May 1, 2013
The Ignorance of Society
Nothing is more frightening than a society’s ignorance. In Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Rodion Raskolnikov commits an act of murder. Not one of the supplementary characters seems to suspect Rodion, though hints are presented throughout the novel. Dostoevsky clearly presents ignorance in its most frightening way as Rodion’s act continues to go unpunished, even though he, himself basically tells what he has done to anyone who will listen. The other characters simply write it off as insanity. The book explores how society fails to catch the true culprit, because of its ignorance.
In part one of the novel Rodion is presented as a man with many different emotions and qualities. He is not only a recluse, but also, he believes that he is superior to everyone. He is a man that is hindered by his morality. Unlike most feelings of morality his are presented with the idea that it is his duty and honor to fix the world thus making it a better place. Because of this rationalization he justifies the act of killing the pawnbroker and her daughter for he believes that society will be better without them. Rodion believes she is a woman of illegal acts and filthiness; therefore the world would be better without her. The underlying conflict though is that Rodion’s morality has him feel guilt as well. This causes him to questions his actions throughout the plot and to fall ill, after the act of murder. As his “illness” intensifies he begins to mumble and yell out, feeling extremely guilty and many times allowing this reader to believe he will turn himself in. This “illness” could ultimately lead to his capture.
Another quality of Rodion is his aptitude. He is not only a man of great intelligence, but also a man of great insight. It seems to the reader that his intelligence may in fact be his downfall. Even though he is a man of great intelligence, this itself has seemed to render him throughout his life. Though Rodion has no job and is poor he does not allow anyone to give him money and whenever he has the least amount of money he always seems to give it away. He is impulsive, which in turn also leads to many bad decisions throughout the novel. After his impulsive act of killing the pawnbroker, he took her money and has not used it out of guilt; this is ironic for half the reason he killed her was to steal all her money. Because of his impulsive attitude and feeling of superiority he has few friends, cannot handle social situations, and considers everything and everyone inferior.
From the beginning the reader can perceive the amount of dramatic irony present in the novel. Many times Rodion comments on murder and how it can be accepted in certain cases, but none of the other characters know about these thoughts. “Good God…can it be, can it be, that I will really take an axe, that I will strike her, on the head, split her skull open…that I will strike her skull open…that I will tread in the sticky warm blood, break the lock, steal and tremble; hide, al spattered in the blood…with the axe” (Dostoevsky 60). Thoughts like this follow Rodion throughout his journey and some he even discusses with some of his friends: Zossimov and Razumikhin, and his family: Adovtia (his sister) and his mother. Not once do they question or worry about these thoughts, they simply write them off as unimportant; but these thoughts are the key to catching Rodion at his act. Many times he hints at the murder he has committed. When he falls ill from guilt after the crime, all his friends believe he is truly ill. They do not connect this occurrence with the occurrence of the murder and do not listen to the random words his screams during his illness. These words ironically reveal what he has done, but no one but the reader distinguishes this. His doctor Zossimov watches him carefully, feeding him and taking care of him but never picks up on the validity of the words that Rodion utters. Because of this his crime go unpunished and the ignorance continues.
“The same old woman…who you were talking about in the police office, you remember, when I fainted, well do you understand now?” (Dostoevsky 157). When Rodion has this conversation with Zametov, Zametov believes he has gone mad. He never puts both ideas together that as soon as the murder happened Rodion fell ill. Even as Rodion deliberately says this, Zametov still does not understand. Many other conversations as this one happen between Rodion and his companions, and like this one they never catch what he is revealing to them. They are so focused on getting him “better” that the clear clues slip right by them. As the plot continues, Rodion’s guilt beings to eat away at his sanity causing him to randomly mumble and hallucinate. “At last red circles flashed before his eyes, the houses seemed to be moving, the passerby, the canal banks, the carriages all danced before his eyes” (Dostoevsky 163). As Rodion remorse gets worse so does his mind. He constantly hallucinates and at times cannot tell fantasy from reality. The causes the reader to question how long the ignorance will continue before he is suspected.
