act the agent could have done instead. If, for instance, Raskolnikov could have gotten just as much money and done just as much good with it if he’d, say, gotten a job—something he shows little inclination toward doing—then it would be better to do that than commit the murder. But it’s not clear that Dostoyevsky—any more than his character—has any significant understanding of utilitarianism.
I think the fact that the crime goes badly—and especially the part about the innocent Lisaveta stumbling into the middle of it and Raskolnikov killing her in a panic—is intended at least in part by Dostoyevsky as a refutation of utilitarianism. The idea being that it’s wrong to violate moral taboos and laws against things like murder based on the consequences of your act, because we are very fallible creatures with very limited information and so should not overrate our ability to anticipate the consequences of something as extreme as committing a murder. However the situation might appear at the time, the chances of (very bad) unintended, unpredictable consequences is too great.
Which, again, by the way, isn’t a proper refutation of utilitarianism. If certain types of acts have too high a risk of unintended, bad consequences, then utilitarianism itself would have a problem with them. To cite the bad consequences of a murder in order to establish the wrongness of the murder—or of murder in general—is not an argument against utilitarianism but an argument within utilitarianism.
Later in the novel, Raskolnikov sounds more like he’s operating from a sort of Nietzschean superman theory rather than utilitarianism. Nietzsche articulated his theories in the years and decades immediately after Crime and Punishment was published, so Dostoyevsky didn’t base Raskolnikov, or this aspect of Raskolnikov’s character, on Nietzsche’s philosophy, but there were precursors in Dostoyevsky’s time to this kind of philosophy now most closely associated with Nietzsche.
And it’s not that Raskolnikov changed his mind after the fact. It turns out he’d written, and had published, a journal article well before the murder laying out his theory that there are a select few elite people who are not bound by the usual moral rules, and who have the freedom to seize power and make the rules rather than follow the rules. He uses Napoleon as the archetype of the amoral, uninhibited, supremely successful power seeker. (If I remember correctly, Tolstoy’s version of Napoleon in War and Peace is kind of like that too. I’m not sure why everyone picks on Napoleon; I think there are plenty of historical figures who manifested less of a conscience and were less constrained by ethical considerations than Napoleon.)
So in addition to the utilitarian rationale for his crime, Raskolnikov seems to conceive of it as some sort of a test to see if he’s one of the elite people who are able effectively and comfortably to use all means, including murder, to achieve their ends. And the traumatic thing for him is that, in his mind, he fails the test. He botches the crime and then is tortured by remorse, neither of which is supposed to happen for the superman who is above good and evil.
Unlike most commentators, I don’t think these two motives—the utilitarian one of wanting to bring about the best consequences, and the Nietzschean one of wanting to establish that he is one of the select few who are entitled to be free of the normal ethical constraints—are incompatible.
I’m not saying this is necessarily what Dostoyevsky had in mind—since he’s no philosopher and doesn’t manifest much of a grasp of the philosophical positions he criticizes or ridicules—but maybe Raskolnikov’s ethical worldview is something like this:
The least controversial conventional values that you’ll find in most religions and most legal systems—e.g., the prohibition on murder—are, with rare exceptions, justified in a utilitarian sense. That is, if almost everybody almost all the time obeyed them, that would have the best consequences—better than if everyone instead directly sought to bring about the best consequences. We want people to internalize these rules, to have a genuine aversion to violating them and to feel great remorse if they do violate them. Even as utilitarians we recognize that when people claim to be seeking the best consequences for all, or even sincerely believe they are doing so, self-interest, self-deception, limited information, and a limited ability to infer consequences from that information routinely lead them astray. It’s better that they just stick to the rules.
On the other hand, we don’t want that to be quite an absolute. Progress can only be made if an occasional Napoleon does indeed give himself permission to violate the rules and make his own decisions about what will have the best consequences. So it’s best for there to be some very small number of people with a sophisticated enough moral sensibility that they don’t artificially limit themselves like the masses should, but on rare occasions aim directly for the best consequences for all. These are the kind of people who are intelligent enough and emotionally in control enough to be capable of spotting when murdering a pawnbroker would have the best consequences, and to act on that realization in a cool, efficient way without remorse.
