Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Raskolnikov Killed

Recently, I went through many of my favorite book blogs out of curiosity to see what you all think about Crime and Punishment.  At this point, I've done this for several books before I've written my own post in order that I could try to offer a unique perspective.  Yet when I wrote my first post about Crime and Punishment, I was not yet connected in this wonderful book blogging community.  That said, I want to talk about what I believe to be the most misunderstood aspect of this novel - the motive behind Raskolnikov's murder.

I should warn you that this post may contain some spoilers, but I don't think it's a problem to acknowledge that the protagonist Raskolnikov commits a double axe murder.  It happens early in the novel and would probably be written on the back of any copy of the book.  The marvelous irony of the novel is that despite this gruesome crime, we love him anyway.  It's certainly clear that he is guilty, but he has so many other good actions and good people in his life that we tend to forgive him.  How is this possible?  To understand this, I think we must uncover his motive.

Raskolnikov himself ponders this very question.  He justifies the crime in his mind for a number of different reasons before he reaches the root cause of his action.  At first, he tried to tell himself that he needed the money and he would be doing everyone a favor because the pawnbroker was a miserable person.  However, this reasoning was quickly and resolutely rejected for several reasons.  First, he didn't steal much money at all, and he buried the money he did take without using it.  Second, he felt physically and emotionally sick about his crime, which negated the sense that her life had no meaning.  Third, he himself dismissed the idea explicitly much later in a conversation with Sonia.  Because of all these clear reasons, most people agree that this was not the true motive for his crime.

The most popular explanation for his murder is the theory of the "extraordinary man."  We find out in the story that Raskolnikov had written an article about people being divided as either ordinary or extraordinary.  According to this article, Raskolnikov believed that extraordinary people possess the ability to transgress the law without guilt or second-guessing.  Thus, it is often believed that Raskolnikov killed in order to test whether or not he was one of these extraordinary people.  Indeed, Raskolnikov himself indicates that this is his motive in that same conversation to Sonia, which is why so many readers accept this explanation.  And yet rightly so, many of you are not satisfied with it.  I read many responses in which people loved the book but were unsettled with Raskolnikov's motive.  It didn't sit right with you, and I believe that's because it shouldn't.  It doesn't make sense with the rest of the novel because it's not true.

In my mind, the real reason Raskolnikov decided to murder the pawnbroker is that he was suffering an existential crisis.  This is a fancy and pretentious way to say that he was torn within himself between polar identities.  He was trapped within his own philosophical thinking so deeply that he had lost the power to act in his life.  His fiance was gone, he dropped out of his education, he stopped working, and he holed himself up in an old lady's attic to wallow in his own listlessness.  It is clear from the very first page that Raskolnikov is already experiencing crisis and depression.  Reread the third paragraph if you aren't sure.  If Raskolnikov had merely tested a theory and failed, he would only have experienced crisis after the murder.  However, it is absolutely critical to be aware that his crisis exists long before the murder.  Raskolnikov murdered because he was so deeply entrenched in inaction that he desperately needed to do something.  In his own words, "I wanted to dare, and I killed.  I only wanted to dare, Sonia - and that's the whole reason!"

I don't want to lose you by making this too lengthy, so I will try to wrap it up.  The other significant evidence of this motive is that he is not cured by his confession.  If he was only miserable because he felt guilty, he should have been relieved once he turned himself in.  But the mightily important epilogue tells us that he has reverted back to his initial state of listless depression.  He has not found an escape from his existential crisis because his attempt (the murder) proved wholly unsuccessful.  It is only when he lets go of himself and his need for control that he experiences redemption.  And he does this through accepting the love of Sonia.  I have heard many people complain that this ending is too happy or fairytale, but I think with a fuller understanding of the novel, you can see that's not its purpose.  The point is that for the first time in the entire novel, Raskolnikov stops thinking about himself and gives himself over to another person.  He has found a way to get outside of the polarizing despair of his identity and grasp a more holistic view of what life means.  It's not about the romance as much as it is about the symbolic escape of one's self.  This becomes his solution and his only relief from the despair that drove him to act in the first place.

If you worked your way through this whole thing, thank you.  It's very significant to me because I love this book so much.  And it would also mean a lot to me to hear your feedback, because that's what blogging is all about!


Becky (Page Turners) said...

I didn't read your entire post truth be told because of the spoiler warning. For a long time I have wanted to read this, more so now that I have made my career as a criminal defence lawyer. I know that things are very different now, but I think that I will find the discussino about crime and punishment and concepts of justice really interesting.

