As Fyodor Dostoevsky brilliantly displayed throughout his novel, Crime and Punishment, money united the most saintly and sinister of characters, as their eventual moral degradation heavily depended on their possession of it or lack thereof. By highlighting the characters Rodya Raskolnikov and Arkady Svidrigailov, Dostoevsky illustrated that all people, when faced with extreme economic conditions, possessed the ability to become immoral, self-involved, and ultimately evil. To remedy these issues of self-centeredness, pride, and greed, the underlying motif of the novel, poverty, demonstrated the need for ideals of self-sacrifice and compassion. Accompanied by the theme of self-alienation, the author attempted to convince the reader that the battle against moral degradation would only be won by bonding together in times of poverty. In essence, while Dostoevsky clearly depicted that this moral demotion was prevalent in society, he was certain to explain that this occurrence was unacceptable and needed to be rectified.
The protagonist of the story, Rodya Raskolnikov, proved that a lack of money could dangerously affect a person’s thought processes, driving them to commit the most heinous of crimes. When understanding Rodya, one of the most important facts to remember from the story was that he was destitute, yet he refused to accept this mediocrity. He was a proud young man who refused help from anyone, especially when money was concerned. Even when his friend, Dmitri Razumikhin, twice offered him a job translating novels, Raskolnikov repeatedly refused the work. In the first instance, his inner conflict was greatly apparent amidst his conversation with Razumikhin, as he stated, “Never mind. I came…Here’s why. I don’t have any lessons…I wanted…I don’t need any lessons, though…” (106 : Part 2). While Raskolnikov wanted so much to earn money to support himself, his pride interceded and kept him from doing so.
The pride that Rodya held in himself later grew to a mentality of infallibility and superiority. He believed himself to be somewhat of a “superman,” placing himself above the mediocrity that was humanity. In his mind, his lack of money and a job gave him the clarity and the opportunity to see others for what they really were: objects existing to merely perpetuate the species. Raskolnikov’s entire moral code was defined in the article that he wrote concerning the criminal mind:
The heart of the matter is that in this gentleman’s article all people are divisible into “ordinary” and “extraordinary.” The ordinary must live obediently and have no right to transgress the law – because, you see, they’re ordinary. The extraordinary, on the other hand, have the right to commit all kinds of crimes and to transgress the law in all kinds of ways, for the simple reason that they are extraordinary. (249: Part 3)
This article was put to the test when Raskolnikov murdered two women, justifying his actions because he was one of the “extraordinary.” While the guilt that overcomes Raskolnikov in the end proved that he was not a “superman,” he never stopped believing that his actions were completely justified.
In contrast to the motif of poverty in Crime and Punishment, the character Arkady Svidrigailov represented the corrupted aristocracy of the times, remaining just as immoral as the impoverished Raskolnikov. While both characters came from different economic standings, Svidrigailov was just as sinful and self-absorbed, if not more so, as Raskolnikov. However, in this case, Svidrigailov’s fortune made him sneaky and calculating. While one moment he was forcing himself upon Dounia against her will, the next moment he was generous and kind, offering his money to those in need such as Sonia Marmeladov. This generosity was present when Svidrigailov saw Sonia for the last time, telling her, “Your sisters and brother are taken care of; I’ve deposited money in each of their names, and it’s all signed and attested in the proper form” (475: Part 6). When examining these ambiguous actions, it was extremely difficult to determine whether the intentions were good or malicious.
In conclusion, the economic standing of the individuals in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment did not prevent either the rich or the poor from becoming morally corrupt in the eyes of society. Both Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov, although from opposing classes, were essentially equal in their ability to stray from the moral code of law. The possession of money and the lack thereof both proved to be elicitors of moral degradation, welcoming immorality and evil. Therefore, it was without a doubt that Dostoevsky succeeded in convincing his reader of the all-encompassing and malicious power of money.