The Irony in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
The primary conflict in Crime and Punishment is the internal development of Raskolnikov’s character. In Raskolnikov’s mind are two contrasting personalities, each demanding control over him. One side, brought out by poverty and egoism, is the murderer who kills the pawnbroker. The other side, inspired by the love of others and his inner goodness, is his benevolent conscience which desires to help those around him. The conflict rages on throughout the whole novel, and in the end Raskolnikov’s good side wins over as he accepts his guilt, admits to his wrongness, and turns his life over to Sonia and God. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky attempts to portray the complexity of Raskolnikov’s mental evolution. A primary vehicle for this task is his use of the literary device irony. Irony is the contrast between what is said and what is meant, or what happens and what is expected to happen. In verbal irony, characters say the opposite of what they mean. In situational irony, the unexpected happens. Crime and Punishment is abundant with both verbal and situational irony, as it instigates the critical turning points of Raskolnikov’s development, and thus allow Dostoevsky to convey his message that even a murderer can be reformed and purified through guilt and the unconditional love of others.
Irony is first used in the ramblings of Marmeladov. Marmeledov says, “Crucify me oh judge…He is the One…He will forgive my Sonia.” This statement is ironic, because Marmeladov, despite being a drunk, introduces a primary Christian message of the novel. He also explains the irony of his daughter Sonia. Although she is a prostitute, something considered rather base, she will be “forgiven by God” for she is a very holy person and the epitome of innocence and purity in the novel. These two concepts are vital to the transformation of Raskolnikov later in the novel. They also convey Dostoevsky’s strong belief in Christianity, and they reveal his value system towards certain humans.
Situational irony first becomes a key device in Raskolnikov’s plot to murder the pawnbroker. Raskolnikov vacillates over his decision. One minute he tells himself, “I would like to attempt a thing like that.” After saying this, he turns around and says, “I knew I could never bring myself to it.” Raskolnikov is clearly wavering between whether or not to commit the murder. However, his indecisiveness is eliminated by the occurrence of two ironic events. First, immediately after his dream when he states, “My God! I couldn’t bring myself to do it…I couldn’t do it…I couldn’t do it!” he overhears Lizaveta saying, “At seven o’clock tomorrow…I’ll come (to the apartment)” This ironic twist of fate makes the murder of the pawnbroker the next day ideal, as her sister Lizaveta would be away at seven o’ clock, and the “old lady would be left alone.” Raskolnikov decides this is a golden opportunity, revealing a substantial change of attitude in Raskolnikov, beginning the development of his dark character. Next, Raskolnikov overhears a man at the bar say, “I could kill that damned old woman and make off with her money, I assure you, without the faintest conscience-prick.” This ironic statement startles Raskolnikov, as he had “the very same idea.” It provides another justification for the murder, as Raskolnikov believes the crime will benefit others. This ironic event is key to Raskolnikov’s development as it has “an immense influence on him in his later action.” These ironic events allow Raskolnikov to commit the murder of the pawnbroker and begin his lengthy journey of conversion.
Irony is apparent in the early stages of Raskolnikov’s guilt. First, situational irony occurs when Raskolnikov is in the pawnbroker’s apartment, and he hears someone knock on the door and say, “Are they asleep or are they murdered?” This arouses panic in Raskolnikov and instigates his guilt. A similar instance occurs when Raskolnikov receives a “summons to the police office.” Immediately Raskolnikov panics and suffers from extreme guilt. He does not suffer remorse because he believes his murder was wrong, but because he did not commit it perfectly. The summons is ironic because it is not for the murder but because Raskolnikov is a “fine bird” who did not pay debts. When Raskolnikov discovers this, he is overcome with relief and reassurance that his murder was justified. This ironic event reveals the extreme mental disorder of Raskolnikov. More importantly, the guilt Raskolnikov suffers is suffered by his egotistical, cold side, and the guilt is eliminated when he realizes he is not caught. This form of guilt reoccurs throughout the book until the very end, supporting Dostoevsky’s message that guilt is not constructive until the benevolent side feels it for being wrong.
