Crime and Punishment: here today and gone tomorrow? Postmodernism and the Modern Man

One of my favorite books of all time has to be Crime and Punishment, by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. There are many, many elements that ensure this book a place on the 1001 must-read classics, from the thrilling plot, social criticism, soft love story and of course the commentary on morals and morality in present society. While the main character Raskolnikov plays the downtrodden hero in the novel, by analyzing his relationship to Marmeladov, the drunken man who serves as his foil, we can get a deeper meaning of the inner criticism of morals this book holds, and what that means for people today.

I love this book simply because it is complicated enough to keep the reader reeling in anticipation and excitement, but not too much as to confuse and frustrate. The central action in the novel is focused obviously around Raskolnikov’s crime; killing the old woman who is a dishonest and ruthless pawnbroker, and feeling justified about his actions. Many powerful rulers kill thousands of people in order to get to power, he reasons, so that then they can accomplish some good. In this way, Raskolnikov not only feels that it is just to kill the old woman (because she is charging horribly high interest rates for her loans etc) , but that his actions will prove that he is a great man who is worthy of moral and authoritative power. However, the book then follows his spiraling defeat and despair when he realizes that he not only feels guilty for the death of the woman, but cannot completely justify the taking of life in exchange for immoral behaviors. Thus, his model has failed, and he loses the belief in himself as someone who is important.

This behavior, then, mirrors extremely closely what the bumbling, daft, drunken fool Marmeladov does. Marmeladov, a government official who has a hard time keeping a job and supporting his family because of his constant drunkenness, runs into Raskolnikov time and time again, and is constantly berating himself for his crimes. But in the same way that Raskolnikov tries to cover up his terrible secret and morally as well as physically beats himself up time and time again as a type of self-recrimination, Marmeladov exacerbates his problems by trying to drown them in more alcohol.For example, Marmeladov drunkenly exclaims to Raskolnikov, “why am I to be pitied, you say? Yes! There’s nothing to pity me for! I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, not pitied!” (24). After spending all his money on liquor while his oldest daughter is forced to prostitute herself in order to buy food, Marmeladov drowns in self-hate and disgust. In this way, Raskolnikov also hates himself for being indifferent and unloving towards his family. Before he confesses, he ponders, “But why are they so fond of me if I don’t deserve it? Oh, if only I were alone and no-one loved me and I had never loved anyone!” (495). Both despise the love of their families’ because both feel that their bad deeds do not merit their families’ unconditional love. As a result, both men find themselves in a rapidly revisited cycle of guilt, grief, and self-punishment. Indeed, they even wish to confess, not to alleviate the pain personally, but that their families might “crucify” them and punish them for their deeds. An obviously black and white notion of “an eye for an eye”, but a widely prevalent one none the less. Marmeladov remarks, “but they don’t blame them, they don’t blame them! But it hurts more, it hurts more when they don’t blame!” (24).Because they feel that they deserve punishment for their sins; any wrath, pain, or discomfort wreaked upon them serves as a redemptive force. So, is their forgiveness and alleviation of grief through guilt and punishment? This becomes the second most important theme of the book, directly caused by Raskolnikov’s question of justifiable crime and murder to help the masses.

We can even go so far as to say that the literal death of Marmeladov parallels the spiritual death and redemption of Raskolnikov. Marmeladov’s death is extremely violent and disturbing; he is trampled under a carriage. In his very last moments, he cries out to Sonia, “Sonia! Daughter! Forgive me!” (179). This last attempt to be given redemption creates a strong parallel to Raskolnikov’s cry for forgiveness and deliverance. Marmeladov ends his life begging his daughter for forgiveness, while Raskolnikov confesses to Sonia immediately before confessing. Both found redemption in their last moments of sin, heartbreak, and utter disparity in the character of Sonia, who stands as the symbol of salvation. Marmeladov feels utter despair in the consequences of his alcoholism; Sonia is forced into prostitution in order to provide a meager existence for his family. Raskolnikov looks to Sonia for forgiveness because he relates to her as a fellow outcast of society. He realizes the difference between her and him; solely that she is committing a moral crime in order to save her family, while he committed the murder solely for his own gain. His own spiritual death and resurrection occurs in the very last pages of the novel, when Dostoevsky writes, “they were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of the new future, of a full resurrection into a new life,” (520). Raskolnikov had already admitted his crime and had thus undergone the realization that he is not a superior human being. By admitting his imperfection and forced submission to moral law, he is able to find redemption by falling in love with Sonia. Both Raskolnikov and Marmeladov had to undergo death of some sort, whether it is mind or body, to find redemption, and both through the love and morality of Sonia.



About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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