A Rationalization for a Rationalization of Murder. Rodion Raskolnikov Character Analysis Essay Example

As Rodion Raskolnikov crept up the stairs of his dingy St. Petersburg apartment, his proverbial life “flashed before his eyes.” A dropout and dejected social outcast, Raskolnikov reflected upon his abject poverty and poor mental status in one of his many negative feedback loops. Though only for a fraction of second, he may have felt some remorse for the actions he was about to take. Instead, Raskolnikov channeled his inner trepidation and anger towards the world (manifested in his landlady) through the swing of a hatchet. The hatchet not only came down upon the skull of the landlady (Alyona Ivanova), but also her equally innocent daughter.

The question then becomes, how? How does a man come to rationalize the most offensive, primal sin? How did Raskolnikov come to the twisted realization that murder was his outlet to financial and physical freedom? Throughout Dotchevky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s apathy toward life contributes toward his sentiments regarding decision making- and consequential demise. Both Raskolnikov’s physical and mental conditions predisposed him to reject contemporary “Moral relativism” and justify his actions via “Non-Ethical Realism”. 

To begin understanding how Raskolnikov decided upon his crime we must asses Raskolnikov’s morals/ethos; more specifically we must clarify- what is moral relativism and Ethical Non-Realism? In philosophical terms, moral relativism is characterised as “...the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint…” (Dowden, et. al) Moral relativity in itself comes close to explaining Raskolnikov's internal justification of action, yet becomes incongruous when examining “some particular standpoint.” Raskolnikov had no particular “standpoint.” He did not evaluate his ethical decisions in regards to outside demarcations, but rather judged his actions solely upon his own ethical standards, and personal gain. Raskolnikov's “standards” are where things become interesting. Upon trying to justify murder to a police officer (Profiry Petrovich), Raskolnikov states, “I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce it’s kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word” (Dostoevsky 261).

In essence, Raskolnikov viewed man as having two classes- much as Nietzsche did. Raskolnikov believed that those in the upper class of men retain special rights. He contended that, “...an extraordinary man has the right... that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep… certain obstacles…”  (Dostoevsky 260) “Overstepping obstacles,” the eyes of Raskolnikov, were transgressions of the law. Raskolnikov’s idea that “superior” men are not only capable but almost encouraged to break law intrigued Petrovich. Raskolnikov quickly buttressed his rather absurd argument by explaining that transgressions may only be allowed “...in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea…” (Dostoevsky 260) Through his example regarding classes of men, Raskolnikov has revealed his adherence to “Ethical Non-Realism”. “Ethical Non-Realism” is the view that there is no objective moral order that makes our moral beliefs true or false and our actions right or wrong.” (Dowden, et. al)

The upper category of men, created by Raskolnikov, are held to no moral order and there is no right or wrong, only what is effective in pursuing goals. Unsurprisingly, Raskolnikov, emaciated as he is, views himself as one of the upper category. Therefore, Raskolnikov allows himself to commit crimes (such as the murder) under the self-fulfilling justification of being in a mythical “upper class” of men. Raskolnikov wisely chooses not to directly associate himself with the “upper category”, yet offers subtle, braggadocious, insight that he is of the “intelligent” ones. Raskolnikov differentiates between common murders and those who are morally and legally allowed to do so stating, “It is not a matter of permission or prohibition. He [“upper category] will suffer if he is sorry for his victim. Pain and suffering are always inevitable for large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth...” (Dostoevsky 264) Raskolnikov’s statement is subversively referring to himself as he is perpetually depressed.

