Raskolnikov's Napoleonic Mare: Redemption in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

May 2008
Why Raskolnikov begins to view himself as a Napoleonic figure is clearly one of the central pivots of the story and it is around this axis which revolve a moral dilemna whose satisfactory resolution alone can only lead to that redemption that we find in the novel's final pages.

To recap on this idea's first appearance; it was first spelt out in his published article which the dogged detective Porfiry has uncovered as evidence during the investigation. In it, Raskolnikov claims there are instances where certain crimes are admissable, if not in actual law, then by a sort of evolutionary law. According to his theory 'higher types' are permitted to commit the most revolting crimes (in distinction to the ordinary mass of mankind) if the net benefit of that action were to increase the greater good. He views Napoleon as exemplary in this regard (though he never expands fully on this justification) and it is this idea that forms the nucleus, or gives impetus rather, to his eventual plans to murder the old pawnbroker. This act will be justifiable according to this 'higher morality' as it's outcome will deprive the world of a useless and cruel old woman who seemingly exploits all around her while providing the murderer (Raskolnikov) with her 3,000 roubles in savings from which he can launch his career; his crushing poverty otherwise forcing him out of university and into a humdrum occupation where his great talents (in his own estimation of course) will be wasted.

So, this is the idea which he has fixated on and increasingly consumes all his attention to the detriment of all else - he abandons his paid teaching positions, drops out of his classes and sunders all contact with the few friends that he has in university, effectively shutting himself out of all society.

Zosimov, the doctor friend of Razumikhin takes a curious interest in many of Raskolnikov's habits during and after his delirium and develops suspicions that his strange behaviour may be related somehow to the recent murders. It is an interesting theme to look at - was Raskalnikov insane when he carried out the deed? Zosimov himself used the word 'monomania' to describe his condition to Dounya and his mother though he could make no speculation on what precisely those ideas were which had exerted such a grip on his thoughts. What is the relationship betwen his own crushing pervasive poverty and this imputed insanity (if indeed we can call it that)? Is Dostoevsky's critique more levelled at the social conditions found in St. Peterburg or at Raskolnikov's weaknesss of mind and character that would allow him to rationalise and justify a crime of this nature?

It seems to me all of the characters are presented with their own unique set of dilemnas and some (such as Sonya or Katerina) appear to be living lives infinitely more oppressed than Raskolnikov yet their responses to these circumstances never reach the extremes that his do. Most of the characters are oppressed by some fateful cosh or other hammering at them incessantly - yet they differ from Raskolnikov in the choices they take to deal with them - or do they? Is Sveritigailov an aristocratic version of Raskolnikov - did he in fact poison his wife in order to secure his own wished for future with Dounya? Why for instance doesn't the pitiful drunkard Malemedov choose a radical course of action (such as murder and thievery) to extricate himself and his family from their appalling poverty? In truth there are so many themes intertwined here - of the variability of human nature, of disposition, of religious faith, of moral codes, questions concerning the very ordering of society (Luzhin's roommate; the Fourierist who wishes to establish a commune in St. Petersburg) - it is difficult to know where to begin but one fruitful point of immersion (and departure) would be Raskolnikov's dream of the beaten mare.

First of all I think we can discount the suggestion that the mare represents Elisabeth or Lizaveta, the half-sister of the old pawnbroker. This interpretation to me would be inconsistent with what had hitherto transpired in the story up to this point and wouldn't in fact make any sense in terms of where Raskolnikov's thoughts at that time lay. Whereas he may have some sympathies with Lizaveta on account of the second hand stories he has heard about her being beaten continually by her sister it would not make any psychological sense if she became the sole focus of his concerns to the extent that he has a particularly vivid dream about her - that she has become the object of all his worries, so to speak. In addition to which he doesn't hesitate to raise the axe down on her head when she has inadvertently stumbled upon the scene of the crime and his motivations for killing the pawnbroker are certainly not to put an end to Lizaveta's suffering at her hands. It is far more likely that the long-suffering mare was intended as a composite image drawn mainly to represent his sister Dounya but including also in it's elements other women of whom he only had up till this point a brief acquaintance.

