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Understanding The Nature of Raskolnikov Through His Subconscious

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Dreams are considered a link to one’s unconscious, able to offer explanations that “… the dreamer could not invent for himself in his waking state,” (46). Sigmund Freud made revolutionary strides with the psychological implications of dreams in the late nineteenth century. But before Freud, Feodor Dostoevsky was using dreams as a powerful, psychological tool in his novel, Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky manipulates his protagonist, Raskolnikov (Rodion)’s, dream of a dying horse to indicate the source of his isolation to the reader and also comments on Raskolnikov’s later theories.

In order to demonstrate a pointed change in Raskolnikov’s nature from before the event to after the event, Dostoevsky presents a very young Raskolnikov bearing traits that are pointedly absent from the adult version. In the beginning of the dream sequence, Dostoevsky describes the love Rodion has for the church, “with its green cupola,” (47). Rodion’s spirituality is emphasized when he kisses the grave of his dead brother, who he never met. The fact that Rodion exhibits great respect and affection for a person who he never knew (let alone loved) deeply contrasts to the older Raskolnikov, who is so disgusted with all humanity that he is rude and biting to even his best friend. There is also an important connection between the young Rodion’s homage to his brother and his later kissing the dirt of the marketplace; Just as he exhibits his respect to all people through his reverence to his brother, he later atones for his crimes against humanity by making the same action in a St. Petersburg street. The important point is that he already possesses this respect as a child, indicating that some event must alter his mindset, requiring him to regain it later in the novel. In addition, Rodion’s reaction to the beating of the animal is incredibly moving, as he cries and desperately tries to intervene, indicating he is emotional, a quality also lacking in the older version. Rodion’s innocence is emphasized as he is referred to as “the child” (48). He is also described as clutching to his father, who makes his only appearance in this dream as he tries to protect his son. In this way, his father appears to offer a sort of shield or safety for the young Rodion that he lacks in later life. It is only logical to assume that Dostoevsky presents this dream to the reader in order to give an explanation for Raskolnikov’s schizophrenic personality. Vyacheslav Ivanov suggests that Raskolnikov (whose name is derived from the word “Raskol,” that means “split” or “schism”) renounces humanity, and “splits off,” “…and thus himself becomes split: the intellectual and criminal Raskolnikov…or, on the other hand, the martyr to the faith in humanity as a spiritual integer…” (Ivanov, 584). This picture of Raskolnikov is a stark contrast to the young Raskolnikov who is presented as a spiritual, emotional, and healthy child. Through the dream, Dostoevsky indicates that Raskolnikov went through some major event that produced the cold, Nihilist Raskolnikov known through the rest of the novel.

In addition to producing a realistic picture of cruelty, Dostoevsky creates significant connections with later events in the novel via his use of imagery and symbolism. The fact that the victim is an animal offers the drunken crowd justification for their malicious beating, as they believe they are inherently superior. Interestingly, this mentality is similar to Raskolnikov’s superman ideas later in the novel, adding irony to the event; Rodion becomes what he hates as a result of encountering it. In his essay, “The World of Raskolnikov,” Joseph Frank further debunks Raskolnikov’s “superman” theory on the grounds that…the feelings which inspired his altruistic love of humanity cannot co-exist in the same sensibility with those necessary to be a Napoleon, a Solon, or a Lycurgus. For the true great man, possessed by his sense of mission, cannot have any thoughts to spare for the suffering of humanity on whom he tramples for their own future happiness. (Frank, 577)

Dostoevsky adds further irony to the dream as he describes the weeping eyes of the horse. This imagery is revisited during the murder scene where Raskolnikov’s victim, Lizavetta, eyes are described right before he axes her. Dostoevsky’s injection of irony into the dream shows his criticism of Rodion’s superior attitude; Rodion is no better than the cruel drunks in his mentality and in his actions although these qualities result from his exposure to such evil. To strengthen the connection of the horse to other victims in the novel, Dostoevsky invokes images of Sonya, the “eternal victim” (Rahv, 565), since he describes the horse as “small, lean, decrepit,” (47) and bearing the weight of others (48). Most importantly, however, is the fact that this event greatly changed Rodion’s outlook on humanity. Dostoevsky allows us to see this event as powerful and scarring through his presentation of the horse and the drunks. The horse’s death is long and painful, and we see the child Rodion running helplessly about trying to end the suffering. One of the most heart-wrenching images is that of Rodion kissing the horse’s weeping eye. It shows us a child with more compassion than an entire crowd of adults. Dostoevsky characterizes the drunks by painting their faces, clothing, and eyes with the color red; “They took up with them a fat red-faced peasant-woman in red cotton… young men, as drunk and red in the face as [Mikolka]…who, with blood-shot eyes, was standing with the crowbar…” (48-50). Dostoevsky uses red to indicate excess, in this case, alcohol. This is an important point that the young Rodion understandably seems to miss; the crowd is made up of drunks. The child doesn’t understand that this horrible cruelty is coming from a relatively small group of intoxicated tavern-goers, who are by no means representative of the world’s population, and, as a result, carries this child-like notion that all humanity is cruel through to his adulthood. While this point gives us some insight as to Dostoevsky’s beliefs about the influence of childhood experiences, it also shows us how sinister this group of people must have appeared to the young Raskolnikov. If we chose to attribute that effect to Rodion’s age, in can also be noted that his father found the event atrocious enough to attempt to shield his boy from it since he probably guessed at the effects of viewing such brutality. In conclusion, Dostoevsky’s descriptions illustrate that the event was violent enough to cause a great emotional outburst from Raskolnikov and can therefore be deemed as scarring and significant.

Dostoevsky’s placement of the dream sequence adds to its significance in the novel. In his essay, Frank expresses admiration for Dostoevsky’s craftsmanship as he explains why Dostoevsky chose to enter the tavern scene (where Raskolnikov over-hears a young officer and a student discussing motivations for killing the old pawnbroker) immediately before the murder sequence. Frank explains, “The purpose of Dostoevsky’s juxtaposition and telescoping of the time-sequence is obviously for the reader to undermine Raskolnikov’s conscious motivation for the reader,” (Frank, 575). Dostoevsky’s structure gives the reader an understanding of Raskolnikov’s motivations directly before the crime is committed. In the same way, Dostoevsky enters the dream sequence directly after Raskolnikov decides to avoid seeing his friend, Razumikhin, another indication of Rodion’s heightening isolation. Since the dream offers a source for this isolation, its placement is appropriate, giving further evidence of Dostoevsky’s brilliance and the dream’s significance.

Because of the psychologically damaging impact of the dream, Raskolnikov becomes disgusted with humanity and believes that he is superior to it because he is compassionate. This mindset brings on his isolation from society. The irony lies in his heartless actions against humanity, where he proves himself just as brutal as those he believes his is superior to. He does this as he attempts to test his “great man” theory by murdering women as innocent as the dying horse. Dostoevsky communicates all this through the imagery, symbolism, and placement of the dream sequence. Dostoevsky used the dream as a window to the unconscious of Raskolnikov, with which we are able to gain a better understanding and sympathy for him. Before the dream begins, Dostoevsky even notes that dreams are “…artistically in harmony with the whole picture…” (46).

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Understanding The Nature Of Raskolnikov Through His Subconscious. (2018, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 6, 2022, from
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