Dostoevsky’s Crime Punishment is and unique in literature as a book whose true villain is a theory in the mind of its protagonist. This theory of the ubermensch, or superman, is originated by the main character, Raskolnikov, who claims that any breach of the moral law is permitted to those few “extraordinary men” who are destined to bring an increase of the overall justice of the world. Obsessed with this theory, Raskolnikov’s mind becomes dramatically conflicted, his good inclinations at variance with his desire to prove himself one of these ubermensch. Despite this obsession, the ramifications of his idea remain unclear to Raskolnikov until he meets the man, Svidrigailov.
Svidrigailov is a figure whose presence throws Raskolnikov’s mental split into sharp relief by his own unwavering singleness of purpose. This man, in fact, epitomizes the theory that creates Raskolnikov’s mental turmoil in the first place. He lives for a single purpose – himself – and seems immune to moral responsibility. He is superficially suave and polite. As Raskolnikov tells him, I fancy indeed that you are a man of very good breeding, or at least know on occasion how to behave like one.” (Part 4, Chapter 1 -p.256) However, this “good breeding” is a rather thin disguise for a character so absorbed with his own comfort and pleasure that he has become utterly depraved. He is calm and rarely loses his temper, but his composure often hides plotting and conniving. He has committed several murders over the space of many years. But in accordance with the idea that the extraordinary man would merit no temporal or mental punishment, he is completely remorseless. Moreover, he is above human law, because the nature of his crimes is such that they can never be proven.
Raskolnikov’s character is an interesting mix of good and bad traits; his generosity, compassion, and love for justice contrast sharply with his sullenness, morose attitude, and pride. His close friend Razumihin describes him as “morose, gloomy, proud and haughty…He has a noble nature and a kind heart… it’s as though he were alternating between two characters.” (Part 3, Chapter 2 – p.194) Up to the point of the meeting with Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov is plagued with guilt for the murder of an old pawnbroker whose dishonesty, he had decided, had “deserved” death. The better side of his character makes it impossible for him to escape this guilt; however, the only conclusion he will admit is that he is not an extraordinary man. The idea that his theory may be wrong is intolerable to his pride – even if he is one of the “worms” of the world, bound by moral laws and human regulations, his idea at least must be right.
But then Svidrigailov introduces himself to Raskolnikov, insisting from the opening moments of their conversation that he and the younger man are unnervingly alike, despite the fact that Raskolnikov is as outwardly brash, rude, and quick tempered as Svidrigailov is cool, polite, and calm. “Didn’t I say there was something in common between us? …… Wasn’t I right in saying that we were birds of a feather?” (Part 4, Chapter 1) Raskolnikov reacts indignantly to the idea. Svidrigailov has crimes in his past as well, but his crimes were far from Raskolnikov’s “just murders” – this man had caused the suicide of a deaf girl of fifteen, he had caused the death of one of his servants, and he had most likely poisoned his own wife. Each of Svidrigailov’s actions is calculated for no purpose beyond his own pleasure – his existence is purely selfish. Raskolnikov at least has a noble purpose at heart; or so he protests at first. However, the idea that he, Raskolnikov, is somehow more just than this other murderer disappears quickly when Rodion realizes the truth which the reader has perhaps seen all along. Svidrigailov is simply the extreme of the “extraordinary man” Raskolnikov has been turning himself into over the course of several horrible months. Despite the differences in outward personality, Raskolnikov is indeed becoming similar to Svidrigailov, the extraordinary man.
True, Svidrigailov’s aims and motives are ostensibly quite different from the protagonist’s. They seem worse perhaps, because they seem more selfish. But is that appearance true? Raskolnikov kills the old woman with the sanction of his concept of justice, but why else does he kill in the first place except to prove his status as one of the ubermensch? It is hardly less selfish to commit a crime in order to satisfy one’s pride than it is to do the same in pursuit of physical pleasure. And how even can Raskolnikov’s initial perception of his crimes being superior in the realm of justice be given exceptional credence? Svidrigailov may cause deaths that seem totally unjust from the standpoint of human morality, but the first premise of the ubermensch theory is that extraordinary men are not bound by these standards. Such men “have the right” to interpret aims and means of achieving the greater good. Svidrigailov is undeniably a superman by Raskolnikov’s definition, and he thinks that he himself is the greater good, making his “selfish” actions perfectly justifiable by the theory’s standards.
There are, Raskolnikov comes to realize, two possible solutions to the questions raised by this perfect ubermensch. Svidrigailov might be a good man, in accordance with the theory. The idea is abhorrent to any honest person. Even Svidrigailov, in fact, recognizes that he is not a good man – he admits his depravity easily, although he feels no remorse for it. He recognizes even, that he is not a healthy man. He has seen ghosts, he says, and ghosts “are unable to appear except to the sick” (Part 4, Chapter 1 – p.260), the healthy are too much a part of reality to be bothered by such supernatural beings. Svidrigailov goes on to muse that once he really leaves this world, he can expect nothing better than “one little room, like a bathhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner.” (Part 4, Chapter 1 – p.261) Raskolnikov responds with as much horror as he did to the idea of his similarity to Svidrigailov. “Can it be you can imagine nothing juster and more comforting than that?” Svidrigailov’s response reveals not only his own self-condemnation, but also the emptiness of promise and hope in ubermensch morality. “Juster? And how can we tell, perhaps that is just, and do you know, it’s certainly what I would have made [eternity].”
If the possibility of Svidrigailov’s “goodness” (and thus the possibility of the goodness of any such superman) is so roundly contradicted, there is only one other possibility. That is, the ubermensch theory must be wrong. As Raskolnikov thinks things over, wrestling with his pride, he begins to come to this conclusion. It eventually becomes apparent to him that the second really is the only sensible possibility, the only possibility which fits in with human nature, and the only possibility that promises something more just than a petty eternity filled with spiders. With this admission, he finally begins to renounce his pride and self-righteousness.
Indeed, the encounter with Svidrigailov, the epitome of Raskolnikov’s negative qualities, instigates the protagonist’s first real swing towards repentance. By being faced with the true face of his theory he is compelled to admit its repulsiveness. In the process, he is obliged to open the door to his own redemption by admitting that he is a criminal, that he must submit to the human justice he disdained for so long, and that he must find peace in the hope of God’s mercy.