Dostoevsky uses the ironic discussion between Raskolnikov and Zametov to reveal Raskolnikov’s duality and also the mental illness brought about by crime. In the bar, after asking Zametov insane questions regarding the murder, Raskolnikov asks him, “And what if it was I who murdered the old woman?” This is ironic because Zametov has no clue that Raskolnikov committed the murder, and now Raskolnikov risks being caught to release his information. Dostoevsky uses this irony to show that guilt is causing great pain in Raskolnikov, creating the need to confess in him. This also strengthens the battle of duality within Raskolnikov and creates huge suspense for the end of the novel.
Another important ironic event is Nikolay’s confession of the murder. Porifry is battling Raskolnikov and has him on the verge of confessing when Nikolay bursts in the room and shouts, “I am guilty… I am the murderer!” Dostoevsky thus creates suspense and allows Raskolnikov time to prepare for his confession by talking with Dounia and Sonia. Otherwise, Raskolnikov would have confessed and would never have been reformed. Also, Raskolnikov shows no guilt for Nikolay’s confession, further revealing the domination of the evil side of Raskolnikov.
Irony is present in the conversation between Sonia and Raskolnikov in Part Four, Chapter Four. In this scene Raskolnikov verbally attacks Sonia for her religious beliefs, calling her “crazy”, suggesting suicide, and stating, “But perhaps there is no God at all.” This example of verbal irony shows that Raskolnikov is deeply troubled, as earlier he decided against suicide, and he is usually characterized as “crazy.” However, he is intrigued at her strong believes and begins to ask her about the killing of the pawnbroker and Lizaveta. He explains to her that he has “broken with (his family) completely.” This dramatic irony confuses Sonia, for she is unaware that Raskolnikov is the killer. However, it is used by Dostoevsky to allow Raskolnikov to realize that Sonia is a forgiving person and develop and interest in Sonia’s religion. This leads to Raskolnikov’s confession and also to his conversion to Christianity.
Next, Dostoevsky uses irony in Svidriagaiolov’s description of his love for Dounia to reveal his message that companionship is an important aspect of life. Svidrigailov explains his love for Dounia, and ironically his description parallels Raskolnikov’s relationship with Sonia. The difference between Svidriagailov’s relationship with Dounia and Raskolnikov’s relationship with Sonia is that Dounia is repulsed by Svidrigailov. As a result, Svidriagailov commits suicide, dying abandoned and alone, while Raskolnikov lives. If Dounia loved Svidriagailov, he would not have committed suicide. Likewise, if Sonia abandoned Raskolnikov, he would have killed himself. This contrast in resolutions show that companionship can be a deciding factor in one’s life, and that the love of others is vital.
Irony plays a tremendous role in the resolution of Raskolnikov’s confession. As he walks to the police department to confess, he hears that “Svidrigailov has shot himself.” Svidrigailov was the only person who knew of Raskolnikov’s crime, so now Raskolnikov could walk away and be home free. His dark side forces him to turn away from the police department, only to see Sonia standing at the door. Raskolnikov then turns around and confesses, showing the dominance of his kind, warm side which needs Sonia’s love. However, the conflict between Raskolnikov’s duality is not over, as he confesses only for Sonia, and not because he believes what he did was wrong. Despite this, the confession is a huge step towards Raskolnikov’s conversion.
Raskolnikov is then sentenced for only seven years, due to an ironic conviction based on “his abnormal mental condition,” and his term in Siberia, where the most critical turning point of the novel occurs. Raskolnikov is bitter in jail, tortured by the others for his disbelief in God, and rude to Sounia when she would visit. Ironically, Raskolnikov’s attitude shifts when he dreams of a world that “was condemned to a terrible new strange plague,” caused by everyone believing his theory was right. This idea represented Raskolnikov’s believing his theory was right, and it awakened him to the wrongness of it. Finally, the caring, good side of Raskolnikov defeats his evil side, as he turns to a life of Christianity with Sonia. Dostoevsky also uses this ironic dream to criticize abstract theories and their devastating affects.
Crime and Punishment is the story of the battle between Raskolnikov’s intellectual arrogance and his conscience. He constantly attempts to run from his conscience but he can’t escape it. Ironic events force Raskolnikov to face the conflict and ultimately decide his destiny. Dostoevsky uses this device to explain the complex conflict raging within Raskolnikov, and in turn to reveal his message about mankind: that anyone through the acceptance of guilt and suffering can be reformed. Although Raskolnikov commits murder, through his guilt and the love of others towards him, he is saved.
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