Homicide, Horses, and Hope: Finding Nietzsche in Crime and Punishment

 

SPOILER ALERT for Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Good Country People, by Flannery O’Connor.

SUMMARY

Crime and Punishment is the story of Rodya Raskolnikov, a young man convinced he is part of a superior race. He murders an abusive old woman to put him on his path to norm-defying greatness, but it doesn’t go down as planned. He winds up having to kill a witness–a woman being victimized by the pawn-broker he originally wanted to kill.

Homicide rattles Rodya, and Petrovich, a detective, starts to get the picture. Rodya falls for Sonya, a saintly prostitute, and Petrovich gets Rodya to turn himself in. The book ends with Rodya engaged to Sonya–with seven years in Siberia left to go.

Rodya as the Doomed Intellectual

When he plans the murder of the pawnbroker, Rodya figures in all potential factors except his own human nature. He doesn’t account for the fact that killing somebody might have negative side effects on his own mind. He has intellectualized the idea of himself to such a degree that he doesn’t see this coming.

In fact, the first thing we hear about Rodya is that he’s afraid of his landlady–specifically, of meeting her on the stairs. He owes her money, so he avoids her. She represents practicality and the outside world that he is frantically trying to duck.

This theme of punishment of the intellectual by harsh reality can be found in a lot of Flannery O’Connor’s stuff as well. Hulga, in Good Country People, is a perfect example:

When imagining her upcoming date with the bible salesman, Hulga’s mind spins out scenarios where she is always in control: first, she will seduce him and then talk him out of his belief in God. She’s brilliant, yeah, but she’s a narcissist. She’s used to everything in her world coming from her own mind, and she can’t anticipate anything else. The result is that she gets her fake leg stolen and is left helpless in the woods.

The point is that Hulga is mind-raped by someone with a less sophisticated intellect. Manly Pointer, whose name, in context, is borderline lewd, has more practical knowledge–like how to get what he wants. This is vulgar, peasant stuff. He’s not genteel like her, not smart to the point of detachment; but because the bible salesman tricks her into looking down on him, she takes him 100% at face value. He seems to fit into the stereotype of the bland, unambitious good boy. She doesn’t think he’s capable of manipulating her. He pretends to be awed by her differentness, making big, reverent eyes at her atheism (they’re living in the Bible Belt, after all).

So he gets one over on her.

Delusion and Separateness in Crime and Punishment

Rodya has been holed up in his apartment for months, losing weight—and perspective—and stewing in his own philosophy.

According to this philosophy, Rodya is a law-breaker, a leader, and so he is separate from other humans. The more he is immersed in this thinking, the more physically separate he becomes from others, as well. He spends less time out in the world, more time alone and miserable. Just as depression increases isolation–which increases depression–Rodya’s delusion increases isolation, which increases his delusion. It’s a vicious cycle.

But no one besides himself takes Rodya’s ideas very seriously.

His mother and sister adore him. They send him all their earnings to pay his expenses, seeking his approval. They look up to Rodya the way they would have Rodya’s father, were the father still alive. But even they call him an egotist and chide him for his impracticality. The other men in the book greet Rodya’s article on the superior race by mocking him, affectionately. Even the maid at his apartment pokes fun at his brooding. She asks what he’s doing, to which he replies, “I have been thinking.” She flies into hysterical laughter, finally recovering enough to say, “And have you made much money by your thinking?” But he doesn’t really expect her to understand.

Rodya is out of touch with reality. This is apparent even in his health. Dostoyevsky observes, before Rodya even has a word of dialogue, that he has developed “a nervous condition, verging on hypochondria.” Rodya’s not with it. So he convinces himself that he can live with a murder on his conscience.

Nietzsche and Rodya

Raskolnikov’s ideology of the superior man sounds a lot like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch or Super Man. Both exist in a class above citizens who lack the courage to build new systems by breaking old laws. Both must accept that they will not always be understood and must use their greatness for the good of mankind. But this is not the only parallel between Nietzsche and Rodya.

Horses and Madness

At the age of 45, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had a breakdown. While in Turin, Italy, he saw a horse being beaten in a square. He ran to it, sobbing, and said, “I know how you feel.” His mental health declined from there, and his family had him committed. He died in an asylum eleven years later.

After killing the pawn-broker and her sister, Rodya has a dream that seems like a Nietzsche reference. In the dream, Rodya is a boy, walking through a square with his father. He sees a crowd of drunks mercilessly beating a horse because it can’t pull its cart out of the mud. Rodya objects, screaming at the men to stop. His father tells him to mind his own business and forces him to leave. The horse is killed.

Rodya wakes up badly shaken and spends the next few days in a feverish delirium. This mirrors Nietzsche’s downward spiral, after his horse encounter. But this is where the similarity stops. Nietzsche died alone in a madhouse, barely middle aged, while Rodya ends the book still young, with hope and a fiancé.

Crime and Punishment resurrects Nietzsche in the form of Rodya, giving him a second chance at Christian redemption.

Petrovich as the God Figure

But back to Rodya.

His final conversion to Dostoyevsky’s Christian morality comes at a price: trauma, illness, humiliation, and prison time. Porfiry Petrovich acts as a kind of God figure in all this. He offers Rodya the chance to make things right and turn himself in–offers him salvation, really.

Petrovich knows Rodya isn’t emotionally up to killing again, and the detective has the police force behind him. He could threaten Rodya with this power, but he really doesn’t. He treats Rodya with respect, as a friend.

After pushing Rodya to the breaking point, in their interviews, Petrovich sits down with him and has an honest chat. Rodya has been driven to come clean, and Petrovich understands him better than Rodya understands himself. When Rodya testifies against himself, Petrovich stands back as if he had nothing to do with this. Petrovich is discreet; he forgets Rodya’s sins as soon as they are confessed.

Crime and Punishment is an expression of hope. Nietzsche was dead when the book was written, but Dostoyevsky’s God lives outside of time. Perhaps if Nietzche had had a private journey mirroring Rodya’s, he could have been saved.

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