Verdure and Vermin: The Similarity and Superiority of Emma Woodhouse and Raskolnikov

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by Marcus Degenstein

At first glance, Jane Austen’s Emma and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment seem as different from one another as two novels can be. Their protagonists inhabit vastly different worlds and reckon with stakes orders of magnitude apart in their gravity; while Crime and Punishment’s Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov trudges through the bleak and hopeless alleys of St. Petersburg, grappling with the mental and legal consequences of a double axe murder, Emma Woodhouse spends her days amongst the upper crust of Highbury, a quaint village in the British countryside, where backhanded insults are the most grievous harm one can inflict upon another. Despite the vast gulf in tone and setting between their two worlds, though, Emma and Raskolnikov are fundamentally very similar characters with very similar trajectories: outwardly, both project their feelings of superiority, while internally they are deeply insecure. That insecurity preys on their minds, facilitating a gradual degradation of each’s mental state, until finally each accepts their insecurity, freeing themselves from their anxiety and hatred. This essay will demonstrate that Emma and Raskolnikov undergo the same journey by breaking it up into three primary premises and proving one premise after the other: first, it will establish how Emma and Raskolnikov seem to believe that they are superior to those around them; subsequently, it will demonstrate how Emma and Raskolnikov are insecure in that superiority, which has a detrimental effect on their emotional states; and, finally, it will reveal how accepting their insecurities allows Emma and Raskolnikov to be happy.

To begin with, Austen illustrates Emma’s superiority through her relationships with those around her, which allows Austen to highlight Emma’s utter lack of regard for the wellbeing of others. Emma’s conscious belief in her own superiority manifests as a willingness to manipulate the lives of those around her to suit her own whims. Other scholars have identified this trait as well, and characterize “Emma’s fancies, her manipulations, her imagination” as being “those of a creator” (Morgan 37) – one who imposes her will on those around her to shape it into what she desires. Those scholars also note that “her fault is not that she sees herself as a perceptive observer but that she really sees herself as a director and the people around her as extensions of her will” (Morgan 37).  This characterization of Emma – that she sees herself as the writer of her own story – is an apt analogy for Emma’s perspective on her relationships with those around her. Emma’s disregard for the free will of others is strong enough that she feels within her rights to manipulate others into acting out her will, becoming characters in the drama she wants to play out, all for her own entertainment.

In particular, Emma’s matchmaking efforts demonstrate this tendency. In conversation with her father and Mr. Knightley, for instance, Emma takes credit for setting up the marriage of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, claiming, “‘I made the match myself’” (10). Mr. Knightley takes issue with this, arguing that Emma’s so-called matchmaking amounts to little more than “saying to [herself] one idle day, ‘I think it would be a very good thing for Miss Taylor if Mr. Weston were to marry her’” (11). Implicitly, Mr. Knightley accuses Emma of acting frivolously, affecting the lives of those around her without regard for what is actually best for those people. As such, Austen demonstrates how Emma considers herself superior to those around her; Emma’s actions imply that she believes she is superior to others to the point that she is within her rights to meddle in the lives of her friends and neighbours with impunity.

Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith serves as another example of this willingness to impose her own will on others. Before Emma initiates this relationship, Austen makes clear to the audience that the burgeoning relationship is not a naturally-formed friendship, but rather a calculated, intentional move by Emma to establish a pet project with which she can amuse herself. Emma meets Harriet in the wake of the marriage of Miss Taylor — Emma’s closest friend, with whom she shared “the intimacy of sisters” (5) — to Mr. Weston, which removes Miss Taylor from Emma’s immediate social orbit and puts Emma “in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude” (6). In order to occupy herself and fill the void left by Miss Taylor’s departure, Emma seizes upon Harriet as a project that Emma can use to entertain herself. Harriet, in Emma’s eyes, will not suffice as an intellectual replacement for Miss Taylor, as Emma is “not struck by anything remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation” (19), but given the merit of Harriet’s beauty and manners (19), Emma sees in Harriet “a girl who wanted only a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect” (19). Given this, Emma takes it upon herself to be the one to improve Harriet: “She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners” (19). Once again, Austen underscores Emma’s belief in her own superiority. The fact that Emma works towards “improving” Harriet betrays the thought process of a person who thinks that they know best; she spares no consideration for Harriet’s thoughts or opinions in endeavouring to reform Harriet’s personality.

