Essay on Dostoyevsky Novel Motives

Would you agree with the statement that Raskolnikov produces a corpse but no real motive?

Dostoyevsky wrote in a letter on the 16th of August 1839 that ‘Man is a mystery. I am devoting myself to this mystery because I want to be a man.’ (qtd. in J. Jones 207) Nowhere is this sense of mystery as great as in his most acclaimed novel Crime and Punishment. To say that Raskolnikov produces no real motive would be an almost violently reductive reading of the text, though less of a gross vulgarisation than to suggest that the text allows the reader to assign no real motive to Raskolnikov. The key is perhaps in the definition of reality. Raskolnikov’s motivation is multiple and perhaps in the end indefinable but no less real for that. Indeed from the narrative voice to the description of time and place to the comments of Dostoyevsky in other writings comes the suggestion that Raskolnikov’s motivation is all the more real for its mysteriousness.

(i) Criticism

The question of motivation is one that has been much discussed by critics of the novel, and it has become a critical commonplace to assert that the text posits two distinct . These two motives are termed differently in the various studies but are substantially the same. The first motive is that of helping his mother and sister and improving his career prospects. The second motive that is picked out is the will to power or the Napoleonic idea. Though early commentators such as N.N. Strakhov and Vladimir S. Solovyov were content to read the novel as having a single, unified fabula at its core, whether it be that of a talented youth spoiled by nihilistic ideas or of the egoist for whom his own superiority is a license beyond law, for critics of the twentieth century the idea of ambivalence is central to not only the question of motive but also to the understanding of the novel itself (qtd. in McDuff 11-12). Richard Peace, for example, sees the dualism of Raskolnikov’s motivation reflected throughout the novel. He takes as his starting point the protagonist’s name, “raskol” in Russian meaning “schism”, finds further evidence in the single murder that becomes a double murder, in Raskolnikov’s division of humanity into the ordinary and the extraordinary and in the oscillation of the novel between aggressive and submissive figures such as Alyona and Lizaveta, Sonya and Svidrigailov. For Peace, not only is a single, definable motive not to be found in Dostoyevsky’s text but to produce one would be working against the very grain of the novel which seeks to contradict the monism of the radical younger generation that were so vocal in Russia during the period in which Dostoyevsky was writing, a monism, which for Peace, Raskolnikov begins with but is forced to renounce in the wake of his crime (34-48). There is much to be said for this view for not only does it recognize the lack of single, straightforward motivation on Raskolnikov’s part but it acknowledges that rather than this being a failure of Dostoyevsky’s to reach a satisfactory conclusion, it is a sign of his going further. As shall be seen however, this too is somewhat reductive and Mikhail Bakhtin’s reading of the novel as polyphonic leads us to what would seem to be a more comprehensive understanding of Raskolnikov’s motivation, which as has been said is multiple rather than dual.

(ii) The Money Motive

In the first place there is the motive of obtaining money for both him and his family as mentioned above. This was clearly a factor in driving Raskolnikov to commit the crime. Raskolnikov’s reaction to Pulkheria Aleksandrovna’s letter telling of her daughter’s sacrificial marriage shows this.

‘Whatever happened, he must take some action, or else… “Or else turn my back on life altogether!” he suddenly cried in a frenzy. ‘Obediently accept my fate, such as it is, once and for all, and stifle all my aspirations, renouncing every right to action, life and love!”’ (79)

That this is the event that triggers the crime is further demonstrated in the text by the repeated motif of the girl selling herself in the drunken girl that Raskolnikov attempts to rescue, in Sonya and in Svidrigailov’s sixteen-year-old fiancée. When Raskolnikov produces this motive for Sonya, the reader thus sees the truth in it, even more so for his admittance that it is not the whole truth. ‘ “…I really did want to help my mother, but…even that’s not quite correct” ’ (481).

The text in producing this motive assigns it reality but not exclusivity. Even without taking account of other assorted motives offered, that of helping his family is negated as Raskolnikov’s single, overriding purpose, for almost as soon as it is suggested as a motive the idea is qualified. ‘Actually, none of them were new or unexpected questions, they were all old, painful ones of long standing…and, of late, mature and taken concentrated form, assuming the guise of a terrible, monstrous and fantastic question that had begun to torture his heart.’ (79) Furthermore there is the scene between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin that follows the revelation that even while he was committing murder for them circumstances were working to provide for his mother and sister. ‘Something strange seemed to have taken place between them…Some kind of idea had slipped out, a kind of hint; something horrible and monstrous and suddenly comprehensible to them both…’ (372). In that moment Razumikhin understands that his friend may well be the murderer, but what is that Raskolnikov comprehends if it is not that there was much more to his murder than the need to save his family?

