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Moral Relativism in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Moral Relativism in Crime and Punishment

At the close of Crime and Punishment, Raskolinkov is convicted of Murder and sentenced to seven years in Siberian prison. Yet even before the character was conceived, Fyodor Dostoevsky had already convicted Raskolinkov in his mind (Frank, Dostoevsky 101). Crime and Punishment is the final chapter in Dostoevsky’s journey toward understanding the forces that drive man to sin, suffering, and grace. Using ideas developed in Notes from Underground and episodes of his life recorded in Memoirs of the House of the Dead, Dostoevsky puts forth in Crime in Punishment a stern defense of natural law and an irrefutable volume of evidence condemning Raskolnikov’s actions (Bloom, Notes 25).

Central to the prosecution of any crime, murder in particular, is the idea of motive. Not only must the prosecutor prove the actus rectus or “guilty act,” but also that the criminal possessed the mens rea or “guilty mind” (Schmalleger 77). The pages of Crime and Punishment and the philosophies of Dostoevsky provide ample proof of both. The first is easy; Dostoevsky forces the reader to watch firsthand as Raskolnikov “took the axe all the way out, swung it with both hands, scarcely aware of himself, and almost without effort, almost mechanically, brought the butt-end down on her head” (Crime and Punishment 76). There is no doubt Raskolnikov caused the death of Alena Ivanovna and, later, Lizaveta, but whether he possessed the mens rea is another matter entirely. By emphasizing the depersonalization Raskolnikov experiences during the murder, the fact that he was “scarcely aware of himself” and acted “almost mechanically” the sympathetic reader might conclude that some unknown force of nature, and not the person Raskolnikov, is to blame for the death of the usurer and her sister (Nutall 160). Dostoevsky’s answer to this is contained not in Crime and Punishment, but rather in an earlier work, Notes from Underground.

The entire story of the Underground Man was intended to parody the works of Nicolai G. Chernyshevsky, and thereby prove that man’s actions are the result of his own free-will. The idea that man is alone responsible for his actions is central to proving that Raskolnikov is really to blame for his crime. For under the Chernyshevsky-embraced doctrine of scientific determinism, Raskolnikov cannot be held accountable for his actions. Rather, scientific determinism holds that whatever actions men take are inevitable and unalterable because they are “totally determined by the laws of nature.

The Struggle in Crime and Punishment

The Struggle in Crime and Punishment

Reading this book makes you ill because from the beginning to the end you watch as psychological forces eat away at the thoughts and actions of their victim causing him to finally confess to the hideous crime he has committed. The story is basically the struggle between Raskolnikov’s Napoleon-übermensch theory and his conscience which make him confess to his crime. Dostoevsky’s genius is in describing how Raskolnikov struggles in his thoughts and actions. His thoughts become increasingly disjointed and desperate and his actions show that he has an increasing need to escape the uncertainty of being convicted, to talk about the crime, to confess, and to suffer for his crime. It is even at times humorous the extent to which Raskolnikov at times becomes confused in his bungled yet undiscovered crime. Here after the police call about a routine visit:

‘But this is unheard of! I have never had anything to do with the police! And why should it happen just to-day?’ he thought, tormented with indecision. ‘Oh, Lord, at least let it be over soon!’ He could almost have knelt down and prayed, but he laughed at his own impulse; he must put his trust in himself, not in prayer. He began to dress hurriedly. ‘If I’m done for, I’m done for! It’s all one . . .I’ll put the sock on!’ he thought suddenly, ‘it will get more dirt rubbed into it and all the stains will disappear.’ But no sooner had he put it on than he dragged it off with horror and loathing.

Porfiry is a master of the psychological forces which he knows will run Raskolnikov down slowly and steadily. He trusts in the fact that laws aren’t just handed down to us but that they mark out human nature and must be followed. He seems to be the mas…

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…s not just an existential battle ground for individual desires and interests to fight themselves out without any real underlying moral structure but that there is hope for a social, moral fiber and a belief in eternal things. It is a 20th-century-like book with a positive twist–still pertinent today.

This book was also Russian through and through. You get a good piece of an interesting time in Russian history (after the freeing of the serfs) and the philosophy and thought that was going on at the time. St. Petersburg is quite a unique city and the Russian a unique culture. This book captures a piece of both.

“All I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness.” — Robert Louis Stevenson on reading Crime and Punishment.

Works Cited:

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Modern Library, 1950.

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