“But the certainty of each ego in its own infallibility, and the absolute assurance and authority imparted by such certainty, leads to the breakdown of all common norms and values.”

To begin, a couple of observations and questions.

1. I was amused to see that the question of entering a a plea of “temporary insanity” was an issue going back to Dostoevsky’s time. Who knew?

2. Was I the only one who, reading the last couple of chapters and the Epilogue, kept thinking about Alex in A Clockwork Orange?

3. And last question for the day: What was it about Raskolnikov that made his sister, Razumikhin, and of course Sonya, willing to go to SIBERIA to be with him?

From Joseph Frank’s biography, Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time:

“In accordance with the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, Dostoevsky provides an epilogue in which the lives of his main characters are followed beyond the limits of the plot action. The main aim of the epilogue is to offer an authorial perspective on the major thematic issues that, Dostoevsky felt, required either reinforcement or completion. One such issue is the decisive role that must be ascribed to the effect of Raskolnikov’s ideas on his psyche. These ideas, in bringing on his monomania, had ultimately provided the motivating force for the crime; and the epilogue points out again to their centrality. Another issue is the gap that still exists between the moral-psychic emotions that led Raskolnikov to confess and his continued belief that his ideas, whatever his own personal defeat, have not been invalidated.

The reader knows that Raskolnikov’s so-called ‘heartfelt repentance’ is really a crushing sense of defeat, and the depression that marks his behavior in the Siberian prison camp, where he even rebuffs Sonya’s effort to comfort him, is the result not of the hardship of his lot but of the collapse of belief in himself. He falls ill for a long time, and ‘it was wounded pride that made him ill.’ What tortures him is that he cannot see any flaw in his theory but finds it only in himself: ‘his exasperated conscience found no particular terrible fault in his past, except a single blunder which might happen to anyone. Not being able to find any flaw in his ideas, he could thus see no value in the “continual sacrifice leading to nothing” that he had accepted. Of course he had committed a crime, but “What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest…Well, punish me for the letter of the law…and that’s enough. Of course in that case many benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that first step.'” Raskolnikov thus believes that there is nothing inherently incompatible between the ruthless acquisition of power by an ‘extraordinary person,’ who never questions for a moment that his ego is superior to all moral laws, and the possibility of that person then becoming a ‘benefactor of mankind.’

To resolve this thematic crux Dostoevsky has recourse to the famous final dream of Raskolnikov, the dream in which he sees ‘the whole world…condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia.’ This dream, like all the others in the book, emerges from the depths of his moral-emotive psyche, and like them is the response of his conscience to his ideas. His logic is answered not by any sort of rational refutation but by the vision of his horrified subconscious (which in Dostoevsky is usually moral, as it also is in Shakespeare). The dream represents nothing less than the universalization of Raskolnikov’s doctrine of the ‘extraordinary people’ in which all attempt to put this belief into practice. Those attacked by the plague become ‘mad and furious’ while believing they had reached new heights of wisdom and self-understanding. ‘Never had men considered themselves so intellectual, ,and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers. Never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible.’ The disease allows each person to preserve ‘moral convictions’ and inspires a desire to enlighten others with the truth of such convictions so as to become a benefactor of humanity. ‘Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others.’

But the certainty of each ego in its own infallibility, and the absolute assurance and authority imparted by such certainty, leads to the breakdown of all common norms and values. ‘They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good.’ No form of social cohesion could resist the contagion of the plague; the plague thus removes the implicit basis of consensus on which human society is based, and the final result is total social chaos. Here we see Dostoevsky destroying the last shreds of Raskolnikov’s conviction that a supreme egoism could be combined with socially benevolent consequences. Let all presume they were ‘extraordinary people,’ and the results would be the Hobbesian world of Raskolnikov’s feverish nightmare, the war of all against all. this is the world of Western society as Dostoevsky had described it in Winter Notes, t he world in which ‘the ego sets itself in opposition, as a separate, self-justifying principle, against all nature and all other humans; it claims equality and equal value with whatever exists outside of itself.’ It is not only equality that each ego now claims, but alsl absolute superiority; and this is the plague that has come to Russia from Europe to infect the radical intelligentsia, the plague of a moral amorality based on egoism and culminating in a form of self-deification. Dostoevsky thus uses the typical technique of his eschatological imagination to dramatize all the implicit dangers of the new radical ideology.

Raskolnikov’s dream provides an impressive climax to the main ideological theme of the book and is, in effect, its proper ending. Also effective is the growing need for Sonya that Raskolnikov feels after the desolation of his dream; she offers him not only a means of renewing his life personally but also, perhaps, a way of achieving some soft of assimilation to the people (the peasant convicts refuse to accept him as a genuine Christian). In the final pages, though, just before Raskolnikov flings himself at Sonya’s feet to embrace her and weep, he is sitting on the riverbank, gazing at the steppe, where he sees the tents of nomads in the distance. It seemed as if time had stood still, and he was back in the ‘age of Abraham and his flocks,’ the age of untroubled faith. It is only after this comparison occurs to him that he turns to Sonya, but Dostoevsky knew that Raskolnikov could not become another Sonya or return to the ‘age of Abraham,’ and that it would be a daunting task to find an adequate artistic image of a possible new Raskolnikov. This task could hardly be undertaken in his brief concluding pages, and so the epilogue, if not a failure as a whole, invariably leaves readers with a sense of dissatisfaction. It was a sense evidently felt by Dostoevsky, whose narrator speaks of Raskolnikov’s ‘gradual regeneration’ as being ‘the theme of a new story’ and it would be a story that continued to preoccupy Dostoevsky throughout the remainder of his life. For time and time again we shall see him returning to the challenge of creating a regenerated Raskolnikov — of creating, that is, a highly educated and spiritually developed member of Russian society who conquers his egoism and undergoes a genuine conversion to a Christian morality of love.”