Raskolnikov’s manner of speech further strengthens the idea that he is speaking of himself as he was speaking “...dreamily, not in the tone of the conversation.” (Dostoevsky 264) Raskolnikov’s change from stoic, expressionless stone face is attesting to his idealistic notion of such an “ubermensch”. Raskolnikov provides further evidence of his status that of an “upper category” when stating, “perpetuation of crime is always accompanied by illness...” (259) Raskolnikov, unsurprisingly, had suffered constantly since his murder. He chose his words carefully claiming “inner-right” rather than than legal-right. This “inner right” or internal impetus is the sole factor upon which Raskolnikov makes decisions. And because he associates himself with the aforementioned upper class, he is privy to the “inner right” to transgress the law. Essentially, Raskolnikov has asserted that because of his mental prowess, he is given the right to murder. He is able to make decisions not rooted in morality or ethics, but rather sheer pragmatism. He is able to harm others in the pursuit of the “...practical fulfillment of his idea” (Dostoevsky 260). 

With Raskolnikov’s morals clarified, we must now asses what were the driving forces behind his ethically non-realistic sentiments. Firstly, Raskolnikov’s physical conditions contributed to his despair and consequential rejection of life. His austere apartment and bleak cityscape served as catalysts for his sentiments to grow. Once an art student at St. Petersburg University, Raskolnikov quickly ran out of funds sufficient for schooling. He dropped out and began living in a slum. The opening scene of Crime and Punishment begins with Raskolnikov wandering aimlessly throughout the industrial districts surrounding his tenement hall. Though, “exceptionally handsome,” Raskolnikov “...was so badly dressed that even a man accustomed to shabiness would have been ashamed to be seen in the street...” (Dostoevsky 2). Though Rodion’s appearance is that of a vagabond, he had “...such accumulated bitterness and contempt in the young man’s heart that, in spite of all the fastidiousness of youth, he minded the rags least of all in the street.” (Dostoevsky 3) Yet how do Raskolnikov’s derelict conditions result in his delusional views and consequential murder?

The answer can be found in an unlikely, emerging, academic field- evolutionary economics. Much akin to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Psychological Needs, Mr. Ulrich Witt suggests a series of hierarchical “wants”. Ulrich suggests that “wants” are “...behavioral dispositions that derive from a state of deprivation in an organism.” (Binder 7) Raskolnikov’s entire life can be characterized as in a state of “deprivation”. He describes his apartment building as being “in such darkness even the most inquisitive eyes were not to be dreaded.” (Dostoevsky 4) He describes himself as “well built”, yet emaciated as he “for two days scarcely tasted food.” (Dostoevsky 4) And as Ulrich notes, “When a want is not satisfied, ie. deprivation occurs, the organism experiences unpleasant perceptions.” (Binder 7) When extrapolating this theory known as “Sensory Utilitarianism” upon characters within Crime and Punishment the “unpleasant perceptions” become evident.

For example, Raskolnikov’s equally economically troubled, yet beautiful, sister turns to “selling herself”. Aware that she has little hope of a future, Raskolnikov’s sister Dounia will “bind[ing] herself for ever to a man whom she does not respect and to whom she has nothing in common- for her own advantage.” (Dostoevsky 45) Dounia, deprived of money and healthy living conditions, felt “unpleasant perceptions”. Her perceptions resulted in marriage to an abusive yet wealthy man. Her story in itself is analogous to Raskolnikov’s actions (though inherently less destructive); she forgoes all ethics in a time of intense need or depravation.

Raskolnikov quite directly elaborates on her rejection of morals/ethics stating, “In such cases, we overcome our moral feeling if necessary, freedom, peace, conscience even, all, are brought into the market.” (Dostoevsky 46) Dounia herself is a microcosm of the tumultuous “perceptions” or actions taken by Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov dealt with “deprivation of wants” down to the “innate” level. An “innate want”, explained by Sensory Utilitarian theory, is that of inherent biological need ie. “...air, food, warmth...” (Binder 7) Raskolnikov, as previously explained, spent days on end without food. Despite biological needs, “innate wants” encompass “...social recognition...” as well. (Binder 7) Raskolnikov had very little social interaction. When passing through a crowded hallway Raskolnikov was “...very happy to meet none of them, and at once slipped unnoticed through the door on the right...” (Dostoevsky 45) According to the aforementioned Social Utilitarian theory, Raskolnikov was dealing with massive depravations. And with these depravations, came Raskolnikov’s very unpleasant “sensory perceptions”. In essence, Raskolnikov’s physical depravations (especially economic) and subsequent reactions are the impetus for his rationalization of the murder. 

