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“‘You’re a gentleman,’ they used to say to him. ‘You shouldnt have gone murdering people with a hatchet; thats no occupation for a gentleman.'” – Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was the second youngest of seven children. Their noble family lived within the depths of the poverty-stricken Moscow, but young Fyodor’s childhood could be described as a happy one. They lived under the rule of a despotic father and a frail mother, who both died when Fyodor was still in his teenage years (Liukkonen). In any case, Dostoevsky’s early life, and whole life in general, was filled with complications, which directly interacted with the works he produced in his later life. In Crime and Punishment, the protagonist, Raskolnikov, describes himself as an “extraordinary man”, who can consequently transgress accepted moral standards for the greater good of society. However, Dostoevsky did not intend to create a “superman” in his novel, but he intended to create a fool to mock the people who believe they have the right to act like extraordinary men. Through Dostoevsky’s personal experiences, he wrote Crime and Punishment to satirize those people in society and to emphasize that their ultimate fate is to be taught a lesson of knowing their rightful place and the bounds they are constrained to.
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Dostoevsky did not want to disprove the theory of an extraordinary man itself, but rather to clarify it as a possibility- a rare one. The rarity of such a situation is presented in Raskolnikov’s speech to Porfiry: “People with new ideas, people with the faintest capacity for saying something new, are extremely few in number, extraordinarily so, in fact” (245). As he speaks, he constantly looks to the ground as if remembering a memorized poem and unaware what he is implicating. Raskolnikov also fails to realize that his explanation of ordinary men playing at extraordinary describes himself, “for they never go very far. Of course, they might have a thrashing sometimes for letting their fancy run away with them and to teach them their place, but no more; in fact, even this isn’t necessary as they castigate themselves, for they are very conscientious: some perform this service for one another and others chastise themselves with their own hands” (245). The detachment of the speech not only renders the validity of Raskolnikov being an extraordinary man false, but it can also be interpreted as being the voice of Dostoevsky himself.
Dostoevsky understands the cycle very well because he too experienced it in his own life. Raskolnikov’s argument for justifying his crime, is that “all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals- more or less, of course” (242). Dostoevsky once believed that he had some “new word” to spread amongst the people and he thought it was allowed to surpass and break the norm of the current society. “During the regency of Tsar Nikolay I (1825-1855) the Enlightment was an invectiveâ€¦ The official line was that of orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality”. Dostoevsky strongly opposed censorship and serfhood, and was known to be a “stout defender of monarchy”. He joined the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of young radical intellectuals attempting to spread their opinions, but all were sentenced to death a while later (Timur). Dostoevsky’s precarious actions strictly define his belief that he was superior in society, which later led him to produce what is classified as Russia’s first “social novel”. However, after multiple sufferings in his later life, he grasped onto Redemption and was taught the ultimate lesson.
Crime and Punishment was not the only novel where Dostoevsky used a “Raskolnikov” character. One of the significant flaws in his characters were that “through [the] despair and weakness before the weight of misfortune, they falter and commit barbaric acts that render them unfit to operate within the context of humanity” (Toutonghi). The theory of an extraordinary man is completely subjective, so Dostoevsky uses his view of an extraordinary man to satirize those who presume they are extraordinary when they are just ordinary. He attributes different adjectives describing the word “extraordinary” to prove his approach. First, Dostoevsky uses the word for the fantastic and the unreal. Dreams are depicted to have “a singular actuality, vividness and extraordinary semblance of reality” (52). Later, “Extraordinary” is related to the conception of random coincidence when the narrator says “Of course it was a chance, but he could not shake off a very extraordinary impressionâ€¦” (53-54). “Extraordinary” is then indicated with drowsiness and stupefaction, “And his drowsiness and stupefaction were followed by an extraordinary, feverish, as it were distracted haste” (66). Razumikhin describes Raskolnikov’s escape while he was delirious as extraordinary, as if Raskolnikov’s sickness and simultaneous ability to act makes him extraordinary (236) (Fox). Throughout the novel, the word “extraordinary” appears to challenge the idea that Raskolnikov is an extraordinary man. The word is constantly being expressed by abnormal qualities, and close to states of delirium. Dostoevsky persists to tell the readers that those who believe they are extraordinary think and act like this because they are delirious, dreaming, drunk, sick, or because they perceive chance as something they hold the power to construct. It is evident that Dostoevsky perceives that extraordinary men do not think about being extraordinary because it cannot be known: “the same masses set these criminals [the extraordinary men] on a pedestal in the next generation and worship themâ€¦ The first category is always the [ordinary] man of the present, the second the [extraordinary] man of the future” (243). This passage can be portrayed that extraordinary men do not dwell on thinking if they are extraordinary or not, but rather they “move the world towards the future” (243). When Raskolnikov speaks to Razumikhin, he admits that he did not write anything new, “You see that there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before” (243) (Fox). It is the same thing as admitting he is not extraordinary and he is somewhat aware of it, but fears to consider it a possibility.
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Dostoevsky’s beliefs that he was once extraordinary were countered by his later experiences in his life. When he was sentenced to death for “treachery” against his home country, he was prepared for death, but the sentence was reprieved during the last minutes before his execution and transformed into 4 years of hard labor in Siberia (Liukkonen). “In a letter to his brother Andrey, Dostoevsky wrote: ‘…I consider those four years as a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin. Just how horrible that time was I have not the strength to tell you…it was an indescribable, unending agony, because each hour, each minute weighed upon my soul like a stone'” (Timur). Dostoevsky was considered a “nobleman” compared to the peasants in the prison, so he was completely isolated from all others. He described to his brother how harsh and malicious the other men were compared to him, “These men were coarse, irritable and malicious. Their hatred of the nobility knew no limits, and so they received us noblemen with hostility and a gleeful schadenfreude [pleasure derived from misfortune of others].” “If they had had half a chance they would have devoured us…the only thing that saved us from this misery was our equanimity, our moral superiority, which they could not help but comprehend and which they respected as a sign that we were not subservient to their will.” And after prison, Dostoevsky went to serve as a private in the Siberian Army (Timur ; Toutonghi). Perhaps through these sufferings, Dostoevsky realized how naÃ¯ve he was and noticed that, in fact, he was quite similar to those in lower classes. Serving prison time with them as well as fighting alongside them in the army changed his “extraordinary man”/ superior attitude, and it inspired him to write Crime and Punishment to teach others as well as redeeming his guilt from his naivety in his younger years.
Another reason for the creation of the character Raskolnikov was due to the deaths of his older brother and his first wife while he was traveling Europe. He was obsessed with gambling, plagued by debts left by his brother, and had frequent epileptic seizures (Toutonghi). This further encouraged his hatred against his own naivety, and allowed for the release of frustration into the character of Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov does not have a great cause for his crime, a fact that keeps him ordinary. He lacks the essential characteristics of an extraordinary man and that is necessary to ironically depict him as an extraordinary man when he really is delirious, drunk, sick, and abnormal. Dostoevsky was the same when he began his first novel and joined the Petrashevsky Circle. He believed that his superiority could allow him to change the ideas of many and allow for a “Napoleonic” personality. Not to say that Dostoevsky did not shape the socialistic views of the twentieth century, because he most certainly did and he inspired great writers like Franz Kafka. But. to believe he was extraordinary went against his ideals later present through his experiences of prison, the army, and the deaths of his loved ones. Dostoevsky’s focus was to retell what he learned with a similar character by satirizing the people who believe they are “extraordinary men” and to teach the lesson of knowing life boundaries. It is to make such people reflect and, in reflecting, learn their ordinary place in the world, much like Raskolnikov does.
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