Survival of the Fittest within Crime and Punishment
Morality is often said to be the difference between man and his surroundings. Humans are one of the few organisms that feel a need to continuously help those within their species, even if it defies the natural route of nature. However, this specifically contradicts the natural instinct of survival. Fyodor Dostoevsky shows this contradiction and the battle between rationale and emotion along with their roles in a poor society through Darwin’s survival of the fittest as his protagonist endures this internal struggle with morality in the classic novel Crime and Punishment.
The internal struggle between the instincts of survival and morality define the protagonist of this Russian classic. Rodion Raskolnikov, or Rodia, acts rationally and intelligently which sets him apart from those around him. He is naturally smarter then others and understands his spot within the society that surrounds him. Living in the lower end of Russian society, many suffer, hunger, thirst, or die, it is a part of life that is accepted. Rodia’s internal struggle manifests in this place, his understanding of the natural way of life in which some die or suffer while others live is contradicted by his inept desire to help despite it being futile.
Rodia’s conflicting desires is one of the prevalent themes found within Dostoevsky’s novel. These internal conflicts deal with Darwinism and how it is found in todays society. Charles Darwin was a scientist who is accredited with the discovery of the theory of evolution. In his theory, Darwin defines the notion of natural selection, also sometimes referred to as survival of the fittest. This is applied in nature, it describes the way in which a species advances. When an animal is born with some kind of defect, or if it is unable to change to the environment around it then it dies. Only those that are able to change or are able to survive within their environment are able to reproduce and make more children, hopefully passing these genes that are important for the species’ survival, thus survival of the fittest. Over time these changes occur and theoretically the species evolves (Willus.com). This is seen with all organisms including humans. According to this, mankind should be the fittest organism of the evolutionary progression. As a follower of Darwin, Dostoevsky incorporated these ideas and placed this theory in the realm of Rodia within his society. Somewhere along the evolutionary path humans developed morality, which distinguishes the species. However, is this a survival trait? Dostoevsky analyzes this with the lower class, intelligent but struggling Rodia.
The first portion of the book is made up of several key moments in which Rodia is left with a decision. Whether to help someone who needs help, because they need money and are suffering, or to let them fend for themselves and take care of himself. Rodia is torn between this decision. For the purpose of survival Rodia shouldn’t help others, especially because there is no obligation to. However, Rodia continuously does; allowing his morale conscience to overtake that of survival. This struggle however is so strong that despite his seemingly altruistic actions he remains infuriated at his sympathies finding himself suffering because of it. Any money or charity given away means less for him and thus continues his own suffering.
The truly peculiar thing about Rodia is his division. Does it make him a good person, a bad one, or something different all together? His good gestures are that of a good man and as the protagonist the audience is forced to feel for him as he does these good deeds. However, he hates himself for it after the gesture is done. This is seen in when Rodia tries to help the young drunk girl in the street. Rodia is conflicted with these polar opposites. He understands that this is a regular conundrum and that girls such as this one constantly suffer in his society and that there is nothing he can do to influence a change in that. However, he also feels empathy, he sees the young drunk as the frightened girl that she is and feels compelled to help. In the end, as expected, he helps the girl and protects her but still walks away bitter and feeling as if he has not created an impact. Rodia not only lives at polar ends of this evolutionary and morality spectrum but he lives both to the fullest. He is obviously smarter then most and lives most of his life with rationale justification, however, even on the other end of the spectrum with morality Rodia does not do the bare minimum but consistently helps as much as possible. Thus Dostoevsky is able to illustrate the two realms of this human decision. Even the other characters within this work voice this opinion, “I’ve known Rodion for a year and a half: sullen, gloomy, arrogant, proud; recently (and maybe much earlier) insecure and hypochondriac. Magnanimous and kind. Doesn’t like voicing his feelings, and would rather do something cruel than speak his heart out in words. At times, however, he’s not hypochondriac at all, but just inhumanly cold and callous, as if there really were two opposite characters in him, changing places with each other” (Dostoevsky, 215). However, when looking at this in terms of Darwinism which of these decision good? Which is the right one? And how does Dostoevsky want the audience to see his split protagonist? When helping these people out the audience looks at the good natured side of Rodia. They see compassion, empathy, and generosity, all traits of a lovable protagonist. In day to day life this kind of person would be respected and considered better then most for their good qualities. These are the people appreciated most within a society as kind hearted and caring and yet Rodia rejects it and resents himself for it. According to Darwinism, his rejection of this is what makes him the “fittest”, theoretically it should be what makes him better then most. His independence is what helps him survive. This is what people should be like to continue evolution and make people continuously better.
