Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Alienation from Society
Alienation is the primary theme of Crime and Punishment. At first, Raskolnikov’s pride separates him from society. He sees himself as superior to all other people and so cannot relate to anyone. Within his personal philosophy, he sees other people as tools and uses them for his own ends. After committing the murders, his isolation grows because of his intense guilt and the half-delirium into which his guilt throws him. Over and over again, Raskolnikov pushes away the people who are trying to help him, including Sonya, Dunya, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, Razumikhin, and even Porfiry Petrovich, and then suffers the consequences. In the end, he finds the total alienation that he has brought upon himself intolerable. Only in the Epilogue, when he finally realizes that he loves Sonya, does Raskolnikov break through the wall of pride and self-centeredness that has separated him from society.
The Psychology of Crime and Punishment
The manner in which the novel addresses crime and punishment is not exactly what one would expect. The crime is committed in Part I and the punishment comes hundreds of pages later, in the Epilogue. The real focus of the novel is not on those two endpoints but on what lies between them—an in-depth exploration of the psychology of a criminal. The inner world of Raskolnikov, with all of its doubts, deliria, second-guessing, fear, and despair, is the heart of the story. Dostoevsky concerns himself not with the actual repercussions of the murder but with the way the murder forces Raskolnikov to deal with tormenting guilt. Indeed, by focusing so little on Raskolnikov’s imprisonment, Dostoevsky seems to suggest that actual punishment is much less terrible than the stress and anxiety of trying to avoid punishment. Porfiry Petrovich emphasizes the psychological angle of the novel, as he shrewdly realizes that Raskolnikov is the killer and makes several speeches in which he details the workings of Raskolnikov’s mind after the killing. Because he understands that a guilt-ridden criminal must necessarily experience mental torture, he is certain that Raskolnikov will eventually confess or go mad. The expert mind games that he plays with Raskolnikov strengthen the sense that the novel’s outcome is inevitable because of the nature of the human psyche.
The Idea of the Superman
At the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov sees himself as a “superman,” a person who is extraordinary and thus above the moral rules that govern the rest of humanity. His vaunted estimation of himself compels him to separate himself from society. His murder of the pawnbroker is, in part, a consequence of his belief that he is above the law and an attempt to establish the truth of his superiority. Raskolnikov’s inability to quell his subsequent feelings of guilt, however, proves to him that he is not a “superman.” Although he realizes his failure to live up to what he has envisioned for himself, he is nevertheless unwilling to accept the total deconstruction of this identity. He continues to resist the idea that he is as mediocre as the rest of humanity by maintaining to himself that the murder was justified. It is only in his final surrender to his love for Sonya, and his realization of the joys in such surrender, that he can finally escape his conception of himself as a superman and the terrible isolation such a belief brought upon him.
Nihilism was a philosophical position developed in Russia in the 1850s and 1860s, known for “negating more,” in the words of Lebezyatnikov. It rejected family and societal bonds and emotional and aesthetic concerns in favor of a strict materialism, or the idea that there is no “mind” or “soul” outside of the physical world. Linked to nihilism is utilitarianism, or the idea that moral decisions should be based on the rule of the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. Raskolnikov originally justifies the murder of Alyona on utilitarian grounds, claiming that a “louse” has been removed from society. Whether or not the murder is actually a utilitarian act, Raskolnikov is certainly a nihilist; completely unsentimental for most of the novel, he cares nothing about the emotions of others. Similarly, he utterly disregards social conventions that run counter to the austere interactions that he desires with the world. However, at the end of the novel, as Raskolnikov discovers love, he throws off his nihilism. Through this action, the novel condemns nihilism as empty.
More main ideas from Crime and Punishment
Guilt is a force in all that has the ability to bring people to insanity. When guilt becomes great enough, the effects it has on people go much deeper than the surface. People’s minds and body’s are overpowered by the guilt that consumes them every second they live with their burden. The devastating effects of guilt are portrayed vividly in Dostoevsky’s fictional but all to real novel Crime and Punishment. In the story, the main character Raskolnikov commits a murder and suffers with the guilt throughout. Eventually his own guilt destroys himself and he is forced to confess. Through Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky bestows on the reader how guilt destroys Raskolnikov’s physical and mental well being, which, in time, leads to complete alienation from society.