There are three main scenes which precede the dream; the first is the meeting with Marmeladov in the tavern where he hears how the drunkard's only daughter has been forced to take the yellow card (ie go into prostitution) in order to support the family which he is incapable of doing, the second is the receipt of the long awaited letter from his mother where he learns his sister, who having been dismissed as governess under suspicion of having an affair with her employer Svidrigailov, is subsequently exonerated, and then seemingly rescued from penury by a marriage proposal from the relatively wealthy Luzhin which Raskolnikov immediately realises is an act of self-sacrifice on her part to secure his own (ie her brother's) financial future - and this is what galls him particularly that day; and thirdly there is the strange episode in the park where he defends a witless and dishevelled young girl from the advances of an upper class sexual predator whom he significantly refers to as a "Svidrigailov" - a word which in Russian also has connotations of being 'base' and 'loathsome'.

So here you have in essence the main concerns of Raskolnikov just prior to the fateful dream which appears to lay bare the inner workings of his conscience. As the child in the dream he is helpless to prevent the savage and cruel murder of the innocent mare at the hands of the perverse Milotka. He tugs at his father's coat pleading with him to do something and all the time crying and being tormented by the idea that everyone in the crowd is just standing by and allowing it all to happen, some actuallly laughing and goading the owner on to whip her ever more severely. "It's my property, I can do with her as I wish", Milotka keeps repeating as he encourages ever more people to hop aboard the already full cart which the mare is desperately struggling to heave. Finally, with the horse literally on it's last legs incapable of pulling any more weight he steps out of the carriage and bludgeons it to death with a crowbar - to which the young Raskolnikov bolts forth and begins to pummel Milotka helplessly with his fists until he is dragged away by his father tears streaming from his eyes, his mind devastated by the wanton cruelty witnessed.

Here then has to be the real meaning of the dream - his sister has wilfully allowed herself to become the property of Luzhin in order that funds may be released to procure a future for her brother. He is haunted by this ability of hers, which her pride would never allow her to do on her account, to sacrifice her own happiness for his advancement alone and also to placate her mother's wishes that Raskolnikov 'the first born' should be no longer presented with any obstacles to realise his talents. She is in effect selling herself into Luzhin's bondage so that her own family be released from their crushing poverty - she it is who is pulling the heavy load, who is willingly condemning herself to a life of suffering in a loveless marriage for his sake and he can do nothing about it but stand by helplessly like the child in his dream. This same theme was reinforced earlier in the day by his meeting with Marmeladov; it is Sonya this time who is the mare expected to bear the overlarge burden which will eventually and inevitably crush her - this provokes the strongest of responses in Raskolnikov who having left the Ivanovna's apartment calls Marmeledov a Villain thriceover; he, who having had the opportunity once being offered his new job now lapses back into his alcoholism under the assurance that Sonya can still prostitute herself for the family's welfare. This disgusts him beyond measure;

"Three cheers for Sonya! They've hit a rich seam there. And they're making the most of it, my, how they're making the most of it. And now they've grown used to it. They've shed a few tears, and are used to it. Man can get used to anything, the villain!"

Now in the park not long after he has left Marmeladov to the fury of Katherina he encounters the young girl being preyed upon by this "Svridigailov" who evidently reminds him of the vulnerability of his sister's position as governess. He intervenes in this scene in the park calling over a policeman, outlining all it's particulars and even emptying his pockets so a taxi may be called to take her home - it's almost though by assisting her in her distress he is unconsciously assuaging his guilt over his inability to render similar assistance to his own sister. Now we have all the elements that contribute to the powerful current of emotions which are released in the dream - the only way in which he can reverse the fate of the helpless mare, the only way in which he can prevent it being bludgeoned to death (ie to save his sister and mother from the fate which they are preparing for themselves) is for he himself to rapidly attain financial self-sufficiency and the only manner in which he can do that is to carry out the dastardly deed he has previously
only half dreamt of.

It is almost as if the entire system of rationalisations which he has committed to paper in the form of his article justifying certain crimes if they are carried out by "Napoleon's" has been erected solely to enable him to carry himself over this threshold - and this is what occasions that "split" which the literary critic Simmons has been talking of; wherein Raskolnikov's instinctive correct moral universe (which is at base Orthodox Christian like Dostoevsky's himself) has been compromised for the sake of an artificial ideology (rationalistic, utilitarian but ultimately nihilistic) which allows him to commit this terrible deed.

The new "Western" ideas have enabled him to construct (to him at least) a convincing rationale for a murder which promises to release him from the source of all his torment - his family's willingness to prostitute their own lives for his sake. These "new ideas" have also provided the child in the dream (which at bottom is Raskolnokov's restless and yearning unconscious desire) with a previously unavailable weapon - one with the ability to vanguish the dread mare-killer, his tormentor Milotka. I also think this is the reason why he has such a strong 'spiritual bond' with Sonya and why he felt it inevitable that it was to her, and her alone, that he was to make his confession.

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