Crime and Punishment: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

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By Own Finlay

“God is dead.” So said Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882’s The Gay Science, but for some, God had been dead long before Nietzsche wrote His death into the public consciousness and put in His place stood a new breed of men, the Übermensch. Before Nietzsche, there was Fyodor Dostoevsky who, at the time of writing Crime and Punishment in 1866, set out to deconstruct this type of man who epitomized a distancing from the church, something the reformed clerical reactionary could not let succeed. To accomplish this, Dostoevsky created the character of Rodion Raskolnikov whom the author posits as a precursor for what would become Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the superman or ‘extraordinary man’ as Raskolnikov refers to it in the novel. Dostoevsky, on his tours of Europe, had observed this type of person and despised them for having stepped away from the Orthodox Church that he so cherished. To this end, he portrays Raskonlikov’s proto-Übermensch philosophy as self-destructive and contradictory in the wake of his crime. Only through suffering and rebirth with the help of the church does Raskolnikov cease the raving and illness that plagued him. Additionally, Dostoevsky parallels Raskolnikov with the biblical figure of Lazarus, showing how both are reborn to praise God, very much to Dostoevsky’s liking. However, Dostoevsky also creates a character in Svidrigailov who is so far beyond Raskolnikov in his extraordinary ways that Dostoevsky’s belief that even the worst can recover by submitting to God seems to falter. Svidrigailov is one half of a deep and affecting divide in C & P that appears in the mind of both Raskolnikov and Dostoevsky and one that appears to haunt both throughout the novel.

The concept of the Übermensch was created and defined in philosophical and psychological terms by Nietzsche in his 1883 book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where he uses it to contrast the other-worldliness morality of Christianity and instead posits these superhuman men as able to do anything they wish within the moral vacuum of nihilism. Dostoevsky first observed these now archetypal figures on his various tours of Western Europe, mainly London, Paris, and Berlin, between 1862-3. In his Writer’s Diary, Dostoevsky, a proud Russian Orthodox, warily remarks of Western Europe that, “Do you know how many tears we shed and the pangs of heart we suffer at the fate of this dear and native country, and how frightened we are by the storm clouds that are ever gathering on her horizon?” (Dostoevsky 198).

Although not mentioned here by name, the storm clouds Dostoevsky refers to are the proto-Übermensch, very liberal figures who were forming the middle class of Western Europe and sprouting up in Western European literature of the time. The author’s worry is that, as scholar Vsevolod Bagno notes, “the tragedy of the Europe of his time was that it had gone away from Christ” (Bagno 50). Dostoevsky sees the emergence of the extraordinary man as a direct product from this distancing from the church, because they are people who believe they can act on a level above God. Bagno further remarks on Dostoevesky’s view of Western Europe that, “his complaints and forecasts are to be perceived as a view ‘from within’ whereas his compatriots, broad as their scope may have been, basically regarded Europe ‘from without’” (49). Perhaps because of his travels, Dosteovesky didn’t see Western Europe as quite so distant from his beloved Russia. As a result, his anxiety about a potential Übermensch ‘invasion’ of Russia can be seen in his writing of C&P, where Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov enact the values of an Übermensch to varying degrees. Even though C&P predates the publishing of Zarathustra by 17 years, this figure, the Übermensch persona, was flourishing in Europe and Dostoevsky, to say the least, eschewed it and set out to deconstruct it in C&P.

