.. kov could transform his ideas into reality, however, he needed a “trigger,” or some event which would bridge the gap between the imaginary world of his ideas and the reality of his life in Petersburg (Nutall 158). That event occurs, ironically, just when Raskolnikov is about to disband his journey into the “extraordinary” elite. He overhears a conversation which indicates that the old woman, Alena Ivanovna, will be home alone at a certain hour. His encounter with Alena, then “simply concretized the possibility of applying his ambition, which had been germinating in his subconscious, to the local Petersburg conditions of his own life” (Frank Dostoevsky 108).
Even at this point, however, Raskolnikov is unique. Surely there are many people who dream of killing someone, then hear that the opportunity exists, yet do not actually commit the crime. Dostoevsky asserts that the final factor which predisposes Raskolnikov toward crime is his alienation from the outside world (Bloom Notes 101). Forced to live in squalor, confined to an almost coffin-like room most of the day, Raskolnikov barely ever leaves his apartment. And when he does, he very rarely interacts with others. The research of modern criminal justice specialists, notably Walter Reckless (1899-1988) corroborates Dostoevsky’s assertion that social alienation opens up an individual to criminal behavior.
Reckless’ containment theory hold that all people are subject to inducements to crime. Some of us resist these “pushes” toward criminal behavior, while others do not. The difference, according to Reckless, can be found in the forces which contain behavior (Schmalleger 98). Outer containment, that which is experienced by Raskolnikov, depends upon the social role and expectations which apply to certain individuals. Generally, people who occupy significant or well-assimilated roles in society find themselves insulated from deviant tendencies. A corporate executive, for example, is less apt to hold up a liquor store than a drifter. The difference is not based on income, but rather the pressure to conform that the “successful” role exerts upon its occupant.
Raskolnikov, not really a member of society at all, is not at all propelled towards conformity, and therefore does not resist his deviant tendencies (Schmalleger 99-100). In the moments before the murder, Raskolnikov displays a marked ambivalence about following through with his plan. It is as though he cannot escape his conscience (Nutall 169). Yet through a technique modern criminal jurists have labeled “neutralization” Raskolnikov is able to suppress his conscience and moral code long enough to murder Alena and Lizaveta. Gresham Sykes and David Matza, long after Dostoevsky, proposed that most people drift in and out of criminal behavior, but would not commit crime unless they had available to them techniques of neutralization.
Such techniques are actually rationalizations which allow offenders to shed feelings of guilt and any sense of responsibility for their behavior. Neutralization techniques–such as denial of responsibility, denial of the victim (“they deserved it”), and an appeal to higher loyalties (“I did it for the benefit of mankind”)–provide Raskolnikov with a respite from guilt that lasts long enough to avoid the twinges of cons! cience while the crime is being committed (Schmalleger 99). Dostoevsky observed the temporary relief of morality neutralization provides in his time in Siberia. During his prison years, Dostoevsky observed what frequently occurred in the case of real-life peasant murderers (Frank Dostoevsky 62). Such a peasant, serf, or soldier, has lived in peace for most of his life; but suddenly, at a certain point, “something in him seems to snap; his patience gave way and he sticks a knife into his enemy and oppressor” (Memoirs of the House of the Dead 47). This explains Raskolnikov’s psychology with regard to the murder of Alena, but what about Lizaveta? Dostoevsky observed in these same peasant murderers that after the initial kill the previously quiet and peaceable person begins to kill indiscriminately “for amusement, for an insulting word, to make a round number. It is as though once having overstepped the sacred limit, he begins to revel in the fact that nothing is sacred to him.” Once Raskolnikov kills Alena, Dostoevsky holds, he too “begin! s to revel in the fact that nothing is sacred to him” and kills Lizaveta simply for crossing his path (Memoirs of the House of the Dead 48) (Frank Dostoevsky 63). Dostoevsky sought to prove, through the illustration of Raskolnikov’s downfall, the folly of moral relativism (Jackson 35).
The intense suffering and disorientation Raskolnikov experiences after the murders signal the reemergence of his conscience. Despite his elaborate rationalization, Raskolnikov was able to escape morality only so long as to commit one spree of murders (Nutall 165). And his theory that rationalizations can influence the human conception of right versus wrong is equally flawed: Raskolnikov could no more escape the horrible weight of his guilt than those old Greek heroes could fly close to the sun. After the murders, he falls into a state of sickness and delirium, torn between hiding and confessing. Raskolnikov explains “What is it? Am I still delirious or is it all real? I think its real? . . .oh I remember now I must run” (Crime and Punishment 146).
The delirium continues until Raskolnikov finally realizes that he is not the “extraordinary” man he thought h! e was. Ultimately, not even Raskolnikov’s lofty rationalizations can balance the guilt caused by his conscience (Bloom Notes 25). Raskolnikov’s “human” side declares victory as he enters the police station and says “softly, with some pauses but distinctly: ‘It was I who killed the official’s old widow and her sister Lizaveta with an axe and robbed them'” (Crime and Punishment 531). With his confession, Raskolnikov begins his journey towards reprieve. In modern times, Dostoevsky would have been an advocate of what jurists refer to as “natural law.” Natural law advocates argue that the basis of criminal laws can be found in immutable moral principles and that man must live by an objective ethical standard. Some actions, including murder, are mala in se (evil in and of themselves) (Schmalleger 135).This standard can be known, Dostoevsky holds, not through reason but through the human conscience.
In the eyes of Dostoevsky, actions are either right or they are wrong. Ethics are not relative. Accordingly, Raskolnikov had no right to murder the usurer, his reasons notwithstanding (Frank Dostoevsky 69). In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky clearly indicates that reason is not omnipotent. The human conscience, for one, is not reasonable, but it must be followed, for it is the only means by which humans can grasp a universal moral standard (Jackson 35).
Recent events such as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, and the parcel-bombings by Ted Kaczinsky, the alleged “Unabomber” bring modern application to Dostoevsky’s theories of criminal justice. At their core, both McVeigh and Kaczinsky are modern-day Raskolnikovs, each with his own justification for their actions; McVeigh to “save” the United States by implementing his right-wing agenda; Kaczyinsky to reverse the “industrial revolution and its consequences” which have been “a disaster for the human race” (Kaczynski 3). Like Raskolnikov, they sincerely believe they are part of an “extraordinary” group which possesses a license to kill in order to help mankind, a frightening extension of Raskolnikov’s dream contained in the epilogue to Crime and Punishment. In his illness, Raskolnikov dreams the world falls victim to a plague of “microscopic creatures that lodged themselves into men’s bodies.” Those who received the creatures into themselves then immediately became possessed and mad, but “never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakable in their beliefs as these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakable.” In this apocalyptic vision, no one understands anyone else because “each thought the truth was contained in himself alone” (Crime and Punishment 547-8).
Raskolnikov’s dream, or Dostoevsky’s nightmare, is intended to show the reader the extreme consequences of egoism and moral relativism (Bloom Notes 110). The problem is not that people do not accurately justify their crimes, but that all crimes become justified because everyone thinks themselves, in the words of Raskolnikov, “extraordinary.” It is in this en! vironment of moral relativism, which Dostoevsky warned us of years ago, that we live today. And we are still fighting to save ourselves from it.