Like Emma, Raskolnikov’s belief in his own superiority is most apparent in the ways in which he interacts with those around him. Throughout Crime and Punishment, he consistently behaves disrespectfully and callously, especially towards his closest friends and family. He berates Razumikhin for attempting to check in on his mental health, accusing Razumikhin of having an “urge to torment people” and of being “a constant irritation” (201). He forbids Dunya to marry Luzhin on pain of disownment, saying, “even if I am a scoundrel, a sister like that is no sister of mine” (237), for which Razumikhin labels him “a tyrant” (237). He torments Sonya with predictions of Katerina Ivanovna’s imminent death and of Polechka “[going] the same way” as Sonya (385), reduced to prostitution to survive. In all of these cases, Raskolnikov’s sheer lack of consideration for the well-being of those that care for him is indicative of his belief in his own superiority. The emotional detachment and lack of empathy he shows towards others suggests that he sees them as below his concern.

Furthermore, the audience receives some insight into Raskolnikov’s mentality midway through Crime and Punishment, during a conversation with Porfiry Petrovich. Raskolnikov describes how he sees the world as divided into two categories of people: ordinary people, who “live a life of obedience and do not have the right to overstep the law” (310), and extraordinary people, whom Raskolnikov argues “[have] the right […] to permit [their] conscience to step over . . . certain obstacles, but if and only if the fulfilment of [their] idea […] demands it” (310). In response, Porfiry insinuates that “it is simply inconceivable […] that [Raskolnikov] didn’t also think of [himself] as being at least a teeny bit ‘extraordinary’ as well”, which Raskolnikov concedes (317-318). This is tantamount to an admission of Raskolnikov’s belief in his own superiority, despite any insecurities he may have, given that merely believing that one could be an “extraordinary man” is an indication of a genuine belief in one’s inherent superiority. To believe that one could be an “extraordinary” person, one must already believe that they are different or special in some way; considering oneself “extraordinary” does not even cross the mind of someone who does not think of themselves as inherently special. Consequently, whether or not Raskolnikov believes he is “extraordinary,” on some level, he believes that he is distinct from the masses and, therefore, superior.

The evidence outlining Raskolnikov’s sense of superiority does not portray the whole truth of his psychological state, however; while he believes in his own excellence, as already shown, further scrutiny of his behaviour suggests that he is insecure in his superiority. For Raskolnikov, this manifests as a desperation to prove that he is an “extraordinary man,” which is the driving motivation behind the murder of Alyona Ivanovna. Throughout Crime and Punishment, he hints at a number of motivations for the murder; frequently, he claims that he intended to use the pawnbroker’s money to “support [himself] at university” where he could “make a real go of it” (500) or that he “realized that power is given only to the man who dares to stoop and grab,” so he “killed for a dare” (502). However, these supposed motivations ring hollow; in fact, Raskolnikov abandons the stolen money the following day (132-133), and far from demonstrating his strength of will, the murder renders him so anxious he enters “a state of near-oblivion” upon leaving (105). Eventually, when backed into a corner by Sonya, he admits that he killed to see if he could do it: “What I needed to find out […] was whether I was a louse, like everyone else, or a human being. […] Was I a quivering creature or did I have the right …?” (503) . Raskolnikov attempts to portray himself as a true “extraordinary man” through his supposed motivations; both narratives he presents characterize him as someone who “steps over obstacles” to fulfil his desires. As such, Raskolnikov clearly wishes to be seen as an “extraordinary man,” but does not believe that he truly is one, hence his resorting to lies. Furthermore, his admission that he “needed to find out” whether or not he had “the right” to kill confirms his insecurity. A true “extraordinary man” would never have needed to ask themselves if they had “the right” to step over obstacles; they would simply have done it. The fact that Raskolnikov hesitates at all demonstrates his self-doubt.

Emma, too, is insecure in her feelings of superiority, though it is her external relationships rather than internal mentality that establishes this, and in terms of demonstrating her insecurity, no relationship is more revealing than the one between her and Jane Fairfax. Austen establishes Jane as an individual who, from Emma’s point of view, challenges her established position in the community; both share a number of different traits that present Jane as a potential threat to Emma’s superiority. For example, both women are very near in age, being around twenty-one years old, and are described frequently as “handsome” (5) or “remarkably elegant” (131); both were raised in high society, Emma by her family and Jane by the Campbells – family friends who had brought her up such that “her heart and understanding had received every advantage of discipline and culture” (128-129); and both Emma and Jane share reputations of being extraordinarily well-liked and thought nigh-perfect by their community. In these regards, Jane represents an unwitting rival to Emma – one who challenges Emma’s position as the beautiful young woman put on a pedestal by the community. As scholars note, to Emma, “Jane’s fine qualities are […] reminders of what Emma is missing” (Morgan 43). Mr. Knightley remarks as much to Emma, and claims to her that the reason she does not like Jane is because Emma “[sees] in [Jane] the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself” (130) – by threatening Emma’s position as the only “perfect” young woman in Highbury, Jane reveals insecurity in Emma’s superiority.

