What Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky teaches is about suffering is that it is the root of humanity, an internal punishment that serves as the distinguishing factor between man and monster.
In almost the very beginning of the book and before we even know his name, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov is brooding, lost in thought and deliberating on an unknown “that.” The unexplained “that” he’s referring to reveals itself to be his half-formed scheme involving the robbing and premeditated murder of Alyona Ivanova, an old woman who’s a ruthless pawnbroker. Right off the bat the book sets up his internal dilemma- to kill and reap the financial benefits and moral consequences, or to continue on with his morality intact but his life in poverty-stricken shambles. In the end, despite his misgivings and all his internal conflict, he goes through with the murder, for both noble and horrible reasons. On the basis of his crime alone he is elevated to the worst of society. The robbing of an old woman, defenseless in the face of a young, axe-wielding man in his prime, portrays Raskolnikov an immoral character willing to steal from others for his own benefit.
The actual murder of not only Alyona but of her even more defenseless and incredibly naive and innocent younger sister makes Raskolnikov seem so much worse. Murder, for the duration of humanity’s existence, is universally agreed by both the world’s civilizations and religions to be evil within itself, and murderers to be the personification of evil. The murder of Alyona Ivanova and her sister was both detachedly anticlimatic and crucially climatic – the text conveyed a vivid image of the grisly scene, but Raskolnikov carries it out with a chilling mechanical emptiness, that from the outside paints him as a cold-blooded killer, especially as he raises his axe and brings it down on Litzaveta who acts so like a helpless and abused child. All throughout the book, this theme of Raskolnikov doing this “mechanically” is evident, whether it be raising a spoon to his mouth or raising an axe to a skull. He kills two women so unfeelingly, looks them in the eye an brings his axe down when they have no chance of defending themselves, shies away from taking responsibility for his actions, and almost seems to regret his murders more for his failure to profit than for the immorality of the crime. He’s proud, aloof, and scornful of humanity, he’s so obsessed with the idea that he’s a “superman” and not subject to the laws that govern ordinary people that he feels he has the right to decide who’s a worthless “louse” and who’s worthy of living and kills the old pawnbroker to prove his theory.
But Dostoyevsky doesn’t set Raskolnikov up as a cold-blooded killer. He has his own plights, and his suffering rouses sympathy in even those who view him as uniquely disagreeable and hopelessly irredeemable. He’s a hermit and seems to dislike people, but he’s also a college student who’s found his life on a downhill track due to financial struggles, living in a hopeless rut that people can sympathize with. In killing Alyona, Raskolnikov truly believes his actions are for a nobler purpose and despite how indisputably wrong they are, his crimes are in a way born from a desire to help those who are suffering. He’s a protective brother and caring son, and his actions almost seem reasonable when one considers he intends to use the money he took to save his sister Dounia from having to offer herself up to Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin for the security Luzhin offers her and her brother.
Beyond this, Raskolnikov is obviously deeply tormented by feelings of guilt and lost in a spiritual crisis, acting erratically and falling ill as his life and his mind fall apart. For as empty as his head is in the moment he intentionally lifts his axe, however, his frantic manner conveys his unhinged state, and his anxiety is felt in his mental back and forth and in his crazed quest to hide the truth of his actions from both the world and himself. Once the murder has been carried out, he finds himself racked with confusion, paranoia, and disgust for what he has done. His moral justifications disintegrate completely as he struggles with guilt and horror and confronts the real-world consequences of his deed. He acts in a manner that conveys a conscience, regarding himself with repulsion, contemplating suicide to escape his own crushing guilt, and ultimately confessing his crime despite the fact that the confession of Nikolay Dementyev ensured his freedom.
Raskolnikov’s very name means schism, and his character seems very much split. The contradictions in his own personality make him and his motivations so much more complex and so much more like a real person that people can sympathize with. He has justifications, he has lapses in judgement, he makes mistakes, he does good deeds, he kills people, but he cares so deeply for life and the plight of others. He’s a killer of innocents, but he’s also a seeker of justice, an avenger of the wronged, and a bleeding heart. He staunchly defending his sister from the schemes of a presumptuous and self-absorbed Luzhin and the harassment of a predatory and disturbed Svidrigailov. He humors a drunk and lonely Marmeladov despite his aversion to human interaction. Without a second thought, he gives everything he has to the grieving Katerina when her husband Marmeladov dies and leaves her destitute and with four children.
When he comes upon an abused and intoxicated young girl in the street being obviously followed by an older man intending to take advantage of her, he stays with her, brings the lurking man to the attention of an authority, and provides the fare to ensure the girl gets home safe even as he makes a complete roundabout and says he doesn’t care at all what happens to her. Raskolnikov does alienate those he loves, hurting them with his barbed words and cold demeanor, but he also hurts himself in the process, and even as he makes them unhappy, he does what he can to ensure their happiness. He helps his close friend Razumihin and and Dounia find love in each other. Through his dream of when he watched a horse be beaten to death, his compassion for the horse and agony at its pain conveys his empathy for the suffering of innocence.
The parallels he draws between that very horse and the old pawnbroker are what give him pause, rendering him unable to kill her the first time he attempts to do so and displaying his inner goodness. When he finally does resolve to follow through, he again draws a parallel to the brutally beaten horse he helpless to save and Lizaveta, who is often abused by her sister, perhaps feeling as though by killing the pawnbroker he is saving Lizaveta and many others, even if he in the end loses control of his plan and lets it consume him. After his confession, more of his selfless actions are revealed, such as when he “spent every last penny” supporting a fellow student and his father when he attended university, and when he himself was burnt rescuing two children from a burning house. He is drawn to the the moral purity and innocence of Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov, confesses to her, and through her he becomes a character worthy of redemption both in his own mind and in the regard of society as, gazing upon the fractured remains of his life and his sanity and looking to Sonia as a beacon of hope, he recognizes finally that his place is not above men, but among them.
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