Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment highlights the turmoil, and tribulations of the societal exclusion of 19th century Russia’s lower class. Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s neuroses-ridden, eccentric wanders about the streets of Saint Petersburg while rubbing shoulders with the city’s cesspool of drunkards and the poverty stricken depressed. Alas, Crime and Punishment can be read as a Marxist text in which Raskolnikov becomes a proletariat figurehead driven by a Nietzschean, ubermensch ideology. Yet, in contrast to Nietzsche’s extreme philosophy of a Napoleonic will to power, Dostoevsky rehabilitates his characters with the whimsical, deus ex machina of Christian forgiveness. This paper aims to analyze Crime and Punishment as a literary piece that reveals Marxist class divisions in 19th century Saint Petersburg. Through this dissection, a follow up argument will be concluded in relation to Raskolnikov’s nature as a representative failure of communist ideals in which his effort to “crossover” with a Nietzschean god complex is aborted due to his impotence to erode the societal field of play and his all too easy acceptance of Christian redemption.

Raskolnikov’s Saint Petersburg is one of drunken strife and citizenry depression. His inveterate compulsion to simultaneously riddle himself with the lower stratum yet mentally distance himself from these “louses” reflects an internal conflict that is both disgust and fascination with the marginalized subalterns and their pecuniary disadvantages. The perhaps equally neurotic Katerina Ivanovna embodies the lower class’s jealousy of the elite’s material and opulent lifestyles. Her own pathologic obsession with her ostensible, aristocratic heritage becomes the evident gap in which her desire to be considered of noble origin is presented in her articulated delineation of upper class, culture capital. For example, in the wake of her husband’s death, Ivanovna indulges in a luxurious funeral despite her poor, financial condition. The intention stems from a last resort opportunity to demonstrate her purported nobility, “[…she wanted to show] that she had been brought up ‘in a noble, one might even say aristocratic, colonel’s house,’ and was not at all prepared for sweeping the floor herself and washing the children’s rags at night” (378). Her situation only unveils the state of hopelessness that Raskolnikov is exposed to in Saint Petersburg. Ivanovna’s condition is a tragic one in which her attempts to imitate an upper class identity ends dismally when a fight breaks out between her German landlord and herself — destroying her aristocratic facade. Alas, class struggle is reified in this instance as the perpetual inferiority and desperation of economic struggles dictating social determinism. In conjunction, Ivanovna’s stepdaughter and Raskolnikov’s archetypal, savior Sonya, is forced into prostitution in order to financially sustain her family (14).

Luzhin, the nefarious fiancé to Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, plays the role as the Marxist, bourgeois villain. His determination for power and control is manifested in his sexualization of class differences, specifically in his relationship to Dunya. The narrator tells:

In deepest secret, he entertained rapturous thoughts of a well-behaved and poor girl (she must be poor), very young, very pretty, well born and educated, very intimidated, who had experienced a great many misfortunes and was utterly cowed before him, a girl who would all her life regard him as her salvation, stand in awe of him, obey him, wonder at him and him alone. (307)

Luzhin’s schemes involve the manipulation of Dunya’s poverty and desperation as a means to satisfy his perverse desire to socially control a “well-behaved and poor girl”. His objective seeks to play the economic field of class differences in order to inculcate Dunya into a financial and, perhaps, sexual slave through the pretense of marriage wrapped in the lie of social and monetary salvation. In another attempt at manipulating class divisions, Luzhin attempts to frame Sonya as a thief during her father’s funeral. If it were not for Luzhin’s progressive, socialist roommate Andre Semyonovich to attest on Sonya’s behalf that Luzhin is playing a ruse, he would have succeeded in using the socio-economic playing field for his own depraved objectives (398).