Jane’s effect on Emma manifests itself in a handful of different moments, but one particularly notable example comes at one of the many parties of Highbury high society, during a conversation between Emma and Mrs. Weston. Mrs. Weston confides in Emma that she suspects Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax may be falling in love with one another, which provokes a vehement condemnation of such a suggestion from Emma: “‘Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax!’ exclaimed Emma. ‘Dear Mrs. Weston, how could you think of such a thing?—Mr. Knightley!—Mr. Knightley must not marry!— […] and I am sure it is not at all likely. I am amazed that you should think of such a thing’” (176). The strength of Emma’s reaction indicates the degree to which Emma’s sense of superiority is destabilized by Jane. Emma, unbeknownst to her at this moment in the novel, is in love with Mr. Knightley. With this in mind, it becomes apparent that Emma, at the moment of this revelation, begins to subconsciously consider Jane a rival for Mr. Knightley’s love. The vehemence with which Emma reacts betrays her insecurity by highlighting how concerned she is by the potential threat that Jane poses. Were Emma devoid of insecurities about her superiority, she would not consider Jane a threat. Jane lacks the same pedigree of wealth that Emma possesses; while she was raised by the wealthy Campbells, Austen’s narrator remarks that “to provide for her […] was out of Colonel Campbell’s power” (128), with Jane’s financial future predicated on bringing her up “for educating others” (128) – to become a governess, and leave high society behind. The class boundaries between Jane and Mr. Knightley, then, would make their union an incredible improbability, which Emma, as socially conscious as she is, would be aware of; to know this and still be concerned with the threat of Mr. Knightley’s marriage to Jane is indicative of a high degree of subconscious insecurity.

This starts a trend that can be seen throughout the novel, until Mr. Knightley’s eventual confession of love to Emma: as Emma becomes more insecure in her superiority, her emotional state deteriorates. When Emma learns that Harriet is in love with Knightley and that, therefore, the individual she had spent so much time improving is now a rival for the affections of her love interest, her emotional state deteriorates as she begins to loathe Harriet: “How Harriet could ever have had the presumption to raise her thoughts to Mr. Knightley!—How she could dare to fancy herself the chosen of such a man till actually assured of it!—[…]—Her inferiority, whether of mind or situation, seemed little felt” (325). Like with Jane Fairfax, Emma should know that Harriet stands no chance of stealing Knightley; the fact that she becomes so vitriolic towards Harriet, insisting on her “inferiority,” suggests that Emma’s subconscious feeling of insecurity precipitates a deteriorating emotional state.

This phenomenon affects Raskolnikov as well: his insecurity about his feeling of superiority prompts his mental state to decline. He attempts to affirm his status as an “extraordinary man” by killing the pawnbroker, but can barely function while going through with the murder: he is reduced to a stammering mess upon entering her apartment, muttering, “I’ve … brought you … the thing … but why don’t we go over here … towards the light …?” while offering her the pledge (93) and he escapes the crime scene in utter delirium, “more dead than alive” (105). Raskolnikov balks at killing the pawnbroker, which makes him realize that he is no “extraordinary man” – as he puts it, “If I asked, ‘Is a human being a louse?’, then man was certainly no louse for me, only for someone to whom the question never occurs” (503). This realization and the ensuing insecurity it causes is what prompts Raskolnikov’s mental state to unravel – his stuttering and delirium are symptoms of his burgeoning awareness that he is not extraordinary.

What allows Emma and Raskolnikov to escape their deteriorating mental states and achieve happiness is the acceptance of their own insecurities. In Emma’s case, her marriage to Mr. Knightley is probably the best example of this. To Emma, Mr. Knightley represents her own insecurities; he is introduced as “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse” and “the only one who ever told her of them” (9-10), and he consistently lives up to this assertion, being the one to reproach Emma for, among other things, tampering with Harriet’s love life: “‘Till you chose to turn [Harriet] into a friend, her mind had no distaste for her own set, nor any ambition beyond it. She was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it. You have been no friend to Harriet Smith’” (50). As such, Emma’s attraction to him could be seen as an indication of a subconscious desire to become closer to someone who recognizes her own insecurities. Knightley is one of the few who challenge Emma’s superiority; the fact that he is the individual who Emma falls in love with suggests that she loves him because he also sees her as fallible, and therefore understands her at a deeper level than anyone else. In a broad sense, Emma’s acceptance of Mr. Knightley’s love can be interpreted as Emma accepting her own insecurities.

