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Crime and Punishment: An Introduction

Will Callaghan

Jan 3, 2024

Crime and Punishment: An Introduction

Can rationality justify something morally wrong?

Is Murder ever justifiable?

These are several big questions that Fyodor Dostoyevsky attempts to answer in his 1866 novel “ Crime and Punishment”.

Widely viewed as one of the greatest pieces of Russian literature, Crime and Punishment opens the door to the consciousness of a murderer. Through exploration of his inner thoughts, contemplation of the moral dilemmas he faces on the path to redemption, and reflection into what isolates a guilty man from society, we begin to navigate the labyrinth that is man’s guilt and innocence. Rodin Raskolnikov is a destitute law student studying in Saint Petersburg. Raskolnikov lives in a cramped “closet”, and at the beginning of the novel, has just made the realization that he no longer has the funds necessary to continue his studies. His desperation is exacerbated by letters he receives from his rural family back home, where he realizes the sacrifices that are being made in a failed attempt to support him. After being forced to sell the last of his possessions to Alyona Ivanovna, an old, exploitative pawnbroker, Raskolnikov begins to devise a plan to murder and rob her.

Early in the novel, Raskolnikov adopts the philosophies of utilitarianism and egoism in order to better provide justification for the murder of Alyona. Alyona is a bitter crone, who sucks the money from struggling students and constantly beats her mentally challenged sister, Lizaveta. Raskolnikov heavily despises Alyona, and even refers to her as an insect) Utilitarianism is a theory of morality, which distinguishes right from wrong based on the implications of the outcome. In other words, a utilitarian believes that the action that should be performed is the action that brings the most net positive. Egoism, on the other hand, egoism is the theory that one’s actions should be purely motivated for the betterment of oneself.  His initial justification consists of the fact that although the murder of the pawnbroker is morally wrong, saving  Lizaveta from continuous torment, saving his family from destitution, and using the money to make the world a better place would therefore make the murder justifiable through the principles of utilitarianism. 

For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic!” 

As a law student, Raskolnikov also has philosophies of his own, which play an important role in the justification of his actions. The most significant of which is his theory on the extraordinary man – based on Nietzsche’s  Ubermensch)  His theory states that men are divided into two distinct types: ordinary men acquiesce to the laws society imposes on them; while the extraordinary men, to the laws of society, do not apply, as their main purpose is the betterment of society - at whatever cost necessary. (Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov uses the example of Napoleon, who at the cost of thousands of lives, had a colossal role in advancing society.) Raskolnikov initially comes to the consensus that he too, must be an extraordinary man, and as a result, believes that he is entitled to kill the pawnbroker for the betterment of society.

After hearing of a time when Lizaveta would be forced to leave Alyona alone, Raskolnikov takes this as a sign to commit the murder. With an axe fastened to the inside of his jacket, he makes his way over to her apartment after he is sure Alyona has been left alone. He hands her a fake cigarette box which he had fashioned out of wood, and while she is distracted, he brings the axe down.

However, Raskolnikov’s crime doesn't just end there.  He suddenly hears footsteps approaching the room and comes to the horrifying realization that Lizaveta has returned. Left with no other options, Raskolnikov is forced to kill her too, for no reason other than to evade arrest. 

The murder of  Lizaveta is an incredibly significant event in the novel, as his initial justifications begin to fall apart; after all, part of his initial motivation and justification for the act was to save  Lizaveta from a life of torture and mistreatment. His justifications are further dismantled when his paranoia leads him to bury all that he has just stolen. This paranoia begins to eat away at his consciousness and begins to torment him with the central question: “Why did he murder Alyona?”. If it was not for her money and not to free  Lizaveta from a life of misery, what was it for? Furthermore, if he was truly extraordinary and truly sat among the likes of Napoleon, would he really care as much as he did? Would he not accept the murder as an inevitable step toward the betterment of society? Raskolnikov's guilt and paranoia bring him to the brink of confession numerous times and nearly drive him to the point of suicide. Raskolnikov’s contemplation before making a confession hinges on an ongoing dilemma of whether to confess, sacrificing physical freedom for salvation from his self-consuming guilt. This guilt is further heightened through his interactions with Sonya, a 19-year-old sex worker who serves as the moral compass of the book. Sonya is deeply religious, and her faith-based mindset is juxtaposed with Raskolnikov's rational justifications for the murder.   While Raskolnikov argues that murder is justifiable through rationality and utilitarianism, Sonya, who is deeply religious, argues that no matter the circumstances, murder is always morally wrong.  Sonya is convinced that although Raskolnikov had justification for his murder, it doesn't change the fact that “You turned away from God and God has smitten you, has given you over to the devil”.

Sonya attempts to convince Raskolnikov that the only way he will find redemption is through confession. Raskolnikov sticks to his rational beliefs and tries to again justify his actions with reason. He believes the statement to be hypocritical, as in wars and other political conflicts; the deaths of thousands are justified with logical explanations, so why must it be any different for him to justify just one crime? It is this conflict of morals that leads to Raskolnikov’s eventual confession to the police.

This marks the conclusion of his crime and the commencement of his punishment. Over the next 500 pages, Dostoyevsky brings us from the dark taverns of St Petersberg to the gruesome labour camps of Siberia, all the while Raskolnikov wrestles with both the justification of his actions and the validity of his initial rationalizations on his path to redemption.

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