In the article that Raskolnikov writes prior to committing his crime, he outlines Dostoevsky’s view of the extraordinary man. Detective Porfiry Petrovich sums up Raskolnikov’s article as, “Ordinary people should live a life of obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law” (310), but “extraordinary people have the right to carry out all manner of crimes and to break the law as they please, all because they are extraordinary” (310). Raskolnikov is somewhat annoyed at how bluntly Porfiry summarizes his ideas, but Porfiry’s definition is accurate: the extraordinary man is able to circumvent laws and restrictions to further his vision. Raskolnikov adds some nuance to the definition in his response, “All I did was hint that an ‘extraordinary’ person has the right … not an official right, that is, but a personal one, to permit his conscience to step over … certain obstacles, but if and only if the fulfilment of his idea demands it.” (310). Raskolnikov modifies the idea into a personal choice; there is no official law stating extraordinary men are above it, but this is beside the point as an Übermensch most likely would not even observe, or maybe discard, these rules in the first place given his high status. He goes on to describe how humanity’s greatest leaders have been criminals, but also extraordinary people: “if for no other reason than that, by introducing a new law, they violated the ancient law held sacred … and it goes without saying that they did not fear from bloodshed, so long as the blood could help them.” (311). This is a perfect description of Raskolnikov’s mindset going into the murder. He believes that, by committing this crime, he will be able to fund his education and help hundreds if not thousands. However, this is only the argument Raskolnikov uses to patch over the emerging extraordinary thoughts that are bouncing around his mind. He overhears this very concept being discussed earlier in the novel between a man who tells a policeman that, “Won’t thousands of good deeds iron out one tiny little crime? For one life – thousands of lives saved from decay and ruin” (80). These are not extraordinary men. They make arguments to keep themselves confined inside the rules of the law; the crime may be outside of the law but the ensuing productive results are not; they don’t harbour the same nihilism that is so striking in Svidrigailov and is the reason he does not observe the law. A truly extraordinary man does not need to bother with middling utilitarian justifications for their actions when they are committed to furthering themselves and themselves alone, within the realms of the law or otherwise. In Giorgio Faro’s words, “Therefore it is no longer merely utilitarian or humanitarian reasons that explain Rodya’s deed, but the passage to the proud, contemptuous conception of the Übermensch” (277). Towards the end of the novel, Raskolnikov bluntly admits that he desperately wanted to be an Übermensch when he breaks down to Sonya and confesses, “I wanted to become a Napoleon, that’s why I killed” (498) and “I killed for a dare” (502) because that’s what Napoleon, an Übermensch, would do. Dostoevsky includes the important detail that Raskolnikov never truly is an Übermensch; he merely wants to be. No matter how hard Raskolnikov tries to become an extraordinary man, he never can be one just because he wants to. Dostoevsky installs this philosophy in Raskolnikov’s character in order to show the terrible effects and outcomes he perceives. By the end of the text, Raskolnikov has become a twisted and raving lunatic all because of the crime he commits to test himself.

Dostoyevsky’s portrayal of the many extraordinary contradictions that tear Raskolnikov apart demonstrates just how negatively he views the Übermensch philosophy. The most startling of these contradictions is the one most physically taxing on Raskolnikov. The Übermensch shouldn’t suffer for their crimes because they contribute to humanity’s progress. Yet, following his crime, Raskolnikov becomes viciously ill. Raskolnikov even admits this and contradicts his prior statements on foregoing suffering when discussing the matter with Porfiry: “Suffering and pain are always mandatory for broad minds and deep hearts. Truly great people, it seems to me, should feel great sadness on this earth” (317). Another fierce contradiction for Dostoevsky is why an extraordinary man should be so secretive if he is benefiting humanity. Raskolnikov tells Porfiry that he would “hardly tell you if I did step over them” (318) in reference to the lines of law and society. If he was making strides for the greater good then why would he not be inclined to share his actions? What perhaps hounds Raskolnikov the most is the ability of the superman to “utter a new word” (312), something he admits to desiring when he responds “Quite possibly” (318) after Porfiry asks him if it was his goal to express his Übermensch philosophy when writing his article. However, as Razumikhin points out, “this [Raskolnikov’s article] isn’t new and resembles everything we’ve read and heard a thousand times before” (315), which Raskolnikov reluctantly agrees with. The most damning contradiction is Raskolnikov’s quest to know whether or not he really is an extraordinary man, but, of course, an extraordinary man does not need to wonder about such things. Dostoyevsky clarifies his views on this when Porfiry asks Raskolnikov if there’s an identifier of an Übermensch and Raskolnikov’s answer is that “there’s nothing, in short, for you to worry about … There’s a law at work here” (314), which implies that an identifier is not needed because the extraordinary man will know of their extraordinariness. The great problem here is that Raskolnikov commits his crime to see if he can be a Napoleon, thereby proving he’s not a Napoleon. Raskolnikov’s regret and shame are palpable when he tells this to Sonya, “I was horribly ashamed when it finally got through to me that not only would he [Napoleon] not have been put off, it wouldn’t even have occurred to him that there was nothing grand about it [the crime]” (498-9). Faro aptly sums Raskolnikov’s contradiction and resulting illness as, “nobody is more prey to evil than he who believes he can put himself and his actions above good and evil” (282). Dosteovesky clearly portrays how Raskolnikov is haunted by the many contradictions of the Übermensch philosophy, one that picks apart his psyche and unravels his mind as each mistake becomes more obvious to him.

