Dostoevsky’s Doubled-Ended Ethics

The tangling of philosophy and religion in Crime and Punishment.


Close to the halfway point in Crime and Punishment, we finally learn what’s been motivating our main character, the tormented and murderous and sometimes generous Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov.

It’s his theory of transgression, a general outline of which he has published in a crime periodical. People, the former law student writes, are either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary people are conservative — meant to obey and safeguard the social order.

Extraordinary people, by contrast, are the wrecking balls of progress, demolishing the old order to establish a new one. As such, extraordinary people are inherently criminal.

Raskolnikov believes these extraordinary individuals can “step over” conventional morality and the dictates of their own conscience in pursuit of greatness. That is why he kills Alyona Ivanovna, the aging pawnbroker, and her sister, Lizaveta, who walks in on the murder.

Later still, we find out what committing murder means to Raskolnikov in practical terms, when he confesses his crime to Sonya, the prostitute and daughter of Raskolnikov’s tavern buddy:

“I decided to take possession of the old woman’s money and use it for my first years, without tormenting my mother, to support myself at the university, and for the first steps after university, and to do it all sweepingly, radically, so as to set up a whole new career entirely and start out on a new, independent path…”

Naturally, Raskolnikov has judged himself extraordinary. His central conflict throughout the story, then, is not that he has taken two lives, or even that he has taken those lives in vain (for he never uses any of the possessions or money he steals), but that he fails to “step over” his conscience. The murders impact his life, resulting in physical illness and paranoia — making him ipso facto an ordinary, rather than extraordinary, person.  

Raskolnikov’s state of mind disintegrates in response to seeing the truth about himself. In turn, he tries to forge psychological solidity by enacting his guilt in public, as when he visits the apartment of the murdered sisters to ask about bloodstains, and when he all but admits to committing the murders to an official: “And what if it was I who killed the old woman and Lizaveta?”

Crime and Punishment’s author, Fyodor Dostoevsky (sometimes transcribed as Dostoyevsky), had his own extreme reckoning with human limits. In 1849, he faced the death squad for conspiring against the regime of Tsar Nicholas I. Moments before the fatal shot was to be fired, his sentence was commuted to 10 years in a Siberian prison camp.

There, subject to the harsh conditions of drudgery and to the company of the worst offenders imaginable, Dostoevsky came to an understanding that public policy and law were ineffectual as moral-making institutions: The force of humanity’s cruel deeds could only be countered with Christian conversion.   

It’s difficult at first blush to take Crime and Punishment as a Christian redemption story. W.J. Leatherbarrow, who penned the introduction to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, quotes Dostoevsky as saying that Raskolnikov suffers “unanticipated feelings” in the wake of the murders (in fact, he’s numb, disassociated, and feels no remorse throughout the novel) and that his condition eventually gives way to “God’s truth” (a change that comes quite jarringly at the not-so-bitter end).      

Reading through Crime and Punishment, one cannot help thinking of the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. For more than 500 pages, the story meditates with unflinching, atheistic vigor on the nature of suffering — the meaningless variety, the kind of agony that plumbs the depths of human psyche and drives people to nihilism. “Am I a monster, or a victim myself?” asks Svidrigailov, the molester of Raskolnikov’s sister. Ethical inversions throughout the story lay groundwork for an open consideration of power (and power adulation) — themes consistent with Nietzsche’s transvaluation.  

But this more evident way of reading Crime and Punishment as a Nietzschean tale bears the ahistorical mark of Nietzsche’s Übermensch — the most widely known over-stepper — a concept first articulated by Hegel via his “means and ends” argument, and later developed into a philosophy by Nietzsche several years after the publication of Crime and Punishment.

Experts suggest Dostoevsky didn’t influence Nietzsche (the philosopher is said to have read Dostoevsky only after his thought was established). However, it’s worth noting (and puzzling over) the paradox of a devout Christian writer who plunges as deeply and convincingly into anti-Christian thought as the man who would later popularize it. Perhaps the answer lies in the extreme, morale-eroding terms of Dostoevsky’s imprisonment.       

Ordinary readers will recoil as Raskolnikov sews an axe-loop into his coat. His queasy-making lack of feeling is disorienting as he hacks his victims. He observes their pooling blood and maimed heads with a detached countenance which shows all too explicitly Raskolnikov’s conviction that “everything is permitted.”

Raskolnikov’s defense that the money-lender was a parasite persists until the end of the book. In his self-revealing discourse with the wily police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, Raskolnikov all but chants his mantra that superior people (his preferred example is Napoleon) have earthly given rights to kill.

In response, Porfiry torments Raskolnikov with mind-scrambling tactics and delivers the most significant clue to Crime and Punishment’s meaning when he says Raskolnikov’s psychology is “double-ended.”

All in all, this is no Sunday-school parable. In the book’s introduction, Leatherbarrow notes Raskolnikov’s sudden Christian-conversion is Dostoevsky’s “desperate attempt to nudge his hero into God’s camp.” Indeed, from a secular perspective, the story’s finale reads as both implausible and unwanted.

But then, secular readings, so far removed from those aforementioned Sunday-school days, might not take into account the radical premise of the Christian teachings: Mainly, that everything can be forgiven.  

Saint Paul the Apostle was once Saul of Tarsus, who incited the killing of Stephen and persecuted early disciples of Christ. This self-styled “chief of sinners” having an about face on the road to Damascus is the literary prophesy to Raskolnikov’s being “flung down” at Sonya’s feet in the religious-conversion scene that makes up the finale of the book.

From the moment Raskolnikov commits the murders, he assumes an unspoken vow of poverty through his extreme almsgiving when he twice-gifts large sums of money to a prostitute’s (Sonya’s) family. Likewise, his pitching 20 kopeks into the river Neva in Part II can be read as an unconscious rejection of the flesh.

Sonya, Raskolnikov’s would-be love interest and the Mary Magdalene of the story, remains pure-hearted in spite of her sins — which reflect, in any case, a sacrifice for others; her body in exchange for bread to nourish her family. Like Magdalene, who is the first to discover the risen Christ, Sonya is the first to witness Raskolnikov after his own great transformation.    

“For one life, thousands of lives saved from decay and corruption.” This line, overheard early in the story by Raskolnikov, was supposed to be Dostoevsky’s critique of Utilitarianism. But one only needs to substitute “thousands of lives” for “all of humankind,” and we’re back to a theological interpretation.

Extraordinary readers should recognize the moment Raskolnikov internalizes Porfiry’s voice: ‘“Everything’s double-ended, now everything’s double-ended,”’ he mutters to himself as he begins to run out of options.

Crime and Punishment itself is double-ended, with alternating codes that go deeply into material philosophy as well as Christian theology. Both systems are held up to their utmost, and as many times as one goes back to read the work, the two paths remain open and simultaneous.

Like Dmitri Prokofych Razumikhin, who is Raskolnikov’s loyal friend and the real Übermensch of the story, Crime and Punishment steps over the schisms of Dostoevsky’s psyche and walks triumphantly into and beyond the realm of collective consciousness.

Dorothy Reno is a senior review editor and classics columnist for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published in literary journals in Canada and the United States. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia. If you would like to share your thoughts on Crime and Punishment, please respond in the comments section of this article. Stay tuned for an upcoming feature interview with Dorothy and the Independent's senior assignment editor, Carrie Callaghan, where they will discuss some of the books covered so far in Considering the Classics.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent! Thanks to a matching grant, your donation goes twice as far this month!
comments powered by Disqus