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Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment lets the reader into the mind of a murderer as he commits his crime and copes with the consequences. The novel grapples with many philosophical questions and challenges accepted ideas of right versus wrong. Many scholars agree that Dostoevsky incorporated the personalities of the people in his life into his characters, and that he had those characters deal with the issues he faced, such as the existence of God. “Champion after champion [Dostoevsky] sent forth on to the bloody field, to contend with life, as he himself contended, even until death” (Murry 4). These “champions” that he sent to “contend” with his philosophical questions include Raskolnikov, a murderer, and the seemingly unlikable Svidrigaylov. Svidrigaylov seems so unlikable because of the stories of his past that precede his appearance. Svidrigaylov’s character illustrates two concepts: what Raskolnikov would have been like if his superman theory had worked for him, and that a person who does not care about good and evil can do both extraordinary good and extraordinary evil.
Raskolnikov is a handsome ex-scholar aspiring to power. When we first meet him, he is obsessing over some task that he is considering: “he even knew how many paces it was from his own door” (Dostoevsky 3). (We later find out that the task is the murder of a pawnbroker, Alena.) He murders her to try to prove that he is an “extraordinary” man. Under Raskolnikov’s superman theory, certain “extraordinary” men exist who must allow themselves to break laws that inhibit their ideas (Dostoevsky 249).
We hear of Svidrigaylov long before he actually enters the story. Our first impression of him is not favorable, to say the least. Raskolnikov’s mother writes him a letter telling him that if she had related the “torments” his sister Dunya had suffered at Svidrigaylov’s hands, Raskolnikov would “have thrown everything up and come home” to help (Dostoevsky 28). Throughout the book, we learn that Svidrigaylov simply does what he wants, regardless of public opinion.
Dostoevsky made Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov similar in order to illustrate Raskolnikov’s superman theory both by its success and its failure under comparable conditions (Santangelo 4). Raskolnikov realizes that Svidrigaylov is his counterpart (“[his] emphatic denial of it is evidence enough… he protests too much” [Jones 8]), and he watches Svidrigaylov with fascination (Santangelo 4). He sees himself and the future of his theory in their shared “will to power” (Leatherbarrow 4) and their belief in “the right to trespass all bounds” (Santangelo 4). He and Svidrigaylov respect Dunya (Jones 9), Raskolnikov as a sister and Svidrigaylov as evidenced by the “instant of terrible, silent struggle” in his soul when she tells him that she can never love him (Dostoevsky 477). Svidrigaylov even says that she “can inspire only the deepest respect even in a thoroughly bad character like” himself (Dostoevsky 453). Both Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov have a fear of death, and both cross a moral line by committing purposefully violent acts: Raskolnikov murders Alena, and Svidrigaylov beats his wife, Marfa (Leatherbarrow 12).
Although Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov have much in common, they have a fundamental difference: Svidrigaylov succeeds where Raskolnikov fails. Raskolnikov is not able to free himself from mortality, and before resorting to Christianity, he constantly had to rationalize everything he did. He cannot exemplify his own theory because he does not have the strength to be free of the ideas of virtue and goodness. His ultimate confession shows that he has both of these ideas, but he does not need either of them in order to be the “existential hero” (Bloom 36-37). Svidrigaylov, on the other hand, refuses to submit to any will beside his own. Throughout the novel, he engages in what some might call “debauchery” simply because he sees no reason to “put any restraint on [himself]… if [he has] any inclination for [it]” (Dostoevsky 451); he plays cards and, as a married man, seduces servants. He chooses to recognize himself and his will, rather than some power outside of himself, because that is what he knows (Murry 3). Svidrigaylov has freed himself completely of casuistry, and does not feel the need to base his life on the demonstration of any theory — either Raskolnikov’s or a religion’s (Bloom 37).
To Dostoevsky, Raskolnikov has the importance of a mere puppet compared to the significance of his other creation, Svidrigaylov. Svidrigaylov is the furthered, completed Raskolnikov (Murry 4). Raskolnikov’s theory stated that extraordinary people must allow themselves to proceed with actions that may not be socially or legally accepted. While Raskolnikov attempts to permit himself to murder Alena without remorse, Svidrigaylov cheats on and strikes his wife and drives a servant to suicide without a single sign of guilt. “Raskolnikov’s will is too weak to strive for complete omnipotence,” so Dostoevsky manifests his doubts about God and his “exploration of the nature of evil” in Svidrigaylov (Murry 1). The questions of whether crime and punishment exist are not answered in Raskolnikov (for whom “suffering may have been enough… though Dostoevsky leaves the proof of this to another story”), but rather in the stronger and infinitely more complex Svidrigaylov (Murry 4). Svidrigaylov is the real hero of Crime and Punishment; he has the strength to achieve what Raskolnikov could not. Svidrigaylov is the embodiment of what Raskolnikov could have been but never was (Murry 3). Raskolnikov recognizes “his superman” in Svidrigaylov’s “moral independence… [and] in his contempt for accepted laws” (Leatherbarrow 13).