If we look at Rodia’s independence as a unique survival skill, than that means that empathy is the opposite, and thus hurtful to himself and the people that act in such a way. If animals were to sacrifice themselves to help those weaker in the pack they would all die. The strong would sacrifice themselves and the weak would eventually find themselves on their own and die. Natural selection is thrown out in a society where no one can die because they are all protected. Furthermore, they are all reproducing only adding to this cyclical mess. Rodia symbolizes this division. His humanity hinders him despite his full understanding of its uselessness and he fails to escape it.
Rodia’s empathetic division is furthermore symbolic of our own society. Our society has police, fire fighters, hospitals, homeless shelters, therapy, and so many more institutions whose sole purpose is to help people live better, stronger, and longer despite any disadvantages they may have. These act as safety nets which don’t allow the weak to fall through. No natural selection can occur if everyone is equally fit. Thus we poison ourselves with more problems such as caring for the old, protecting the weak, and over population. Rodia sees these problems within his society and still tries to help those weak ones because he can’t bare not to. He adds to society’s problems and his own because of his empathy. This is further shown by the lack of money he has later on because of this.
Rodia’s intelligence and independence create a dangerous “superman” complex within him. His ability to see the ignorance of society and the faults and irrational actions of others helps create the notion that he is simply better than others. Although this seems more arrogance than anything else it grows dangerous when taken too literally. This is what we see with Rodia though, before the story even starts it is said that Rodia wrote an article on the idea of some people simply being better than the rest and thus above the law because they are one of the “extraordinary”. Rodia describes this, with a hinted notion that he believes he is one of these people, when talking to the police as he says, “I merely suggested that an ‘estraordinary’ man has the right…that is, not an official right, but his own right, to allow his conscience to…step over certain obstacles and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea” “calls for it” (Dostoevsky, 259-261). This belief is okay in the realm of Darwin’s survival if it contributes to his continued existence, however, it is his fatal flaw. According to Darwin, each organism must believe that it is the most important in order to continue surviving however this isn’t the moral thing to do in a human society. In fact, this is frowned upon as selfish or arrogant.
If Rodia truly believes he is the greatest human then it may be that his “kindness” doesn’t come from a inherent place of community service but rather an obligation or even pity as he looks down on the moral world. This changes the view with which we look at Rodia. His division is part of this superman complex which is still okay as it only causes his survival and kindness to those in need but Rodia does dangerously believe he is above the law. This is what allows him to kill the pawnbroker. He is better then the pawnbroker and this act of murder will help him and society, or so Rodia justifies it as. Although it may be true that this death is actually beneficial to society, Rodia has committed murder and even his superman complex is shaken as he forced to wonder if he is a disgusting regular person or truly above the law. This is what causes Rodia the punishment of guilt as his own arrogance and rationalized need to survive leads him to kill but yet, despite doing all the right things according to Darwin, he still suffers great emotional guilt and pain.
