Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment follows the descent into near-madness of a man gripped by guilt and paranoia. At its core, Crime and Punishment is the story of one Russian man named Raskolnikov, but in its more universal sense it stands as statement on how no action undertaken by a human is ever contemplated and carried out in a vacuum.
Even those crimes that are carried out by those already firmly in the graps of insanity are motivated, at least in part, by the society around them. Raskolnikov’s decision to commit the murder that drives the story of Crime and Punishment is an act that is undertaken in no small part due to the qualities of the time in which he lived.
During the 19th century Russia was experiencing its most tumultuous period since the violence that surrounded its genesis. Theories and ideas which had been formulated in the rest of Europe and in America during the Englightenment had finally penetrated into feudal Russian, which resembled a Middle Ages nation more than a progressive 19th century country in some ways. Radical ideas from socialism to nihilism all had one common thread running through them: revolutionizing and modernizing Russia out of its dark ages trap.
At the same time, however, there also existed a large contingent of people in Russia who believed that reason was not the path to progress and contentment. Raskolnikov is one of those who embraces these radical ideas, especially that of the super-human whose justified immoral acts because they are done in the name of a greater good in which the ends justifies the means. Raskolnikov makes several references to Napoleon, an obvious allusion to his idea of this super-human.
Raskolnikov’s embrace of this Hegelian idea is, like his decision to commit murder, not achieved in a vacuum. Radical ideas are almost never taken to heart by those who are fully content in their life. Early on it is clear that Raskolnikov has within him a goodness of spirit and a generous heart; he is clearly not simply evil. He desires to help his family and others such as the Marmeladov family who are living in the abject poverty that is necessary in order to sustain the monarchy of the Tsar and the economic well-being of the country. St. Petersburg, where the story takes place, is a symbolic microcosm of Russia at large.
It is filthy, uncared-for, and decadent. Raskolnikov not only lives in this city, but he lives in one of its worst slums, Haymarket Square. Setting the novel here allows Raskolnikov to witness the absolute worst in society. This utter decadence is most clearly symbolized by the abundance of women willing to sex their bodies.
Prostitution has also worked to indict any economic system that forces people to sell their body as capital, and it also works to indict a system that devalues and dehumanizes women. That Sonia works as a prostitute in order to support her family, and that her trust in God never wavers is a key oppositional point to Raskolnikov’s belief in the super-human.
Raskolnikov views the utter depredation of his surroundings and chooses a different course of action from Sonia. Raskolnikov’s decision to murder the pawnbroker is both correlative and oppositional to Sonia’s decision to become a prostitute. The Russian society in which both live is designed to keep them in their place. Class warfare was beginning to brew in Russia.
Socialism was making inroads into the middle classes and ideas were beginning to spread that the serf system under which so many had suffered need not be seen as a natural system. When serfs were granted their freedom in 1861, it was seen as godsend, but of course many quickly realized they had no ability to get a job. In order to survive, therefore, Russians by the millions had little choice but to submit themselves to even more degrading circumstances. Sonia’s decision to become a prostitute is as thematically coherent with her Christian beliefs as is Raskolnikov’s decision to commit murder with his new radical intellectual beliefs.
Suffering is the root cause of the actions of both Sonia and Raskolnikov. Not only these two characters, but nearly every other one in the novel is experiencing suffering to a great degree. It is not going too far to suggest that had Raskolnikov been born into better circumstances, he might very well have rejected the radical philosophies that inform his decision to commit murder; more obviously, he would have had no reason to commit murder.
Clearly this is an in-your-face moment to all those who would deny that economic circumstances have no effect on criminal behavior. Economic-based suffering is prevalent throughout the novel and is motivated by various types of degradations. Sonia believes that firmly in the Christian ideal that it is through suffering that one becomes a better human being.
At first Rakolnikov disagrees. This disagreement leads both on their different paths to salvation. The novel reflects the bifurcation of thought on this subject that really only came to full consciousness in the 19th century. Before this time, the prevalent opinion on the subject sided Sonia, that human suffering was good because it reflected Christ’s suffering, redemption and salvation. The ideas that Raskolnikov and many others began to embrace during the century questioned that belief system.
Throughout the 19th century, many new ideas would challenge the old religious order as science raise questions about the literal truth of the Bible, and philosophers raised questions about the value of human suffering. This challenge would be directed not only toward religion but also by extension toward the divine right of kings. When Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker because he believes that some humans are endowed with superhuman rights, he is symbolically rejecting the Christian tenets of submission to God and the acceptance of kings.
A single individual committing such an act can be seen as an anomaly, and summarily prosecuted. But what would happen if the masses engaged in Raskolnikov’s reasoning? If everyone felt they were justified in committing horrific acts because the ends justified the means, the result would obviously be anarchy. Anarchy was another political theory swirling in the winds of Russia at the time. Anarchy basically posits the proposition that even if there no alternative with which to replace the status quo, it is still incumbent upon us to bring the system down if it is too corrupt to remain in place. (Clearly, in some respects, Pres. Bush has anarchic tendencies; what I just described is exactly what has taken place in Iraq.)
Despite the fact that anarchy has existed and has led to betterment of societies, we all realized the world cannot operate under such terms. Raskolnikov himself begins to understand and accept this fact. He begins to alienate himself from society, and as he does so he must also question his entire belief system. How can one be a super-human, yet also live in despair and suffering? He starts to question whether reason is a substitute for faith. Eventually, Raskolnikov comes to accept that Sonia was right, after all. That it is indeed suffering that leads one to happiness.
Crime and Punishment is not just the story of a simple murderer. It is also a novel about the time in which it was written. The ideas and the causes of human suffering that motivates the actions of the characters are all integral. Russia in the 19th century was a time in which oppositional forces were at play, driving the country against the will of its leader into a new era.
Although Raskolnikov is presented as the worst that these new ideas could lead to, nonetheless in the end he does represent the direction that Russia moved toward. His embrace of Christian ideals of suffering as the path toward progress would soon enough be replaced by those closer in spirit to the Raskolnikov of the early chapters.