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The Manifestation of Dialogic Mode in The Book

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“Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. Would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? One death, and a hundred lives in exchange.” (Dostoevsky, 69)

At precisely the right moment, Raskolnikov stumbles into a ‘miserable little tavern’ and overhears these eerily fateful words between a student and an officer. The student goes on to argue that it is the role of a select few – extraordinary persons – to ‘correct and direct nature’ in instances where it would benefit the whole; yet when friend challenges him, he quickly and feebly remarks that he is only ‘arguing for justice’ and could never commit such a base act – thus demoting himself to the grade of inferior, ordinary folk. Indirectly, however, the student has unknowingly incited the act that he supports only in theory, by nurturing and vindicating the very same idea that had been growing within the eavesdropping Raskolnikov. Indeed, the fated timing of this encounter further convinces Raskolnikov that it is a ‘guiding hint’ of an ‘inescapable pre-ordainment,’ which compounds his budding belief that he is of the extraordinary few that are permitted to breach moral codes in certain, extreme cases.

It is revealed later that this decisive conversation he overhears in the tavern echoes in exact parallels to the radical theses of Raskolnikov’s utilitarian article “On Crime.” The identical propositions and argumentation of the conversation to the thoughts and writings of Raskolnikov are too coincidental to be dismissed as simply fate, and they may even indicate a certain schizophrenic psychosis within Raskolnikov, whereby the conversation in the bar actually occurred within his head. Though this would suggest a much more serious mental illness than is ever explicitly ascribed to Raskolnikov, it is not an entirely unperceivable speculation – and it becomes even more plausible after Svidrigailov’s shocking account of Raskolnikov’s behavior in public: “You look and evidently see nothing before nor beside you. At last you begin moving your lips and talking to yourself, and sometimes you wave your hand and declaim at the last stand still in the middle of the road.” (Dostoevsky, 462)

This new vantage presents a detached portrayal of Raskolnikov’s condition, void of Raskolnikov’s influence – which exposes him – and reveals a more recognizable manifestation of insanity than is ever alluded to in his narration. While his illness has previously been limited to seizures and fits of paranoia, here we are given a crucial piece of evidence that jeopardizes the final shreds of credibility that Raskolnikov clings on to in defense of his rationality and sanity – which in effect jeopardizes the rationality of his theories. Yet, while the notions of fate and reliability of narration are critical and fascinating motifs in this excerpt and in the novel as a whole, the most important thing that can be extracted from this conversation in the tavern is the reiteration and compounding of utilitarianism as the main theme of the novel – as one to be wrestled with and dialogically engaged with until it is considered from every angle. Indeed, ultimately the dialogic mode of Crime and Punishment serves Dostoevsky as a means of reinforcing and reconsidering his own personal beliefs; and by leaving some of these key beliefs standing at the end of the novel, while letting others collapse, he indicates that his convictions are firmly rooted, examined, and substantiated.

During the entirety of Raskolnikov’s first conversation with Porfiry it is difficult not to buy in to Raskolnikov’s utilitarian theory which grants extraordinary men ‘the inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep certain obstacles, [when it] benefits the whole of the community (260).” He continues in convincing defense of his article by speaking in elaborate terms about the betterment of society, while glorifying those with the courage to stand for change; saying such things as: “[the extraordinary] seek in varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better (261).” In perhaps the most critical defense of his position Raskolnikov enters into lecture about the importance of and privileges granted to such extraordinary men: “Leaders of men such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon, and so on, were all without exception criminals…They did not stop short at bloodshed, if that bloodshed where of use for their cause. It’s remarkable in fact, that the majority of these leaders of humanity were guilty of terrible carnage. I maintain that all great men, must from their very nature be criminals…otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to” (Dostoevsky, 260).

Not only does Raskolnikov make a convincing case for utilitarianism during this defense of his disquisition, he also, by dividing society into two categories, provokes the audience into active thought and participation with his theory. It is impossible as a reader, after all, not to fancy oneself a member of the extraordinary, after such propagandizing as: “People with new ideas, people with the faintest capacity for saying something new, are extremely few in number, extraordinarily so in fact.” How can one submit, after such inspirational persuasion, to an ordinary class of people, a people who “are of conservative temperament, [who] live under control and love to be controlled (261)?” By making such an appealing case for the extraordinary class of people, and by supplementing his defense of murder with historically supported and logically justified arguments for the ‘sanction of bloodshed by conscience’, Dostoevsky creates a very strong case for a utilitarian motto “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” And he builds it up, and milks it – in theory – from each and every angle, and finally puts it into practice. Then he lets it fall.