The superman kind of “above conventional right and wrong” philosophy, then, would not be an alternative to utilitarianism or incompatible with utilitarianism, but instead would be a part of a utilitarian worldview.
Anyway, that’s one way to reconcile Raskolnikov’s different rationales for his behavior.
Another issue related to Raskolnikov’s motive for the murder and attitude toward the murder is what to make of the novel’s epilogue. Under the guidance of Sonya, in the epilogue Raskolnikov accepts a version of Christian ethics that calls upon him to publicly confess his sins, humble himself, and willingly accept suffering as his only path to redemption. In the eyes of many commentators, this epilogue is just tacked on by Dostoyevsky in order to bring the novel into line with his own values and the message he wants it to have, and does not flow from what we know of Raskolnikov in the body of the book, where he never really gives up his theory about elite people being allowed to transcend right and wrong, and is really only remorseful, or at least upset, about the fact that the events of the murder and his reaction to it show him that he’s not one of those elite people.
I mostly disagree. I think the epilogue fits the book quite well.
Raskolnikov moves toward a Christian awakening of that kind throughout the book. It’s true that it is in fits and starts, and that there are other motives, other interpretations, other emotions battling with it within him. That’s why it’s a struggle, and that’s why it takes hundreds of pages to get where he’s going. I don’t think you can just pick one of the other sides of him that’s in conflict with this moral journey and say that that’s the “real” Raskolnikov, and the Christian stuff that contradicts it is just added on implausibly at the end by the author. The redemption-through-suffering philosophy has always appealed to him at some level, always stood as an alternative to whatever utilitarian, Nietzschean, or other philosophies have tenuously held sway over him at any given time.
That’s the whole point of his relationship with Sonya after all. Think about, for instance, the moving scene wherein he insists she read aloud to him from the Gospels the story of Lazarus. He knows that it will take something akin to the raising of Lazarus to bring him back from the moral death into which he has stumbled.
Does he fight this urge toward Christian redemption through suffering? Does he insult her, and argue against her religious beliefs, and cling intermittently to some other way of viewing his moral self and his situation? Of course. Again, there’s an internal conflict, and we see it played out for hundreds of pages. But he keeps coming back to her because he senses that she can guide him to something he needs, to the only thing that can save him.
There’s nothing incongruous about the ending. It’s exactly where the book is headed all along.
Also, it’s not as if his conversion to this Christian worldview is presented as so definitive and absolute as to be unrealistic. Dostoyevsky explicitly says in the epilogue that Raskolnikov’s struggle will continue, that his moral renewal will be gradual, with many pitfalls along the way. Raskolnikov takes a major step in the epilogue in the same direction he’d been headed in the body of the book, but it doesn’t represent the end of ambivalence for him, the end of his struggle. He’s made a commitment and feels good about it, but that doesn’t mean the journey is over.
The two biggest influences on my moral philosophy have been Immanuel Kant and Mohandas Gandhi, both of whom—though they differed on the details, and certainly on the applications—firmly rejected the notion that the end justifies the means. Each believed that there are things that are inherently wrong, and that they do not become right circumstantially because of the anticipated consequences. Both believed that you are not justified in partaking in evil in order to allegedly bring about good.
Moral philosophy, and specifically whether consequentialist considerations make all moral rules situational, is obviously hugely important to Dostoyevsky and to Crime and Punishment. As an author he presents Raskolnikov as only eligible for redemption when he gives up his idea that as a being above right and wrong, he can justify anything up to and including murder if the consequences will be good enough. Given that, it seems that Dostoyevsky too has taken the stand that there are some means that the end cannot justify.
Some questions come to mind as regards that, however. Raskolnikov at one point wonders why, if indeed he’s wrong to contend that you can kill—e.g., murder the pawnbroker—as long as more good than bad will ensue from it (and/or because the usual rules don’t apply to moral superman types), then what about soldiers and police and others that almost everyone believes are sometimes justified in killing people, or even businessmen and government officials and such who cause great harm even if they don’t personally pull the triggers?
Also, if the end doesn’t justify immoral means, then why is Sonya a hero for being willing to become a prostitute in order to get the money to bring about better consequences for her family?