Aside from Rodion’s desperate physical conditions, his mental state, no doubt, was a contributor to his murderous actions. Raskolnikov developed a sort of jadedness, “...his casuistry had become keen as a razor.” (Dostoevsky 73) This inherent reversion to “callousness” or cynicalism created a “positive feedback loop” within Raskolnikov's psych. Dr. Jordan Peterson, a renowned clinical psychologist and contemporary political figure, outlines exactly what a “positive feedback loop” entials within his best-seller, The Twelve Rules for life. He explains that “When the medication causes the disease, a positive feedback loop has been established.” (Peterson 20) “Medication” in this sense is not referring to pills, but rather actions. For example, when applying the idea of negative feedback loops to Rodion, it is clear that his depression/casuistry falls into the definition. Dr. Peterson explains that, “Depressed people, for example, can start feeling useless and burdensome, as well as grief stricken and pained.” (Peterson 22)

Raskolnikov's thoughts are synonymous with “grief” as he is described as having an “...agonizing inward struggle.” (Dostoevsky 73) Furthermore, his sense of self worth is nonexistent as he “...simply ceased to believe in himself...” (Dostoevsky 73) Dr. Peterson continues with his analysis of a depression-induced feedback loop stating, “This [depression] makes them withdraw with friends and family. Then the withdrawal makes them more lonesome and isolated, and more likely to feel useless and burdensome.” (Peterson 20) Raskolnikov exemplifies these stipulations as he is vehemently antisocial.

The aforementioned reference to Raskolnikov's hatred of crowds, even within his own apartment building, attests to his isolationism. Regarding friends, Raskolnikov had one confidant, Razumihin. Though Raskolnikov had a close friend, Dostoevsky explains, “It was remarkable that Raskolnikov had hardly any friends at the university; he kept aloof from everyone, went to see no one, and did not welcome anyone who came to see him, and indeed everyone soon gave up. (Dostoevsky 53) Regarding his family, Raskolnikov was equally as distant. When receiving the news of marriage from his mother, Raskolnikov explains, “It was a long while since he had received a letter...” (Dostoevsky 53) Clearly, Raskolnikov’s depressive mental status is that of a Petersonian positive feedback loop. Dr. Peterson concludes by mentioning that, when the feedback loop is established, “...depression spirals and intensifies.” (Peterson 20) Raskolnikov's depression certainly spiraled, and coelesed into a murder. Dr. Peterson goes on to explain how oppression, perpetuated by a feedback loop, can result in anger/aggression.

This is important as with Raskolnikov’s positive feedback loop regarding depression firmly established, we can now associate his mentality with his actions, ie. murder. Dr. Peterson explains that, “Psychological forces are never unidimensional in their value, however, and the truly appalling potential of anger and aggression to produce cruelty and mayhem is balanced by the ability of those primordial forces to push back against oppression, speak truth, and motivate resolute movement forward in times of strife, uncertainty and danger.” (Peterson 23) Essentially, Dr. Peterson has established the idea that anger, aggression, and violence are not monolithic forces for evil. These forces can be effectively utilized to “push back against oppression”. Forces with such negative connotations can alleviate times of “strife, uncertainty and danger”. They can effectively break a positive feedback loop. This is certainly not to say that violence is the answer to problems. Rather, that, in instances such as bullying, it is needed to “rise up”. For example, in instances of social oppression ie. bullying ext. “If you say no, early in the cycle oppression, and you mean what you say (which means you state your refusal in no uncertain terms and stand behind it), then the scope for oppression on the part of the oppressor will remain properly bounded and limited.” (Peterson 24)

Unfortunately, Raskolnikov’s morally relativistic sentiments, fueled by worldly and mental conditions, twisted this notion. Raskolnikov rationalized all of his failures or “oppressions” to be on behalf of his pawnbroker landlady. When she reports him to the police he mentions “This is the last straw,” and “She is a fool.” (Dostoevsky 53) To Raskolnikov, all of his problems are a direct result of this landlady. Therefore, his depression and subsequent positive feedback loops are results of her tyranny. She is essentially the “bully” in Raskolnikov’s eyes. To end the oppression and eliminate his depression, Raskolnikov decided to “rise up”. It is clear that Raskolnikov’s psyche, fueled by a depression, and characterized by a positive feedback loop, led to his heinous actions. 

