Raskolnikov’s article, “On Crime,” is vital to the understanding of his beliefs. This article also has a profound effect on Crime and Punishment as a whole, the subject matter being one of the main themes of the novel. The idea of the “extraordinary man” is referred to literally throughout the book, but also notable is the subconscious effect the idea has on Raskolnikov. Sometimes Raskolnikov is not even aware of this influence. It is important to note originality, or the ability to “utter a new word,” as a defining characteristic of the extraordinary man. Therefore, we must take into account the presence of similar ideas, those of Pisarev, Nietzsche, and nihilism, as these might bring to light the possibility that Raskolnikov is not original, a possibility that haunts him throughout the novel.
Within the article Raskolnikov analyzes the psychology of a criminal before and after the crime. This main portion of the article is not discussed, but it is likely that the psychological explanation that Porfiry gives Raskolnikov later, in the examination, is very similar. During this later examination, Raskolnikov appears resentful, but never disputes what Porfiry tells him, perhaps because it is a regurgitation of Raskolnikov’s own thoughts. In the last meeting of the two men, Porfiry admits that he liked the article very much, and actually felt a connection with it. The one part of the main body of the article that is mentioned is “that the perpetration of a crime is always accompanied by illness” (225). Porfiry comments that this idea is very original; Raskolnikov welcomes this praise.
Shortly, Porfiry moves on to the main topic of their discussion, a topic only mentioned briefly in the article, the idea that “certain persons…have a perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes” (225). Raskolnikov immediately realizes that Porfiry is intentionally exaggerating the idea, and “decided to take up the challenge” (226). Dostoevsky lets the reader know that the conversation will be a battle of wits. The ensuing argumentative dialogue makes the passage very entertaining, especially in contrast to later interviews between the two, in which Porfiry does nearly all the talking (he loves to hear himself talk). Raskolnikov attempts to clarify his idea, explaining that the “extraordinary” people have the right, but are not bound, to “overstep obstacles” if it is “essential” for the fulfillment of their idea. He recognizes that these ideas should be for the benefit of all humanity. We have to take note of the words Raskolnikov uses, for he does not adhere to his own guidelines. He doesn’t need to kill Alyona, unless for money – but this is never proven to be his motive, nor is Raskolnikov sure of his idea.
Raskolnikov cites certain leaders – Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, Napoleon – as criminals. He asserts this simple fact by showing that if these leaders created new laws, they must have broken the old ones in doing so, not to mention that they killed as well. Raskolnikov vaguely refers to the moral quirk that killing many honorable men – those who are fighting for their respective cause – is not a crime, yet killing one person, and a dishonorable one at that, is without a doubt a criminal offense. In order to get out of the so-called “common rut,” one must be a criminal, and if he is extraordinary he ought to do so. Much later in the novel, the reader learns that the urge to take the first step, out of the rut, is one of Raskolnikov’s underlying motives.
Without going into many sub-divisions, Raskolnikov divides people into two categories. There are the masses, the ordinary, who love to be controlled and serve only to reproduce. (Interestingly, the men who are generally accepted as extraordinary do not have children and, to go even further, are rather disgusted with the thought of reproduction). Then there are the extraordinary, who have “the gift or talent to utter a new word” (227). The theme of the “new word” weighs heavily on Raskolnikov when he reflects on whether he is an extraordinary or not. These extraordinary ones transgress the law, destroying (not necessarily physically) the present for a better future. Raskolnikov holds that both groups have an equal right to exist.
Raskolnikov ends the speech strangely and emphatically, saying “vive la guerre eternelle – till the New Jerusalem, of course!” (227). This translates ‘live the eternal war’ (alluding to life), until one goes to heaven. This statement prompts Porfiry to ask a few religious questions. He asks if Raskolnikov believes in heaven, in God, and in the story of Lazarus, to which Raskolnikov answers firmly each time, “I do.” This confuses Porfiry, who has been thinking Raskolnikov more of an atheist, but these questions prove he is not. Raskolnikov’s literal belief in the Bible is instrumental in bringing about his confession. As Raskolnikov points out to Sonia, there are three ways to go: suicide, insanity, or depravity, but he doesn’t realize at the time how strong her faith is. Dostoevsky portrays his own belief by making religion the saving grace.
Porfiry makes the witty remark that if the extraordinary are not executed, they begin executing others. The witticism exchanged shows that the two intellectuals are enjoying their conversation thus far. Porfiry asks for some external definition of the extraordinary. Raskolnikov doesn’t get around to answering this, but clearly there are no external signs. Napoleon, for instance, was a very small man in stature. The deciding factor is intelligence. The extraordinary ones simply know it.
There is a relationship between intelligence and crime. Pisarev shares this conviction, that “crime is placed on exactly the same footing as outstanding intellectual achievement or important transformations of social life.” Porfiry wonders what happens when a member of one category imagines himself in the other. Raskolnikov asserts that this can only happen among the ordinary, probably because he considers them much less intelligent. These ordinaries might break the law, but Raskolnikov says, “you really need not be uneasy, for they never go very far” (228). This proves true of Raskolnikov.