"Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov: The Ramifications of Their Encounter"
Pretending to be sleeping Raskolnikov lies on his bed watching Svidrigaylov enter his flat. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment the main character Raskolnikov is a man who compares himself to a Napoleon without “Toulon nor Egypt nor the passage of Mont Blanc to begin his career with.” The character of Raskolnikov is one who believes that he too can become like Napoleon, one of the few extraordinary men who are able to kill and not feel guilt. Dostoevsky uses various characters as foils to Raskolnikov, slowly revealing the complexity of the Svidrigaylov and Raskolnikov meet in the middle part of the book, signifying that perhaps it is the mid-point of Raskolnikov’s “punishment.” Their encounter allows for the reader to see the contrast between the two choices that Raskolnikov has after committing his crime. Svidrigaylov represents the dark path to evil, while Sonya represents the other path towards faith. Raskolnikov clearly dislikes Svidrigaylov, although he never explicitly states why, the implication arises that perhaps it is because Raskolnikov is able to see himself in Svidrigaylov, and does not like what he sees. Dostoevsky uses Svidrigaylov as a character that is mentioned at the beginning of the book, and is never heard from again until halfway through the book in part four. Up until the encounter, Raskolnikov is meandering through his choices, confused as to what he is to do, unable to think clearly. The appearance of Svidrigaylov creates a clearcut path to one choice, opposing the alternative that Sonya offers. Svidrigaylov acts as a result of what Raskolnikov may have become, had he chosen to not turn himself in. In many aspects Svidrigaylov acts as a completely opposite to Raskolnikov, but yet they still share some unique inner qualities, such as compassion. Both characters are undoubtedly changed, each affecting the other.
Svidrigaylov is introduced by Dostoevsky in the very beginning of the book, with the letter telling Raskolnikov of Dunya’s misfortune while being a governess of Svidrigaylov. The novel begins with Dostoevsky illustrating the state of mind Raskolnikov is in, in a St. Petersburg that is very real. Living all alone as a student, Raskolnikov is experiencing internal turmoil with himself, unable to bring himself to do anything. While the reader is not able to know Svidrigaylov at this point, through the letter sent by Raskolnikov’s mother, Svidrigaylov is depicted as an older man who is often “under the influence of Bacchus,” and cannot stay true to his wife. Dostoevsky wants the reader to think lowly of Svidrigaylov, as a character who is not to be liked. Within the streets of St. Petersburg, the first encounter of Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov results in a brawl. Raskolnikov sees a young drunk girl, and as Svidrigaylov approaches her, he knows that his intentions are not good. This pretext builds up the hate for Svidrigaylov, an older man who takes advantage of young girls who are drunk. The first encounter also shows Raskolnikov essentially saving the young girl from Svidrigaylov, but did he save the girl out of care, or merely out of hate for Svidrigaylov? Although it is only a brief glimpse of Svidrigaylov, by introducing him at the beginning of the novel Dostoevsky wants the reader to forget about him, and then suddenly re-introduce him again, creating a new obstacle of sorts in the plot. The letter sent to Raskolnikov just deepens the conflict within Raskolnikov. He becomes enraged that his sister Dunya is getting married to some high up official just for the sake of money and rank. The thoughts of Raskolnikov are all unclear, and he is distraught with his purpose in life. Raskolnikov believes that he is a man who “holds the fate of the world in his two hands, and yet, simply because he is afraid, he just lets things drift.” It is unbearable to him to see his sister sell herself off, merely for the sake of the family. Raskolnikov believes that he is a man who is above moral law, just like Napoleon was. But he is not committed to anything, and cannot prove to himself his own worth. His thoughts are riddled with confusion and delirium, and Dostoevsky molds Raskolnikov into a murderer, through the dreams that Raskolnikov has. Dostoevsky hints at the inherent murderer within everyone, showing that the thoughts Raskolnikov is perhaps within everyone, just waiting to be triggered by some thought or action. Comparing himself with Napoleon, Raskolnikov feels that in order to achieve the status of finding his purpose, and the reader is able to see the though process as Raskolnikov rationalizes the murder of the pawnbroker. Although Raskolnikov is in debt and desperately needs money, the murder of the pawnbroker is not for money, but rather “one life taken, thousands saved from corruption and decay.” The coincidence of Raskolnikov being in the bar, and listening to the conversation of drunkards about the pawnbroker. All these coincidences at the beginning of the novel make the reader wonder if everything was really a coincidence, or it is Raskolnikov’s “destiny” to kill the pawnbroker.