What also allows the reader to see Rodion’s insanity is his extended view of Darwinism. “The only difference is that I don’t contend that extraordinary people are always bound to commit breaches of morals, as you call it. In fact, I doubt whether such an argument could be published. I simply hinted that an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right…that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity)…Newton would have had the right, would in fact have been duty bound…to eliminate a dozen or hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of the humanity” (Dostoevsky 247). This justification or theory tends to remind the reader about many of the leaders of genocide in history. Each leader that committed genocide in history claimed that what they were doing was out of justification to better the society. This was Hitler’s rationalization for the holocaust and many other fascists and extremists have used this explanation as well. What is frightening and inconceivable is that none of Rodion’s friends catch on to the disturbing idea he is proposing. They instead claim it is a little strange, wondering why Rodion has though of this but in the end laughing it off as if it doesn’t matter.
As a reader this passage is distressing, because Rodion seems like a radical. Like most extremists in history they truly believed they were doing the will of God and were making the world a better place. “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: ‘by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord” (Adolf Hitler). This was Hitler’s justification to massacre the Jews and Rodion’s theory is not very far off. The only difference is Rodion points, not to a specific religion but to all people that are inferior. Although he has not directly taken action his theory is still unnerving.
Rodion’s theory, in a sense, is the extreme idea of the survival of the fittest. According to Charles Darwin only the strongest in society will survive. “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment” (Darwin). This theory states that when an environment changes there will be ones that adapt to survive and the others that die out. Roidon’s theory is to take the survival of the fittest into his own hands. In modern day society humans have stopped “survival of the fittest”. The installments of modern day medicine, technology, home centers, and many other appliances have changed the course of evolution. Survival of the fittest has changed and Rodion is questioning this idea. He is asking whether it is right to let the weak and less intelligent continue to live because they can. In his belief it is a superior person’s right to exterminate anyone who is less than him as long as there is a justification for it. He is taking theory into action. As a reader this thought is appalling, but is some ways fascinating. It is interesting to imagine what the world would be today if these modern day appliances did not exist and survival of the fittest still played a part in every day life. Would this society be more advanced with only people of great intelligence or would chaos exist as people justified any act of murder on this theory. What is even more atrocious though is that none of Rodion’s companions connect these ideas and discover the truth.
Modern day societies are told that everyone is equal, knowledge is power, and ignorance is bliss. This novel explores all aspects of this and questions the reality of them. According to Rodion everyone is not truly equal. He, in fact, believes he is superior to everyone. He believes that not everyone is equal and even takes it a step further to say certain people should not live because they simply can. His justification for committing the murder was that he had the right to kill them because he was doing the world a favor. His paper further explains how people of high intelligence should not have to follow laws and that in certain situations it should be encouraged that these laws be broken. He truly believes that if, in order for a superior being to discover something new, he must commit murder, than in that situation the act is not only justified, but also, necessary.
Knowledge is power, but ignorance is also bliss. If a person is not aware of something then they will not be able to worry about it, but in the end, not knowing could also hurt them. Rodion’s friends do not know the aspect of his crime and the frightful part of his character. Right now, this ignorance is bliss for they do not understand the horrific aspects of their companion. Ignorance keeps things simple, making life easier, but sooner or later, the blissfulness disappears, and society is hindered by not knowing the truth. By not understanding all the aspects of Rodion’s character the supplementary characters are left blissfully ignorant but at the same time are troubled by not catching the true culprit and by Rodion still being “ill”. Ignorance is only temporarily bliss; it would be better for the character’s to understand, like the reader, the full aspect of who their companion is and what he has done.
If they knew they would be able to solve this mystery of the murder and also understand who Rodion has become. Instead they are living under the façade of their friend and turning a blind eye to all the images of reality. The reader may question whether they are ignorant or choosing to be ignorant, but the truth is always eventually discovered. Once the blissfulness is no longer felt and the character’s can no longer ignore the truth they will have to accept the fact that their friend is a murderer. By learning this, life will no longer be simple, but they will be more knowledgeable and powerful. This novel truly explores the ignorance of society and sends a warning to the reader showing how ignorance can be dangerous. It shows the reader every aspect of ignorance and knowledge allowing the reader to decide which he would choose: to stay in the dark, like the supplementary characters and that society, or to seek out knowledge and the truth therefore changing his view of life forever.
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“Charles Darwin Quotes – Quotations from the famous naturalist.” Charles Darwin – Complete works of Charles Darwin, Biography, Quotes. webmaster, n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2013. <http://www.darwin-literature.com/l_quotes.html>.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Print.