The True Meaning of Crime and Punishment
“Am I a trembling wretch, or do I have the right?”
In his book on Dostoevsky, Vikenty Veresaev points out (after Merzhkovsky) how the obvious idea of Crime and Punishment—that the criminal is tormented by pangs of conscience for committing his crime—is actually wrong, at least in the case of Raskolnikov:1
In order to prove to himself that he “dares,” Raskolnikov kills the old pawnbroker woman. “I didn’t kill a person, I killed a principle… I didn’t kill in order to gain the means and power to become a benefactor of humanity. Nonsense! I simply killed; I killed for myself, for myself alone… I had to find out then, and find out quickly, am I a louse, like everyone else, or a man? Could I transgress or not? Would I have the courage to bend down and seize it or not? Am I a trembling wretch, or do I have the right?”
Turns out—a trembling wretch. Raskolnikov did not dare manifest his “independent desire” in full. He goes on to reveal his own crime, he childishly taunts Zamyotov and Porfiry, he throws webs on himself and gets hopelessly entangled in them. With contempt and self-loathing he goes to confess and give himself up, and sets off to the penal colony.
That Raskolnikov does not feel any remorse, and that it is not at all his pangs of conscience that force him to confess his crime has been shown superbly by Merzhkovsky. As I reread Crime and Punishment, I am perplexed: how could I have previously read the same thing and understood something else entirely, how could I see in the novel the worn-out “idea” that a crime awakens conscience in a human being and that pangs of conscience are a criminal’s highest punishment?
“‘I’m going to hand myself in. But I don’t know why I am going to hand myself in,’ said Raskolnikov. ‘Crime? What crime?’ he cried out in a sudden rage. ‘I’m not thinking about it, and I’m not thinking about wiping it away! Only now do I see the full absurdity of my cowardice, only now, after I have decided to go through with this unnecessary shame! I’m doing it simply because of my baseness and mediocrity!’”
And with a devil’s sneer he thinks: “I wonder, in the next fifteen–twenty years, is my soul really going to give in to such a point that I will meekly whimper before others, calling myself a wretch by any other word?… By what process can this be brought about? And why, why would one live after that?”
And now at the penal colony, “he harshly condemned himself, and his embittered conscience found no particularly terrible guilt in his past, except for a simple blunder… If only fate had sent him repentance—burning, heart-rending repentance, the agony of which would give one visions of the noose and the whirlpool. Oh, he would have welcomed it! Tears and agonies—that, after all, is also life. But he did not repent of his crime… He accepted one thing only to be his crime: that he could not bear it and confessed his guilt.”
What Raskolnikov experiences is not the pangs of conscience for having committed a terrible crime, but the awful realization that his force of will is no match for the magnitude of his desire—i.e. the realization that he is weak, that he is a coward, that he is “a trembling wretch”—the very object of his contempt. The result is not a burning repentance, but a burning self-loathing. The mismatch between his visions of grandeur and actual reality is the cause of his terrible anguish.
Anyone with any serious ambition is sure to run into a similar mismatch, when their desire stretches beyond their willpower and their abilities. The further their desire runs ahead, the greater their pain will be if reality fails to catch up. Raskolnikov compared himself to Napoleon, but discovered that he was not. A young entrepreneur has visions of creating the next Apple—but what will happen if he discovers that he’s not Steve Jobs?
Take Sahil Lavigna. In 2011, he launched the e-commerce platform Gumroad. An initial surge of interest filled his head with grand ideas of building a billion-dollar company. He left his job at Pinterest, raised capital and set out to build his “life’s work.” But the interest didn’t materialize into growth, or rather, not into the kind of growth he wanted. The result was neither an outright failure, nor a massive success: Gumroad turned out to be a small, steadily growing business. A modest success, however, did little to sate the founder’s big ambitions. Lavignia was tormented by the gap between where he was and where he expected to be. The gap was so great that, in his own words, he spent years thinking himself a failure. At one point he even wanted to shut the platform down, but felt terrible about abandoning the creators who depended on it. His way out was to subdue his ego by stopping “pretending to be some sort of product visionary” who was “trying to build a billion-dollar company,” and just focus “on making Gumroad better and better for … existing creators.”
Raskolinov’s “crime” is not the killing of the old pawnbroker woman, but the act of attaching his happiness to material outcomes that are outside of his control and his sense of self-worth to a fantastical notion of his abilities that he did nothing to earn. His punishment is not the penal colony, but the unbearable self-loathing he experiences when he realizes just how false his notions of himself are and that the money he stole is useless because it can do nothing to change that. The punishment is delivered not by his conscience, but by his ego.
Vikenty Veresaev, Живая жизнь, Человек проклят: О Достоевском (Volume I of The Living Life series, Man Is Cursed: On Dostoevsky), 1909, chapter 5. Translation mine.