Articles Fyodor Dostoevsky 4


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2. We don’t know ourselves
In Crime and Punishment, we meet an impoverished intellectual, Rodion Raskolnikov. Though he’s a currently nobody, he’s fascinated by power and ruthlessness. He thinks of himself as a version of Napoleon: “leaders of men, such as Napoleon, were all without exception criminals, they broke the ancient laws of their people to make new ones that suited them better, and they never feared bloodshed.”

Raskolnikov is also desperate for money and so, with his philosophy of aristocratic superiority in mind, he decides to murder an old woman who is a small time pawn broker and money lender and steal her cash. He’s tormented by the mad injustice of the fact that this horrible, mean old character has drawers full of roubles while he – who is clever, energetic and profound – is starving. (He doesn’t spend much time thinking about options like taking a job as a waiter.) He breaks into her apartment and bludgeons her to death; and – surprised in the act by the woman’s pregnant half-sister – kills her too.
But it turns out he’s nothing like the cold-blooded, rational hero of his imagination. He is tormented by guilt and horror at what he has done. Eventually he turns himself over to the police in order to face the proper punishment for his crime.

We’re (probably) never going to do what Raskolnikov did. But we often share a troubling tendency with him: we think we know ourselves better than we actually do. Raskolnikov thinks he’s ruthless; actually he’s rather tender hearted. He thinks he won’t feel guilt; but he’s overwhelmed by remorse.
Part of our life’s journey is to engage in the tricky task of disentangling ourselves from what we think we’re like – in order to discover our true nature. Raskolnikov is especially fascinating because of the direction this self-discovery takes. His striking realisation is that he’s actually a much nicer person than he takes himself to be.
Whereas so many novelists delight in showing the sickly reality beneath a glamorous or enticing facade, Dostoevsky is embarked on a more curious but rewarding mission: he wants to reveal that beneath the so-called monster, there is very often a far more interesting tender-hearted character lurking: a nice but deluded, intelligent but frightened and panicked person.