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Free Study Guide-Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-Free Booknotes
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THEME ANALYSIS

Minor Themes

The theme of isolation is another major concern in Crime and Punishment. From the very first chapter, the reader sees Raskolnikov as a "loner," perhaps due to the constraints of his impoverished lifestyle. He experiences all the deprivations of poverty as a university student living in a depressing, lower class lodging house. This makes him view the world around him with utter disgust and cynical contempt that further alienates him from other humans.

Raskolnikov's brilliant thesis on the "Extraordinary man" springs in part from his notion that the larger part of humanity suffers poverty and deprivations due to the selfish excesses of a few rich individuals. Hence, he also develops the theory that parasitic and predatory individuals in society, who prey upon the misery of other humans, deserve to be eliminated from the world. His theory of crime and the "Extraordinary man" is, thus, a result of his morbid view of the world, developed through long spells of introspection and isolation.

When he propounds his theory of crime and the "Extraordinary man," Raskolnikov is aware that a crime such as murder isolates the criminal from the rest of human society. He believes that the "Superior" man must be able to face the isolation that follows his crime. Raskolnikov, later, begins to feel that the worst part of his punishment for his crimes is his total alienation from others. After all, his crime springs from his utter isolation and introversion. This leads him to suffer an even deeper despair and loneliness soon after the deed. His act of murder isolates him from all human compassion and love. It also alienates him from the established order of society, its moral laws and common human decency.

His sister, Dounia, suffers a similar isolation. She is willing to sacrifice herself in a loveless marriage to the rather patronizing and contemptible Luzhin. Although Raskolnikov has no means to prevent this shabby marriage of convenience, he firmly proclaims, "I won't accept this sacrifice." Dounia's desperate situation irritates him because he knows he is powerless to help her. He feels bitter about the fact that she is willing to marry Luzhin just so that her brother may complete his law studies. This makes Raskolnikov impotent with suppressed rage, and it alienates him further from society.


After the death of her first husband, a Russian army officer, Katerina is forced to marry the drunken clerk, Marmeladov, who can barely support her children and herself. When he dies in an accident, she is evicted from her lodgings, along with her three children. She suffers both a physical and a psychological breakdown, and dies defiantly refusing help from either priest or doctor. Her intense sorrows and misery in life, again, underscore Dostoevsky's theme of human sufferings and isolation.

Above all, Sonia experiences soul-shattering humiliation and solitude. She is forced to take up a life of prostitution in order to help support her drunken father's second family. Men like Luzhin treat her with unwarranted contempt. Poor Sonia has to suffer vile rebukes that naturally would tend to isolate her from a world full of cruel and despicable people like Luzhin. It is her loneliness and silent suffering that draws Raskolnikov to her and prompts him to reveal his dreadful secret. He confesses to Sonia mainly because he has no one else to turn to in his great distress. Besides, he can no longer endure his terrible isolation from ordinary humanity.

The theme of the "Extraordinary Man" or "superman":

Raskolnikov's theories about the "superman" or "Extraordinary Man" also form a major theme in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. In fact, the theory of crime that he formulates constitutes the very basis for his murders. His fantastic concepts about crime and men of superior intellect bring Raskolnikov to the point of committing a crime to prove the viability of his thesis in actual practice. The main-spring of action in the novel is, no doubt, the double murders that he commits. This heinous deed is motivated by his theory that the "Extraordinary man," with his superior intellect, stands outside and above the boundaries of common moral and human laws. Raskolnikov believes that there are two types of humans in society: the ordinary and the extraordinary. Ordinary men merely propagate the species and, hence, they are inferior. Extraordinary men are those who help society develop through their contribution to the store of humanity's intellectual achievements.

This theory is based partially on views drawn from Hegel and Nietzsche, two German philosophers, as well as from Raskolnikov's own notions of the Superman. There are, however, certain inherent contradictions in his theories, as they are not fully developed. In order to complete and test his thesis about the "Extraordinary man," he has to commit a crime to see what effect the crime would have on its perpetrator. Thus, Dostoevsky exposes Raskolnikov's weakness as one of the young, misguided revolutionaries who was dissatisfied with social conditions in mid- 19th century Russia. They drew their inspiration from Western thinkers whose views they had only partially digested. Young intellectuals and radicals, like Raskolnikov or Lebeziatnikov, often went about putting their half-baked theories into practice before they had fully understood or analyzed them.

Raskolnikov's thesis draws partially from the Hegelian view of the Superman as one who exists to do good for humankind. Hegel also held that the ends justify the means, provided the ends were noble. Hence, Raskolnikov believed that killing the evil moneylender was essentially a good act, as he hoped thereby to remove from society a harmful person who preyed on the misfortunes of the poor and whose money could be put to good use.

Although Nietzsche had not yet published his explicit theories of the "Superman," Dostoevsky may have been exposed to some related ideas when he visited Germany a few years before writing Crime and Punishment. In Nietzsche's view, the "Superman" does not exist for the good of society, but for his own advancement and satisfaction. He has no specifically noble motives. He wants only to assert his own strong will, achieve his desires and dominate others. In Dostoevsky's novel, Svidrigailov represents the Nietzschean type of "Superman" more than Raskolnikov. The assertion of his dominant will and vulgar desires is his defining characteristic. However, neither Svidrigailov nor Raskolnikov can endure the extreme isolation from others that is required of the "superman."

By using a blend of prevailing ideas about the "Extraordinary Man," Dostoevsky shows how men like Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov adopted revolutionary stances against the established order of Imperial Russian society. They derived inspiration from contemporary West European thinkers. They often used Napoleon as a "role-model" because of his daring vision, his enterprising exploits and his dauntless spirit. However, they failed to realize that Napoleon proved ultimately to be a failure, and his dreams of conquering all of Europe and Russia ended disastrously both for himself and others.

After his years of penal servitude and a visit to Europe in 1862- 1864, Dostoevsky was disillusioned by the radical socialist ideas that had earlier enthralled him. He now saw the tragic contradictions inherent in the French Revolution and distrusted the rising bourgeois capitalist society throughout Europe. In Russia he sensed the widening gulf between the fanciful dreams of the "raznochintsy" (people of various social ranks who often had progressive ideas) and the simple aspirations of the common people. Viewing the political reactions that engulfed Europe in the 1850s and early 1860s, Dostoevsky became increasingly skeptical about ultra-revolutionary movements and their dangerous possibilities.

This brought Dostoevsky in opposition to his earlier political mentors, like Chernyshevsky and the revolutionary socialist, Petrashevsky. Hence, in Crime and Punishment, he attempted to depict two extremes of the revolutionary ideologies of Russian intellectuals through his complementary portraits of Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov.

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