Isolability in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
Though its many pages and complex themes and ideas may be frustrating to undergraduate students, it cannot be denied that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment is anything less than a literary masterpiece. It explores a myriad of themes – the psychology of crime, nihilism, poverty, the idea of a “superman,” transcendent Christian values, the journey to redemption, alienation from society. While isolation may not be quite as apparent as a few of these other themes, it is equal, perhaps even superior, in importance. Indeed, it may be said that it is isolation that causes Raskolnikov, the protagonist, to commit his crimes and then it is isolation that ultimately leads him to the beginnings of his journey to redemption.
Raskolnikov, an impoverished student who is entertaining the nihilistic ideals that were sweeping St. Petersburg during his time, is in a severe place of isolation. He lives in relentless poverty which separates him from the majority of society. He has one only friend, Razumikhin, and he does not appear to cultivate a close or meaningful relationship with Razumikhin. The relationship with his own mother and sister is also one that is strained and distant. Additionally, he has begun to subscribe to ideals that, by their very nature, will isolate him from society because they place little to no value on other humans and they place him in a different category than other humans. Thus, his isolation from society is both practical and ideological. Oddly enough, the very factor that caused him to commit his horrendous crimes, isolation, is the concept that brings him to redemption. First, he needs to acknowledge the evil in his actions and feel remorse, regret and guilt as a result. Then, he needs to repent of his crimes and suffer for his crimes as an act of restitution. These two processes will bring him to redemption, but they are internal battles. Ultimately, internal battles must be fought alone – they must be fought in isolation.
Raskolnikov’s isolation from society is firstly demonstrated in a practical sense. One of the very first things we learn about him is that he is “over his head in debt to the landlady” and that he is “so badly dressed that another man, even an accustomed one, would have been ashamed to go out in such rags during the daytime” (Dostoevsky 3-4). This is the description of a man who is enduring extreme poverty. Poverty, in and of itself, is something that creates distance and separation for a few simple reasons. For one, a person who lives in poverty is a person who must spend the majority of his/her time and his/her mental and physical energy attempting to get and to keep the basic things necessary for survival. This makes for a person who has little time or energy to devote to the cultivation of meaningful relationships. Additionally, poverty is something that tempts people to accept crime as something that is not so bad because it may be necessary for survival. Indeed, one of the things that makes Raskolnikov’s crime more appealing to him is the potentiality of acquiring a little extra money. And crime necessarily dehumanizes or at least devalues other people in the mind of the criminal, because it makes use of another person as a means to an end, rather than the person being an end in and of himself/herself. Thus, Raskolnikov, as an extremely poor individual, is shown to be separated from society.
A second example of Raskolnikov’s isolation from society is the utter lack of a social life. He is young, he is a student, he is described to be good looking and intelligent. There is no reason why he should not have friends and a romantic relationship or two. But the only friend to whom we are introduced in this novel is Razumikhin and it is noted that Raskolnikov “had almost no friends while he was at the university, kept aloof from everyone, visited no one, and had difficulty receiving visitors;” however, “he became close with Razumikhin–that is, not really close, but he was more sociable, more frank with him” (51). Their relationship is portrayed as a very strained one and they argue frequently. At one point during the sickness that followed Raskolnikov’s crimes, during which Razumikhin made great efforts to help him, they bump into one another on a porch and are surprised to see one another and the interchange that follows is painfully pregnant with hurt and anger:
“So here’s where you!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Ran away from your sick-bed! And I even looked for you under the sofa! We went to the attic! I almost gave Nastasya a beating because of you … And here’s where he is! Rodka! What is the meaning of this! Tell the whole truth! Confess! Do you hear?”
“It means that I’m sick to death of all of you, and I want to be alone,” Raskolnikov replied calmly.
“Alone? When you still can’t walk, when your mug is white as a sheet, and you can barely breathe! Fool! … What were you doing in the ‘Crystal Palace’? Confess immediately!”
“Let me be!” said Raskolnikov, and he tried to pass by. This now drove Razumikhin into a rage: he seized him firmly by the shoulder” (Dostoevsky 166).
This is just one example of a bitter fight between the two of them. The significance here is that Razumikhin wants to help Raskolnikov through his sickness and he wants to be there for him, but Raskolnikov refuses. Raskolnikov insists on being alone; he wants to isolate himself, even from the one friend that he does have.