Eclectic Indulgence said...

I think the concept of 'extraodinary man' and your idea are one in the same.

What it all boils down to, to me... is that Raskolnikov does not know who he is and he is trying to find out. He is lost, and sometimes when overwhelmed with too many thoughts and too many unknowns, become paralized. They cannot do anything with their life because they do not know where to start.

For instance, when I have an extra long list of actitivies to complete I get frazzled and inactive until I write them down and start to pull myself out of my hole by getting things done in a sequential matter. Imagine feeling so much about everything and wanting to change society, yourself, the world, etc... it's a lot to deal with in such big chunks.

If you thought about global warming, poverty, rising populations, food scarcity, abuse, etc all at the same time you would be paralized instead of just choosing something to focus on and going out to execute.

Raskolnikov needs to focus inwards before he focuses outwards, and in the end, this is how prison is supposed to rehabilitate. There is ample time for self reflection and not a lot of things you can control/do. It eliminates all the noise and lets you focus.

I foget the ending, so you'd have to refresh my memory so I can tell you how to fit that piece in. :)

Amy said...

@Eclectic - I have shamefully neglected to respond to your considerable thoughts, but I am so grateful you took the time to share them. I agree with you that Raskolnikov is struggling to grapple with his identity, but for me there's a significant difference between killing to prove something and killing in order to act. I don't think he was trying to prove that he was extraordinary but that he existed and his actions had consequences. Indeed, his thoughts were clouding him, but I think they were constantly focused on himself rather than on anyone else. Thus, it is instead that he put his focus outward, as you put it, that cured him rather than inward. I think prison was not useful for giving him more time to think but to show him that Sonia still stuck around and cared about him. He had to see that there was more in this life than just himself and embrace that.

I could talk endlessly about this and I appreciate the comments. It's possible that what Raskolnikov was feeling doesn't affect many readers' experience, but it's fascinating to me.

marine said...

hello Amy,
Your analysis is so deep. I'm asked to write two essays about this book. One about Raskolnikov's quest, and one about a symbol in the novel. Anyway you can help?

Amy said...

Hi Marine, I would love to help! Raskolnikov's "quest" could break down into two categories. You could either pursue the question of why he killed the pawnbroker or you could consider what his quest was after the murders. If you are looking for why he killed, there are a number of theories and you can see my extensive answer above. Part 5, Chapter 4 is a good place to start. This is when he explains his reasoning to Sonia. In my opinion, the most honest answer is "I only wanted to dare."

It might be more interesting, however, to approach his quest after the murders. What now? What does he hope to gain? Is he looking for forgiveness? Removal of guilt? Love? What do his actions after the murder tell us? And in the end, does he meet his quest?

The symbols in the novel are not quite as clear as Hawthorne's symbols, for instance. Nevertheless, there are some important ones. I think the primary symbol to pay attention to is the land itself. Russian authors of the 19th century put a lot of emphasis on land. One example of this is when Sonia instructs Raskolnikov to kiss the ground. There is something about returning to the land and respecting the land that is key. Another symbol is academia. Raskolnikov and Razumikhin were friends in university together, and Razumikhin represents this in the story. Likewise, there is a lot of discussion about Raskolnikov's publication of the extraordinary man theory.

A couple of smaller images appear from time to time, but I'm not sure I could write a whole essay about them. Anyway, good luck and I hope this helps!

Avagurl said...

Do you think Jane Eyre contains an existentialism literary lense?

Anonymous said...

I just read the part where he tries to confess and explain his ideas to Sonia, and well the first thing I thought of was that it wasn't very different from an existentialist take on murder, similar in fact to the Stranger perhaps, but presenting its counterpart at the same time. The idea of murder as an act of freedom came to mind. I think the idea of the "extraordinary man" transgresses on the fantastical on purpose. In our era, it seems a bit ridiculous to look to Napoleon as a role model. Maybe it was not so then, but still the point is made that he was no necessarily a good man. I think raskolnikov's desire to be extraordinary can be rephrased as a desire to be Consequential. A Consequential man whose acts have a clear and irrevocable impact upon the world. His crisis stems from a fear of fading into the mass of humanity,of being subdued to the life of the many, of leading a life where none of his actions really matter. It is all the human race, it is all the normal course of history, and it is all the same whatever he may do with his life. Studying, not studying, the fate of his family. He is caught in a crisis where he desperately needs to reaffirm his existence, his freedom to choose, and his ability to effect change. The most extreme expression of this, the most irrevocable act available to him, in his ungloriously unnapoleonic condition, is the murder. The problem is, though, that it doesn't work. Nothing really changes much.

