thanly, April 30, 2009
Fedor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment makes a point about the importance of staying within moral and societal boundaries by presenting the reader with a man who has strayed so far from morality he sees murder as a logical means to an end. Dostoevsky’s use of language and character focuses the novel on its moral and makes it a unique and influential work of literature.
At the time Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment there were many ‘radicals’ and ‘free-thinkers’ in Russia who believed that the world should be viewed calmly and logically, without any regard for emotion or humanity. They rejected religion and turned from generally accepted social norms. Though he had spent time following some radical principles, Dostoevsky suffered for them and turned from his previous practices, scorning those who did not return to morality with him. In his rejection of ‘radical’ ways, Dostoevsky tried to help others by keeping them from this path. Crime and Punishment is one of his largest and most well-known attempts to do this. To show why this ‘free-thinking’ was so wrong, he presented the reader with an example of a man who took logic and free thought to its farthest conclusion; if humans are no more significant than any other material object, then killing one means nothing. Though this is presented as an extreme conclusion Dostoevsky used it to show the lengths a man can go to without the constraints of society and morality. Though it was largely ignored when the book was first released, Dostoevsky’s main purpose in writing Crime and Punishment was to make a point about the dangers of ignoring society and morality.
The novel begins with Raskolnikov lost in thought as he considers his idea of killing and robbing a pawnbroker. Though he is disgusted by the idea of taking another person’s life, he tells himself to see it logically and realize that the woman he intends to kill is of no good to anyone and that by her death he can profit, therefore her murder is a good choice. “No, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it! Granted, granted tat there is no flaw in all that reasoning, that all that I have concluded this last month is clear as day, true as arithmetic” (66).
While still unsure of his idea, Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother telling him that his sister is marrying a man she dislikes so she can provide for him and their mother. This pushes him over the edge in his debate as he decides that he must have the money he can get from the robbery so he can save his sister. Despite his own disgust at the prospect of murder, Raskolnokov decides that the benefit to himself and his sister outweighs the wrong of killing a woman whom he views as a worthless and vile woman. Still unsure of his intentions as he arms himself for the attack, Raskolnikov kills the woman and immediately panics, loses his calm, and kills her sister when she walks in and finds him standing over the body. “Fear gained more and more mastery over him, especially after this second, quite unexpected murder” (84). Raskolnikov soon discovers that he is susceptible to guilt just like any other man, and is tortured by the knowledge of what he has done. Not only consumed by guilt for the murders he committed, Raskolnikov is also shamed by his failure to live up to his own ideal. He believes that he has the potential to become a great man and as such is not bound by the laws of other, lesser men. But the guilt and disgust he feels from his crime prove to him that he is not the man he had thought. Overwhelmed by this mental strain, he slips into an illness that keeps him bedridden and delusional for weeks.
After his recovery, Raskolnikov finds himself stuck trying to navigate between his mother and sister who have come to the city, his friend who places himself inside his life to try to help him, a young prostitute who is left to support her family alone, the police as they try to find the two women’s’ killer, and his own mind as he continues to suffer from the punishment inflicted by his own conscience.
Through various developments in his life, Raskolnikov is forced to relive his actions again and again, unable to move on and forget what he has done, he must chose how he will live; as a free thinker, forever evading the police and his own mind, or as a moral citizen, living once again within society’s boundaries.
Dostoevsky’s moral is evident throughout the book, as Raskolnikov is constantly punished for the actions brought about by his radical views and free-thinking, while the moral characters, the ones who refuse to give up their convictions, are happier and far better off. Though it is an extreme example, Raskolnikov’s actions are meant to show the dangers of radical thinking; that any doctrine that rejects religion and society can only lead to wrong and immoral actions. Dostoevsky’s focus on Raskolnikov’s mind, keeping the reader inside his thoughts and feelings with little acknowledgement of the outside world, gives the reader a unique look inside the mind not only of a killer but, more importantly, inside the mind of a man torn between his convictions, his ideas, his dreams, and his need for stability and love. Without this particular manipulation of language and development within the novel it would not have achieved the status it has as an important look inside the mind, and into the space between radical thought, and morality.
Fedor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment provides a commentary and a warning on radical thinking and the rejection of moral principles. Through his example of a young man misled by false ideals Dostoevsky shows the punishment, both from the law and from the conscience, inflicted on those who reject society’s laws.