This article is part of a series on Dostoevsky’s Great Works. See also:
- The Brothers Karamazov: The Other Brothers
- Crime and Punishment: Flesh and Bronze
- The Idiot: Give and Take
“For one life, a thousand lives saved from decay and disintegration. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic!” (69)
As Raskolnikov’s life grows hopeless, murder seems like his only option. He’d pull himself out of poverty and go back to law school. He’d save his sister from a scandalous marriage to a wealthy official, an arrangement Raskolnikov likens to prostitution. Above all, he’d gain his independence. All it would cost is one life! One life; one shrewd, old moneylender; one parasite to society; gone. And a lifetime of freedom in return. Raskolnikov would be wrong not to kill!
So goes Raskolnikov’s logic. Some men kill with impunity. Why shouldn’t he? Not only are these people unpunished, they’re praised!
The real Ruler, to whom everything is allowed, smashes Toulon, commits a massacre in Paris, forgets an army in Egypt, wastes half a million men in his Moscow campaign and gets off with a pun at Vilnyus; and when he dies he gets monuments put up to him. (283-4)
Raskolnikov wants more than independence. He wants fame, praise, monuments. He wants greatness. And why should he not get it?
In fact, as the story progresses, it seems that the latter motive weighs heavier and heavier. Raskolnikov is just as impoverished as ever; he doesn’t even spend the money he stole. Returning to school is the furthest thing from his mind. It seems that he’s waiting for something else.
But the greatness never comes. Instead, Raskolnikov is met by tortured delirium, twisted dreams, and a slipping grip on reality. He dreams he’s back at the old pawnbroker’s house, but her face is obscured, and when the axe falls, it bounces, like it had struck wood, not flesh and bone, and she just laughs, cackling harder and harder at a Raskolnikov consumed by impotence and fear. He meets a stranger in the street, in part dream, part hallucination, part reality—even the reader isn’t sure which—and the stranger snarls just a few words: “You’re a killer!” He’s tormented by Svidrigailov, who’s as frighteningly manipulative as he is charming. “Why should eternity be grand and enormous?” Svidrigailov asks, regarding the afterlife. “Could it not resemble a sooty village bathhouse, with spiders in all the corners?” Raskolnikov’s blood runs cold.
Forget the afterlife. Why does Raskolnikov’s life, now, feel more like a sooty bathhouse than a grand eternity?
…and when he dies he gets monuments put up to him. Therefore everything is allowed. No! It’s clear those people are made of bronze, not flesh and blood! (284)
Raskolnikov is struck with his worst fear yet: that he himself is made of flesh, not bronze! A man of bronze, a Napoleon, wouldn’t feel tortured at the thought of a criminal act. Indeed, it wouldn’t even occur to him to view the act as a transgression in the first place. Raskolnikov’s guilt is his greatest failure: only ordinary men feel guilt.
Even in Siberia, Raskolnikov refuses to attribute his error to the murder itself. Rather, his mistake was thinking that he was a man of bronze when he wasn’t. Napoleon certainly wouldn’t have gone to the police to confess! If Raskolnikov were a Napoleon, he’d still be living back in Petersburg.
Only Sonya, with her heart of gold, can point Raskolnikov to the light. “You must accept suffering and redeem yourself by it, that’s what you must do,” she says (437). Suddenly, on one cold Siberia morning, Raskolnikov is struck with infinite love for Sonia, life, and God.
They wanted to say something but were unable to. Tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those pale, sickly faces of theirs already reflected the radiant dawn of a renewed future, of resurrection to a new life. Love had resurrected them; the heart of one held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other. (573)
Raskolnikov learns that all life has value, whether Napoleon or old crone; it’s all the same flesh and blood. The value of any life, including his own, is independent of status. In fact, time spent attempting to conquer life amounts to time lost living it. In one glance, Raskolnikov is completely transformed.
Does the reader believe it? Regardless, the message stands. Crime and Punishment rearticulates the Greek story of Icarus: no matter how appealing the sun looks, life might be better spent coasting among the clouds.