The Extraordinary is the Chaste
In Feodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist, Raskolnikov, murders an old woman and her sister because he believes himself to be an extraordinary man. Throughout the rest of the story, Raskolnikov deals with the repercussions of his actions, and he discovers the truths and the falsehoods of his theory, and realizes the extent of his own greatness. However, Dostoyevsky believes Raskolnikov’s great man theory is false, visible in the characters of Svidrigaylov and Sonya. Raskolnikov believes that there are two types of people in existence: ordinary men and extraordinary men. The extraordinary people are called to the responsibility of revolutionizing the world, and possess certain rights beyond those of ordinary people.
When Porfiry is questioning Raskolnikov about his theory, Raskolnikov asserts the certain criteria to be the great man. The first criteria to be an extraordinary man is one must break whatever rules necessary to promote his ideas, thus advancing all of humankind. He says, “I simply intimate that the ‘extraordinary’ man has the right… I don’t mean a formal, official right, but he has the right himself, to permit his conscience to overstep… certain obstacles, but only in the event that his ideas (which may sometimes be salutary for all mankind) require it for their fulfillment.” (220). Extraordinary men can and should break the old rules in order to further his new ideas. Since the great man only breaks the rules because it is absolutely necessary, he should not feel guilty or conscious about it. If he does, he has made a mistake, and is not a great man at all. (224). However, the great man should still feel great suffering. Raskolnikov asserts this when he says, “Suffering and pain are always obligatory on those of wide intellect and profound feeling. Truly great men must, I think, experience great sorrow on the earth.” (224). The sorrow of the extraordinary is greater than the sorrow of the ordinary, because they are capable of understanding the world on a deeper level.
Raskolnikov also believes that the motive of extraordinary men is power itself. He clarifies this when tells Sonya what they need to do. He says, “What must we do? Demolish what must be demolished, once and for all, that is all, and take the suffering on ourselves! What? Don’t you understand? You will understand afterwards… Freedom and power, but above all, power! Power is over all trembling creatures, over the whole ant heap!.. That is a goal!” (279). In summary, Raskolnikov’s theory establishes that the great man has the authority and necessity to break the rules, feels great sorrow, and is motivated by the desire for power. An example of Raskolnikov’s great man theory in practice is the character of Svidrigaylov. He often breaks the rules because of his own personal ideas. He is explaining his actions to Raskolnikov when he says, “Tell me, why should I put any restraint on myself? Why should I give up women, if I have any inclination for them? It’s something to do, at any rate… … it is one thing with one person and something different with another.” (397). Svidrigaylov has adopted the idea that the rules do not apply to him. He also lacks conscience and guilt for all of his actions. He states, “My conscience is perfectly clear; there is no ulterior motive behind my offer.” (247). Since he lacks remorse for his deeds, Svidrigaylov is the extraordinary man that Raskolnikov speaks of. Despite his clear conscience, Svidrigaylov experiences great sorrow. After Dunya tells him that she will never love him, Dostoyevsky describes his overwhelming suffering. He wrote, “Svidrigaylov stayed some three minutes longer by the window; at last he turned round, looked about him, and slowly passed his hand over his forehead. There was a strange smile on his face, the weak, pitiful, mournful smile of despair.” (421). His sorrow is so great that Svidrigaylov ends his own life. His motivation for breaking the rules, like Raskolnikov’s theory, was power, specifically over young women. He describes how he gains their submission when he speaks of his dead wife. He tells Raskolnikov, “In spite of Aydotya Romanovna’s real aversion for me, and my persistently gloomy and forbidding aspect, she grew sorry for me at last, sorry for a lost soul. And when a girl’s heart begins to feel pity for a man, then of course she is in the greatest danger.” (401). Svidrigaylov fits all of the criteria of Raskolnikov’s great man theory: he consistently breaks the rules, he lacks conscience and suffers, and he is motivated by power. However, Raskolnikov completely despises him. He exclaims to Svidrigaylov, “That’s enough. No more of your wicked, base stories, you vile, disgusting, salacious creature!” (408). Svidrigaylov fits all of the criteria for Raskolnikov’s great man theory, yet it is evident to him that Svidrigaylov is not an extraordinary man. Therefore, Dostoyevsky believes the great man theory of Raskolnikov is false.
Sonya, another character of Crime and Punishment, does not meet all the criteria of Raskolnikov’s great man, but is the primary example of a truly great man in the story. However, she does fulfill some of Raskolnikov’s requirements. For example, Sonya does break the old rules, and Raskolnikov recognizes this when he says, “Haven’t you done the same? You too have stepped over the barrier… you were able to do it. You laid hands on yourself, you destroyed a life… your own (that makes no difference!).” (278). Sonya, like Raskolnikov, has committed a murder; she killed herself when she became a prostitute for the benefit of her family. She also has experienced great sorrow regarding her deeds. When Marmeladov tells Raskolnikov about the Sonya’s first night as a prostitute, he states, “She came in and went straight to Katerina Ivanovna and laid thirty silver roubles on the table in front of her without a word. She looked at her, but she did not utter a single word, only took our big green woolen shawl, wrapped it round her head and face and lay down on the bed, with her face to the wall, and her little shoulders and her whole body were trembling…” (15). Sonya does not feel she has made a wrong decision in becoming a prostitute to save her family, but that does not exclude her from great sorrow. However, Sonya differs from Raskolnikov’s great man because of her motivation behind her actions. Unlike Svidrigaylov, Sonia is not motivated by power, but by freedom and resurrection through Christ. When she was reading the story of Lazarus to Raskolnikov, she read to him, “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” (276). Sonya ardently believes that her faith in God will resurrect her from the dead, and her freedom is the true motivation behind her actions, opposing Raskolnikov’s theory. Despite that she does not fulfill the criteria of his theory, Raskolnikov is strongly draw to Sonya, and falls in love with her after he confesses his crime. Dostoyevsky describes Raskolnikov’s devout feelings for Sonya. He wrote, “But at once, in that instant, she understood. Infinite happiness shone in her eyes; she had understood, and she no longer doubted that he loved her, loved her for ever, and that now at last the moment had come…” (463). Sonya does not meet all of the requirements to be considered the great man according to Raskolnikov, yet he adores her and is redeemed when he follows her council, and is indescribably drawn to her. Sonya is the true great man. Therefore, Raskolnikov’s theory of the extraordinary man in false according to Dostoyevsky.
Throughout Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky uses the characters of Svidrigaylov and Sonia to disprove Raskolnikov’s theory of the extraordinary man. It is clear that the defining difference between Svidrigaylov and Sonya is their motivations. One is rooted in their selfishness and desire for power, which ended in his downfall. The other acted upon a desire for freedom and a complete denial of self, which ended in her redemption. Every man naturally desires to be the great man and, like Raskolnikov, fears whether or not he truly is. Dostoyevsky is communicating that men possess the ability to become great, but true greatness is rooted in the right motivations to act. To be truly great, to earn power and freedom, a man should not concern himself with the act itself of upturning old rules. The extraordinary people are virtuous; their actions are mere side effects of their character.
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