25 June, 2007

Raskolnikov vs. Svidrigailov

Another Paper. I feel lazy.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is unique in literature as a book whose true villain is a theory in the mind of its protagonist. This theory of the ubermensch, or superman, is originated by the main character, Raskolnikov, who essentially claims that any breach of the moral law is permitted to those few “extraordinary men” who are destined to bring an increase of the overall justice of the world. Obsessed with this theory, Raskolnikov’s mind becomes dramatically conflicted, his good inclinations at variance with his desire to prove himself one of these ubermensch. Despite this obsession, the ramifications of his idea remain unclear to Raskolnikov until he meets the man, Svidrigailov.

Svidrigailov is a figure whose presence throws Raskolnikov’s mental split into sharp relief by his own unwavering singleness of purpose. This man, in fact, epitomizes the theory that creates Raskolnikov’s mental turmoil in the first place. He lives for a single purpose – himself – and seems immune to moral responsibility. He is superficially suave and polite. As Raskolnikov tells him, I fancy indeed that you are a man of very good breeding, or at least know on occasion how to behave like one.” (Part 4, Chapter 1 -p.256) However, this “good breeding” is a rather thin disguise for a character so absorbed with his own comfort and pleasure that he has become utterly depraved. He is calm and rarely loses his temper, but his composure often hides plotting and conniving. He has committed several murders over the space of many years. But in accordance with the idea that the extraordinary man would merit no temporal or mental punishment, he is completely remorseless. Moreover, he is above human law, because the nature of his crimes is such that they can never be proven.

Raskolnikov’s character is an interesting mix of good and bad traits; his generosity, compassion, and love for justice contrast sharply with his sullenness, morose attitude, and pride. His close friend Razumihin describes him as “morose, gloomy, proud and haughty…He has a noble nature and a kind heart… it’s as though he were alternating between two characters.” (Part 3, Chapter 2 – p.194) Up to the point of the meeting with Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov is plagued with guilt for the murder of an old pawnbroker whose dishonesty, he had decided, had “deserved” death. The better side of his character makes it impossible for him to escape this guilt; however, the only conclusion he will admit is that he is not an extraordinary man. The idea that his theory may be wrong is intolerable to his pride – even if he is one of the “worms” of the world, bound by moral laws and human regulations, his idea at least must be right.

But then Svidrigailov introduces himself to Raskolnikov, insisting from the opening moments of their conversation that he and the younger man are unnervingly alike, despite the fact that Raskolnikov is as outwardly brash, rude, and quick tempered as Svidrigailov is cool, polite, and calm. “Didn’t I say there was something in common between us? ...... Wasn’t I right in saying that we were birds of a feather?” (Part 4, Chapter 1) Raskolnikov reacts indignantly to the idea. Svidrigailov has crimes in his past as well, but his crimes were far from Raskolnikov’s “just murders” – this man had caused the suicide of a deaf girl of fifteen, he had caused the death of one of his servants, and he had most likely poisoned his own wife. Each of Svidrigailov’s actions is calculated for no purpose beyond his own pleasure - his existence is purely selfish. Raskolnikov at least has a noble purpose at heart; or so he protests at first. However, the idea that he, Raskolnikov, is somehow more just than this other murderer disappears quickly when Rodion realizes the truth which the reader has perhaps seen all along. Svidrigailov is simply the extreme of the “extraordinary man” Raskolnikov has been turning himself into over the course of several horrible months. Despite the differences in outward personality, Raskolnikov is indeed becoming similar to Svidrigailov, the extraordinary man.