Raskolnikov’s relationship with his mother and sister is similar to his relationship with Razumikhin. It is not so full of contempt and argumentation, but it is equally distant and equally strained. It is evident from the letter that his mother sends to him, the contents of which include the details of a proposal of marriage for his sister, that they do not frequently see or hear from one another. Indeed, she says that “it is over two months now since I’ve spoken with you in writing, and I myself have suffered from it, and even spent some sleepless nights thinking. But you surely will not blame me for this unwilling silence of mine” (Dostoevsky 30). And then, she closes her letter with a slightly sad sentiment: “Remember, my dear, in your childhood, when your father was alive, how you prattled out your prayers sitting on my knee, and how happy we all were then! Goodbye, or, better, till we meet again! I embrace you very, very warmly, and send you countless kisses” (39). These words indicate a relationship that is removed, remote, formal. The love she and her daughter feel for Raskolnikov is apparent (“Love your sister Dunya, Rodya; love her as she loves you, and know that she loves you boundlessly, more than herself” ), but there is a longing for happier days. Raskolnikov’s response to his mother’s letter is strange – he is tormented by it (40). He does not send a loving reply; instead, he becomes angered by his sister’s potential marriage. He does not reciprocate the love of his mother and sister; he isolates himself even from his own family.
To make his isolation even more severe, Raskolnikov distances himself from society on an ideological level. He begins to consider the doctrines of nihilism which deny any meaning or value in life, people or a deity. We first get the idea that he is toying with some new beliefs when he says “I want to attempt such a thing, and at the same time I’m afraid of such trifles!” He continues, “Hm … yes … man has it all in his hands, and it all slips through his fingers from sheer cowardice” and then adds, “Am I really capable of that? Is that something serious? No, not serious at all. I’m just toying with it, for the sake of fantasy. A plaything! Yes, a plaything, if you like!” (Dostoevsky 3-4). The ‘that’ to which he is referring is the crime he is planning to commit. He finds nothing serious about it because the woman whom he will kill is “a stupid, meaningless, worthless, wicked, sick old crone, no good to anyone and, on the contrary, harmful to everyone, who doesn’t know herself why she’s alive” (65). He finds no intrinsic value in her; thus, he has determined that “what he had plotted was not a crime” (71). Committing this crime is his way of experimenting with the idea of people being devoid of value and worth. Now, if he finds no intrinsic value in himself, in other people or in the world around him, what would motivate him to cultivate a meaningful relationship with someone? There would be no reason, really; for if there is no value in another person, than there is certainly no value in a friendship, a romantic relationship or a familial relationship with another person, a person whom he determines to be worthless.
Another aspect of nihilism that creates distance is the idea of a ‘superhuman.’ Raskolnikov believes himself to be above the laws and rules that govern the rest of humanity. He is described to be “immersed in himself” (Dostoevsky 3), “not used to crowds” (11) and in one scene where he has a conversation with a drunk in a tavern, “at the first word actually addressed to him he suddenly felt his usual unpleasant and irritable feeling of loathing towards any stranger who touched or merely wanted to touch his person” (12-13). His feelings of superiority are clear:
“He was very poor and somehow haughtily proud and unsociable, as though he were keeping something to himself. It seemed to some of his friends that he looked upon them all as children, from above, as though he were ahead of them all in development, in knowledge, and in convictions, and that he regarded their convictions and interests as something inferior” (51).
He sees himself as being a kind of ‘superhuman’ – a person who is above the law and above others. Thus, he places himself on a different level than other people, so he has no point of commonality with other people. If he views himself as being set apart from all, or at least most, other humans, than he has no one to whom he can relate. His ideology isolates him from others.
So it is the isolation of his life, both practically and ideologically, that causes Raskolnikov to commit his crimes. He can relate to no one because he views people as worthless, or at best, as a means to an end and because he views himself as being on a different level than other people. Because people are of no value to him, he sees nothing wrong with taking away their lives and because he believes himself to be some sort of ‘superhuman,’ he determines that he can live outside of universal rules of morality and decency and be a law unto himself. This is the role that isolation plays in the committing of the crimes of Raskolnikov. But it is also isolation that leads him to suffer for his crimes, to feel guilt for his crimes and, finally, to repent of his crimes and to acknowledge his wrongdoings. Thus, we may say that though isolation caused him to commit his crimes, it also helped him to begin his journey to redemption.
Almost immediately after his crimes, Raskolnikov begins to suffer. When he wakes up the morning after the murders, he is terrified that he has left some evidence somewhere and he will be found out. He is especially nervous that “perhaps all his clothes were covered with blood, perhaps there were stains all over them, and he simply did not see, did not notice them” (Dostoevsky 91) and so, “chilled and shivering, he began taking everything off and examining it all again more thoroughly” (89). He also becomes very sick and “a terrible chill seized him; but the chill was also caused by a fever that had begun long ago in his sleep. Now, however, he was suddenly stricken with such shivering that his teeth almost flew out and everything in him came loose” (89). Furthermore, his illness is described as “a feverish condition, with moments of delirium and semi-awareness” (117). More important and more intense than his physical suffering, however, is his mental suffering. He experiences great emotional turmoil and confusion and “the conviction that everything, even memory, even simple reasoning-power was abandoning him, began to torment him unbearably” (90). “What,” he says, “can it be starting already, can the reckoning come so soon” (91)? His anguish is extreme and is experienced in solitude. No one else can feel his physical sickness and no one else can endure his mental torment. This aspect of isolation has a positive effect – it leads him to feel guilt for his sins which brings him one step closer to the road to redemption.