The second encounter of Svidrigaylov and Raskolnikov takes place in Raskolnikov’s flat, after Raskolnikov has awaken from another one of his delirious dreams. The dream was one where Raskolnikov once again attempts to rationalize his actions for murder, and to convince himself that what he did was really for the benefit of himself and humankind. The is adamant that he “killed not a human being but a principle!” Lapsing into dream and reality Dostoevsky creates the chapter in a way that the dream seems to be clashed with reality, and brings the reader into the thoughts of Raskolnikov, unable to tell between his imagination and reality. Raskolnikov desperately seeks to understand himself, and why he has become so desolate. The emotions of hate seep out, yet he does not know why he hates. The ideal of becoming like Napoleon is shattered, and Raskolnikov knows that he will not be able to live like that, with the fear and anxiety of his crime. Raskolnikov calls himself a “louse,” stating that his plan for a just death did not work out the way his brain thought it would have. The morality of the death is beginning to affect Raskolnikov, and he knows that the justification for the death is going to overcome him. He dreams of the murder scene again, with himself as an observer to the act. Within the dream he is unable to kill the pawnbroker, and becomes trapped, much like how he is now trapped with the guilt and unable to rid his mind of the moral consequence of the murder. The entering of Svidrigaylov brings an abrupt change in the story, with Raskolnikov clearly going mad with his thoughts. Svidrigaylov wants to get to know Raskolnikov in order to convince Dunya that Svidrigaylov wants to marry her. Svidrigaylov admits that he is “a man, et nihil humanum,” a slave to human desires. Svidrigaylov very willingly talks about his crimes, such as killing several women including his wife, without any remorse. The conversation between Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov seems to be very calm, with Raskolnikov seeming more sane. This encounter is important in revealing both Raskolnikov’s and Svidrigaylov’s personality, after Raskolnikov’s revelation that he is truly no more than a Napoleon than anybody else. With Svidrigaylov talking about his late wife Marfa, Raskolnikov regards that Svidrigaylov was “a man who had firmly made up his mind to something, but would keep his own counsel.” The ghosts of Svidrigaylov are comparable to Raskolnikov’s delirious dreams, both offering glimpses of crimes committed and their effects. While Raskolnikov is clearly affected by his past crime, Svidrigaylov remains content with what he has done, and has no remorse for it. That is the state that Raskolnikov was attempting to achieve, to be above other humans. Being able to commit crimes, and not feel anything about it. The rape and death of a 15 year old girl has no affect at all on Svidrigaylov, and he admits that he did it merely because he was a victim of human passion. Such a despicable act, and yet no remorse, Dostoevsky creates a disturbing new philosophy of motives behind human actions. But it is good to note that there is no direct statement from Svidrigaylov that admits to all these crimes, which Dostoevsky clearly uses to make the reader think that Svidrigaylov as a lowly worm. This encounter reveals the contrasting characters of Svidrigaylov and Raskolnikov, one character who wants to be above moral law, and one who has achieved such a status, yet it seems that he is rather a lowly human being for all the vile things he has done.
