The Crime of Alienation
The massacre of 25 students at a high school in Colorado shook the nation as the most devastating and heartless crime of youth. No one questions that these murders were a crime to society, as no one questions that rape, assault, and theft are also crimes. Society has dictated and labeled these actions as crimes because they harm others. One must question, however, whether the crime lies more in what caused the action. Many works of literature have posed this idea, but it is thoroughly discussed in the novel Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Through the main character, Raskolnikov, the dictionary definition of crime and punishment become blurred. It becomes obvious that the murders he commits are not the crime, but instead are simply results of his actual crime-isolating himself from society. Raskolnikov’s true crime is that he completely alienates himself from authority, love, and all associations, and his punishment is that he becomes alienated even more and is unable to reenter society. This complete isolation prevents the individualism, and liberty of thought, that Raskolnikov strives for.
Viewing Raskolnikov’s actions from society’s perspectives, it appears that his crime was killing Alyona Ivanovna and Lizaveta Ivanovna. What is more important to understand though, is how he arrived at this stage. What process led him to the point of killing a moneylender and her sister? The answer can be found in his alienation from the rest of the world. Razumikhin, during a discussion with Raskolnikov, states that the Socialists’ view on crime is that it is “‘a protest against the unnatural structure of society’” (Dostoevsky 245). Society is structured so that everyone conforms to the wishes of the greater good. By isolating himself, Raskolnikov puts himself above society and existing apart from society, because he believed the current structure of society to be unnatural. He does not wish to wait for the “common weal” and wants to have his own life (Dostoevsky 264). So, by removing himself from society it enabled him to question “‘whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man, whether I was capable of stepping over the barriers or not’” (Dostoevsky 402). Is this in itself a crime? No, but his crime comes in that his isolation is so severe that he becomes self involved, and comes to see himself as an “extraordinary” man with certain rights and obligations. He forms a theory that there are two types of people:
A lower (of ordinary people), that is, into material serving only for the reproduction of its own kind, and into people properly speaking, that is, those who have the gift or talent of saying something new in their sphere. (Dostoevsky 250)
This second group is given special rights to do what they must in order to make their new ideas apparent, which includes the right to kill those who get in the way. These thoughts of course lead Raskolnikov to test his theory by killing the moneylender and her sister. However, as mentioned before, the killing is not the crime, but instead the fact that he alienates himself from society prevents him from obtaining the liberty of thought, that he tries to obtain through the development of his theory. According to John Mill, author of On Liberty, a person is free to develop individual thought and opinions, and in fact is encouraged to, but only as long as it does not harm others. “No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them” (Mill 74). Raskolnikov’s isolation, his crime, does not allow him to see the implications of his actions.
As discussed before, the resulting action of Raskolnikov’s crime was the murders. Even Raskolnikov admits that “‘the old woman was only a symptom of my illness I wanted to overstep all restrictions as quickly as possible I killed not a human being but a principle’” (Dostoevsky 263-264). As he said, the murders were only a “symptom” of his isolation-isolation that led him to develop the idea that he was superior to common humanity. He does not see the murders as his crime and when Dunya speaks to him of his supposed crime, Raskolnikov asks: “‘Crime? What crime? Killing a foul, noxious louse, that old moneylender, no good to anybody, who sucked the life-blood of the poor, so vile that killing her out to bring absolution for forty sins-was that a crime?’” (Dostoevsky 498). The negative results of his isolation are that he feels no remorse for his actions, and is so involved in himself that all he can see is the death of his principle, or theory. Since he is unable to see the harm he has caused, and because his isolation is the cause of the harm, his theory dies. His theory was unable to prosper because it in fact did the very thing that Raskolnikov sees society doing-”imposing their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others,” (Mill 15). His alienation caused him to neglect the cares of society in carrying out his theory. He lost sight of a key part of the definition of individuality and freedom of thought, that “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs,” (Mill 14). He did just this, and this is why his individualism fails, and the cause of this is his extreme alienation from the world and everyone in it.
Raskolnikov’s isolation, which causes harm to others, is also reflected through the character Marmeladov. As Raskolnikov isolates himself from society, so does Marmeladov from his family and work. He drowns himself in alcohol and wanders around aimlessly with “nobody else, no other place, to turn to!” (Dostoevsky 12). The two characters are similar in this respect, but some would argue that they are also very different, because Marmeladov does not kill as Raskolnikov does. Yet, Marmeladov is in fact the same as Raskolnikov because he does harm others in trying to be an individual and by alienating himself. He harms his family, who must resort to having Sonya become a prostitute to keep the family alive. Had he kept his job and supported the family, it is possible that Katerina Ivanovna would not have died of consumption at the end of the novel. Raskolnikov also indirectly harmed his family by isolating himself, and it could be argued that his isolation and punishment caused the death of his mother at the end of the novel. Marmeladov’s character serves as another example of the destructive force of alienation.
Marmeladov does not survive his isolation and dies in a state of drunken stupor. However, Raskolnikov barely survives his self-inflicted isolation, but finds that his punishment is that he becomes even farther isolated and is unable to reenter society. He is forced to suffer in solitude because the murders originated from solitude. Soon after the murders are committed the full weight of his crime is upon him and his punishment begins:
He had never in his life before experienced so strange and desolating a feeling, and the most painful thing about it was that it was a feeling, an immediate sensation, and not knowledge or intellectual understanding. (Dostoevsky 98)
This isolation that Raskolnikov feels after the murder is different from his original isolation because he has no control over this solitude-it is his punishment. The interesting and “strange” part of this isolation for him is that it is a feeling, and it causes him to suffer, while his previous alienation was a decision based on intellectual reasoning. His punishment is not necessarily accompanied by guilt, but he does suffer, and this prevents him from connecting with anyone. He can not even stand to be around his family or talk to them. He tells his mother that “there will be plenty of time for us to talk to our hearts’ content,” and yet he realizes that “now he could never talk at all, to anybody” (Dostoevsky 220). He becomes unable to reconnect with anyone or anything related to society. His punishment fits the crime.
His punishment restricts his ability to communicate with people, and thus his salvation comes in his confession of the murders and most importantly, the recognition of his having no other place to go. He has to realize the crime of his initial alienation and he accomplishes this through Sonya, who serves as the redemptive figure in the novel. The ideas of individualism and isolation can be seen to be similar, but in reality alienation serves to prevent true individualism and liberty of thought. Thus, alienation is the actual crime, and inhibitor of the freedom that Raskolnikov seeks. John Stuart Mill would say that individualism is necessary to the extent that it would not cause harm to others (Mill 53-59). Raskolnikov oversteps this line and the result is the murder of two people. The roles of crime and punishment comment a lot about the relationship between society and the individual. If the crime and punishment in this novel center around alienation from society, and the salvation comes in reentering society, then it can be seen that ultimately society rules over the individual. After all, the “gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration” can only come about, according to Dostoevsky, by conforming and living among society once again (Dostoevsky 527).