Brilliance surely comes with a price. Often a protagonist is, in his own right, an absolute genius, but for this gift of vision, he must remain isolated for eternity. Crime and Punishment (1886), by Fyodor Dostoevsky, depicts a poverty stricken young man who discovers a revolutionary theory of the mind of a criminal. Despite his psychological insight, Raskolnikov is alienated from society, and eventually forced to test his theory upon himself.
Ivan Turgenev’s Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons (1862), pioneers the anarchistic philosophy of nihilism, depending entirely on science and reason, but ends up falling passionately in love and then cast out, through death, from the rigidity of thought he held so dear. D-503, the main character of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), discovers an immense and rigid counterculture and drowns himself in it, only to surface without anyone with whom to relate. Each author suggests the irony of a prophetic mind being wasted and outcast among ordinary men.
Raskolnikov, a former student, forced to drop out of the university because he is unable to afford the tuition, is forced to work part-time with his friend Razumihin as a translator. Through this endeavor, Raskolnikov, or Rodya as his mother calls him, becomes well versed in the literature and existentialist philosophies of the time. Writing to a local newspaper, Rodya ventures to propose a superman theory similar to that of Nietzsche, made popular around the time Dostoevsky wrote the novel. “I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary) and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word.”
This principle, that man is simply either ordinary or extraordinary, limited by rules and boundaries or allowed to transgress these barriers en route to his planned greater goal for humanity, gains Raskolnikov little profit or renown. Though the extraordinary man theory could easily be applied to Napoleon, as is done in Rodya’s thesis, few of Dostoevsky’s characters accept its revolutionary psychological approach to criminal behavior. Only the lead detective, Porfiry Petrovich, comes to accept Raskolnikov’s approach. This parallel epiphany is ironic, indeed, because throughout the novel, Rodya and Porfiry are cast as foils. Even this revelation, though, occurs only after a test subject is provided: Raskolnikov, himself.
Rodya’s deeply rooted depression and feeling of rejection from civilized society eventually lead him to test his marvelous experiment, to find out whether or not he, or any man, can know he is, or even really be, an extraordinary man. Raskolnikov chooses the ultimate transgression of moral and lawful boundaries: murder. To rid society of a disgusting, infected member, who merely preys on the less fortunate, Rodya plots to kill a local pawnbroker. “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all.” This plan, designed to establish himself as a superman by overstepping conventional boundaries, and carried out nearly flawlessly, demonstrates the calculated risk Rodya was willing to take to verify his place in society.
Through dramatic irony, Raskolnikov’s seemingly perfect plan goes astray, as his tormenting guilt eventually brings him to confess. Not necessarily disproving Nietzsche, Rodya’s breakdown illustrates his own personal failure to reach the standards set in his own philosophy, those of being able to sustain dominance in spite of external disapproval and being able to continue on a constant, uninterrupted path to a better end, regardless of the obstacles necessary to destroy. Porfiry Petrovich’s initial conversation with Raskolnikov on the uniqueness of the theory foreshadows Raskolnikov’s demise and rapid decent back to the ordinary.
Rodya ultimately admits his failure to himself by reflecting, “I didn’t do the murder to gain wealth and power and to become a benefactor of mankind. Nonsense! I simply did it; I did the murder for myself.” Raskolnikov’s ingenious psychoanalysis of a criminal proves costly for himself, as his only subject, himself, proves the qualities of the superhuman too difficult to reach, even for the theory’s own originator, and merely casts himself as a pariah in the society that he wished to improve.
As a young student at a progressive Russian university, Bazarov of Fathers and Sons has mastered the increasingly popular political philosophy of nihilism. “A nihilist is a person who doesn’t bow down before authorities, doesn’t accept even one principle on faith, no matter how much respect surrounds that principle.” Not only do these rationalists disown all accepted idealistic fields such as romanticism and the arts, they also call for an end to any and all non-scientific, non-rationalistic thought, and the injection of reason into all political and societal action. Just as Bazarov has cleared his mind of all things irrational, a true love enters his life, one whom he cannot shut out using nihilism: Anna.
