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For our Transgression theme, Thomas Chadwick revisits a Russian classic in which the laws constraining man can be broken, as long as you consider yourself extraordinary.
In amongst a good many other things the Bible suggests that killing another person is wrong. “Thou shalt not…” it reads in the King James. As a rule this would seem to apply. Taking an axe and killing another person is generally considered to be wrong. Not so. The same Old Testament that gives the sixth commandment also introduces the peasant boy David who defeats the giant Goliath by whanging a pebble into his skull. But David, we are told, is acting for a greater purpose. David is not an individual killing Goliath for his own personal ends, but an Israelite killing a philistine warrior to save his people from enslavement. David’s defeat of Goliath is not murder. It is not a transgression at all, but rather something totally okay, something to be celebrated.
Raskolnikov: The Proper Murder
Crime and Punishment is a 550 page novel, set over two weeks in St Petersburg, in which a student called Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker called Alyona Ivanova by hitting her over the head with an axe. The murder occurs on page 76. Raskolnikov strikes Alyona three times with the butt end of the axe, each blow landing on the crown of her head. When she falls – after the first blow – “Blood poured out as from an over-turned glass.” And “her eyes bulged as if they were about to pop out.” Her skull is shattered. Blood, brain, bone and hair scatter the scene. Then, while attempting to find Alyona’s money, her younger sister Lizaveta shows up: this was not planned. Thinking on his feet our hero lands her a blow with the sharp end of his axe splitting the upper part of her forehead almost to the crown. With both women slain and Alyona’s purse in his pocket Raskolnikov makes his way home.
One might well imagine that the rest of the novel consists of Raskolnikov coming to the terms with the horrific and senseless crime he has committed. That is not the case. In fact it is the reader who spends the next 480 pages coming to terms with the fact that in Raskolnikov’s eyes he has not done anything wrong.
Raskolnikov believes that the death of Alyona Ivanova at his hands was a thoroughly reasonable act. She is a sour, miserly woman who greedily profits by holding others to ransom for their own treasures. He, by contrast, is a downtrodden law student, a genius no less, who would do well for himself, his family and his country if only he were able to find the means to support his studies.
Raskolnikov is an intelligent and rational man, whom the death of Alyona aside, has a firm sense of right and wrong. He is regularly generous to those less fortunate than himself. He is protective of his family. At one point, early on in the novel, he leaps to the aid of a young girl pursued by a drunk with plans for their own personal transgression. Later he even takes an abandoned child into his room so that she might thaw and rest in his bed. Even if Raskolnikov does not always express affection for his friends and family it is hard to deny that he has a moral concern for the people around him.
What governs Raskolnikov’s compassion is not religion but reason. He is an atheist who believes that the well-being of all is served not by faithful devotion to some transcendental God, but by turning to a Utilitarian logic that asks what best can be done for the greatest number of people. When Raskolnikov marches to Alyona’s door with an axe under his coat it is not delirium or madness that accompanies him, but cold, rational logic. If Raskolnikov kills the old woman he can use her hoarded money for good. He will be ridding the world of a pernicious presence. He will be doing everyone a favour in the same way as he notes, en route to the killing, that if the parks of St Petersburg were expanded “it would be a wonderful and most useful thing for the city.” Raskolnikov is David marching out to meet Goliath; a man acting for the greater good.
As the novel progresses, though, it becomes clear that it was not reason alone which got Raskolnikov into Alyona’s apartment with an axe under his coat. It emerges that several weeks before the killing Raskolnikov wrote an essay in which he theorized on crime. The essay is noted by the officer investigating Alyona’s death, Poirfiry Petrovich (a fairly unique homicide detective, unconcerned with the risk of Raskolnikov’s flight, and happy to give his suspect the time and space to continue to theorize on what they have done: it’s almost like he knows that the suspect is confined within a book). The essay looks at the “psychological state of the criminal throughout the course of the crime.” It explains that “there supposedly exist in the world certain persons who can…that is, who not only can but are fully entitled to commit all sorts of crimes and excesses and to whom the law supposedly does not apply.” The essay divides people into the “ordinary” and the “extraordinary”: the latter having the right to “in various ways transgress the law.”
It becomes increasingly clear that any suggestion that Raskolnikov was working for the greater good in killing Alyona is equally tied up with this notion of the “extraordinary” individual. The, if you will, superhuman – King David, Napoleon – those men whose reason is so strong that nothing they do will be a transgression at all. “There’s neither permission nor prohibition here,” Raskolnikov says.
Raskolnikov, it transpires, has considered the act of killing long before he committed it; that in killing he did not believe he was doing anything wrong because he believed himself to be an “extraordinary” human being, whose reason was so strong that it alone would direct toward what is right; and that not only was the killing of Alyona no transgression, if Raskolnikov acted solely with reason, if he remained in total control – unlike most other criminals – he would not even be caught because a killing dealt out solely by reason will not be detectable as a murder at all.
Reasons why Raskolnikov, contrary to everything he says, is, in fact, really bad at murder:
If Raskolnikov maintains in theory that his killing of Alyona is a “reasonable act” his actions, or indeed his inactions, suggest with increasing velocity that, even if his head doesn’t know it, his body is aware that bludgeoning a woman to death with an axe is a transgression of some form.
It is difficult to know how to begin explaining why Raskolnikov is not very good at “murder,” but without any hands-on knowledge of the practicalities it is still possible to come up with a long list of things that he does or does not do that suggest he is pretty crap at killing people.
