Nickeled & Dimed

Penny for your thoughts?

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By Arjun Badola

The novel, Crime and punishment, is written by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky who shows us the plight of an ordinary person and the effect on his psyche after he commits a murder. The protagonist in the novel, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, is a former student and is currently living in very extreme poor conditions. He is dependent on his mother for money, and his sister sacrifices herself for the sake of her brother. To arrange payment, he usually pawn items to a pawnbroker – Alyona Ivanovna. He murders the pawnbroker and her disabled sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna, in the first half of the novel. All actions taken by Raskolnikov’s character in Crime and Punishment are defined by the aspects of his nihilistic approach towards life and search for a purpose which leads to his desire of becoming an ‘Übermensch ‘ like Napoleon along with his rational approach towards all his motives which include murder. 

The murder takes place in the first part of the novel. Raskolnikov was under high poverty, he was a tall and handsome man with a pleasant personality, but due to his poverty, he was forced to wear raggedy clothes. To arrange some money for living he used to pawn items to a local pawnbroker. This very pawnbroker was infamous for her malpractices. She used to cheat poor people by paying them less money for their things, manipulating their poverty for her financial gains. To top it all, she manipulated her innocent sister, Lizaveta, who she had financially enslaved. Lizaveta was so traumatized by her sister’s abuse that even when Raskolnikov attacks her with an axe, she does not put any defense and is killed quickly. Initially, he had dropped his plan to murder the pawnbroker, but when he had stopped in a bar by coincidence, he overheard a conversation between a student and a police officer. The student was talking about the malicious pawnbroker with the police officer and how the world would be a better place if he could kill her. This conversation brings back the idea of killing her in the mind of our protagonist as he could not miss the opportunity which he was getting the next day as the pawnbroker’s sister would be out, leaving the old woman alone in the house. He decides to take action and bring his plan to fruition and then brings in the concept of morality into his act as murdering her he will be doing good for the society. Raskolnikov thinks that killing the pawnbroker would be morally right. He later tells us that “all men are divided into ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary.’ The extraordinary one is allowed to kill people; the ordinary ones are not” (Dostoyevsky 1992, 308). But he further explains that “extraordinary people are the ones who bring out new ideas.” He also brings in the example of Napoleon as an extraordinary man who killed people for bringing out new ideas. 

Nietzsche’s characterization of nihilism “as a condition of tension, as a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate” (Carr 1992, 25). A nihilist finds out that the objective value of the world has been erased from his mind and now they start facing a mental conflict in their mind. Nihilism can sometimes bring change in the society as a nihilist would deny the traditions and the norms which are set by our system and he or she starts questioning that belief. This change can be referred to as the murder of the pawnbroker. As Raskolnikov thinks, his act of murder will be good for society. Questioning can bring out ideas which are buried deep inside of people. Not agreeing to the social norm or traditions which are developed by our society could be based on an irrational system and it is possible people are just following it blindly. The widely known book of Hindu mythology – “Bhagavad Gita,” started with questioning. “When Arjuna sees that among his enemies some of them are his relatives and friends, he drops down his bow and turns toward Krishna for his advice. Bhagavad Gita is the compilation of Arjuna questioning Krishna to help him with his dilemma” (Davis 2014). Even when Newton discovered gravity, he questioned the fact that why did the apple fall from the tree? Similarly, Raskolnikov concludes that murdering the pawnbroker is morally right as he challenges himself. He sees how the old women (the pawnbroker) is exploiting the poor people by not giving them what they deserve. He also understands that the pawnbroker has made her sister a slave in her house and makes her do all her work. She has taken her freedom of life and is now torturing her and bending her into submission. So, by this process of questioning, the reasons and concludes that murdering the pawnbroker would be a kind act for the society, keeping in mind the example of Napoleon. 

“Crime is a protest against the craziness of the social system” (Dostoyevsky 1992, 304). As Raskolnikov talks about how the extraordinary people have the right to crime (of course not an official right but a private right) to bring out their ideas. He speaks of Newton and how he had the right to get rid of those hundreds of people who were obstacles in his path towards the discovery of gravity. Before committing the murder, Raskolnikov has dreamed of a horse being brutally beaten to death by his very owner. As he was a small child during that time, he felt powerless and could not stop that incident from happening. But in the present time, he thinks of the pawnbroker as the owner of the horse and her sister, Lizaveta, as the poor horse. This time he can’t just stand and watch the horse (Lizaveta) die by the owner (the pawnbroker), so he decides to kill. He must act now to correct the inability to act that he had in the past. By murdering the old woman, his crime would be that of a great man, ridding society of oppressive people. By doing this, he was to an extent and in his mind, an Übermensch. 

The concept of ‘Übermensch’ can also be seen in the novel. Übermensch translates to Superman. It is defined as, “the one who is willing to risk all for the sake of enhancement of humanity” (Merkle 2016, 98). Raskolnikov gives an ideal example of Napoleon as an Übermensch person. What Europe is today is because of Napoleon, the current map of Europe is forged through napoleon’s sword by uniting all the small countries. “Napoleon who is highly admired by Nietzsche may be seen as an example here since he changed and created order in Europe” (Katz 2015, 122) But this wasn’t a cake walk for him. As being an Übermensch, he had gained the right to murder for bringing up overall good for the society. Similarly, Newton can also be considered as an Übermensch since he brought us the idea of gravity by breaking all previous societal notions. During the discovery of gravity, Newton had the right to kill hundreds of people who would act as an obstacle in his way of bringing out an idea for the better development of the world. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov aspires to become an Übermensch, but in reality, he is not. He decides to kill the pawnbroker for the greater good of the society which an Übermensch would do. An Übermensch can even go to the extent of killing someone for bringing up a new idea or for the greater good of the world which Raskolnikov does, but he fails in the part of handling the after effect. After the murder, he is mentally destroyed. Raskolnikov not only killed the pawnbroker, but with her he also killed himself. His guilt and inability to cope with his act weakened him and made evident the fact that he wasn’t the great man that he had hoped he would be. His crime brought no change except the bludgeoning guilt that overpowered him completely. The only way left to bring back Raskolnikov to life was religion and his love Sonia who makes him confess in the end. 

Crime and Punishment is lauded as one of the greatest works of literature and Raskolnikov’s characterization is one of the reasons why. He starts as a rationalist, utilitarian who aims to murder to fulfill multiple reasons. Primarily, his search for a reason to fill the crushing void in his life. The characteristic nihilism bogs him down to the extent that he must kill to bring meaning back to his empty life. He’s not just purposeless but also full of nearly impossible ambition such as his desire to be an ‘Übermensch’ just as Napoleon Bonaparte, an individual who makes his laws and imposes his great decree over the society at large. His act of crime was his way of breaking the current society’s laws but his eventual failure to impose his will over that of the society at large leads to the eventual arrival of guilt that overcomes his need to fill the void in his psyche. This guilt finally overcomes Raskolnikov, and his further acceptance of this guilt leads to him finally understanding the extent of his actions, coming to terms with his crime. He fails to become the great man he had hoped he would be; he ended up on the erronous side of the law and kills an innocent woman who haunts him. Raskolnikov’s desire to fulfill this void consumes his life, superseding his actions, his ambitions and his future but the grandeur of the novel is not in the crime that he commits, but his coming-of-age moment when he finally accepts who he is, overcoming the desire to fulfill this void. 

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