Maybe the answer is that, for Dostoyevsky at least, the end can sometimes justify the means after all, including in these cases, which means that these cases would have to be relevantly distinguishable from, for instance, Raskolnikov’s murder of the pawnbroker.
In the case of soldiers and police and such, presumably the justification would be that violence carried out by an agent of the state, or at least sanctioned by the state, comes under different rules compared to the actions of a private citizen like Raskolnikov. Certainly that’s the distinction most people would make. The vast majority of people would oppose a murder like the one committed by Raskolnikov, but only a tiny minority of them would believe that, say, a soldier killing people in a war is similarly behaving in a morally unacceptable manner.
I, though, tend to think Raskolnikov has a good point. If you’re going to say there is something inherently wrong with certain acts, then it seems implausible to me that that would suddenly change if the person puts on a uniform and follows orders. A person is still a person. He doesn’t become something else when he’s acting on behalf of the state.
The idea that this is a relevant distinction sounds to me dangerously close to the notion that the people who call the shots for a state actually are moral supermen, that they—and those who act on their behalf—are justified in deciding on a case-by-case basis when things like killing will have the best consequences. Maybe so, but I think an idealistic, unstable student like Raskolnikov is at least as worthy of being trusted with that responsibility as your typical king, president, general, etc. (which is to say not very worthy at all).
What’s interesting is that Dostoyevsky’s contemporary and co-giant of Russian literature—also intensely Christian—Leo Tolstoy came to precisely the opposite conclusion on this question. He believed Christianity obligated him as a private citizen to refrain from violence or from combating evil with evil, but that the same was true of those acting for the state. That is, he took the next step—which Dostoyevsky never did—to pacifism and anarchism.
In the case of Sonya, I would guess what Dostoyevsky would say is that the relevant distinction here is harming others versus taking suffering upon oneself. So, Raskolnikov is wrong in killing someone in pursuit of good ends, whereas Sonya is laudable for being willing to suffer in pursuit of good ends.
I’m somewhat sympathetic toward that view, but I’m not sure it’s compatible with the moral views of many people, including most religious people. I believe they would categorize prostitution as something that is inherently wrong, not something that can be right or wrong depending on what you intend to use the money for.
I’m not saying I agree with a religious/moral taboo against prostitution, but for those who do—and if they also contend that the end doesn’t justify using immoral means—I would think Sonya’s decision to engage in prostitution in order to raise money for her and her family would be objectionable in the same way that Raskolnikov’s decision to commit murder to raise money for him and his family is.
Again, by no means do I think prostitution is as bad as murder, insofar as it’s bad at all. But the majority of people do think it’s wrong, and not just contrary to the prostitute’s self-interest in causing her to suffer, and that it should therefore—for those people at least—raise the question of whether she is using immoral means in pursuit of moral ends.
I think that question would be more likely to arise for readers if we weren’t artificially shielded from the subject matter of Sonya’s prostitution. Yes, we’re told that she’s a prostitute, but (for obvious reasons of taste and censorship) we’re not shown in detail her life as a prostitute.
Raskolnikov’s murder of the pawnbroker and her sister is conveyed in vivid detail in a section of the book lauded as one of its most powerful. The explicit brutality of it practically compels one to confront the moral ramifications of his act. There’s nothing analogous to that for Sonya’s prostitution, and I think the book is weaker for it.
We don’t see all the little deceptive things she has to do to succeed in that line of work, the evil of others (pimps?, corrupt cops?) she is entangled with and facilitates, the way she turns the evil or at least weak urges of her customers into a moneymaking opportunity for her. Maybe the only way to succeed in her circumstances includes doing things like helping recruit other young women and girls into prostitution, or robbing her intoxicated customers when the opportunity presents itself. Does she do things like that?
We don’t know because that aspect of her life all happens off camera. We don’t know how ugly or morally dubious her life as a prostitute is, nor for that matter the specifics of how she suffers in that life. Her prostitution is abstract only, so we aren’t confronted with the same questions about her as about Raskolnikov. That enables her to be presented as the sainted, pure Christian one, and he the sinner in need of redemption, even though one can make the case that both have made what moral compromises they felt they needed to make in an imperfect world in order for them and their loved ones to survive.