Here are just some of them: not maintaining regular sleep patterns; failing to eat anything like three meals a day; drinking in the day; drinking on an empty stomach; hanging out in dive bars with unlikely people; not listening to your mother; wandering about, a lot; total failure to lay low; going to the police station; letting your friend take you back to the police station because he thinks you’ll find the investigating officer interesting; forgetting that human beings, even old crones, have roughly eight pints of blood inside them and that if you hit them with an axe a lot of this is going to come out; touching the aforementioned blood and getting it on your clothes; forgetting that you have touched blood and got it on your clothes; passing out a lot; passing out at the police station; sleeping for three days straight; blurting out in your sleep that you’ve done a murder; refusing to believe that you are ill or delirious when every bit of evidence suggests you are both ill and delirious; drinking on an empty stomach (again) despite being ill and delirious; forgetting where you hid the bloodied cuffs you ripped from your overcoat; forgetting where you put the old woman’s purse; forgetting to lock doors; forgetting that a latch can only be latched from the inside; forgetting that Alyona has a sister; not knowing that if you smash a woman’s head with an axe there will be blood and brain and broken skull and that however carefully you’ve planned this there’s still a chance that this might freak you out; sleeping in the day; telling people you’ve just met about your superhuman right to knock off old crones; lying down in the street; waking up in the night and assuming that murders are going on in adjoining rooms; thinking that people are winking at you when they are probably not winking at you; publishing an essay called “On Crime” in which you explain how extraordinary people can commit crimes without transgressing; not being sure when you are and are not dreaming.
The page by page marvel of Crime and Punishment is to sit on the shoulder of a man whose ability to hang onto the reason he so values is constantly being checked by what is going on in the very prose around him. At times it feels as if the only smart thing Raskolnikov ever did was sew a loop into his overcoat lining so he could carry an axe across St Petersburg undetected. The point, however, is, crucially, this: that despite all his failings Raskolnikov never really lets go of his theory of the “extraordinary” right to transgress, and thus the most disturbing thing about Crime and Punishment is the realisation that Raskolnikov’s delirium is not a dawning sense of the horror of what he has done but rather anger at the fact that he is not an “extraordinary” individual himself.
“The Devil killed the old Crone, not me.”
As Raskolnikov’s anger causes him to push his friends and family away, he pulls closer to one person. Sofya Semyonova also transgresses the laws of St Petersburg, although her crime is not murder but prostitution. Furthermore, if Raskolnikov’s killings are for a greater well-being, Sofya’s employment certainly is; she lays thirty roubles on the table every week so her family can eat. But that is where the similarities end, because instead of any ideas of an “extraordinary” right to transgression, Sofya rather exhibits a deep personal sacrifice of her own moral being so that her family can survive. As misfortune follows Sofya she remains devoted to a faith in God that Raskolnikov neither has nor thinks he needs, and if Raskolnikov thought he found a kindred spirit with Sofya it turns out that this is not as legitimate transgressors but as sinners.
Raskolnikov confesses his crime in full to Sofya, but in putting into words what has been rattling round inside his own head, he lets slip the truth behind his actions:
“Power is given only to those who dare to reach down and take it,” (he says) “One only has to dare…I wanted to dare, and I killed…I just wanted to dare.”
What emerges in the final pages is that Raskolnikov’s “extraordinary” person is actually unable to act for the benefit of all. They are, in fact, unable to act for the benefit of anyone, because the kind of logic that leads someone to rely solely on their own individual reason leaves them able to act for themselves and themselves alone.
“I wanted to find out there, and find out quickly, whether I was a louse like all the rest or a man? Would I be able to step over, or not? Would I dare to reach down and take, or not? Am I a trembling creature, or do I have the right…”
Raskolnikov: Redemption or Tragedy
For Raskolnikov Crime and Punishment the novel contains for him neither crime nor punishment, or at least not in the first 500 or so pages. What is most disturbing is how resolutely Raskolnikov sticks to the idea of an “extraordinary” right, even after it becomes clear that he himself has not managed to commit anything like a faultless murder. Raskolnikov cannot abandon his hunch that if he’d only done it properly he would not have murdered, he would not have transgressed, and everything would be okay. Raskolnikov’s logic is simply this: there have, and are, and will be, people who commit acts that for most individuals would be transgressions but which for them are powerful acts for the greater well-being of all: David killed Goliath but it was a triumph not a murder.
The real tragedy of Raskolnikov is his discovery that an “extraordinary” human has to rely so completely on themselves that the rest of the world around them ceases to exist. It is this state, however entered, where transgressions occur. It is somewhere where laws are not broken but abandoned; where acts do not leap over moral barriers but simply occur in a personal realm where there are no obstacles to reason. What from the outside looks like transgression is, on the inside, simply solipsism. But the only greater good there, is the good of the individual alone. Raskolnikov killed Alyona not for others but for himself, because he dared to see if he could rely on his conscience alone.
In the epilogue Dostoevsky gives a hint towards a future for Raskolnikov. He finds a moment of quiet in Siberia in which he observes some herdsmen, thinks of Abraham, weeps, and hugs Sofya’s knees. Raskolnikov’s redemption, if this is what that is, is only just beginning. But his tragedy is his transgression. For if an act of murder requires that someone not simply think of but actually rely on no-one but themselves it becomes impossible to equate a killing or any other transgression with the greater good. The right to transgression-less crime is uncovered as a personal desire to dare, but to dare is not to become a giant but a sinner.
“It’s good that you only killed a little old woman,” says Poirfiry to Raskolnikov after he hands himself in. “If you’d come up with a different theory you might have done something a hundred million times more hideous.”