The two become intensely emotionally attached, bringing about a sharp dramatic irony, as Bazarov appears unfazed by the seemingly obvious self-contradiction. “I love you irrevocably, forever and ever; I love no one else but you.” Even in the couple’s constant dialogue, verbal irony runs high as Bazarov always speaks in short, rational sentences, while at the same time dealing in a subject manner, love, with which his philosophy has nothing to identify. Bazarov’s blind faith for nihilism, while at the same time believing he has fallen in love, acts to alienate Bazarov both from his own parents and from his young disciple, Arkady.
Moments before Bazarov’s death, he remarks, “Strength, what strength I still possess, yet I have to die!,” alluding to his still-strong disestablishmentarianistic views being plunged further and further into romanticism and tradition. Though he clings to nihilism to the end, it is this ideal which casts Bazarov out from his fellow man and cannot explain his natural, human tendency of love.
Zamyatin’s We identifies the protagonist as strictly adherent to the rules of society, not once daring to overstep the boundaries. D-503 is portrayed as the model citizen of the One State, never questioning its genius. Human nature, it seems, intervenes, and with his newfound relationship with I-330, D-503 develops a rebellious side, longing for the freedoms granted his ancestors under barbaric rule centuries before. “There were two of me. The former one, D-503, number D-503, and the other Before, he had just barely shown his hairy paws from within the shell; now all of him broke out, the shell cracked.”
This epiphany of true happiness, not as defined by the One State as the lack of any wants or needs, but rather as ultimate freedom with responsibility toward humanity, sets into motion a quick sequence of events designed to end this supremacist system. Through internal monologue, the reader is shown D-503’s realization of the ironic juxtaposition of the professed magnificence and ultimate wisdom of the One State as opposed to the magnificence and ultimate wisdom of true freedom without boundaries. “And what if – without waiting – I plunge myself, head down? Would it not be the only, the correct way – disentangling everything at once?” Written during the rise of communism in Russia as profoundly democratic propaganda, We highlights the irrationality of absolute rationality under and egalitarian, inhuman regime.
Accompanied by I-330, D-503 works to spread his revolutionary message by use of the One State’s crown jewel of exploration, the space ship, the Integral. Unfortunately, this rebellion is crushed resolutely, and I-330 is brutally murdered by the government, an added social commentary on Zamyatin’s part. D-503 succumbs to torture and identifies his co-conspirators, without having to be put to death himself. D-503 is then reinserted as an arbitrary number into society, without the necessary human faculty of imagination, due to an intense operation given to all citizens of the One State as punishment for the betrayal.
Once cleansed of the threat of freedom, D-503 becomes incapable of irrational thought, and is released as merely a cog in the massive machinery of the One State, paying a severe price for his short-lived experience of natural rights. “I smile – I cannot help smiling: a kind of splinter was pulled out of my head, and the head feels light, empty.” Zamyatin uses dramatic irony, and the inclusion of the innate human will for freedom, to illustrate the absurdity and irrationalism of an infinitely defined rationality.
Through the use of irony, each Russian author, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Zamyatin, alienates true visionaries from their natural place at the head of society and implies a theme of the perils of idealism. Raskolnikov discovers a rationale for committing crimes in the name of a greater good, only to also discover the theory’s incredibly difficult guidelines of extraordinary men through self-experimentation. Bazarov’s nihilism and rationality is entirely contradicted by his adoption of romanticism in some circumstances, and the impossibility of nihilism is shown through his ignorance of this contradiction. D-503 awakens within himself a long-absent human nature with unlimited creative potential, only to realize its dangerous, anarchistic possibilities. Each protagonist comes across a revolutionary idea, only to eventually be dismissed, and ultimately forgotten, by society.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1981) 243.
Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996) 18.
Yevgeny Zamyatin, We (New York, NY: Avon Books, Inc., 1972) 56.