Characters like Sonya—morally, spiritually pure, innocent, simple-minded or at least transparently honest and uncomplicated, prone to martyrdom—are very common in Dostoyevsky’s work. In this book alone, besides Sonya, Lisaveta and Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya fit into this category to at least some extent.
I’m tempted to say it’s an indication of Dostoyevsky’s sexist worldview (not surprising, since this is the 19th century after all), where women are simplistic Madonnas or whores (or both!) who even in the more positive of those two roles are mostly martyr types whose value comes from what they are capable of inspiring in the invariably male protagonists.
Then again, he does have male characters like that too, such as Prince Myshkin in The Idiot and most famously Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Still, at least the male versions of that character type are allowed vastly more psychological and moral complexity.
I want to say a little bit about Svidrigaylov. Some commentators have gone so far as to say that despite Raskolnikov getting several times the number of words devoted to him and his story, really Svidrigaylov is the central figure of the novel. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do find him the character that my mind seems to go back to the most, even more than Raskolnikov.
The general take on Svidrigaylov is that he is a “double” of Raskolnikov (if you’re of a mind to read him that way, you can find this use of “doubles” in many of Dostoyevsky’s works), that he represents one of the paths Raskolnikov could take. He is, it is said, the embodiment of Raskolnikov’s notion of the superman who gives himself permission to function above right and wrong without remorse, a purely amoral villain, maximally free to pursue his ends by whatever means he chooses. And the lesson to be learned from his depiction is said to be that such freedom is no freedom at all, that it leads to a miserable, empty life, whereas accepting the constraints of the moral law paradoxically maximizes one’s freedom to flourish as a human being.
I agree in part, but I find myself drawn to Svidrigaylov, more sympathetic toward him, than I would expect from that description.
It’s easy to make the case against Svidrigaylov. He may well have killed his wife. He’s certainly suspected of it; he allegedly had given some indication to Dunya that he was considering doing so. He somehow abused and humiliated one of the household servants to the point that the man’s subsequent suicide was arguably attributable to it.
He has an unmistakable preference for young girls, such as Dunya, who he attempted to seduce and then let his wife accuse of impropriety, and a teenage girl he is set to marry late in the book (a marriage clearly financially motivated on the bride’s family’s part, like the proposed union of Dunya and Luzhin). I don’t know what the age of consent was in 19th century Russia, but evidently one or more of his conquests was well below it. (That’s an issue that recurs in Dostoyevsky’s work, one he seemed fascinated and repelled by as the ultimate evil.) She, like the servant, subsequently killed herself.
There’s a sense in which Svidrigaylov does indeed manifest a kind of amorality, a tendency to chuckle over the way someone like Raskolnikov obsesses over the moral ramifications of his actions. But that’s superficial and misleading. I don’t think the key difference between Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov is that each attempted to live in a way unconstrained by moral considerations, and Svidrigaylov was sufficiently psychopathic to pull it off whereas Raskolnikov’s moral sensibilities were strong enough to torment him with anxiety and guilt.
For one thing, there’s the difference of motive. Raskolnikov was hoping he was a moral superman so that he could do good in the world—remember, he has the utilitarian side to his moral philosophy—whereas Svidrigaylov seems to have been motivated far more by simple self-interest and hedonism.
But more importantly, Svidrigaylov didn’t pull it off after all. He’s no soulless, conscienceless hedonist. In his way he’s as wracked by guilt as Raskolnikov, so much so that he deludes himself into seeing the ghosts of those he’s wronged and becomes suicidal.
Both Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov made choices that they found resulted in their feeling estranged from their fellow man, placed in a moral wasteland, tormented by the memories of what they’d done. Neither had achieved the intended fruits of their actions. Raskolnikov’s murder and theft had not enabled him to lift himself and his family out of poverty and do good in the world; Svidrigaylov’s pursuit of power and pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, had turned out like an addictive drug that produces less and less of a high the more you do it and that you end up pursuing joylessly as a sort of grim habit.
Raskolnikov recognized—though he fought the recognition every step of the way—that he needed a Lazarus-like rebirth, and that his only hope of achieving this lay in an embrace of certain Christian principles. I would argue that Svidrigaylov had the same partial awareness and longing for this redemption.
