Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov
Raskolnikov really loves people, or, maybe, Raskolnikov really hates people. Oh the confusion! The very root of his name is "raskol," which means "schism" or "split." Razumihin tells Dounia and Pulcheria, "It's as though he were alternating between two characters" (3.2.32). In fact the number two is closely associated with Raskolnikov.
When we first meet Raskolnikov, he hasn't eaten in "two days." At the pawnbroker's house there are "two gates" and "two courtyards." He last wrote his mom "two months" ago. He meets the abused drunk girl in the park at "two" in the afternoon.
The pawnbroker has on "two crosses" when Raskolnikov kills her, and Sonia later has "two crosses" when Raskolnikov is preparing to turn himself in to the police. But don't let all this double talk throw you. Raskolnikov is more than just two characters. He's more like a dozen, actually. That's part of why he's so fascinating. Anyhow, we'll give you some of the facets of his character to get you started.
You can't miss the fact that Raskolnikov was "formerly a student," and that he wears an "old student's overcoat." He usually introduces himself simply as "a student," though sometimes he says "formerly a student," if it suits his mood. He dropped out of law school partly for economic reasons, but as he admits, he could have found a way to scrape up the cash to finish his degree.
The perspective of the young (twenty-three) student is important to this novel of "ideas." College students in particular are exposed to lots of ideas, many of them "existential" – that is, questioning and theorizing about the nature of existence. Sometimes after being exposed to stimulating ideas, students get stimulating ideas of their own, or decide to see what happens when stimulating ideas they've heard, read, or thought about are put into practice.
Often, practical application can lead to invention, creation, positive revolution. Students are thought of as "the future," and many cultures put great hopes in education and the possibilities it affords the next generation. Yet, in the case of Raskolnikov, there's a dark side of this. His ideas lead to two deaths.
Maybe you know a student (or ex-student) similar in ways to Raskolnikov. If you go over to Raskolnikov's, he's more than likely asleep, pretending to be asleep, or he's not home. He spends long periods of time "thinking" and calls it "working." He rarely showers or has clean clothes, and he lives in a crummy, depressing room. It's not clear how he spends his time, though he can be seen walking the street at odd hours wearing "an old student's overcoat," mumbling loudly and possibly stumbling. Sometimes he's happy to see you; other times he just wants to be left alone.
Were you surprised to find out that this messy young man wrote an article, which Porfiry says is called "'On Crime'... or something of the sort"? Raskolnikov seems to have almost forgotten about it. But this is important information – not only do we learn more about Raskolnikov's bad idea, but we also learn that he used to be a productive person. For his article to have been published, he had to actually sit down, write it, and then send it in for submission. He had to have his act together at least a little.
Raskolnikov has also let his teaching jobs fly by the wayside. He wants to go beyond being "student" or "teacher," and on to something bigger, something new and different. He's also not sure of the practical value of these identities. That is, his mother is borrowing money to support him, his sister is about to marry Mr. Wrong to help the family financially, and he doesn't have time for fooling around in academia, hoping to find a job when he's done. He thinks he needs to act now. This confused thought becomes one among many confused motives for his murder of the pawnbroker.
So is Raskolnikov really ever an ex-student? We don't think so. He's constantly questioning everything around him. He's eager for new information. He's willing to try new things. That's the mark of a student, in or out of school. The big question is: what has he "learned" from the course of study that we see him take in the novel? Well, the narrator tells us he's learned to be happy and that, after much suffering, he will have a new and fabulous life when he gets out of jail. What do you think? Could he be happy after murder? Have his good deeds and suffering cancelled out his crimes?
Good Citizen and Avenger of Justice
Let's look at Raskolnikov's "good deeds." He might be a bit of a bungler, but he tries to help people. He's completely devoted to the Marmeladov family and tries to help them any way he can. He helps Razumihin stop drinking and helps him get together with Dounia. He properly judges the characters of Svidrigaïlov and Luzhin and (sort of) assists in thwarting their dastardly plans. He (sort of) helps that abused drunk girl in the park. And, as we learn in the epilogue, when he was a student he gave away most of his money to another student who was in a bad way, and "rescued two little children from a house on fire and was burnt in doing so" (Epilogue.1.4).
Even the pawnbroker's murder was in many ways born of a desire to help people who are suffering. He's not even the first student to think of killing her – for the very same reason. Remember? Raskolnikov remembers how, right after he got the idea of murdering the pawnbroker, he overheard another student arguing in favor of it.
This is where Raskolnikov's dream of the murder of the horse becomes important. In the dream, young Raskolnikov is powerless to save a poor horse being brutally beaten. When he wakes up, he thinks of the pawnbroker as the helpless horse, and decides he can't possibly kill her that night at 7pm as planned.
But wait. Then he sees Lizaveta, the pawnbroker's sister, in the Hay Market and finds out she will be away from home at 7pm. Since the pawnbroker will be home alone, Raskolnikov decides to go through with his plan. It seems silly at first. Just finding out that Lizaveta won't be home shouldn't be enough to make him change his mind. Perhaps seeing Lizaveta (who we know is regularly beaten by her sister, and is used as one of the arguments for murder made by the other student) shifted the dream symbols in his mind – the horse becomes Lizaveta, and to save her from being beaten to death (like the horse), he must kill her abuser.
Granted, Raskolnikov is confused and there are lots of other factors involved, but what we might call "dream logic" is involved. Of course, this kind of justice is severely challenged in the novel, because, as you know, Raskolnikov kills Lizaveta, too – the person he meant to protect. In fact, instead of being the solution to all his problems, the murders make his situation worse and actively thwart his ability to do good.