I can accept that as an interpretation of Raskolnikov’s dream, but…what or who exactly are the people at the end, “Only a few people in the whole world could be saved; they were pure and chosen, destined to begin a new generation of people and a new life, to renew and purify the earth; but no one had seen these people anywhere, no one had heard their words or voices.” Any thoughts?

On the other hand there are those, such as Victor Terras in his study reading Dostoevsky who accepts the truth of Raskolnikov’s conversion:

“In Crime and Punishment (1866), psychological analysis celebrates its greatest triumphs, yet it is in this novel that it is also cut down to size, exposed for what it is, and left, as it were, in the antechamber of human understanding. Crime and Punishment is a roman policier in which the search for the killer is replaced by a search for the killer’s motive. Dostoevsky himself wrote in his notebook: ‘Establish the motive by all means!’ The fact is that he never did. the killer himself duly racks his brain after the deed, trying to answer this question, which neither he nor his creator, nor any of the book’s many excellent critics, has answered. Pisarev, the positivist, said the motive was, ultimately, money. N. N. Strakhov, a conservative idealist, said it was misguided ideology, a ‘political’ murder, in a way. Others have pointed out the thrill motive, the Ubermensch motive, the motive of self-inflicted punishment, and even a Freudian Oedipal motive. In the end it turns out that the question is irrelevant. The saintly Sonia does not show any interest in the motive at all: Raskolnikov has killed a human being, he has sinned, and he must be saved. In the Epilogue, Raskolnikov finds the way to salvation when he rids himself of all his subtle thoughts and begins to feel — simply, like Sonia. Raskolnikov the thinker and psychologist is dead; Raskolnikov the believe is born.

Nor is this denouement unprepared for. Porfiry Petrovich, a master detective who uses psychology with superb skill, is also the first to admit that psychology is inherently double-edged. He does not trust psychology. He knows Raskolnikov well and can ‘read him.’ He assumes that he will not kill himself, but he still asks him, just in case, to leave a note saying where he hid the money. Yet this is the same Porfiry Petrovich who easily reads Raskolnikov’s brilliantly staged entrance, when the killer walks into the detective’s living room in a fit of merry laughter.

What is the reason for this apparent contradiction? The point is that is it one thing to understand another person intuitively, to the point of ‘slipping under his skin,’ but another thing to predict what that person will do. Porfiry knows that he who predicts the actions of another human being, as he would predict those of a mechanical contraption, may fare as badly as General von Mack and the Austrian Hofkriegsrathm who had figured out how to capture Napoleon with his whole army. It turned out that Napoleon did not act as he “should have,’ and it was von Mack, not Napoleon, who was led away into captivity. Quite simply, man has free will. Only Raskolnikov can decide whether to kill himself or not. The wise Porfiry accepts this.

Raskolnikov’s greatest mistake was trusting psychology. Having studies the psychology of crime and in particular the state of the criminal’s mind during and after the commission of a crime, he was confident that the psychological problems were the least of what he had to face and that there were entirely new dimensions of existence that his psychology was quite unaware of.

Finally, the most important point about psychology in Crime and Punishment: it has often been said that the final scene of the Epilogue is out of character. Psychologically, Raskolnikov’s conversion to Sonia’s evangelic faith is implausible. But this is precisely what Dostoevsky wanted it to be. He went against psychology in the one point that really delivers the whole meaning of the novel. As Dostoevsky once put it: ‘If I have to choose between scientific truth and Christ, I choose Christ.’ In other words, moral values take precedence over any other values. Morally, this is the correct conclusion for Crime and Punishment, and hence psychology will have to pass.”

Am I simply to cynical to accept the possibility that Raskolnikov can convert to “Sonia’s evangelic faith?”

And finally, to end on a rather amusing note, click below to see what Raskolnikov would have in his inbox if he was with us today:

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3 Responses to “But the certainty of each ego in its own infallibility, and the absolute assurance and authority imparted by such certainty, leads to the breakdown of all common norms and values.”

  1. Eddie Chism says:

    Dennis, you’re not the only one too cynical to believe in this conversion. And for me personally, even if it were more convincingly portrayed, I am not really satisfied with the idea that religious conversion can make up for murder. Of course, that’s because I am an agnostic. I would assume Christians would disagree with me on that.

    • Now, I would assume that Dostoevsky would believe that Raskolnikov had some atoning to do, but couldn’t it be assumed that with belief comes forgiveness?

      • Within the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, it is understood that the Mystery of confession and repentance has more to do with the spiritual development of the individual and much less to do with purification. Sin is not seen as a stain on the soul, but rather a mistake that needs correction.

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