Raskolnikov’s world is one filled with despair and social stagnation. He himself is alienated by his financial struggles as a university dropout in which his repulsion of contemporary society is only heightened by his detest for the upper class characters of the metropolis; driving him to hatch a master plan motivated by Marxist ideals. In a private setting with Sonya, he discloses his reasons for committing the murder of the gluttonous pawnbroker at the start of the novel, “Well… well, so I decided to take possession of the old woman’s money and use it for my first years, without tormenting my mother, to support myself at the university […]” (416). Raskolnikov can be viewed as symbol for the proletariat in which he is an eccentric who is mentally putrefied by the socio-economic conditions of 19th century Russia. Thus, class divisions have taken their toll on his psyche and his reaction is an act of violence, which can embody the Marxist armed struggle. The pawnbroker he murders is a symbol of the upper class greed who, while in the eyes of the law, has done nothing wrong but for Raskolnikov and Marxist thought, she is the bourgeois enemy who allocates finances against the detested lower stratum. Raskolnikov’s act of murder is a political transgression, which supersedes the law in terms of his moral convictions that she is the one who is ethically depraved. The violence enacted seeks to redistribute wealth in which her belongings would be ripped from her avarice disposition and allotted into his own life to alleviate his financial burdens. The wealth would then be transitioned from the upper to lower stratum, in which this act, despite its morbidity, is nonetheless a utilitarian motion against the amoral elite. In this interpretation, Raskolnikov is attempting to reorganize the objective field by tearing off the yoke of Marxist false consciousness, in which his actions are beyond the scope of what is considered lawful in order to restructure the notions of good and evil.

The complications of these actions arise when Raskolnikov becomes overwhelmed with murderous guilt. Plagued by nightmares and physical illness, the embodied self-condemnation eventually is released when he discloses the truth to Sonya who seemingly solves his feelings by urging him to turn himself in both to the authorities and to Christianity’s redemption (421). Here, Marxist thought is aborted and Raskolnikov becomes the failed ubermensch who was unable to follow through with the Nietzschean will to power. While, Dostoevsky stresses a prescription of Christian doctrine as the panacea to Russia’s societal diseases, this can be viewed as Raskolnikov’s return to false consciousness. His inability to proceed with the aftermath of the murder only reflects that he has appropriated the concocted contemporary discourse that stunts progress for Saint Petersburg’s subaltern caste and reproduces class divisions devoid of socio-economic change. The elite win through the false indoctrination of Christian atonement pressured upon Raskolnikov and his guilt through the words of Sonya and the detective Porfiry.

Prior to the Raskolnikov’s confession to the authorities, his personal ideology has an immediate connection to Nietzsche’s notions of the slave and master moralities. For Raskolnikov the human race is split between the “louses” and the Napoleonic heroes. These heroes are men transcended in which they are the ones who embellish their personal motivations to lead the remaining masses of people (415-419). These men who can bend the arc of history can be considered Nietzsche’s ubermensch and this dichotomy of moralities is dictated in Beyond Good and Evil (153). The inspiration from Dostoevsky’s character is evident but where Raskolnikov fails, Nietzsche’s ubermensch would persevere. Here, he describes the condition in which the master morality transcends and breaks the mold of society populated by the louses:

Most of all, however, the master morality is foreign and embarrassing to current taste because of the severity of its fundamental principle: that we have duties only towards our peers and that we may treat those of lower rank, anything foreign as we think best or ‘as out heart dictates’ or in any event ‘beyond good and evil’ […]. (155)

The morality from the elite must adjust the objective field of society by its foreign conceptions that break the inherent morals of the day. Raskolnikov’s ideology drives him to murder the pawnbroker, in which his rationale is foreign but utilitarian. Though, much to Nietzsche’s dismay, he becomes absorbed by Christian thought and sacrifices his will to power for the pleasures of artificial forgiveness and atonement. Raskolnikov’s blunder and inability to “crossover” could not come to fruition and thus, in the ideas of both Marxist ideology and Nietzschean morality, Raskolnikov fails to throttle his personal philosophy into a successful and objective reality.

Crime and Punishment can be read as a literary text that embodies the Marxist notions of alienation of the lower class. As Raskolnikov oscillates in and out of his frantic neuroses, his desire to end the looming doom that something is amiss in Russia cannot be completed due to the ebullition of his guilt. Thus, he is the failed ubermensch that could not reconstruct the world at large, even if it was just the murder of a small, greedy pawnbroker. Regardless, the reading of Crime and Punishment can be viewed as evidence of the precursor conditions to the future Russian Revolution in which a Marxist revolt (though guided by the bourgeoisie) eventually reorganizes the state. Raskolnikov shows a progression of his discontent into a Nietzschean ideology but eventually is disrupted by a weak and guilty conscious. Whereas he basks in the newfound forgiveness of Christianity, others, not in a Dostoevskian world, would take the mantle of the ubermensch to ultimately crossover and change the societal conditions. Perhaps it is Lenin who would inevitably, progress over the inherent notions of good and evil — crime and punishment.

Works Cited:

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. Crime and Punishment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Marion Faber. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

2 thoughts on “The Failed Übermensch: A Marxist Reading of Crime and Punishment

  1. Pingback: Why Literary Theory Matters | Blue Labyrinths

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