That's part of why Raskolnikov is so mad at himself in prison. Though it's not stated in such blunt terms, he really believes that, if he hadn't killed Lizaveta, hadn't left clues, and had properly robbed the pawnbroker, his crime would have been like [insert superhero] killing [insert corresponding villain].
Do you agree with his assessment? The novel doesn't really tell us if Raskolnikov ever changes his mind.
Raskolnikov's "hypochondria" is talked about in half a dozen or so places in the novel. Thanks to the world of pop psychology, we think of hypochondriacs as people who constantly think they are sick and dying, even when they're perfectly healthy. Raskolnikov seems to be actually sick when he's sick, so it's confusing that everybody says he's a hypochondriac.
That's because the pop psychology use of the word wasn't around in Dostoevsky's time. See, the Hypochondrium are regions of the abdomen. People used to believe that gloominess and melancholy in humans came from problems in those regions – so a real "hypochondriac" is just an extremely gloomy, even morbid person.
This was considered a physical, medical condition capable of causing someone who had it to commit acts they might normally not commit. So, this goes to the "temporary insanity" defense that keeps Raskolnikov from getting a heavier sentence. Not that he would ever use that excuse. It's just what everybody else says.
In any case, the Epilogue suggests that Raskolnikov gets "cured" of his hypochondria after his long stay in the prison hospital. That's why he's finally able to feel love for Sonia.
Did you notice that Raskolnikov often does things "mechanically"? Curiously, this is first mentioned in the scene after Raskolnikov's flashback to the other student arguing that society would benefit from the murder of the pawnbroker. See:
He ate a little, three or four spoonfuls, without appetite, as it were mechanically. (1.6.41)
The word also shows up in the actual murder scene:
He had not a minute more to lose. He pulled the axe quite out, swung it with both arms, scarcely conscious of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the blunt side down on her head. (1.7.21)
This idea of "Raskolnikov as a machine" expresses a common fear that often accompanies advances and potential advances in technology and industry. You've heard this before. Machines are unfeeling and unthinking. You've probably read books and seen movies (think Terminator and The Matrix) where this anxiety is explored less subtly than here.
But how does this connect to Raskolnikov? One way to look at it is that he becomes machine-like when he forgets that Alyona the pawnbroker is a person. He loses his will under the sway of his murderous idea and becomes controlled by it.
The word "mechanically" also throws some questions our way concerning Raskolnikov's religious situation at the end. This is what we are told: "Under his pillow lay the New Testament. He took it up mechanically" (Epilogue.2.27). It doesn't sound like he's quite as moved by the book as Sonia is. Then the narrator tells us, "Till now he had not opened it." The next paragraph begins, "He did not open it now." That's some awkward, clumsy, and contradictory phrasing, which might be a good reflection of Raskolnikov's feelings about religion at the end of the novel.
If you've done a Google search on Raskolnikov, you've probably seen the term "nihilism" used alongside his name. Any time you see "ism," you are going to have to do some research to find out what's going on. That said, we are here to give you some solid basics on nihilism and then examine how it applies to Raskolnikov.
In this case, our trusty Oxford English Dictionary is a big help to us. Here are some basic definitions:
"Total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws, etc., often from a sense of despair and the belief that life is devoid of meaning. Also more generally […]: negativity, destructiveness, hostility to accepted beliefs or established institutions."
Raskolnikov certainly seems to reject "prevailing […] moral principles" and laws. By killing Alyona (and believing it's for the greater good), he has rejected society's traditional morality, and has ignored society's laws against murder, as well.In terms of Russian Nihilism, the Oxford English Dictionary gives us this definitions:
"Usu. in form Nihilist. A supporter of a revolutionary movement in 19th-cent. and early 20th-cent. Russia, which rejected all systems of government, sought the complete overthrow of the established order, and was willing to use terrorism to achieve this end. Also (in extended use): a terrorist, a revolutionary."
Everything sounds OK until we get to the terrorism part. Let's look at this closely. Remember, Russia was going through a period of extreme transition during this time. Every aspect of society and its organization was being called into question. Revolutionaries held the very idea of government responsible for the kinds of misery and poverty we see in Crime and Punishment, and wanted to get rid of government and let the people rule. Many revolutionaries believed that violence was necessary in order to succeed in their cause.
Raskolnikov isn't connected with nihilism by name until almost the end of the novel. When he goes to turn himself in, he and Ilya have the following conversation.
[Ilya:] "For you, one may say, all the attractions of life nihil est ["nothing is," in Latin] – you are an ascetic, a monk, a hermit!... A book, a pen behind your ear, a learned research […] There are a great many Nihilists about nowadays, you know, and indeed it is not to be wondered at. What sort of days are they? I ask you. But we thought... you are not a Nihilist of course? Answer me openly, openly!"
[Raskolnikov:] "N-no..." (54-56)
What are we to make of this stuttered denial? Assuming that his "idea" (the one he writes about in his essay, and acts on in murdering Alyona and Lizaveta) is his version of nihilism, he has failed miserably at it. He has realized that he is not a Napoleon, or a "great" man. His stuttered denial could mean that he isn't a nihilist because he failed at nihilism, or because he no longer believes in it – or a combination of the two. It could also mean that Raskolnikov doesn't know whether he is one or not, or simply that he doesn't want to talk about it with Ilya.