A very brief background of Crime and Punishment is in order before I begin my discourse. The novel was written in the late 1860’s. The main characters are lower middle class, on the brink of poverty, and most show the Russian affection for drink. A young, schooled Russian idealist named Rodion Raskolnikov has been expelled from university and is broke. He contemplates committing the perfect crime to alleviate him from his current downtrodden status. His ‘perfect’ crime is to rob and murder the local pawnbroker at a time when he knows she will be alone in the shop. He does not consider his act a crime for two main reasons. One, the woman he plans to kill is good for nothing anyway, and does not contribute to society. Two, he will distribute the stolen goods among the needy, including his mother and sister, and of course himself. He not only kills the pawnbroker, but also her sister who stumbled upon the attack. He is not caught, and now must struggle with the guilt of his actions.
The passage in the textbook is a conversation between Raskolnikov, his university buddy, Razumikhin, and Porifiry, the investigator assigned to the murder case. Porifiry is questioning Raskolnikov (Rodya) about an article he wrote and published on crime. Rodya is now defending his position that humanity is divided into two groups; the ordinary and the extraordinary. Ordinary people are put on this earth or to reproduce their own kind and to obey, it is their destiny. Extraordinary people, the thinkers and doers, find it necessary to destroy what exists (commit crimes) in the pursuit of their ideas that are for the good of humanity. Every new discovery and new law voids an existing one. “But if it is necessary for one of them, for the fulfillment of his ideas, to march over corpses, or wade through blood, then in my opinion he may in all conscience authorize himself to wade through blood-in proportion, however to his idea and the degree of its importance-mark that”. These people stand outside of moral law. This thinking reflects the Social Darwinism movement of that time.
Rodya reasoned that Newton would have had the right to kill people who stood in his way of his discoveries. He backed up this thesis by referencing Napoleon and the blood shed in the wake of his advancement. He further states that this theory goes back to ancient times. He also cautions there is no need to worry, because most of the extraordinary people who have this ability do not recognize it. This theory touches upon romanticism, and the romantic hero.
Porifiry asked Rodya what happens when ordinary people, in thinking, or believing they are extraordinary commit crimes. Rodya tells him there is nothing to worry about because, being conservative, law abiding citizens, they will punish their own. “And they impose on themselves various public penances besides-the result is beautifully edifying, and in short, you have nothing to worry aboutThis is a law of nature.” He said this law of nature is unknown at the present, it is mysterious. This could be a symbolic way of saying the Truth has not yet been uncovered.Dostoevsky is leaving the gate open for a discussion of faith, hinting that human reason may not be adequate, that there is a limit to human reason.
In theory, his proposition sounded reasonable. When it was carried out through Rodya, it failed. This failing was by man’s own conscience. Reason standing alone does not always produce moral or ethically correct solutions. Pure rationality, as practiced by the realists of the period may not be enough. These morals are not found in the law of nature, but in a higher external force.