Raskolnikov’s only option then, as presented by Dosteovesky, is recantation. Raskolnikov must give himself up to God, admit his mistake and bear his suffering if he wishes to both repent for his crime and recover from the illness that stems from trying to become an extraordinary man. To illustrate this concept, Dostoevsky parallels Raskolnikov’s death as an Übermensch and rebirth into Orthodoxy with the biblical figure of Lazarus. In the bible, Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus because “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (11:25-6, KJV). In C&P, Sonya convinces Raskolnikov to give into God and be reborn a Christian, which Raskolnikov does, completing the parallel. Lazarus himself is referenced numerous times throughout the course ofC&P, including a near full description of his resurrection that Raskolnikov demands Sonya read to him (390-3). Indeed, when Sonya reads, “And the dead man came out” (393), it reeks of Raskolnikov’s disposition. Allusions to the concept of death and rebirth appear earlier, most notably when Raskolnikov is being treated by the doctor, Zosimov. He tells Raskolnikov that “your full recovery now depends mainly and solely on you … I should like to impress upon you how essential it is for you to eliminate the primary and, as it were, deep-rooted causes that helped bring about your illness; only then will you be cured” (267). These lines are not in direct reference to a repentance from Raskolnikov; they apply to his illness, but Dostoevsky is alluding here to how Raskolnikov must exorcise the Übermensch philosophy inside of him to return to health. Eventually, Raskolnikov repents of his crime and takes Sonya’s advice to “tell everyone out loud: ‘I have killed!’ Then God will send you life once more” (504) and that he must suffer for his crimes because he has to “Accept suffering and through suffering redeem yourself” (505). For Raskolnikov, that means he must spend the lawfully acquitted time in jail in Siberia, where we end the novel. By paralleling the two stories of Raskolnikov and Lazarus, Dostoevsky is showing how faith in God and accepting punishment will absolve your crimes. As Harold Bloom phrases it, “His [Dostoevsky’s] design upon us is to raise us, like Lazarus, from our own nihilism or skepticism, and then convert us to Orthodoxy” (4). For Dostoevsky, it is both a physical and a philosophical crime to believe in an ideology as conceited and sacrilegious as the extraordinary man that Raskolnikov almost becomes.

However, Dostoevsky doesn’t seem to fully commit to his evangelical side, as a certain character seems to escape his Christian redemption narrative. Svidrigailov is the Übermenschiest of the Übermensch; he is so extraordinary as to reject all the flaws of Raskolnikov’s precarious extraordinary status that cause his hysterical descent. Raskolnikov himself laments this fact when he’s questioning his actions in Siberia: “those people [extraordinary men] coped with the step that they took, which is why they are right, but I couldn’t cope with mine, so I had no right to take it” (651). Unlike Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov is able to cope with the three murders, at a minimum, to which Dostoevsky alludes. This is because Svidrigailov is an utterly selfish being with no remorse. He handles himself in an idiosyncratic and eerie manner, inhuman perhaps, an ability the former doesn’t have. Raskolnikov recognizes this when thinking of Svidrigailov’s suicide: “Was the desire to live really so strong, was it really that hard to overcome? Hadn’t Svidrigailov overcome it, despite his fear of death?” (651). More than anything, Svidrigailov is bored with life. His one goal seemed to be to have Dunya love him, but when she walks out on him after she fails to kill him, he loses the one thing his extraordinary capabilities cannot control. After he loses this goal that has kept him confined to this world, his nihilistic outlook becomes so strong as to decry life itself by committing suicide. To disregard the rules of life is as extraordinary as one can possibly be. If he had tried to stop her and rape her, something he certainly feels no qualms doing, it would seem to play into the Übermensch model. However, the “moment of dreadful, dumb struggle” (596) that occurs in Svidrigailov’s soul forms him into a being of only pure nihilism, the fuel of the extraordinary man. This is the harsh reality of the extraordinary men that Dostoevsky depicts: the nihilism that allows them to step over all boundaries is the one that crushes them in the end. Just as the five year-old girl turns into “one of those French ladies of the night” (611) in Svidrigailov’s dreams, Dostoevsky paints both Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov’s nihilism as initially beneficial, but as in the case of the former where his nihilism consumes him, it figures a mortal end.