Svidrigaylov represents the ideal that Raskolnikov was hoping to attain, the ability to not feel remorse for ones actions. Throughout the entire novel, Raskolnikov is stricken with his deed of killing the pawnbroker, and much of the novel is spent analyzing his thoughts, and reasons for the murder. Svidrigaylov has also done his share of crimes, and when Dostoevsky understands his, he sees that Svidrigaylov is more Napoleon than he is. The conscience of Raskolnikov is unable to override the feeling of guilt, and Raskolnikov cannot live with the crime he has done. Svidrigaylov is the complete opposite, living freely with the murders he has done, no emotion whatsoever about killing people. The irony of the encounter lies in when Raskolnikov calls Svidrigaylov “a madman.” Svidrigaylov is as much of a madman as Raskolnikov is, except that Svidrigaylov is able to accept what he has done, or rather, he no longer thinks what he has done is wrong. He has already admitted that he is a human being who lives to fulfill his desires, no matter what. It is after the encounter with Svidrigaylov that Raskolnikov understands that no matter how many people he kills, he will never be able to be a Napoleon. Svidrigaylov wants nothing more from Raskolnikov but Dunya’s love, which seems like a confusing thing coming from a character such as Svidrigaylov. The apparent compassion from Svidrigaylov is something that is not expected from somebody who has no conscience. Svidrigaylov represents the evil within Raskolnikov, the evil part that Raskolnikov thought he would be able to attain, and still be a good person. Through the murder, Raskolnikov is slowly transforming into the same person that Svidrigaylov is, a vile and despicable worm. Both Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov have the choice to commit suicide, or give themselves in. After the encounter in Raskolnikov’s flat, Svidrigaylov can be thought of as almost an alter ego of Raskolnikov, the persona of his evil side. Nearing the end of the novel, Raskolnikov is able to accept that his theory of attaining the idealistic status of being above moral to be flawed, and it is throught Svidrigaylov that he is able to see this flaw. Svidrigaylov wants to love Dunya, but when Dunya refuses to love him, Svidrigaylov is left once alone. Svidrigaylov needed Dunya just like how Raskolnikov needed Sonya, but instead of returning the love, Dunya could not love a man like Svidrigaylov. Raskolnikov has Sonya there for him to lean on, and it is through the love from Sonya that he is able to muster up the courage to turn himself in. Svidrigaylov has no other choice than to kill himself, because there is no other punishment for his crime. The meeting of the two opposites results in only one living, the one is able to get help, and to see the flaw in his personality. When Svidrigaylov seeks out Raskolnikov, he seems to be desperate to find somebody to be in his life. He has driven away everybody, and now that he is alone, he finds that he needs somebody. Dunya was his last hope, and when Dunya says he cannot love him, Svidrigaylov kills himself. By seeing what Svidrigaylov has become, Raskolnikov accepts Sonya’s love, and is able to turn himself in, forfeiting his quest to become above moral law.
Dostoevsky uses Svidrigaylov, as well as the pawnbroker, to depict Raskolnikov’s killing of a principle. Raskolnikov’s began with a ideal to become like Napoleon, and justifies murdering a women, because he believes that by murdering her he is doing the society good. But Raskolnikov is unable to overcome the guilt, and his thoughts are constantly plagued with the murder. Dostoevsky delves into the mind of Raskolnikov, and the reader is able to go through the thought process of Raskolnikov, desperately trying to convince himself that the murder was the right thing to do. Raskolnikov calls the murder his “destiny” and it is true that without the murder, he would not be able to see the flaw in his personality, and accept who he really is. The encounter with Svidrigaylov plays a large role in Raskolnikov realizing what must be done in order to be truly free from the guilt of the murder. The contrast between Svidrigaylov and Raskolnikov show the lesser of two evils triumphing. Both are in a similar situation, seeking absolution for the things that they have done. With Raskolnikov giving himself in, and Svidrigaylov committing suicide, the two choices affected with the conversations Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov. Without Svidrigaylov, Raskolnikov probably not would not have given himself in, but rather turned towards the evil path and continued to strive for his unattainable ideal of being above moral law. The encounter propels both characters along the two separate choices left, one towards suicide, and the other towards absolution.