Book Summaries Philosophy

Crime and Punishment Summary

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a novel about what unfolds when morality submits to rationality.

Raskolnikov was an ambitious and intelligent student who wanted to become a professor and has already published his first article at the age of 23, but his depraved financial condition has led him to depression. To make things worse, his mother was sick, and his sister would soon marry an older man she does not love – purely out of necessity.  

He trapped himself in his small room for days and scarcely ate anything as he pondered a solution to his problems. His rumination led to a malicious thought – it was to kill an old woman and steal her money. That way he would be able to pay for his education and become a professor, he would pay for his mother’s medication, and save his sister from the man she was being forced to marry.

The woman he planned to murder was a pawn broker who lived with a sister she treated badly. Many disliked her, including Raskolnikov. He reasoned that her death would make the lives of everyone around her better. Raskolnikov ran the logic in his head many times, considering every possible counter argument, and he always reached the same conclusion. Finally, he went to the woman’s apartment, he killed her and then killed her sister to avoid the problem of a living witness.

To the hyper rational Raskolnikov, the issue was simple. His aim was to produce the most good for his community, and by killing a person who had a net negative impact, and by helping his family, and himself, he would be doing everyone a favor. He thought of the thousands of people he would help after financing his education and took pride in himself before committing the murder. Indeed he believed he should be thanked for his act of bravery.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is relevant to this story in two main ways. First, Raskolnikov’s philosophy was similar to that of Nietzsche with regards to celebrating the self-determined Uberman or Superman – implicit in that philosophy is the belief that piety and innocence are false virtues and that power is the only good and the most worthwhile ideal man aspires towards. Two, Nietzsche also warned of the dangers of constructing one’s own morality, understanding that while such a task was necessary, it would not come without a great cost to society. And like Nietzsche, the question Dostoevsky was interested in, and the one acted out by the character of Raskolnikov in narrative form, was this: what happens when man underpins his morality with pure rationality?

Raskolnikov was well educated, he thought deeply about his actions, and had several engaging conversations about morality with interesting characters throughout the story. He was not depicted as someone who would be driven by emotion, or someone who lacked reason. He acted out of self-interest, and more than that, he took the interest of the community in mind in full consciousness. And yet, his reason led him to criminality.

Raskolnikov did not see the law as something eternal. He understood that it was imperfect, and by the great men of history, law was never taken seriously.

He recalled to Sonia how Napoleon and the great conquerors all transgressed the law shamelessly – they not only killed one person but thousands. Yet they were celebrated a heroes – their people built statues in their honor, and retold their story countless times, and they taught their own children to idealize these great men.

Raskolnikov concluded that the difference between the great man and the ordinary man is that the former does not concern himself only with theory, he puts his words into practice. The great man was a man of action, he did not think about the law, he saw no limits to his behavior, his own judgement and ideas were superior. He was a genius. Raskolnikov wanted to be a great man, he saw no virtue in being miserable, poor, and weak.

He believed that the honor that was associated with the meek and the humble was an insult to the great man whose ideal was rightfully power and self-determination. Raskolnikov was confident that he had to take matters into his own hands, but when he did, his plan did not unfold the way he would have liked.

After many conversations with detectives, friends, and strangers, Raskolnikov found himself trapped by his own lies. He made others suspicious of him. His cool reason that he vainly took great pride in began to fade. .

Porfiry Petrovich, an experienced and intelligent detective, suspected that Raskolnikov was the murderer. But he had no conclusive evidence. Raskolnikov of course denied he did the crime but he grew increasingly agitated as the confrontation with the detective went on.

Raskolnikov acted more irrationally and uncontrollably. He confessed his crime to Sonia. And soon after Sonia begged him to confess his crimes and atone for his sins, he gave himself in. A few months later, he was arrested. But in prison, Raskolnikov was indifferent. He was used to living such a destitute lifestyle, but other prisoners disliked him, and his occasional meeting with Sonia was the only thing that kept him sane – although his sanity was in question throughout the story.

His mother died shortly after finding out what he did. While she was an ardent defender of his virtues and ideas, she could not survive the truth she was told. Raskolnikov’s sister married another man who he had a better relationship with. But he had nothing to look forward to after the end of his prison sentence when he would turn thirty. His conscience increasingly disturbed him with time, and while he maintained a righteous attitude consistently after the murder – this was obvious by the way in which he spoke to others – his internal conviction in his ideas eventually faded away.

Raskolnikov found himself lost, he had made an error in his calculations. He did not account for the psychological effect the murder would have on him, the torment, the suspicions of others around him, the self-doubt, the events that would unfold as a consequence. His rationalizations about moral relativism did not stand the test of direct experience after-all.

Like Raskolnikov there were many thinkers that arrogantly believed that they could determine their own morality, they believed that their own dogma based on reason and clear thought could transcend religious ideas. In the character Sonia, the woman Raskolnikov seemed to love, we see the anti-intellectual. She is in that way anti-Raskolnikov, she is a devout Christian. She does concern herself with the philosophical dimensions of morality, yet she is innocent, her conscience is clear, and when Raskolnikov confesses what he has done, she urges him to repent. At the end of the book, this option proves to be the one remaining out for Raskolnikov.

I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. There are, of course, innumerable sub-divisions, but the distinguishing features of both categories are fairly well marked. The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better…. But the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them (more or less). The first category is always the man of the present, the second the man of the future. The first preserve the world and people it, the second move the world and lead it to its goal.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment: Pevear & Volokhonsky Translation (Vintage Classics)Crime and Punishment Summary 3

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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