Nihilism in Crime and Punishment

An analysis of the 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment”, written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. Contains Spoilers.

Crime and Punishment is a novel written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1866. It is one of the most famous and influential novels in world literature. The novel follows the troubled student Raskolnikov living in St Petersburg, whois struck by guilt and qualms after he murders an old woman. In the novel, Dostoevsky explores many themes such as redemption, suffering, and human psychology. Another main theme of the novel is the concept of nihilism.

Crime and Punishment

Nihilism is the philosophical belief that existence has no meaning, purpose or value. Consequently, nihilism claims the human race as a whole is irrelevant. Nihilism rejects religion and all moral principles. It considers morals to be a creation of humans, thus they are artificial and can be interpreted in multiple ways. Thus no action is either right or wrong. As a result, crimes can be committed at whim.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky explores the destructive consequences of this philosophy, denouncing it in favour of ideas of human attachment, compassion, and emotion.

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, personifies the idea of nihilism. He believes himself to be above the law of morality and conscience and that he can make his own moral code. His nihilistic ideals are evident in his article, which the investigator Porfiry expains as follows: ”There is, if you recollect, a suggestion that there are certain persons who can… that is, not precisely are able to but have a perfect right to, commit breaches of morality and crimes, and that the law is not for them.” Porfiry understands the philosophy of Raskolnikov and what he has done, but cannot prove his guilt. Instead he plagues Raskolnikov by haunting his conscience.

Raskolnikov justifies his murder of the old woman by claiming her death would benefit society. The murder is supposed to prove the credibility of his nihilistic theory, but it rather disproves it. After the murder, Raskolnikov feel guilt, regret and fear, which he would not feel were his theory true.

Raskolnikov goes through an inner struggle after his murder. We follow his thoughts and feelings, and we see the contradiction between his thoughts and his actions. Showing Raskolnikov’s depraved mind is Dostoevsky’s way of commenting on the inconsistencies of nihilism.
The name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word for split/schism. This reflects Raskolnikov’s struggle between his nihilistic ideals and his yearning for human connection.

Sonia is a character that contrasts the idea of nihilism. She is the person who truly touches Raskolnikov’s heart. She brings him out of his depressed state and gives meaning to his life. She is also has a strong religious faith and believes in the idea of redemption. She sees through Raskolnikov’s inhumane actions and into the good-hearted but troubled human being on the inside. And she makes Raskolnikov believe there is still hope for him. Ultimately, the love between them saves them both from death and despair.

In a way, Crime and Punishment also reflects the the journey of Dostoevsky’s own personal belief. In his youth, he was a radical follower of the nihilistic movement. Eventually, Dostoevsky and the other members of the radical movement were arrested and imprisoned. They were almost executed by a firing squad, but were spared in the last moment and instead sentenced to prison labour camp in Siberia—much like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. During that time, his ideology shifted and he began to reject nihilism and embrace religion, dignity and fundamental goodness of common people. This experience has influenced many of Dostoevsky’s novels, including Crime and Punishment.

Crime and Punishment is a timeless novel. It is an exploration of a man’s inner struggle with morality, guilt and human connection. It rejects the idea of moral nihilism and the meaninglessness of life, embracing hope and human attachment. The novel argues that it is never too late for redemption; After the horrible things Raskolnikov did and all he went through, he still found peace and hope in the end. And it came not from his intellect, but from the mutual love between him and Sonia. Crime and Punishment teaches us that compassion and emotion is more important than intellect and ideology.