(iii) The Idea of Napoleon

‘You see, I wanted to become a Napoleon, and that’s why I killed…’ (483). Raskolnikov produces this as his motivation at several points in the novel, in his article on crime, in his confession to Sonya and to the reader in the epilogue. ‘Though of course in that case a great many of mankind’s benefactors who did not inherit power but took it for themselves ought to have been executed at their very first steps. But those people had the courage of their convictions, and so they were right, while I didn’t, and consequently had no right to take the step I did.” (623) This continuance of this idea throughout the text helps to establish it, as does the psychologist detective Porfiry’s credence of it. Moreover the text testifies to its resonance in Raskolnikov’s character again and again, as he reacts in horror to Svidrigailov and Luzhin without the slightest realization of the possible hypocrisy and his inability to state his remorse to himself or to others as well as his impatient disregard for social conventions.

Yet Raskolnikov himself admits that this is ‘drivel’ and ‘rubbish’ (487). The physicality of description in the novel defies anything as theoretical as Raskolnikov’s Napoleonic idea to provide a complete explanation of the murder. Raskolnikov’s illness after the crime is both mental and physical, the implication being that both body and mind were intricately involved in leading him to murder.

(iv) Multiple Motives

More importantly there is the weight demanded by the other motivations produced by the text and by Raskolnikov. There is environment. On the first page the reader is told that ‘He had been crushed by poverty;’ (33) and the evidence of that poverty, the suffering it causes and the acts that suffering lowers people to, permeate the novel. There is the idea of insanity, which though mocked, does hold the reader in its grip for there is truth to Porfiry’s statement that ‘you’re doing everything in a state of delirium’ (406). Raskolnikov’s irrational actions, his inability to discern between dream and reality, his disconnection from his fellow human beings suggests that he does indeed have ‘a leaning towards insanity’ (485). There is the idea that the murder was in fact a form of suicide: ‘No, it was myself I killed, not the old woman’ (488). This statement is made in a moment of wrath against the idea that he should feel guilty for Alonya’s death but is borne out by Raskolnikov’s recollection of Marmeladov’s question, ‘ “Do you understand, do you understand, dear sir, what it means to have nowhere left to go?” ’ (79), after reading his mother’s letter. There is even a sense conveyed by the excessive repetition of words such as suffering, torment and torture that it is a masochistic act on Raskolnikov’s part. As Dostoyevksy wrote in The Writer’s Diary in 1873 ‘the paramount, most basic spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, constant and unslakeable suffering, everywhere and everything’ (qtd. in Scanlan 111). Raskolnikov meets this need by murdering Alonya and Lizaveta.

(v) Polyphony and Multiplicity

In Malcolm V. Jones’s discussion of Dostoyevsky After Bakhtin he discusses the polyphonic nature of the narrative in Crime and Punishment, stressing the difficulty of distinguishing between commonsense reality from dreams, fantasies, articles and theories in the novel, as well as keeping track of the distinction between the omniscient narrator and the various characters (77-79). These difficulties not only highlight the prominence of the idea of multiplicity in Dostoyevsky’s work but also that such multiplicity posits a world that is inherently elusive and indefinable. In such a novel, the presence of multiple motives adheres to the reality of the text more than a single, definitive motive ever could. Where in other texts the presentation of a variety of motives might work to cancel each other out, in Crime and Punishment they serve to produce a complex study of the mysteriousness of man.

Works Cited

  • Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Problem of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.
  • Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans & Intro. David McDuff. London: Penguin Classics, 1991.
  • Jones, John. Dostoyevsky. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
  • Jones, Malcolm.V. Dostoyevsky after Bakhtin: Readings in Dostoyevsky’s Fantastic Realism. Cambridge, Melbourne, New York, Port Chester, Sydney: Cambridge UP, 1990.
  • Peace, Richard. Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels. Cambridge, London, Melbourne, New York: Cambridge UP, 1971.
  • Scanlan, James.P. Dostoyevsky the Thinker. Ithaca, London: Cornell UP, 2002.

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