Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, like the typical Russian novel, is primarily driven by the mental and spiritual conflicts of its characters. Unlike most other Russian novels, Crime and Punishment features a main character who behaves in a strange manner. Rodion Raskolnikov is a literary “split personality” – that is, he has two diametrically opposed aspects to his character which struggle for primacy throughout the book.
Many critics of the book are eager to discuss Dostoevsky’s keen observational psychology, and analyze Raskolnikov as though his character is merely a clinical study on split personalities. However, such an interpretation of Raskolnikov’s conflicted character does not, in my opinion, do justice to the fact that the author was not a scientist impartially examining a medical disorder. Dostoevsky was a writer of a strong philosophical bent, concerned with the conflict between good and evil which Christians believe is present in all of mankind. Thus, Raskolnikov’s “psychological” conflict is more truthfully described as a moral conflict.
This moral conflict takes the less abstract form of a conflict between a destructive theory, and the naturally good temperament and eventually the guilt of the young student who adopts it. In the course of the book, Dostoevsky reveals that Raskolnikov, while a student at a university in St. Petersburg, had developed a theory which supposes that certain men in this world are above the rest of humanity, either by destiny or by talent. Such men are not bound by morality or other “social constraints” but are allowed, even obligated, to break out of these in some cases in order to achieve a greater end. These men must be individualistic in the most extreme connotation of the word: proud, alone, needing and accepting no help from any lesser men. It is unfortunate but not unexpected, considering Raskolnikov’s proud and curious intellect, that having worked out such an idea, he becomes obsessed with a desire to know whether he himself is one of these “extraordinary men.” He decides to commit a murder – killing none but the most useless specimen of humanity he can find: one of the world’s “louses” – in order to know once and for all. An extraordinary man commits no crime in ridding the earth of “scum,” he believes. In such an action, he simply promotes the cause of justice.
As it is this theory which incites Raskolnikov to commit the crime, so it is this theory which, wrestling with his better side and his remorse, causes his personality to become more and more contradicted as the story progresses. At one point, his old friend, Razumihin, describes Raskolnikov’s character to the protagonist’s worried mother and sister. “He is morose, gloomy, proud, and haughty of late…He has a noble nature and a kind heart. He does not like showing his feelings and would rather do a cruel thing than open his heart freely.” Each characteristic as listed seems to contradict the last. And indeed, Razumihin goes on to say, “it’s as though he were alternating between two characters.” Next comes the description of Raskolnikov’s imitation of the solitary ubermensch, or superman, which is the root of the entire conflict. “Sometimes he is fearfully reserved! … He doesn’t laugh at things, not because he doesn’t have the wit, but as though he hadn’t the time to waste on such trifles. He never listens to what is said to him… He thinks very highly of himself, and perhaps he is right.” (Crime and Punishment, p.194 -all of the above)
Razumihin’s analysis is supported by nearly everything Raskolnikov does. At one moment, his compassion moves him to give away his last rubles to help a poor young girl he finds drugged on the street. Within minutes, however, he leaves the entire affair in the hands of a passing policeman, chiding himself for becoming involved in such nonsense. When he receives a letter from his mother, he opens it with an extraordinary display of sentimentality, kissing it repeatedly. But no sooner than he opens it, he becomes furious at finding that he cares at all to hear from his family. He meets a drunkard who is very much on a social and moral par with the miserly pawnbroker he targets for his murder, yet instead of considering this man a “louse,” he befriends him and does his best to assist the man’s family throughout the novel. An uncharacteristic qualm of doubt in his theory which arises hours before he commits the murder expresses this conflict the best. “What if man is not a scoundrel?” he wavers, “Then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors.” (p.25)
Raskolnikov holds onto his ubermensch masquerade so tenaciously because he must. His “noble nature and kind heart” can be overridden by his haughty intellectual characteristics only as long as he has a theory to support this calculating side. If this collapses, he will no longer be able to keep up his pretence that the murder he committed was justified. He knows this instinctively, but a fusion of guilt and pride will not allow him to admit the fact until all is resolved by his true repentance.
It is the nature of Raskolnikov’s theory, trying as it does to place certain people above the rest of humankind and the laws of morality, which produces his split personality. Essentially, what we see in Crime and Punishment is evil wrestling with good in the human mind and soul. Dostoevsky’s shows us that Raskolnikov finds no fulfillment or peace as a “superman,” but only contradiction and turmoil, as must be the case whenever evil enters the soul.