During the nineteenth century, Western-influenced rationalist theories gained popularity in Russia. Some radical rationalists advocated the use of pure reason in making decisions at the expense of morality, which was epitomized in the Übermensch theory, that a man can achieve superhuman status by freeing himself from the constraints of society to pursue his will to power. To warn readers of the limitations of solely relying on reason, author Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote the novel Crime and Punishment. By portraying Raskolnokov's struggle to become a superman, Dostoevsky shows the pitfalls of making decisions on pure logic due to Raskolnikov's internal struggles with fear and guilt.
At the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his murder of his landlady with the ideas of the Übermensch and utilitarianism. While in a tavern, Raskolnikov listens to a conversation between an officer and a student. One of them reasons that if the despicable pawnbroker was killed, then "a hundred thousand good deeds could be done and helped, on that old woman's money which will be buried in a monastery" (Dostoevsky 68). Raskolnikov rationalizes his plan to murder her with the utilitarian belief that her one death would save the lives of hundreds. The money she leaves behind would have been wasted on priests who would glorify her worthless existence forever, so it makes sense to donate it to the poor. He weighs the pros and cons of his decision logically, while disregarding traditional morals that deem murder completely unethical. He believes that because he is intelligent and has the ability to think rationally, he should be able to cross moral boundaries that hold back ordinary men and carry out the murder. To carry out his plan, he murders her with the blunt end of the axe, which shows his deep hatred of her. The blunt end does not cause instant death, so he hacks her multiple times. As a result, the victim suffers excruciating pain before dying. This is an act of revenge; he inflicts on her the pain she has inflicted upon the poor and essentially believes. At first, it seems that he has separated himself from ordinary people by becoming a superman because he has overstepped moral laws. In reality, while he is rationalizing his philosophy, he discovers that the real cause for his murder is not for the betterment of society, but for his own selfish reasons, primarily for him to relieve himself of the large debt he owes to Alyona.
The fear Raskolnikov feels as a result of the murders shows some of the flaws in his rationalism. After he steals Alyona's money and valuables, he hides them under a rock. He is afraid that the police will find this evidence, but with the money hidden, he cannot fulfill his promise to use it to benefit humanity, which was part of his reasoning in murdering the pawnbroker. In addition, after the murder, he is discovered by Lizaveta, "gazing in stupefaction at her murdered sister" (Dostoevsky 82). Fearing that she would report him to the police, he then proceeds to split her skull. This unplanned murder destroys all of his justifications for breaking the moral code. It is a selfish act he commits out of fear of being arrested. The Übermensch must carry out his actions without any fear, yet Raskolnikov lacks this assurance and is fearful of the consequences. In fact, he thinks that he is "viler and more loathsome than the louse [that he] killed" (Dostoevsky 275). By lowering himself to something as lowly as a louse, he becomes an ordinary person, rather than an extraordinary man, which demonstrates the flaws in this philosophy.
Guilt is another obstacle to becoming a superman. Raskolnikov is even overcome with guilt before the murder. In his dream that flashbacks to his childhood, he witnesses the brutality of the peasant's flogging of a horse and wakes up panting, "No! I couldn't do it, I couldn't do it!" (Dostoevsky 62). This dream makes him question and feel guilty about his intended action to kill Alyona. He still is discomforted by his innate moral values, even when he insists on putting aside morality to become the Übermensch. When he wakes up, the cramp environment of the coffin-like room he lives in, the airless atmosphere, and his constant feverish state symbolize the intense guilt he feels. Eventually, he is unable to handle all the guilt and fear, so he confesses to Sonya that he "killed [himself], not that old creature!" (Dostoevsky 435). By admitting and regretting his abandonment of morals, he stops believing that he has done nothing wrong. He even bows down to kiss the Earth, which marks the start of his redemption. After his quest to elevate himself to become the Übermensch, he comes back down to the Earth where he joins the community of ordinary people, and no longer strives to become a Great Man (Gibian). Extraordinary men, those who have the power to change the course of history, have no regard for morality in their journey to achieve their goals. Because he is consumed by guilt throughout the novel, Raskolnikov does not have this characteristic. He demonstrates that it is impossible for a man to completely ignore traditional morals without being stricken by guilt subconsciously.
When Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker, he believes that he has done nothing wrong and has become an extraordinary man. However, he soon becomes filled with fear and guilt, which stop him from becoming the Übermensch. Dostoevsky uses Raskolnikov to show because of man's moral values, it is impossible to become an Übermensch.
Gibian, George. "Traditional Symbolism in Crime and Punishment." JSTOR.org. Web. 31 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org.lib-proxy.fullerton.edu/ >.