Svidrigaylov is the “existential success” (Bloom 36). He feels no remorse (his “conscience is perfectly clear” with respect to Marfa’s death [Dostoevsky 270]) and does not see any meaning to life deeper than amusement. Raskolnikov wants the absolutely free autonomous will that Svidrigaylov has (Santangelo 4). Svidrigaylov does evil because something inside himself told him not to. He knows that to attain complete freedom, every such instinct must be crushed, and unlike Raskolnikov, he finds the daring within himself to do so (Murry 3). Svidrigaylov attains complete freedom, which does not necessarily connote happiness, but is freedom nonetheless (Bloom 37).
In his existential success, Svidrigaylov has passed beyond the constraints of casuistry. “He has passed beyond good and evil… [and] has willed that his will should be omnipotent. Nothing shall be forbidden him… He will [not] deceive himself by having even the faint semblance of a right upon his side. He is his own right; another can only take away from him” (Murry 3). Svidrigaylov is completely free from good, evil, shame, and prejudice (Santangelo 4); he is simply “open… to every possible experience in the universe” (Jackson 4).
Svidrigaylov is a reflection of the universe, containing the most extreme good and the most extreme evil together in him without condemning either (Jackson 4). He can therefore do what some consider the ultimate evil by happily inflicting pain on the innocent (Jackson 5-6) with no remorse at all, and continuing to appear as normal as every other person (Jackson 5). When Raskolnikov accuses him of killing Marfa, Svidrigaylov believes that he is defending himself by saying that he “gave her only a couple of blows with a riding-switch, and it didn’t even leave a mark” (Dostoevsky 270). The reader’s first impression of him is that he is the epitome of all evil (before he appears in the midst of Raskolnikov’s nightmare, we hear that he has murdered his wife, possible abused a little girl and attempted to seduce Dunya), but this is only because “the deliberate working of evil is portentous to our minds.” The reader assumes that he is evil because he does evil things, “yet this monster does good with the same even hand.” He rescues Sonya and Marmeladov’s orphans, he releases Dunya when she is entirely at his mercy even though he loves her passionately, and he financially assists a young girl whom he barely knows, asking nothing in return. He is not evil with an inclination toward good deeds, nor is he good with a penchant for evil. He is solely his own will, undivided against itself (Murry 3).
Having nothing beyond his own will, however, Svidrigaylov cannot imagine anything outside of himself, including a greater purpose or meaning of life (Santangelo 4). He has willed everything, and therefore experienced everything, and “death is the one last issue, which, being untried, must be tried” (Murry 4). This is where he and Raskolnikov differ. When Svidrigaylov says that Raskolnikov can either commit suicide or go to Siberia, he “has effectively identified the choices that lie in front of the wretched young man.” Raskolnikov chooses one option, and his “alter ego” Svidrigaylov chooses the other (Connolly 2) because he is the working example of the “superman theory.” Having passed beyond moral boundaries, he does not distinguish between good and evil, and therefore can do much of both.
Bloom, Harold, Ed. Fyodor Dostoevski. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003.
Connolly, Julian. “An Overview of Crime and Punishment.” Exploring Novels, Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center. 25 Jan. 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet /LitRC?locID=lac57609&stab=512&ASB2=AND&docNum=H1420002019&ADVSF1=connolly&ADVST1=CN&bConts=261&vrsn=3&ASB1=AND&ste=74&tab=2&tbst=asrch&n=10&ADVST3=NA
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Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1981.
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Jackson, Robert Louis. “Introduction: The Clumsy White Flower.” 20th Century Interp. Of Crime and Punishment Ed. Eaglewood Cliffs Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Jones, Malcolm V. “Crime and Punishment: Transgression and Transcendance.” Dostoevsky: The Novel of Discord, pp.67-89. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1976. Literature Resource Center. 9 April 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/LitRC?locID=lac57609&ADVST2=KA&srchtp=adv&c=5&stab=512&ASB2=AND&ADVSF2=svidrigaylov&docNum=H1420071226&ADVSF1=dost&ADVST1=NR&bConts=514&vrsn=3&ASB1=AND&ste=74&tab=2&tbst=asrch&ADVST3=NA
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