Crime and Punishment, Fathers and Sons, We

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Brilliance surely comes with a price. Often a protagonist is, in his own right, an absolute genius, but for this gift of vision, he must remain isolated for eternity. Crime and Punishment (1886), by Fyodor Dostoevsky, depicts a poverty stricken young man who discovers a revolutionary theory of the mind of a criminal. Despite his psychological insight, Raskolnikov is alienated from society, and eventually forced to test his theory upon himself. Ivan Turgenev's Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons (1862), pioneers the anarchistic philosophy of nihilism, depending entirely on science and reason, but ends up falling passionately in love and then cast out, through death, from the rigidity of thought he held so dear. D-503, the main character of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1921), discovers an immense and rigid counterculture and drowns himself in it, only to surface without anyone with whom to relate. Each author suggests the irony of a prophetic mind being wasted and outcast among ordinary men.

Raskolnikov, a former student, forced to drop out of the university because he is unable to afford the tuition, is forced to work part-time with his friend Razumihin as a translator. Through this endeavor, Raskolnikov, or Rodya as his mother calls him, becomes well versed in the literature and existentialist philosophies of the time. Writing to a local newspaper, Rodya ventures to propose a superman theory similar to that of Nietzsche, made popular around the time Dostoevsky wrote the novel. "I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary)… and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word." This principle, that man is simply either ordinary or extraordinary, limited by rules and boundaries or allowed to transgress these barriers en route to his planned greater goal for humanity, gains Raskolnikov little profit or renown. Though the extraordinary man theory could easily be applied to Napoleon, as is done in Rodya's thesis, few of Dostoevsky's characters accept its revolutionary psychological approach to criminal behavior. Only the lead detective, Porfiry Petrovich, comes to accept Raskolnikov's approach. This parallel epiphany is ironic, indeed, because throughout the novel, Rodya and Porfiry are cast as foils. Even this revelation, though, occurs only after a test subject is provided: Raskolnikov, himself.

Rodya's deeply rooted depression and feeling of rejection from civilized society eventually lead him to test his marvelous experiment, to find out whether or not he, or any man, can know he is, or even really be, an extraordinary man. Raskolnikov chooses the ultimate transgression of moral and lawful boundaries: murder. To rid society of a disgusting, infected member, who merely preys on the less fortunate, Rodya plots to kill a local pawnbroker. "Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all." This plan, designed to establish himself as a superman by overstepping conventional boundaries, and carried out nearly flawlessly, demonstrates the calculated risk Rodya was willing to take to verify his place in society. Through dramatic irony, Raskolnikov's seemingly perfect plan goes astray, as his tormenting guilt eventually brings him to confess. Not necessarily disproving Nietzsche, Rodya's breakdown illustrates his own personal failure to reach the standards set in his own philosophy, those of being able to sustain dominance in spite of external disapproval and being able to continue on a constant, uninterrupted path to a better end, regardless of the obstacles necessary to destroy. Porfiry Petrovich's initial conversation with Raskolnikov on the uniqueness of the theory foreshadows Raskolnikov's demise and rapid decent back to the ordinary. Rodya ultimately admits his failure to himself by reflecting, "I didn't do the murder to gain wealth and power and to become a...
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