• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #322: Rodion Raskolnikov

In Russia, crime does you!

As with most literary classics that appear on this list, I make no claims to a thorough comprehension of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. It is a dense work, the exploration of a crumbling psyche in the context of a swiftly changing world. Published in 1866, it is a withering critique of the poverty and corruption endemic in Russian society, but that serves mainly as canvas for the narrative of Rodion Raskolnikov. Handsome, young, penniless, Raskolnikov is a former student who believes he is destined to make society better by murdering a scummy pawnbroker and using the proceeds for charity. He sees himself as morally superior, comparing himself to Napoleon, entitled and even required to kill in service to humanity.

He does the deed, and gets away with it, sort of. Raskolnikov isn't quite the superman he thought he was - he makes a hash of stealing the slain pawnbroker's wealth, and then proceeds to torture himself through cycles of self-recrimination, and justification. As he descends into this whirlpool of guilt and doubt, the external plot involves his sister and her would be suitor, his prostitute girlfriend, and the dogged detective Porfiry. These relationships serve to illustrate Raskolnikov's compassionate and pro-social tendencies, so at odds with his compulsive slaying of the pawnbroker. This split in his personality is at the heart of the novel ("raskol" in Russian translates as "schism"). He struggles with the dichotomy, and this inner torment is the "punishment" to which the novel's title alludes. There is no sentence society can pronounce more invidious and painful than the fractured conscience.

There is more, of course - the broader critique of rational egoism and the emerging Russian ethic of utilitarian socialism, with the attendant reduction of human life into cold calucli. When elites assume a paternal and yet aloof system of pseudo-scientific management, when they presume to dictate policy absent compassion and earnest inquisitive understanding of those they would serve/rule, the result is a yawning chasm between the governors and the governed. A century and a half later, there are those who would do well to attend Dostoyevsky's insight. Otherwise we may find ourselves echoing Raskolnikov, and believing the harm we do is justified by the greater good we seek to achieve.

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