For all of Raskolnikov’s suffering, it seems to take quite a while for him to feel any guilt. Often, he simply determines that he is physically sick and uses the excuse that the woman whom he killed was nothing but a louse and a worthless person, and so, there was nothing wrong with what he did. Ultimately, however, the suffering takes its toll. In one scene, he is with his mother and sister and is arguing with his sister. In response to an accusation from him, she cries out passionately, “if I ruin anyone, it will only be myself … I haven’t gone and put a knife into anyone yet! … Why are you looking at me like that? Why did you get so pale? Rodya, what’s wrong? Rodya, dear!” and Raskolnikov faints (233). When Dunya remarks that there is no blood on her hands, Raskolnikov feels extremely uncomfortable, to the point of fainting, because he cannot say the same. In a scene following, Raskolnikov overtakes a man in the street who had inquired after him. The man calls him a murderer. Raskolnikov’s mutters a response to him, “barely audibly” and then,
“with slow, weakened steps, with trembling knees and as if terribly cold, Raskolnikov returned and went upstairs to his closet. He took off his cap, put it on the table, and stood motionlessly beside it for about ten minutes. Then, powerless, he lay down on the sofa and painfully, with a weak moan, stretched out on it; his eyes were closed. He lay that way for about half an hour” (272).
Now that someone has confronted him with his evil deeds and has portrayed his deeds properly – as the murder of a valuable person – his guilt is undeniable and his suffering, both physical and mental, is tremendous. Just like his suffering, his guilt is something that he must experience on his own. No one can feel the guilt of anyone else. Only the person suffering from guilt can truly feel it in its entirety. Raskolnikov feels his guilt in solitude; he is isolated in his suffering and he is isolated in his guilt and this is what allows for him to repent of his crimes and to acknowledge the immorality of them.
Raskolnikov is finally driven to repentance by Sonya, his lover. She tells him to “go to the crossroads, bow down to people, kiss the earth, because you have sinned before it as well, and say aloud to the whole world: ‘I am a murderer!’” and he does, amidst a number of people who assume that he is drunk (525). On the very last page of the novel, Raskolnikov finally confesses his crime to a police official, Ilya Petrovich, with these words: “It was I who killed the official’s old widow and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them” (531). It is noted in the epilogue that he does nothing to defend himself or make excuses for his actions and when asked what motivated him to confess, “he answered directly that it was sincere repentance” (536). Without the advice and encouragement from Sonya, he may never have confessed his crime, but it was Raskolnikov, ultimately and finally, who confessed. No person can confess for another person. This is yet another aspect of his isolation.
In the final resolution of the plot, Raskolnikov acknowledges, in isolation, the evil in his deeds. One of the first times that he realizes this is when he is confessing what he has done to his sister, Dunya. She is shocked that he is able to defend himself, but “as he was uttering this last exclamation [in defense of himself], his eyes suddenly met Dunya’s, and so great, so great was the anguish for him in those eyes that he came involuntarily to his senses” (519). When he is exiled to Siberia as a punishment for his crimes, he and Sonya are separated for a little while when they both become sick. During this time of aloneness, Raskolnikov has a dream in which all people all using one another and are living as if there is no truth or value in anyone or anything; no one can get along and “everyone and everything was perishing” (547). When he wakes from this dream, Raskolnikov is “pained” and “tormented” by the realization that that is how he had been living his life. He understands the error of his ways. Sonya comes to see him again when she is no longer sick and he is a changed man; he throws himself at her feet and “infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come …” and in their faces “shone the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life. They were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the others” (549). He has finally acknowledged his crime, but he has done this on his own; he has come to this conclusion while he spends time away from Sonya. He needed to determine this for himself, else it would have been disingenuous.
Ultimately, isolation causes Raskolnikov to realize that he is in love with Sonya. Being in love with her necessarily disproves his previous nihilistic ideals because it puts him on the same level as her. Because he now understands and acknowledges that people do have value and that he is not some sort of superior human who is on a different level than other humans, he has finally found common ground with another person and can relate to someone else, he is finally able to recognize his love for Sonya. The isolation that had once caused him to separate himself philosophically from society which allowed for him to commit his crimes against society, now becomes the factor that goes along with his guilt, his suffering, his confession and his acknowledgement of wrongdoing. It becomes the thing that perpetrates his reentrance into society.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Random House, Inc, 1993. Print.
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