Crime and Punishment

by: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Nihilism

1

“I don’t believe in a future life,” said Raskolnikov.

Svidrigailov tells Raskolnikov that he has been seeing his dead wife’s ghost, and reflects that ghosts represent “shreds and fragments of other worlds.” Raskolnikov replies that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, Svidrigailov’s “other worlds.” Raskolnikov’s belief that no life exists outside of the body and his rejection of the idea of a soul represent a nihilistic viewpoint. Nihilism favors a strict materialism, a belief that reality exists only within the bounds of the material world.

2

What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?

Raskolnikov overhears a conversation between a student and an officer in which the student makes case for justifying the theft and homicide of Alyona, the pawnbroker. The student argues that the immorality of murdering an old woman near death who actively harms people seems far outweighed by the benefit in the countless lives her money would improve. His argument applies an ethic of utilitarianism to determine right conduct by usefulness. Making moral decisions outside of a religious value system links utilitarianism with nihilism and both with socialism.

3

“Don’t torture me!” he said with a gesture of irritation.

This type of short and rude response comes from Raskolnikov often. He treats people, even family members, as an annoyance. After he commits murder and conceals the crime, Raskolnikov’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, a condition that distresses both his sister and mother. The two women try to help and comfort him, but he orders them out. Raskolnikov says he loves his family, and he does, but he also isolates himself emotionally, out of feeling superior. Raskolnikov’s unsentimental behavior and lack of concern for others’ feelings make him a good example of a nihilist.

4

“You urged me yourself to be frank just now, and you refuse to answer the first question I put to you,” Svidrigailov said with a smile.

This comment, which Svidrigailov makes to Raskolnikov, sums up the nature of their conversations throughout the book. Raskolnikov asks Svidrigailov blunt, direct, and personal questions, yet when Svidrigailov does the same, Raskolnikov sidesteps. Similarly, Raskolnikov calls out Svidrigailov on his lack of manners, yet Raskolnikov will not accept the truth when Svidrigailov says the same of him. Raskolnikov lives hypocritically: As a nihilist, he cares nothing for others’ feelings or social conventions, but as a conflicted human, he demands propriety from others.

5

But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her above everything else and that at last the moment had come …

Raskolnikov has been serving his prison sentence, where Sonia comes dutifully to visit him. Before, Raskolnikov felt repulsed by the idea of holding hands with Sonia, but finally, he allows her to hold his hand. Here, the narrator explains how Sonia takes Raskolnikov’s action as a sign of his true love. Holding her hand symbolizes that Raskolnikov finally breaks free of his nihilistic, self-imposed psychological isolation from others, and that he discovers love. Readers might infer what the effect of this simple action means about the ultimate futility of nihilism.