Sure enough, as soon as this acceptance takes place, Emma’s emotional state and relationships rapidly improve; she begins to repair her relationship with Harriet (341) and starts to see Jane Fairfax as a friend rather than a rival (361). As scholars note, Emma’s “most significant growth takes place when she changes her point of view toward her social and moral responsibilities,” especially following “a reversal of her jealousy toward those who are superior to herself” (Meng 48). In this respect, the work Emma does to dismantle her envy of Harriet and Jane demonstrates Emma’s acceptance of her own insecurity. Altogether, the period of joy that comes into Emma’s life following Mr. Knightley’s confession, characterized by Austen’s narrator as “an exquisite flutter of happiness” (340), represents Emma finding happiness in accepting that she is not truly “superior” to those around her.

Raskolnikov, for his part, denies his insecurity for as long as possible. Effectively, in confessing to Sonya and the police, Raskolnikov admits that he isn’t an “extraordinary man,” since such people “have the right to carry out all manner of crimes and to break the law as they please” (310) and therefore would never consider submitting themselves to an admission of their own guilt. Despite this, though, Raskolnikov clings desperately to the “extraordinary man” philosophy, refusing to accept his insecurity. Had he truly let go of his dogged belief in his superiority, he may have undergone a change like Emma’s – his insecurity-driven negative mentality would have dissipated, leaving him able to move his life in a more positive direction. Indeed, in the aftermath of his confession, Raskolnikov experiences this change to a lesser extent; while in prison, he is free from the pervasive anxiety that characterized his life at the time of the murder, suggesting that admitting to his insecurity did have a positive effect on his state of mind. Nonetheless, while in prison, Raskolnikov holds fast to his ideology; he claims that his “conscience is untroubled” (650) after the killing of the pawnbroker – an outright lie, considering that guilt and anxiety weighs heavily on him from the moment of the murder to the moment of confession – and that “the only crime he acknowledged [was] that he hadn’t coped and had turned himself in” (651). With these comments, Raskolnikov persists in portraying himself as an “extraordinary man”: he reframes his confession, transforming it from an admission of his ordinariness into a momentary lapse of his resolve to “step over” any barriers to his goals.

As Sonya visits him in prison, however, Raskolnikov finally begins to display vulnerability. Initially, he treats her as an inferior, rejecting her offers of affection: “She always offered her hand to him timidly and sometimes wouldn’t offer it at all, as if scared he might reject it. He always took it with a kind of disgust, always greeted her with a kind of annoyance, and sometimes he remained stubbornly silent all the while she was with him” (656). As she continues to demonstrate her care for him, though, she wears him down until, at last, he reciprocates: “Suddenly something swept him up and hurled him at her feet. He wept, hugging her knees. […] she’d understood, and could no longer doubt, that he loved her, loved her endlessly, and that the moment had finally come …” (656-657). In throwing himself at Sonya’s feet, Raskolnikov finally accepts that he isn’t extraordinary; he drops the facade of superiority and humbles himself before her, putting himself in a position of vulnerability and inferiority. Immediately, Raskolnikov’s outlook changes radically; his face shines with “the dawn of a renewed future, of full resurrection into new life” (657), and he and Sonya begin to plan for a future together. By accepting his lack of superiority, Raskolnikov banishes his anxieties and allows himself to be happy.

To conclude, despite their contrasting initial impressions, Emma and Crime and Punishment contain very similar stories concerning very similar characters. Both novels follow protagonists who act as though superior to everyone else, disregarding others’ desires and using them for their own ends. However, both prove to be insecure in their superiority, whether consciously or unconsciously, and as incidents inflame their insecurities, their mental states decline and it becomes increasingly apparent that continuing to assert their superiority is unsustainable. In the end, Austen and Dostoyevsky lead their protagonists to the same conclusion: only in relinquishing your belief in your own superiority can you escape your cycle of negativity. Only in accepting your insecurities can you achieve happiness.




Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Edited by James Kinsley, Oxford University Press, 2003.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Oliver Ready, Penguin Classics,


Meng, Brittany A. “The Enduring Austen Heroine: Self-Awareness and Moral Maturity in Jane

Austen’s Emma and in Modern Austen Fan-Fiction.” Liberty University, UMI Dissertation Publishing, 2010.

Morgan, Susan J. “Emma Woodhouse and the Charms of Imagination.” Studies in the Novel

vol. 7, no. 1, 1975, pp. 33–48.