Is Murder Ever Moral? 150th Anniversary Of ‘Crime and Punishment’

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest geniuses of literature. As a novelist and a literary psychologist, he has influenced many writers, especially the ones writing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Dostoyevsky’s novels represent the literary peak of what we call psychological realism, with his characters fully portrayed in the sense of physical appearance, biographical data, the societies that they were a part of and, of course – their psychological profile. His best known masterpiece, Crime and Punishment, was published 150 years ago.

Crime and Punishment appeared serially over the course of the year 1866 in a literary journal called The Russian Messenger, and later was published in book form as a novel. Dostoyevsky’s novel addressed major issues, such as the theme of alienation among the oppressed circles of students in 19th century Russian society, poverty, the idea of the monomaniac, the question of Christian morality and its sustainability in the world, humanity and its capacity to forgive. Most importantly, the novel offered the bold proposition that there are two kinds of people in the world that are both equally needed, through the author’s concept of the Superman.

Crime and Punishment is the story of young student named Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a proud and even arrogant young man who lives in society, but doesn’t actually belong to it. There is a strong sense of alienation and self-loathing in Raskolnikov. Dostoyevsky reveals his psychological profile gradually, and we soon come to realize that he is indeed a monomaniac, a man completely committed to, and obsessed by, one single idea. Raskolnikov is a young man who feels unfulfilled. Though he is highly intelligent, he just doesn’t find his purpose in society. On the contrary, he is highly critical of it, and he does not support its mechanisms. From time to time, we might even think he is acting childish, with his unwillingness to adapt, even a bit. His psychological portrait is complex, and there is no way that you can classify his character as good or bad. His portrait is reflected through his relationships, mostly with his sister Dunya and his mother Pulcheria, and with Sonya Marmeladov (with whom he shares similar sufferings and is amazed by her godliness and kind heart), and of course – his best friend Razumikhin.

As a very sensitive being, Raskolnikov becomes ill during the novel, which offers many opportunities to debate whether or not he is truly sick or is it all psychosomatic. He is called a hypochondriac several times in the novel, but we can conclude that his illness comes from a haunting idea: the possibility that he, Raskolnikov, belongs to a special group of people with great characters, such as Napoleon. That is where the notion of Superman appears. Partially, this term is to be understood as Nietzschean, even though Nietzsche was the one who was influenced by Dostoyevsky, not the other way around, but in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche thoroughly explains this notion of Übermensch. So, Nietzsche’s idea was published nearly twenty years after the publication of Crime and Punishment. In the novel, Raskolnikov tries to explain the ideas he has written in one of his articles:

In my opinion, if, as the result of certain combinations, Kepler’s or Newton’s discoveries could become known to people in no other way than by sacrificing the lives of one, or ten, or a hundred or more people who were hindering the discovery, or standing as obstacles in its path, then Newton would have the right, and it would even be his duty… to remove those ten or a hundred people, in order to make his discoveries known to mankind. It by no means follows from this, incidentally, that Newton should have the right to kill anyone he pleases. 

Raskolnikov introduces the notion that there are certain people, great minds, to which human law does not apply. They are, so to say, allowed to be criminals, because they have a new truth to speak and are extremely important for the progress of humanity. The ideas and work of these incredible minds are far more important than the lives of average men, if they happen to stand in the way. So, according to Raskolnikov, human laws are invalid and null when it comes to these extraordinary individuals. In fact, by violating the existing law, they are providing humanity with a new one. In order to create new moral standards, they are crushing the old ones, and change is something that is very much needed. Raskolnikov believes that world consists of two groups of people: one group is made by these breakers of old laws, such as Napoleon or Solon. They are the ones who are pushing humanity forward: 

People with new ideas, people with the faintest capacity for saying something new, are extremely few in number, extraordinarily so, in fact.

The other group is much more numerous, and it consists of average people. Their duty is to sustain the world and keep it populated. Paradoxically, Raskolnikov’s feeling of superiority comes from his inferiority complex. He did not find his purpose; he feels that society has rejected him and forced him to live in poverty, on the margins. Gradually, he starts to think he belongs to the first group of people, as he becomes obsessed with murdering an old lady named Alyona Ivanovna, who works as a pawnbroker. In Raskolnikov’s perspective, this old lady is harmful to society, a true personification of evil, so he defines her as a louse. Raskolnikov begins losing touch with reality as his sense of empathy is lost, too. His idea becomes more and more concrete, as he starts believing that it is his sacred duty to set society free from this louse. He manages to murder the old lady, but he also murders her sister Lizaveta, just because she witnesses the act. Raskolnikov then finds it hard to make peace with what he has done and he rejects the feeling of regret as it would be a sign of weakness. Repentance would mean that he was indeed wrong and that he belongs to the average group; it would mean that he himself is nothing more than a louse:

The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she’s not the point! The old woman was merely a sickness… I was in a hurry to step over… It wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle! So I killed the principle, but I didn’t step over, I stayed on this side… All I managed to do was kill. And I didn’t even manage that, as it turns out…

To step over means to accomplish a transition from an ordinary man to an extraordinary one. For Raskolnikov, it would mean to find purpose, finally, and prove that his arrogance is firmly grounded, because he has a special mission.

The idea of Superman is just a small part of what Crime and Punishment has to offer. It is a book that needs to be read several times, especially if you are interested in topics related to morals, power, and the possibility of honest human remorse and the transformation of a soul. There is a host of interesting topics to be discussed: Was Raskolinkov mentally ill or was he just an unfortunate, tortured man, rejected by society? Maybe he was both? Can we fully reject the logic of his article, since violence conducted by great authority figures has undeniably been a means of progress in the human past? How should society treat these misfits? How does religion play a role in individual redemption, and why do people believe? Did Raskolnikov regret what he had done, or did he just learn to live with the consequences? Where does the irrepressible will to live come from, no matter what kind of life we are talking about? These are just some of the interesting questions to think about during and after reading this masterpiece. Grab a book and get engaged in these extremely ambivalent topics!

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