The key difference between the two was actually external. Raskolnikov had a Sonya; Svidrigaylov did not. Raskolnikov wasn’t able to save himself, but he had someone almost superhumanly good and dedicated to him who was willing to stand by him through everything to save him, including tolerating his fighting against her trying to save him.
Svidrigaylov too couldn’t save himself and sensed it. I think he wanted Dunya as his Sonya, but the tragedy of Svidrigaylov is that she was not willing and able to fulfill that role. She would not commit and sacrifice to the same extreme degree as Sonya to save a sinner.
Svidrigaylov’s attitude toward Dunya and his relationship with her is an intriguing one, certainly more complex and interesting than the simple predator and intended victim one that some readers may see it as.
We aren’t told nearly as much about them as about Raskolnikov and Sonya, but evidently when she was working in his house, she did indeed see him as a flawed person open to moral improvement, and she entered into a relationship with him not unlike that of Raskolnikov and Sonya, where she sought to guide him to a Christian rebirth through her loving and patient friendship. He let this happen enough for them to get closer, and then used that closeness to attempt to seduce her.
At first glance it would seem that he simply went along with what he regarded as spiritual and moral claptrap in order to give himself a shot at sex with someone young and attractive enough to interest him. But looking at all the evidence, I’m doubtful that his insincerity was so complete. I think out of habit he looked upon her as a potential sexual conquest, but that at the same time he felt some legitimate pull toward what she represented spiritually.
So when he comes to St. Petersburg to try to reconnect with her, we can see it as just an effort to complete some unfinished business and obtain her sexually—which is how Raskolnikov and others see it—or we can see it, as I do, as a mixture of that on a superficial level, and then on a deeper level the unfinished business of his moral conversion.
After all, what happens when he sets things up to facilitate raping her? He backs off. The fact that he set things up like that tells us he still has sinful desires for her; the fact that he backed off tells us that he’s learned that trampling on the rights of others in pursuit of his own sensual satisfaction is losing its appeal for him. What he craves from her is something he knows he can’t take by force, and that is her friendship and moral support.
His potential redemption through her will always be complicated by the fact that he’s hot for her, something that there’s no indication is present in Raskolnikov’s feelings for Sonya. But then again, Raskolnikov for other reasons was intermittently uncooperative with Sonya’s efforts to save him. There was much uncertainty along the way whether Raskolnikov would indeed achieve moral redemption under Sonya’s guidance, and the same would have been true for Svidrigaylov had he been able to recruit Dunya for a similar role in his life, but Svidrigaylov knew that at least it would give him a chance, and when that hope was dashed it was the end of him.
I see him as far more of a sad than scary or evil figure. I think his motives for trying to reconnect with Dunya have at least as much good as evil in them. As far as his interactions with Raskolnikov, while Raskolnikov is understandably wary that he is up to something no good, I’m inclined to put a more positive spin on his motives here too.
While he certainly would like Raskolnikov to facilitate his reconnecting with Dunya, I don’t think it’s a matter of using trickery or the coercion of blackmail to get Raskolnikov to turn his sister over to him. (Not wholly anyway; I’m not denying the possibility of mixed motives.)
Maybe I’m being naïve, but I actually read him as being a lonely, anguished man who would like very much to have some kind of friendship with Raskolnikov, who he sees as much more likely than most to understand him given his own struggles, and who he envies for having a Sonya in his life. Raskolnikov is completely unreceptive to this, just as Dunya will not even consider resuming a spiritual mentor relationship with Svidrigaylov, and so Svidrigaylov’s moral estrangement from the world remains complete, and remains devastating to him.
Svidrigaylov does not represent what Raskolnikov could have become had he succeeded in suppressing his conscience and living as a Nietzschean superman above good and evil; he represents what Raskolnikov could have become without a Sonya.
If you want to talk about an evil character in the book, look no farther than Luzhin. I’ll take Svidrigaylov over Luzhin any day. Svidrigaylov at least has the decency to hurt over his transgressions and to crave a moral awakening; Luzhin is the much more frustrating sort of villain who sees nothing problematic in his villainy.
