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“Notes” on Dostoevsky

Some books are so good that they leave you without very much to say. That was my initial reaction after reading Crime and Punishment. I loved the novel—loved it so much that I couldn’t talk very much about it. The Lord of the Rings will has not been displaced as my favorite story, but Dostoevsky has made it onto my list of favorite authors with one book. That is hard to do.

Fortunately, I just finished Dostoevsky’s (much shorter) novel, Notes from Underground, which left me more thoughtful than awed. My tongue is a bit freer now. Notes, which initiated the second, better, half of Dostoevsky’s writing career, reminded me of Crime and Punishment in some ways. Its narrator seems to suffer from a character defect similar to his successor Raskolnikov’s—living so completely in the world of theory that he misses truths that seem obvious to the rest of us. Raskolnikov, however, is not quite so oblivious as the narrator of Notes. He is capable of genuine compassion, and of having real relationships with other people. The “underground man” in Notes is not.

The underground man seems to have resigned himself to living in the world of theory, much as it frustrates him at times. From the safety of this world, he enjoys tearing other people’s ideas to shreds. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really have any ideas of his own to substitute for them. Raskolnikov, being more aware of the world around him, wants to put his theories into practice. And this is ultimately what gets him into trouble.

Had Raskolnikov left things where the underground man would have left them—merely arguing that superior men have a right to disregard the common understanding of ethics—he would never have gotten into the sort of trouble he did. Instead, he tried to test out his theory, to prove that he was indeed a superior sort of man. Of course, his theory proved defunct. In trying to prove himself superior by murdering the old pawnbroker, Raskolnikov only puts himself in the same category as the commonest, lowest sort of man. This realization is a shock to his system—a shock from which, thankfully, he does not recover.

The murder forces Raskolnikov to make a decision. Either he can destroy himself, or he must become an entirely different sort of man. Escaping the world of theory is not enough. Raskolnikov needs to escape something far closer and more deadly—himself.

The underground man concludes his story about Liza the prostitute with another insult to his audience. You’ve seen how bad I am, he says. But do you realize that my faults are in you, too? I may be the anti-hero—but you are not the heroes. The things you hate about my theories find expressions of their own inside you. “We have all lost touch with life, we all limp, each to a greater or lesser degree.”

So what is the solution? Multiple people try to argue with Raskolnikov, to change his mind in some way. Their persuasion has no effect on Raskolnikov. Logic does not sway him—he has logic of his own to counter it. His own emotions are so out of touch with the feelings of those around him that sentimental appeals barely register.

“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing,” wrote Blaise Pascal. Ultimately, Raskolnikov’s repentance does not result from reasoning. Neither does it result from the usual understanding of emotion. Raskolnikov’s emotions are certainly engaged in his repentance, but he does not repent because he suddenly feels how horrible his actions were. Instead, Raskolnikov has to surrender everything–reason and emotions–to what he realizes is the truth.

How to escape the world of theory? Surrender to the truth that encompasses both our internal and external worlds. The underground man never surrendered. He preferred dragging everyone into the mud with him. But Raskolnikov, after his long struggle, decided that there was something more important than himself. He surrendered to the truth, and in prison he found a freedom greater than he had ever known.


Posted by on October 3, 2013 in Classic Literature


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