Still, Svidrigailov plays counter to Dostoevsky’s Orthodox morals. He is a character for whom recantation can neither save nor is even an option, and in Dostoevsky’s creation of a character as supremely nihilistic as Svidrigailov, he lets the reader observe a place of doubt that plagues the writer’s mind. This place of doubt is seeded in Raskolnikov too, as the narrator remarks of Raskolnikov’s prior realization of Svidrigailov’s extraordinariness that “He couldn’t understand that this premonition might have been the herald of a future breaking point in his existence, a future resurrection, his view of life” (651). When Svidrigailov commits suicide, fully embracing his extraordinary status, he defies a fundamental belief for a devout Orthodox such as Dostoevsky, that anyone can be saved by God. If Dostoevsky believes Raskolnikov can be saved, and as Svidrigailov coolly observes, “wasn’t I right to say we’re birds of a feather?” (348), he too should be given the chance at redemption. The two aren’t so different as it first seems, yet Dostoevsky only chooses to save one. It suggests a fear in Dostoevsky; he’s not as sure of his faith as Raskolnikov’s salvation makes it seem. Dostoevsky doesn’t even seem to suggest that Svidrigailov will be worse off in the afterlife of a supposed hell. After all, Svidrigailov’s vision of eternity is “there’ll just be some little room, some sooty bath-hut, say, with spiders in every corner” (347) and this astonishingly, above all else, boring afterlife is “exactly how I’d arrange things myself!” (347). This extraordinary view of life becomes the demonic side of the divide in C&P that exists between Svidrigailov and Sonya, inside of Raskolnikov, and inside of Dostoevsky as well. Svidrigailov’s manner of existence serves to widen the chasm in Dostoevsky’s mind as much as Raskolnikov’s. Both appear to be fearful of his nihilism and this is the true reason for Raskolnikov’s ultimate repentance.

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky presents the reader with a thorough breakdown of the extraordinary man. He accomplishes this by drawing on his visits to western Europe and the figures he encountered there. He also makes the novel a catalyst to promote his own Orthodoxy as a means of redemption. However, like the fierce battle in Raskolnikov’s mind between his extraordinary and Christian thoughts, there existed a deep divide in Dostoevsky between his own Christian morals and his need to fully realize the philosophy of the people whom he viewed as harbingers of secularism. One side is embodied by the ‘to a fault’ saint Sonya who will love and thrust God upon anyone, while, on the other side, is the demonic Svidrigailov, whose nihilism drives him to death and renders all notions of God’s salvation futile. Raskolnikov acts as the bridge between the sides of the chasm. His decision to repent ultimately places him on the side of Orthodoxy, affirming Dostoevsky’s intentions to show the virtue of the church. Indeed, Faro succinctly explains Dostoevsky’s anachronistic conundrum: “To choose Nietzsche’s Übermensch, one must, therefore, bet on the inexistence of God” (283). However, Raskolnikov’s sudden embrace of faith and Dostoevsky’s tendentiousness may leave the reader unconvinced of both his change of heart and therefore Dostoevsky’s reactionary vision of a redeeming church. Perhaps, somewhere out in the world ‘Svidrigailov lives’ is spray-painted onto subway walls.


Works Cited

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Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Penguin Random House,


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