Amy said...

Thank you for these latest comments. I am never tired of exploring this aspect of the story, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I think I am much in agreement with you. In particular, I loved: "He is caught in a crisis where he desperately needs to reaffirm his existence, his freedom to choose, and his ability to affect change." I completely agree with that, and you worded it very eloquently. It's interesting that you draw comparison to The Stranger, which is certainly identified as an existential text. Perhaps a key difference is that readers tend to embrace Raskolnikov and get turned off by Meursault. Yet it's entirely conceivable that they were facing the same root distress. And indeed, their actions do not ease their distress much, if at all. I suppose the next question would be whether an existential crisis can be resolved at all... and what does this mean for Dostoevsky's Epilogue?

SB said...

I do agree with you fully, but I also want to pinpoint the importance of the others reasons of the murder. The idea of murder , I consider as a result of his poverty. That is, his wish for money let him think of murdering the old woman. When Raskolnikov is planning the murder, he is disgusted by his own plans, and thinks he cannot fulfil them. When he receives a letter about Dunya's impending marriage, I believe it is some kind of trigger. That he again wishes the money. Still, I do believe your reasons are more important, but I would not completely dismiss his wish for money.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this little article. Game me a better view on Raskolnikovs murder motives. A lot of helpful info that I can use in my essay. Thanks!

Adam Gertz said...

I'm writing an essay on the implications of a subjective morality on the understanding of happiness. The two major trains of thought on morality are that it is either objective or subjective. To give a bit of background, hopefully without sounding pretentious, objective morality is what is presented by Platonic and ecclesiastic philosophers; while subjective morality is what is presented by philosophers such as Descartes, Nietzsche, and many more existentialist. The key difference being that to the objective moralist there is a singular 'form' or morality which is unchanging, and to the subjective moralist morality is based on individual beliefs which do change from person to person. Now, onto my real question, does Raskolnikov believe in an objective or subjective morality? This is as one might call a 'loaded question' but I would like to see if you can help me better understand Raskolnikov's morality and what its foundations are. I think that if an argument can be made to incline me to believe his morality to be objective or subjective it would illuminate, at least for me, exactly why he feels such despair leading up to the murder, and even after his confession. I would like to believe that his eventual 'self-realization' in the epilogue eludes to his turning away of objective morality towards a more subjective one. Given his theory about the extraordinary man I would like to keep away from responses to Raskolnikov's moral issues which claim that he is merely suffering from a mental disease, not only because things like bi-polar disorder were not studied condition at the time the novel was written but also because I think that in deciding that Raskolikovs struggle with morality is one of an internal ethical debate there is a more intriguing character to be understood. This is because not only do I wish to understand Raskolnikov's character but also as to how he relates to other major characters and themes throughout the novel.

Amy said...

Dear Adam,
I only just now read your comment, and I'm sorry it took me so long to catch it. I think this is certainly an interesting and relevant issue in trying to understand Raskolnikov's motive, adding valuable dimension to this discussion.

Yes, I think you could make a strong argument that Raskolnikov's morality evolves from objective to subjective. Before his murder, he theoretically believes that the act is not evil and thus he will not feel the guilt for acting on it. He acts on his impulse to feel something and exert force/power without weighing possible consequences. When the intensity of those consequences and guilt immediately strike him, he is overcome with despair. Yet the confession cannot "cure" this because he has not resolved his underlying issues and perhaps also because he has not adjusted his sense of morality. He must realize that "good" and "evil" are perhaps not the same in every situation, just as Sonia's prostitution does not make her an evil person. I think it is crucial that the forgiveness and love comes from Sonia, who truly embodies this kind of subjective morality.

Concerning other major characters, I think the most important person to analyze is Svidrigailov, who functions as Raskolnikov's moral foil. Raskolnikov wants to hate him but they share a number of similarities. Like Raskolnikov, he has committed bad acts as well as good ones. He gives money away to people in need, and he genuinely does love Dunia, though he cannot express or receive that love in return. However, Svidrigailov's morality ultimately left him with no solution except for suicide. Rather than adjusting as Raskolnikov does, he ends his life because he cannot see another way.

I hope this addresses some of your insightful questions and points. Feel free to continue this and I'll try to check it more regularly!

Anonymous said...

I would just like to thank you, this article helped me a lot on my essay! Gave me so many ideas that I was able to expand on. :)

Much love from Japan!

Anonymous said...

Great discussion on Raskolnikov's motivations here!