True, Svidrigailov’s aims and motives are ostensibly quite different from the protagonist’s. They seem worse perhaps, because they seem more selfish. But is that appearance true? Raskolnikov kills the old woman with the sanction of his concept of justice, but why else does he kill in the first place except to prove his status as one of the ubermensch? It is hardly less selfish to commit a crime in order to satisfy one’s pride than it is to do the same in pursuit of physical pleasure. And how even can Raskolnikov’s initial perception of his crimes being superior in the realm of justice be given exceptional credence? Svidrigailov may cause deaths that seem totally unjust from the standpoint of human morality, but the first premise of the ubermensch theory is that extraordinary men are not bound by these standards. Such men “have the right” to interpret aims and means of achieving the greater good. Svidrigailov is undeniably a superman by Raskolnikov’s definition, and he thinks that he himself is the greater good, making his “selfish” actions perfectly justifiable by the theory’s standards.

There are, Raskolnikov comes to realize, two possible solutions to the questions raised by this perfect ubermensch. Svidrigailov might be a good man, in accordance with the theory. The idea is abhorrent to any honest person. Even Svidrigailov, in fact, recognizes that he is not a good man – he admits his depravity easily, although he feels no remorse for it. He recognizes even, that he is not a healthy man. He has seen ghosts, he says, and ghosts “are unable to appear except to the sick” (Part 4, Chapter 1 – p.260), the healthy are too much a part of reality to be bothered by such supernatural beings. Svidrigailov goes on to muse that once he really leaves this world, he can expect nothing better than “one little room, like a bathhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner.” (Part 4, Chapter 1 – p.261) Raskolnikov responds with as much horror as he did to the idea of his similarity to Svidrigalov. “Can it be you can imagine nothing juster and more comforting than that?” (ibid.) Svidrigailov’s response reveals not only his own self-condemnation, but also the emptiness of promise and hope in ubermensch morality. “Juster? And how can we tell, perhaps that is just, and do you know, it’s certainly what I would have made [eternity].” (ibid.)

If the possibility of Svidrigailov’s “goodness” (and thus the possibility of the goodness of any such superman) is so roundly contradicted, there is only one other possibility. That is, the ubermensch theory must be wrong. As Raskolnikov thinks things over, wrestling with his pride, he begins to come to this conclusion. It eventually becomes apparent to him that the second really is the only sensible possibility, the only possibility which fits in with human nature, and the only possibility that promises something more just than a petty eternity filled with spiders. With this admission, he finally begins to renounce his pride and self-righteousness.

Indeed, the encounter with Svidrigailov, the epitome of Raskolnikov’s negative qualities, instigates the protagonist’s first real swing towards repentance. By being faced with the true face of his theory he is compelled to admit its repulsiveness. In the process, he is obliged to open the door to his own redemption by admitting that he is a criminal, that he must submit to the human justice he disdained for so long, and that he must find peace in the hope of God’s mercy.


Rodrigo said...
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john said...

Interesting stuff. Do you have any interpretation about Svidrigailov's suicide and how it affects Raskolnikov?

Kevin said...

You seem ready to overlook Svidrigailov's generosity towards Dunya and his eventual suicide at the end.

Therese said...

john - I'm afraid I don't have any ideas about that that would be very accurate right now. This post is from several years ago, and I'm over due for a rereading of the text. I might have more ideas about that if I can manage to read it over my next break.

Kevin - Rereading the post, it rather does sound like that, which is ironic, because I was going to address the question of Svidrigailov's interaction with Dunya in this essay before I realized that such a subject went far beyond the paper's scope. I would say, however, that even considering his "generosity" towards multiple characters (which interestingly parallels Raskolnikov's almost compulsive desire to behave generously towards certain select people) his character remains much the same. Unlike Raskolnikov's interactions with Sonya, which are redemptive, Svidrigailov's conversations with Dunya act as the catalyst for his eventual despair and self-destruction.

Al Gammate said...

I enjoyed reading your article. It was very thought-provoking.

In my opinion, an Ubermensch (Overman, Superman) is a person who overcomes his own human tendency toward pettiness and destruction - thus becoming more than human!

In my opinion, the Golden Rule (behave toward others as you would like them to behave toward you) distinguishes an Ubermensch from an ordinary person.

It distinguishes an extraordinary person from an ordinary one, since most people are unable or unwilling to follow this rule.