The fall of Raskolnikov, though predictable, is very complex and important. Indeed, the reasons for the failure of Raskolnikov’s utilitarian experiment allow Dostoevsky to explore and eventually conclude that the flaws in his theory do not outweigh its benefits; he therefore finally asserts that it is never justifiable to murder, even in extreme cases. Though Raskolnikov makes convincing cases for his theory in both his article and in the defense of his article to Porfiry, it cannot stand the test of practice. Ultimately, Raskolnikov’s concedes that the experiment failed in his case because he had not been granted the right to kill: “the devil led me on and he has shown me since that I had not the right to take that path (414).” He continues by saying, “Did I murder the old woman? I murdered myself not her! I crushed myself once and for all, for ever (414)…” The brutal toll that the murder takes on his conscience indicates that Raskolnikov understands that his theory should remain a theory – that it is not something to be attempted.

A last stand is made for his utilitarian theory, when in the first epilogue Raskolnikov laments to himself, “But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to take that step.” At this point it seems Dostoevsky has ruled that the theory should be considered on a case-by-case basis (rather than making a blanket statement for or against utilitarianism,) by leaving Raskolnikov unrepentant. But this proves to be a façade, as the wheels had already begun to fall off when Raskolnikov considered the idea of running away from his punishment instead of becoming a martyr for his cause; Porfiry notes, “You’ve ceased to believe in your theory already, what will you run away with?” To this point, Raskolnikov cannot even muster a response; he turns to leave from the conversation – corrected and ashamed. And finally in the last few pages of the novel, Dostoevsky resolves his neutrality towards Raskolnikov’s theory, by having him open his eyes, repent of his crime, and submit to punishment. It is of paramount importance that Dostoevsky includes the repentance of Raskolnikov in the end of the second epilogue, because in so doing he is able to silence the last standing voice for his theory, which in effect kills it.

Dostoevsky then, by considering and ultimately condemning utilitarian ‘humanitarianism,’ to reinforces what he believes to be the main influence of Raskolnikov’s murder. Namely, the implicit influence that environment has on behavior. The reader is constantly reminded of the ‘cupboard’ of a room in which Raskolnikov lives, amongst a grim and gloomy Petersburg backdrop. Still, Dostoevsky makes sure to drive the point home by including many less subtle hints about the influence of environment within the dialogue. Svidrigailov for instance, mentions at one point that, “This is a town of crazy people. There are few places where there are so many gloomy, strong and queer influences on the soul of a man as in Petersburg. The mere influences of climate mean so much.” In a similar vein, Porfiry says, “Petersburg had great effect on him” in reference to the murderer of the pawnbroker.

Yet the most direct statement regarding the influence of environment on criminal behavior – and one that resonates closely with Dostoevsky’s own beliefs before he was sent to Siberia – is the socialist doctrine brought up in a discussion between Porfiry, Raskolnikov and Razumihin:

“Everything with them is ‘the influence of environment,’ and nothing else. Their favorite phrase! From which follows that, if society is normally organized, all crime will cease at once, since there will be nothing to protest against and all men will become righteous in one instant.”

(Dostoevsky, 257)

This statement compounds the reoccurring argument for influence of environment on behavior, and though parts of it are dismissed as purely hypothetical (that is, the perfectly organized society,) the root of the matter remains – that the influence of environment on behavior is powerful and unavoidable. Lastly, during his trial Raskolnikov states that the cause of his crime was “his miserable position, his poverty and his helplessness (528).” In case the reader missed all of the other signs, Dostoevsky makes it as straightforward as possible. By including this theme so directly, and so often, Dostoevsky makes it clear that poverty, social circumstances and environment are all serious contributors to criminal behavior, though he carefully asserts that they do not justify crime, by having Raskolnikov caught and punished at the end of the novel.

It is perhaps one of the most fascinating and impressive aspects of Crime and Punishment, that Fyodor Dostoevsky goes to such great lengths in proposing the benefits of perspectives and theories he actually disagrees with in real life. He does so with the theme of religion – by having Raskolnikov convincingly challenge Sonia’s faith – when Dostoevsky is himself a devout Orthodox Christian. He also does so by exhaustively supporting a utilitarian theory that he condemns in real life. Dostoevsky’s ability to critically evaluate his different beliefs, through his writing, is most impressive because it shows that he knows every side of the arguments he engages with. Indeed, the dialogic nature of his examination of different issues is a testament to his willingness to see issues from the side of his opponents, and it allows him to strengthen his own views by testing them against their strongest counterpoints. In this way, Dostoevsky uses his novel as a therapeutic device, by which writing serves as an outlet for the consideration of the ideas that are important to him and to his society. This quality of Dostoevsky’s writing is part of what makes it so compelling, engaging, and ultimately so valuable – instead of being told what to think or having the author’s beliefs imposed upon us, we are given impartial evidence from both sides of an argument, and are left to wrestle with them. We, as readers, are credited for our ability to reason and engage with complex issues – and are simply guided by the wonderful imagination and vision of Fyodor Dostoevsky.


Dostoevsky, F. Crime and Punishment. New York, 2003: Bantam Dell.

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