Flesh and Bronze

This article is part of a series on Dostoevsky’s Great Works. See also:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov: The Other Brothers
  2. Crime and Punishment: Flesh and Bronze
  3. 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)

Icarus and Daedalus

In the Greek myth, Icarus ignores his father’s advice and soars too close to the sun.

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.

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3 comments on “Flesh and Bronze

  1. Ben says:

    You’re right to pinpoint “the desire to be ultimate” (as I like to phrase it) as the source of Raskolnikov’s — and many others’ — torturous thoughts and self-destructive actions.

    Two things you neglected.

    The gripping, disorienting force of Raskolnikov’s mental hallucinations. Evil phantoms gripped him: from the nightmarish vision of the still-alive, hardly-human Ivanovna, to the twisting, evil dreams of the disturbing Svidrilaigov. (Another question: who REALLY WAS Svidrilaigov, and what was his significance? Was he, as I hypothesize, the Devil himself? “[His] was a strange face, like a mask; white and red, with bright red lips…”)

    The strong role of religion in Raskolnikov’s redemption. His life and early prison sentence could be characterized by a state of rebellion; note that his fellow inmates accused him of atheism. Now, we see his transformation. From Raskolnikov’s emotional involvement with Sonia and the Raising of Lazarus, to his sublime recognition that “Those beliefs could become mine”, we must recognize Christianity as the primary agent in Raskolnikov’s turn towards the light.

    Now, a deeper question: why is Christianity intimately connected with the desire (or, more fittingly, the lack thereof) to be ultimate? Without a God above, one seeks himself to ascend over man, desperately aching for something worthy of worship. Under an infinite God, meanwhile, the “differences between men are leveled”, and the pursuit of ascendancy becomes obsolete.

    Yet another question: why IS the pursuit of ascendancy bad? I might be forced to answer this empirically: “It just happens to produce bad results.” In other words, I don’t know if I can identify an “intrinsic source of badness”.

    An interesting point: Nietzsche’s “figurative ascendancy” as described in Thus Spoke Zarathustra — which (contrary to popular belief) has absolutely nothing to do with other people, a “solitary ascendancy” — is not portrayed as evil-inducing. Might the two be reconciled? It’s possible that it’s not ascendancy in general but ascendancy over others which is damaging. Such a belief would remain compatible with both books.

    Finally, my favorite phrase of C&P: “The gradual regeneration of a man.”

  2. Richard says:

    I feel that the form of Raskolnikov’s ‘redemption’ was an unhappy and unimaginative reversion to Christian-like doctrines – at least, it is ‘unhappy’ in terms of literary quality. Certainly it is comforting and useful to any who so experience remorse and expect its resolution, but it unfairly suggests than men of bronze are merely mythic, that even Napoleon was mere flesh and so perhaps, C&P falls short of the Nietzschean overtones present in Raskolnikov’s original ambitions. Is it a cop out from Dostoevsky? Has his original commitment waned? Ascendancy over others need not be damaging to the individual, Ben, it depends on whether the individual is bronze or merely flesh.

    • Josh says:

      It seems like you’re making a few points here.

      Firstly, you’re saying the conclusion was of poor literary quality.

      I think there are plenty of critics who would agree with you. Still, though, I think the best judge of a text should be how the reader feels when reading it. I, for one, actually felt thrilled that the story ended how it did, and wouldn’t have had it another way. I agree that it was a bit sudden and perhaps contrived. I mean, Dostoevsky easily could have ended it on a gloomy note. But I enjoyed the way it turned out, so that should be evidence enough of its quality. Others might feel some other way.

      It also sounds like you’re saying that said “bronze men” like Napoleon are truly real, and one can achieve Nietzschean ascendancy, if only one is bronze. Well, this seems to miss the point of C&P altogether. Clearly, this is Raskolnikov’s belief before his whole transformation. But Dostoesvky is making the case that such a belief is false, or at least pernicious.

      Maybe it’s true that Napoleon truly was made of bronze. Still, though, most of us are made of flesh. C&P was certainly written for those fleshy humans among us. Those of us who are bronze need not regard the text.

      I could make a stronger argument, though, which is that even Napoleon wasn’t bronze. After all: if we’re seeking ascendancy, isn’t everyone who’s better than us made of bronze? And everyone who’s worse than us a lousy, rotten piece of flesh? What about Napoleon? Was he the single greatest man he knew? The smartest, strongest, most attractive, etc.? Or did Napoleon also have insecurities? Perhaps even Napoleon felt fleshy, at times. So C&P was written for him too. I don’t think there’s a single individual out there without an insecurity.

      Do you ever feel less than bronze? If so, you should give C&P another read.

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