According to Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," Svidrigailov caused the suicide of a deaf girl of fifteen, caused the death of one of his servants, and poisoned his own wife.

Svidrigailov destroyed these people for no other reason than to entertain himself. He was a sociopathic criminal.

It's difficult for me to see Svidrigailov as an Ubermensch, but easy for me to see him as a worm. I see him as wormish, because his behavior is not above human - but below human!

Anyone who is above human is smart enough to know that the evil you do to others will be done to you - eventually!

Criminals may benefit in the short run. But in the long run, they self-destruct!

Reeve said...

Al - it seems like Raskolnikov's main point in his theory is that evil is only evil when done by lesser men. Svidrigailov may not be under the influence of the exact same theory as Raskolnikov, but he believes himself superior, just as Raskolnikov was beginning to of himself. According to the theory, Ubermensch somehow know what is more important than morality. Svidrigailov "knew" that his own happiness was more important, and thus acted as his feelings told him to, without care for morality. It is apparent that Raskolnikov would see him as the result of taking his Ubermensch theory too far.

Therese said...

I like the way you put that, Reeve!

Al - What you point out is the essential irony of the ubermensch theory: it does not en up making anyone who acts on it truly super human, but only subhuman.

Robert said...

entering this discussion years too late I can't help but wonder... so why did he kill himself then?

Michael Dickens said...

From the way you explained Raskolnikov's theory, it looks as if there was no way to tell if a man is a superman -- he simply proclaims himself to be. I interpreted the theory somewhat differently, and I want to know what you think. It seemed like Raskolnikov was saying that because of a man's commitment to mankind, he is justified in committing acts that would otherwise be considered immoral. Take this quote:

"[A]n 'extraordinary' man has the right . . . to overstep certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfilment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity). . . I maintain that if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been made known except by sacrificing the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity." (Part 3, ch. 5)

I think this makes it clear that a man can only be considered extraordinary if he can greatly contribute to humanity.

Shoty said...

Also, if you maintain that Svidrigailov is truly an ubermench, how do you explain the ghosts of Marfa Petrovna that haunt him throughout the novel? This would seem to suggest he is not completely comfortable in his position or free from remorse as you suggest.

Gage said...

Very interesting topic. Nobody seems to have mentioned Raskolnikov's murder of Lizaveta, which was done out of fear (a selfish reason). How can Raskolnikov see himself as any different than Svidrigailov after he commits this murder?

Anonymous said...

I very much like your analysis.
There are as mentioned above in other posts a number of happenings in the book to take into consideration; considering the number of these, however would require an extraordinary amount of work (especially for some-one who is "Lazy". I have often wondered why Svidrigailov almost runs away with the book. Your insight is one which deserves praise and further analysis.

Thank you


Anonymous said...

If Svidrigailov is 'superhuman' than how could he kill himself? At the end he is extremely disturbed by a dream involving the lust for a 5 year old, and almost immediately after kills himself. Wouldn't you call that remorse? I feel that because he kills himself he does have remorse and completely disproves the whole theory. Maybe the "extraordinary" in Raskolnikov's mind are just those who are better at bottling up their guilt. I think the whole point Dostoevsky is trying to get across is that one is always human in the end. Although the theory is just an attempt at detaching oneself from the weakness of the human condition (which may in fact just be the ability to feel remorse), the 'human condition' will always bite at you in the end because you are abnormal in the most general of senses if you can cross societal bounds without regret or guilt.
my two cents :)

Anonymous said...

To last anonymous person. Svidrigailov was able to kil himself because although he is superhuman, every super"hero" has his one weakness and for Svid. it is the loack of affection and love of another that allows him to kill himself. He is also a sociopath, and althogh sociopaths can't feel others emotions of others. They can, in fact feel there own emotions.

Bryan B. said...

i know the novel is crime and punishment, but i really need to know what version of the book you are using so i can cite the book in my essay...if possible, could you cite the book you are using?