Dostoyevsky’s Übermensch in Crime & Punishment

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Are morality and ethics derived from an authoritative source or are they determined by an individual? And what are the effects with the latter approach of subjective morality?

These are just a couple philosophical and ethical questions that can be raised from the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his classic 1866 novel Crime and Punishment. Dostoyevsky continues to be regarded as one of the world’s greatest novelists and as a true literary polymath, whose body of publications profoundly shaped the fields of literature, existentialism, psychology and theology [1]. Perhaps just as incredible as his works is Dostoyevsky’s life story. From an early age in early 19th Century Russia, Dostoyevsky embraced a love for studying and writing literature, and eventually became engaged in Russian political and social activism which tragically resulted in his 1849 arrest and imprisonment in a Siberian prison labor camp [1]. Following his decade-long experience of incarceration and punishment, Dostoyevsky would go on to produce some of the greatest works in modern world literature, in particular Crime and Punishment which explores philosophical theories including ethics, nihilism and Friedrich Nietzsche’s later concept of the Übermensch.

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment follows the story of the Rodion Raskolnikov, an ex-law student living on the fringes of society in an impoverished apartment in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Having detached himself socially and developing a problematic superiority complex, Raskolnikov devises a nefarious plan to murder and rob a local pawn broker Alyona Ivanovna, believing she is an unscrupulous individual who’s wealth could be used for better purposes by Raskolnikov himself. In an irrational and frenzied state, Raskolnikov follows through with his plan, murdering and robbing the elderly Ivanovna, only to subsequently fall into a psychological state of immense guilt and neuroticism over the act. The novel goes on to describe Raskolnikov’s failed psychological attempts to cover up his crime while under pressure from Detective Porfiry Petrovitch and Raskolnikov’s newfound acquaintance Sonya Marmeladov, ultimately resulting in his confession, imprisonment, and later ethical enlightenment due to Sonya’s loving influence. Embedded within the storyline of Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky eloquently delves into moral and ethical themes affecting the protagonist Raskolnikov as portrayed cinematically by the great European actor Peter Lorre in a 1935 film adaptation of the same title. Dostoyevsky’s creation and Lorre’s later rendention of Raskolnikov exemplify the tragic consequences of applied nihilism and the Übermensch concept (also known as “overman” or “superman”).

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Focusing on the 1935 film adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Peter Lorre as the young Raskolnikov is a highly self-centered individual with a Napoleonic complex towards others in society. Furthermore, the character is infatuated with his theory that there exists a social dichotomy between “ordinary people” who follow established moral laws and “extraordinary people” who can go beyond conventional morality for some greater purpose. Raskolnikov believes through his inflated ego that he is indeed one of these “extraordinary people”, a Napoleon Bonaparte as he states, who is entitled to following his own ethical constitution. As previously stated, the consequences of Raskolnikov’s applied theory prove disastrous for himself and others. In fact, Dostovesky’s story served as precursor to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch (aka “overman” or “superman”), meaning a “strong, creative individual who rises above traditional morality to create new values and to forge new meaning” in the world [2].

Nietzsche established the Übermensch concept in his 1883 book entitled Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a fictionalized story of an individual (Zarathustra) who seeks “the ultimate goal of transcendence towards the state of overman; he desires a spiritual evolution of self-awareness and overcoming of traditional views on morality” [3]. In essence, Dostovesky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra characters both view themselves as being above humanity, above established morality, for what appears to be utilitarian reasons (i.e. employing actions that maximize pleasure or well-being). Ironically, both stories conclude on a rather unfulfilled and depressing note, undoubtedly due to the self-imposed struggles of each character’s quest for Übermensch in the real world. Yet while Dostovesky’s protagonist in Crime and Punishment appears to regain a moral consciousness in the epilogue, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra remains entrenched in a cave with his nihilistic beliefs and superiority complex (as a side-note, Nietzsche lived much of his life in a nomadic state of self-imposed isolation, later suffering a tragic mental collapse into madness and several strokes until his death in 1900) [4].    

Going back to the two questions presented in the beginning of the article, I’ll leave the first to be answered by the reader; for the second, Dostovesky’s Crime and Punishment and Nietzsche’s Übermensch theory demonstrate the dangers and fallacies of a subjective morality based on one’s ego and pride.

References

[1] Morson, G.S. (2017). Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Fyodor-Dostoyevsky

[2] King, Peter J. (2004). One Hundred Philosophers: The Life and Work of the World’s Greatest Thinkers. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s.

[3] Lyons, L. (2013). Raskolnikov, A Failed Übermensch. Russian Literature, Advent 2013.  https://www.academia.edu/6431706/Raskolnikov_A_Failed_%C3%9Cbermensch

[4] Magnus, B. (2017). Friedrich Nietzsche. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Friedrich-Nietzsche

One thought on “Dostoyevsky’s Übermensch in Crime & Punishment

  1. Pingback: God isn’t dead though for many He is not relevant | Stepping Toes

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