If Raskolnikov foreshadows the Nietzschean hero in some ways, Luzhin foreshadows the even more detestable Ayn Randian hero.
Just to quickly share a few other reactions I had to the book, I mostly was drawn in by the subplot involving the Marmeladov family (Marmeladov, again, being Sonya’s drunkard father), which Dostoyevsky originally intended as a separate novel.
When you get right down to it, Marmeladov appears on only a comparative handful of pages early in the book. That’s easy to forget, because he’s so impactful a character. His role is very small, but his importance to the story is disproportionately high compared to that.
One of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the book to me is when the widow Marmeladov—who throughout the story has been on the verge of instability due to physical illness and trying circumstances—loses it and drags her frightened and bewildered children into the street, frantically trying to get them to perform for money.
Another scene that stands out to me is Raskolnikov’s dream (though it’s more realistic than dreamlike, and so I think of it more as a memory that came back to him lying in bed half-awake) of being a little boy and witnessing a peasant and his friends cruelly beat a defenseless horse to death.
Most commentators seem to see it as Raskolnikov anticipating how horrific it will be to bludgeon the pawnbroker to death, a realization that he’s about to descend to the same moral level as the cruel peasant of his memory. Maybe, but I’m not so sure.
My reaction was that what was most traumatizing to him in the dream/memory was his own powerlessness and frustration as a child. I see it more as his steeling himself for what he thinks he has to do, with an attitude of “If I’m to do battle with the injustice and cruelty of the world, I can’t be held back by queasiness over the choice of means. Ineffectuality is not an option. I’ll be the kind of Napoleon who will be strong and uninhibited enough to stand up to and defeat people like those drunk peasants beating that poor horse.”
Speaking of dreams, I experienced Raskolnikov’s battle of wits with Porfiry Petrovich as frustrating in a nightmare sort of way. I recognize on an intellectual level that we’re supposed to root for Porfiry to win, that he’s the “good guy” and Raskolnikov is the criminal, and indeed that it’ll be better for Raskolnikov himself’s moral wellbeing if he does not get away with his crime. But on a gut level, I couldn’t help but root for Raskolnikov to escape. I developed a dislike for Porfiry and found it much easier to identify with Raskolnikov.
But it was like a nightmare reading how Raskolnikov couldn’t seem to bring himself to do what he needed to do to escape, like that feeling of trying to run away in a dream and getting nowhere. I know it’s because at some level Raskolnikov “wants” to get caught out of guilt, but I’m just saying subjectively I experienced it as highly frustrating. I wanted to reach into the book and grab him and shake him and shout at him that failing all else, just get out of there physically. Leave St. Petersburg as soon as possible, by stealth if you think Porfiry has you under surveillance. Go somewhere far away. Go to America (which seems to represent to the characters in the book the ultimate destination for those wishing to leave their past behind and start life over with a clean slate).
Maybe that just reflects my realization that if I somehow did something so bad that I was facing severe punishment like that, I don’t think I’d be noble enough to go the confession and redemption route. I can’t know unless it happens, but I think I’m more likely to react with urgency and simple self-preservation, with the attitude that I can’t change the past, can’t change what I’ve done, and so I need to focus on the future and how and where I can do the most good, which certainly won’t be in a Siberian prison camp.
I’m not talking about a situation like a serial killer contemplating turning himself in rather than remaining free and continuing to kill people. I’m talking about a one-off crime like Raskolnikov’s. I don’t know if the right thing to do would be to sacrifice myself in atonement, but I’m admitting I’m skeptical I could do that even if I did conclude it was the right thing.
But that’s precisely why it’s such an excruciating process for Raskolnikov to end up where he ends up. A very large part of him does want to escape the consequences of turning himself in. He didn’t anticipate arriving where he arrives at the end of the book, any more than I can see myself ending up there were I in his shoes. So who can say? But I certainly can identify with his struggle, regardless of whether our outcomes would be the same.
As should be obvious by now, I experienced Crime and Punishment as a highly thought-provoking book, which is true of just about everything I’ve read by Dostoyevsky. This is the value of great literature—to make us think and make us feel in ways that facilitate our growth. There are very few authors who have enriched my life in that way as much as Dostoyevsky has.