Literary Lessons: What I learned from the axe-wielding murderer, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

The End

In a recent post, I reviewed Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, which I added to my list of “profoundly impacting novels“. A commenter on this post, one Peter Galen Massey, remarked my inclination toward rather, uhm, “unstable” characters. One such character is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. This got me thinking—navel gazing, of course, of which I am want to do while whistling away at work—and my thoughts lingered first on why am I attracted to these more reckless characters? and, furthermore, what does this reveal about my own character?

Once I came to the conclusion that I don’t revere Raskolnikov for his axe-wielding abilities, I set out to undertake an explanation as to why nearly every other year I come back to such a large and engrossing novel, such as Crime and Punishment. But to explain this phenomenon, I have to quickly summarize C & P. Alright, here it goes.

The novel is a reverse crime novel, i.e. we know who dunnit. In fact, we are privy to the murderer’s thoughts and actions both before and after the deed is done. There are six parts of the novel, and the first part is the murder. The rest is how Raskolnikov atones for this murder. Along the way there are some amazingly beautiful characters (including the Marmeladov family—who were actually the basis for the original novel of C & P, entitled The Drunkards—, Raskolnikov’s buddy Dmitri Razumikhin, and Porfiry Petrovich, to name just a few). Raskolnikov is a poor law student, and happens to follow a bit of Nihlism that is popping up around St. Petersburg at the time—Russian Nihlism, German Nihlism‘s uglier, angrier, and drunker sibling. Raskolnikov murders a pawn broker, Alyona Ivanovna, whom he has convinced himself, after hearing a conversation in a bar, is worthless and that the world would be better without her in it.

The first portion is Rodya not only plotting the murder, but convincing himself that it is okay. Now, here’s where the book becomes something more than just a run-of-the-mill, mystery-thriller-dime-store-novel stuff. CSI does this stuff to death, right? (excuse the pun): someone is murdered, and they have to find not only the killer, but his/her motive as well. Well, here’s the deal with Dostoevsky: we get to actually watch and imagine Rodya justifying murder—an act no normal individual can reasonably justify. Yes, murders are everywhere. Go ahead, turn on CNN, I’ll wait… but being inside the thoughts of someone who is convincing himself that murder is permissible is absolutely insane. It is raw, ugly existentialism.

Stuttgart StrasseSo, what I learned from Raskolnikov is that one must justify ones actions to two sets of peoples. First there is yourself. You simply must justify yourself each and every day you exist. And most of you, and me, have a preexisting justification for our daily lives. For example, why we eat bacon, why we wear jeans, why we take 10 minute showers, etc. The next set of peoples are the society in which you live. There are laws, both subtle and pronounced, for which each of is responsible for the sake of a peaceful existence. Such as, Thou shalt not steal, murder, worship false idols, and stopping at red lights, paying taxes for wars we protest, pirating music, etc. The weird (and beautiful) part is that both of these conditional clauses are dependent upon environment. In example, let’s say, in Germany, jaywalking is a huge no-no, but it is mostly enforced by social conditions. Whereas in New York, jaywalking is a part of the environment and one can and will justify their right to jaywalk with the proverbial, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” This response would not fly in Deutschland.

What is unique about Raskolnikov is that he overcame the most important person who kept telling him no: himself. Once he overcame that… well, that’s only the first part.

The rest of the novel is whether this “overcoming of self” is justifiable within societal norms, laws, and customs. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Rodya confesses in a populated square in the middle of St. Petersburg after an interesting scene where Sonya Marmeladov reads the story of Lazarus to him. And another scene where he confesses to the police, but they don’t believe him! (Ugh, that is a tough one to read). It should be no surprise that Christianity is impetus for Raskolnikov’s confession. It is personal guilt that eventually overcomes him, and guilt is the driving force behind Roman Catholicism, not to mention Christianity as a whole. Suffering is purposeful and personal for Raskolnikov. But atonement is not only personal, it is societal—which is why his confession is performed in a public square. Raskolnikov has overcome personal guilt to become this übermensch, or so at least he thinks (what is ultimately played out in C & P, is that the übermensch is an impossibility, if not a strict rarity, because of civilized norms).

The point is that all of this, all of this life, needs justification. It needs, nay requires, a reason. Not just breaking the law, but adhering to it as well. And it is not only oneself that one must reason into submission, it is also you and everyone reading this blog. And everyone driving on the road. And everyone on the subway staring into their new iPhone 5s. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to explain to people that each of us justifies our lives and actions in some way, shape, or form. Most people do NOT want to hear that their actions are conditional responses based upon profound and unfathomably numerous cultural signals and cues. Most people want to hear that each and every time they do something, it is a result of a choice. A rational choice plucked from the blooming flower of infallible logic. But that was Dostoevsky’s point! He thought that man was irrational! Such was the basis for existentialism. In fact, Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella, is a philosophical response in favor of irrationality against Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, What is to be Done?

Boston CrowdI read Crime and Punishment and understand millionaires. I understand their wanting more. I understand crooked criminals. I understand the bribers and the bribed. I understand the takers and the givers, the makers and the destroyers. Because each and every one of them has justified their existence and their actions. Whether it be purchasing sliced bread or a new bed, each and every single one of us justifies our actions so that we can sleep at night—with full stomachs and on soft sheets.

I hope that I am not misunderstood in this post. And I hope that we can all learn something “good” from Raskolnikov. What we should learn is that we are all here for one another. No one exists alone. Not even Raskolnikov, not even the übermensch, not even the genius or the tyrant, the hero or the villain, the thief or the prosecutor. We are all responsible for the well being of one another. So, thank you for my well being, dear readers. I am truly thankful for yours.

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