That said, why does Raskolnikov immediately resort to murder? Most sane people, even in the most dire of straits, do not murder for personal gain. The explanation becomes clear when re-examining Raskolnikov’s written works and interactions with the authorities, and subsequently comparing them to Peterson’s idea of “Rising up”. Dotchevsky’s explication of  Raskolnikov’s essays (occuring during Porfiry Petrovich’s questioning) provides information on how Raskolnikov internally justifies his own crime. Practicing constant introspection, Raskolnikov comes to the conclusion that some men are inherently greater than others.

Therefore, these superior men are entitled to greater moral authority than others. Porfiry, a police officer suspicious of Raskolnikov and interested in his written works reads, “In his article all men are divided into “ordinary” and “extraordinary”. Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don't you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they were extraordinary.” (Dostoevsky 259) This excerpt of Raskolnikov’s writings first introduces the reader to his justification for extreme moral relativism or “ethical non realism”. Raskolnikov tries to refute his own ideas yet explains that the extraordinary man “... has an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep...certain obstacles., and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea...” (Dostoevsky 260) This statement is very showing and serves a dual purpose when assessing his murder.

Firstly, Raskolnikov directly espoused his adherence to ethical non-realism with the line “right to decide in his own conscience.” This idea in itself is conducive to narcissistic decision making. The “practical fulfillment of his idea” mentioned at the end of the line is equally important. Essentially, Raskolnikov has asserted that the “upper class of men” are permitted to use their conscience on deciding whether or not an act is conducive to self gain. If so, any transgression of the law is morally and objectively righteous. Raskolnikov put special emphasis on the notion of that bloodshed was required for those of the “upper category”.

Raskolnikov states, “But if such a one [an upper class man] is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood...” (Dostoevsky 261) This sort of fascination regarding men being able to kill is akin to Raskolnikov’s urge to murder his landlady. His deed was premeditated as, “...if he had to wait whole years for a suitable opportunity, he could not reckon on a more certain step towards the success of the plan [murder]...” (Dostoevsky 64) Now when comparing the ethical non-realism in the letters and the inner desire to murder with the idea of “rising up” from Dr. Peterson, the connection become clear.

Raskolnikov’s destitute worldly and mental conditions certainly satisfied his requiem- “in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea...”  (Dostoevsky 260) Therefore, he his ability to use his conscience without being coupleable for moral or legal ramifications was legitimate (in his eyes). In essence, Raskolnikov’s writings and interrogation affirm the idea that his “murder in the name of oppression” was only justified by his adherence to ethical non-realism; these sentiments as a result of both poor worldly and mental status. And being of the “upper category of men” he is compelled to “rise up” against what he perceives as his oppressor, without any thought of conscience or morals.  

A.C. Grayling gives an accurate representation of Raskolnikov’s struggle within his work, Ideas That Matter. Grayling, on the subject of relativism, states, “A moral relativist is one who holds what is regarded as good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable and otherwise, legititmately depends on the point of view of the one making the judgements in question.” (Grayling 307) Within Crime and Punishment had one judgement to make, and he was acting as the entire jury. He took moral relativism and extrapolated it to the point of ethical non-realism. Yet the reasons for his doings are now clear (yet still deranged). Raskolnikov’s physical depravations ranging from his derelict apartment, to his antisocial behavior, led directly to his rationalization of the murder. Furthermore, his depraved mental status, a result of a depression-laden positive feedback loop, in combination with his non ethical-realism and lack of regard for life, results in his murderous actions.



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