When one suffers with a great deal of guilt, their physical health quickly deteriorates. Raskolnikov’s physical suffering begins shortly after the murder with delusions and nonsense ravings while constantly drifting in and out of reality. He often goes into a state of “not completely unconscious” but is in a “feverish state, sometimes delirious, sometimes half conscious”(98) while blaming it on his previous sickness. Raskolnikov is being destroyed by his guilt. He is unable to physically live in society while he has such a burden constantly looming over him.
When in the police station, Raskolnikov hears talk of the murders and with just a reminder of his crime, he quickly becomes weak. When he “recovered consciousness”(88) the men at the station undoubtedly notice his illness and point out that “he can barely stand upright.”(89) His guilt has driven him to a serious state of sickness. He can no longer function normally or even keep consciousness when he is reminded of his crime. Raskolnikov can no longer function normally because his guilt has destroyed is physical capabilities so drastically.
The mental abilities of a person are stifled when they are suffering with a great deal of guilt. Along with his physical health, Raskolnikov’s mental health quickly deteriorates following the murder. He is in a constant state of mental delirium and has constant ravings that are very irrational. However, Raskolnikov’s true state is shown when Razumihin tells him “You are delirious you know!” and Raskolnikov’s response is a bold “No I am not!”(93) Even though Raskolnikov is in a state of delirium, his problem is so serious because he is totally oblivious to his state and completely denies it when wise, rational men tell him that he is. Raskolnikov’s guilt has taken him from a wise, educated, scholar to being incapable of rational thought. As the story progresses, the guilt becomes increasingly heavier on Raskolnikov’s mind.
Others begin to notice this to including Petrovich who describes Raskolnikov as a “moth near a candle” who will keep “circling around [him], circling around [him]” all the time “narrowing the radius more and more, and-whop!”(352) Petrovich is aware of Raskolnikov’s state and he knows that Raskolnikov cannot live with his guilt. He knows like a moth around a candle that it is only a matter of time before the guilt is unbearable and Raskolnikov will have to confess everything. Raskolnikov’s guilt becomes his biggest enemy as it continues to break down his mind and leads him away from normal society.
As Raskolnikov becomes torn apart by his guilt, he begins to separate himself from society which leads to complete alienation from everybody. He becomes a man that is so different from everyone around him that he no longer belongs. With “a sweep of his arm”(96), a drastic realization falls on Raskolnikov as he flings the coin into the water. “It seemed to him, he had cut himself off from everyone and everything at that moment.”(96) Raskolnikov no longer puts value on what his society values the highest. He is terribly poor and hungry, but throws twenty cockpeckcs into the river and thus destroying any ties he still had with society. Because of his alienation, Raskolnikov is no longer able to express his feelings and emotions with anybody. When Raskolnikov claims of hearing things, Natasha tells him that “it’s the blood crying in [his] ears.”(96)
Unknowingly, she realizes his disconnection from society as she tells him “when there is no outlet for it and it gets clotted, [he] begins fancying things.”(96) The blood in his ears is a metaphor for his alienation and how when there is no outlet, meaning he has no one to talk to, it clots and he imagines things, which is his state of delirium. As Raskolnikov becomes detached from society, he begins to make his own world in his head where his ideals are his deciding factors. He even has reason for murder. He convinces himself that “it wasn’t a human being [he] killed” but rather he believes “it was a principle!”(223)
Raskolnikov believes he has become the world’s superman and truly done a good deed by riding the world of an “illness”(223) to society. By this point, Raskolnikov has no ties to society as he has created his own value system and believes he has a license to kill. Raskolnikov’s guilt changes him such that he breaks away from society, which snowballs into him being completely alienated with no one who thinks on an equal level.
Guilt is the main factor that drives Raskolnikov to insanity which leads to his alienation. Guilt attacks his physical heath making him drift in and out of consciousness, which makes him no longer function normally in society. During this, his mind is being consistently deteriorated by the guilt causing irrational thought. Raskolnikov eventually becomes alienated from society as he no longer thinks or acts like the people around him. Raskolnikov does not improve until he confesses and takes the consequences does he return to normal. Through Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky brilliantly shows the power that guilt truly has on a person.