Rodia is nihilist as his superman complex causes him to be above the rest of society. Unfortunately for him, Rodia stands so high above the world that he ostracizes himself from others. Cutting all ties to friends and family Rodia even tries to cut emotional ties through this, as a superior human. This attitude hurts the ties between him and his friends as he finds himself of more importance then their business, “At times he’s terribly taciturn! He’s always in a hurry, always too busy, yet he lies there doing nothing. Not given to mockery, and not because he lacks sharpness but as if he had no time for such trifles. Never hears people out to the end. Is never interested in what interests everyone else at a given moment. Sets a terribly high value on himself and, it seems, not without a certain justification” (Dostoevsky, 215). This would further question the intentions of kindness throughout the first part of this book. Rodia is lying to himself and any person in society would find him nonfunctioning and with emotional or social problems. This is Darwinian side of Rodia that characterizes him as it is his method to survive. However, Rodia does not see this within himself, rather that he is special and even a utilitarian as he strives to make society better through killing the pawnbroker. This is how Rodia justifies murder and even tries to glorify himself through it but in reality it is his emotions and guilt that pull him back down to Earth. No longer in the clouds as superman, Rodia crumbles on Earth unable to rekindle his bonds with others as the crushing guilt makes him physically ill even upon waking up the next day, “What, can it be starting already, can the reckoning com so soon?” (Dostoevsky, 90-91)
The crime of this book occurs in the first part of this book however the punishment occurs throughout the rest of the hundreds of pages. The punishment, as described, isn’t imprisonment or even the evasion of detection but simply guilt. Rodia faces undeniable guilt that physically cripples him until he finally turns himself in. This is the most crucial part in the development of Rodia as a character and the definition of survival in a human society as Dostoevsky see it. After a struggle between emotion and rationale while forcefully coming down from a superman complex, Rodia faces his morality and emotions by turning himself in. Failing to survive as he goes to jail.
Rodia turning himself in shows the end of the battle between emotion and rationalization. Although he faced this superman complex with a nihilistic attitude Rodia still strived to survive battling this duality within him. For a long time and several hundred pages Rodia faces this guilt as it makes him severely ill and practically insane with anxiety from the idea of the acts he committed and what others may believe of it. This uncontrollable guilt becomes the theme of this novel and the apparent punishment created by Dostoevsky as jail becomes the only release from it. Here despite imprisonment, jail is still survival as it is an escape from the clutching hands of guilt which would surely kill him in time had he stayed the course. However, the course that Rodia followed while guilty was that of rationalization. The smart and rational thing to do was avoid detection which Rodia tried to do as much as possible only to suffer more. This is a loss of life as it is a loss of emotional freedom thus not surviving in a human sense within this society. And thus, he could never turn himself in while remaining rational and ignoring his own morality as much as possible thus further enforcing his own nihilism. It is not until Rodia is able to accept the love from those around him, especially Sonya, that he is able to face himself morally and come down from his own superman like superiority as it still dwindles in him. This allows him to accept not only his friends and family but himself as a person. He moves away from the cut tied attitude of nihilism and more towards a utilitarian philosophy of unity, family, and truth. He opens himself back up to emotion and is only then able to confess.
This confession would normally show a surrender however, here it represents freedom. Away with the duality and complexes, Rodia is able to be free from his own self imposed restraints. Through this Dostoevsky shows that the nihilistic nature of Rodia is not the key to survival and rationalization is not the overall advantage, but rather emotion is. It may cause problems such as described before, however, it also protects people. It prevents people from becoming extinct, from all of us becoming Rodia and killing each other for our own gains. Without these emotions humanity cannot move forward as they will be focused on killing each other. It may slow the development and course of humanity but emotion is what creates character and provides freedom for people which is what creates the need to survive and a reason to survive more powerful then the inherent need to breathe. In nature Darwin is correct that organisms develop to survive but in a human based society Dostoevsky shows that it is this “weakness” that creates the strength to survive and helps the overall population as it protects them. Rodia may be imprisoned but for once he will be open to others, such as visits from family and others within the prison as he accepts morality and emotion, allowing him to accept himself.
1) Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and punishment. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Print.
2) “Survival of the Fittest.” Willus.com Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2013. .