The Existentialism in Crime and Punishment

The novel “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a hard one to read. It taps into the eternal existential questions about the value of life, its meaning and moral code of the society. Is moral just a social construct? What consequences can have killing another human being if no one will punish the murderer?

We see Raskolnikov, a young aspiring student, trying to solve these questions for himself. He grasps a pretty cynical attitude about them seeing his own conscience as weakness and fighting it when he feels remorse and fear for what he has done. He despises Sonia, who became a prostitute to aid her family, and his own sister, ready to marry a rich man and actually become his slave to help their mother and her brother.

All the novel shows his long way back to his humanity, searching for the answers anew and coming to terms with his conscience, God and his love to Sonia. We can see these changes in the quotes from the book.

“I […] hinted that an extraordinary man has the right […] an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep…certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity).”

Part 3 Chapter 2

This idea is heard by Raskolnikov several times, the last one was from his drunken fellow student in the bar. But as we already know from the text, Raskolnikov is so obsessed with the theme of superiority that he wrote the essay about it before. Raskolnikov wholeheartedly believes that some people are “extraordinary men” free from the laws and torments of their conscience, and they have the natural right to do what they please, seeing the rest of the people as no more than cattle.

His initial remorse is connected with the failure of this idea of his: he still feels bad after murdering Alyona, so he may not belong to the “extraordinary men”, but be a part of the cattle instead! These torments make him risk and raise the stakes, actually presenting his motifs of murder to the detective who investigates it. He, as lots of the murderers, feels the need to say, though metaphorically, that it was he who did that.

“”What do you think?” shouted Razumikhin, louder than ever, “you think I am attacking them for talking nonsense? Not a bit! I like them to talk nonsense. That’s man’s one privilege over all creation. Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen. And a fine thing, too, in its way; but we can’t even make mistakes on our own account! Talk nonsense, but talk your own nonsense, and I’ll kiss you for it. To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s. In the first case you are a man, in the second you’re no better than a bird. Truth won’t escape you, but life can be cramped.””

Part 3 Chapter 1

Rasumikhin talks about the same thing. He says that the man is superior, because he can try and make mistakes and encourage Raskolnikov to try on his own, even if it means “making fourteen mistakes”. This reinforces Raskolnikov’s self-esteem and again starts the chains of thoughts about his own value in his head.

He made a mistake, indeed, but it was his own mistake, his try and failure, not the mindless obedience to the morals and instincts that tell us all to care about each other. A decent part of characters in the book seems to be fond of superiority theory in this or that way. The strange thing is that everyone of them thinks that they belong to the superior group. No one wants to be the inferior one. Praising one’s mistakes as sign of their humanity and unconventional thinking is a good way to redeem oneself in one’s own eyes, but still the rules of society exist for purpose, so Rasumikhin is proven wrong very soon.

The right to make mistakes, surely, exists, but the mistakes have consequences and no one is going to be pardoned just for “being a human”. Thoughtless obedience is not a good thing, but seeking one’s own way not because it is possibly better but just to break the rules and prove that one is above them isn’t wise at all as such actions will face a great and justified reaction from the society. Going against the society one should have a solid reason to do so and this reason can be proven and explained to the others.

As we can see, Raskolnikov isn’t the only one who seeks reveal and punishment. Like in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” almost every sinner in the novel feels that he needs the divine justice to purify their soul and atone their deeds through suffering. We see that Marmeladov is also prone to this way of thinking, though in a narcissistic manner in a way, dramatically overreacting and demanding the cruel and unusual punishment for him, expecting for the reaction of the audience.

“I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, not pitied! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me but pity me!”

Part 1 Chapter 2

We see that Marmeladov compares himself to Christ, thinking that sacrifice will clear his soul of all the sins. At first, he blatantly demands punishment, asking the judge to crucify him (which is obviously not happening, it is almost a modern society), not to pity him. He feels like pitying diminishes the weight of his torment, making his sufferings insignificant. But in the very next phrase he breaks down, turning from the martyr to the ordinary human, who is torn apart between the desire to be punished and the perfectly human wish to be understood, pitied and forgiven.

“”Where is it?” thought Raskolnikov. “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only have room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!…How true it is! Good God, how true! Man is a vile creature!…And vile is he who calls him vile for that,” he added a moment later.”

Part 2 Chapter 1

This quote is one of the most memorable and important in all the book. Here we see the beginning of Raskolnikov’s change. Finally, he comes closer to understanding the meaning of the true value of life. We don’t know, whether he is true now, the existentialism in “Crime and Punishment” doesn’t allow us to get an immediate answer for this question.

But here we can see that Raskolnikov, with all his intelligence and eloquence, compares his possible fate he is ready to trade his execution for, to the ancient Greek Hades or Dante’s Inferno – the everlasting tempest was the punishment for the sin of Lust there and indeed, Raskolnikov is a victim of his passion, when standing in a cramped place is also used in mythology.

Still, Raskolnikov is ready to endure any punishment just to live, because he finally understands that death ends everything, not leaving a single chance to fix a single thing and come to terms with yourself. In despair, Raskolnikov calls a man a vile creature, meaning both himself and those who punish him. But then he admits that he couldn’t resist his temptations and also has the right to be understood, no matter how awful his deed was. (“vile is he who calls him vile for that”).

At the moment we are almost sure that Raskolnikov is exaggerating, just to show how much he wants to live. It seems that such a life would be horrible, much worse than death. But when we see him sent to Syberia, with Sonia – to the land of everlasting darkness and everlasting tempest, to live in a cramped place with other convicted men, saying poetically – he is still able to find peace and love a happy life with her there. They both are cured from their traumas and support each other, despite everything that they had to endure before and despite the harsh conditions. It would obviously be impossible if Raskolnikov chose death.