James HutchinsonHutchinson 1
19 October 2010
The Burden of Humanity
Without a doubt, one of the most morally ambiguous characters in European literature is Raskolnikov from Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. This is mainly because he is neither clearly-defined nor does he have an obvious motivation. He is just slightly too vulnerable to be a nihilist, yet too cynical to be a romantic, and at the same time, not quite indifferent enough to qualify as an absurd hero. Because of these archetypal shortcomings, it is extremely difficult to categorize Raskolnikov, which is what ultimately makes him so fascinating. It may be that the reader follows him to the end simply because he is a walking contradiction, nearly impossible to pinpoint.
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The man's depression is revealed, yet is given a simplistic explanation, leaving the rest of the novel to dig deeper into his psyche. He (our hero) is also described as the protagonist but is not portrayed in a remotely heroic light nor worthy of the reader's sympathy. In fact, for the first chapter, he seems nothing more than a bitter, pretentious degenerate. Not until Raskolnikov's nightmare does the reader gain a glimpse of the broken, desperate man hiding behind a mask of indifference.
Perhaps the most compelling side to Raskolnikov is his seemingly arrogant swagger that covers his ache for human contact. His pride and intellectualism lead him to disdain humanity as fit merely to
perpetuate the species. Additionally, he believes that he is an elite “superhuman” and can consequently transgress accepted moral standards for higher purposes such as utilitarian good. In this sense, he views himself as the absurd hero. However, unlike Mersault from The Stranger, he is not indifferent nor unfeeling enough to successfully transcend human compassion. After he murders the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna, he is so burdened with guilt that it becomes apparent he is not a true “superhuman” such as his hero Napoleon. No matter how desperately he tries to rid himself of human nature, he cannot stop his growing shame. Raskolnikov seems to be sheer evidence that, in literature at least, the spirit is often much stronger than the mind.
In conclusion, Raskolnikov serves mainly as a counter-argument against nihilism and rationalism. His inherent compassion, which he is incapable of suppressing, shows that his humanity outweighs his reliance on egoism. Ultimately, Dostoevsky makes the case that plain reason without pity, empathy, or love leads to nothing but catastrophe, and life cannot be lived without the burden of humanity.