Svidrigailov embodies the qualities of immorality and self-absorption. Although he is human in a way that Luzhin and Raskolnikov are not, he greatly exceeds both in his capacity to be sneaky and calculating. While Luzhin is plainly nothing more than a cold, self-centered materialist, Svidrigailov is a complex character. His actions are ambiguous and his generosities can all be interpreted in ways that cast doubt on his good intentions. One can argue that his donation in support of the Marmeladov children is not, as it first seems, the kind gesture of a sinful but repentant man, but merely an attempt to get closer to Raskolnikov and, through him, Dunya. Conflicting stories about Svidrigailov’s past, including whether he caused the death of one of his servants and whether he contributed to his wife’s death, leave his motivations for his behavior in doubt.
Nonetheless, Svidrigailov’s attempted rape of Dunya removes any lingering doubts about his character. But even here, the incident turns on more than just the pursuit of a goal. Although Dunya’s gunshots cause no physical harm, they prove to Svidrigailov that she will never care for him. His subsequent urgency in asking her to leave evidences an intense inner struggle. He has managed to rein in, if only for a moment, the appetites that have driven him to sin in the past. Dostoevsky reveals that Svidrigailov, so often glib and cynical, suffers deeply when he sees his fantasy fractured. Svidrigailov’s character adds depth and complexity to the novel’s depiction of evil; in the extremity of his emotions, he is similar to the self-conscious, tormented Raskolnikov.
Dunya’s use of the revolver in Chapter V presents a striking contrast to an earlier act of violence—the murders of Alyona and Lizaveta. Even with the justification of self-defense against an immediate physical threat, Dunya is unable to go through with the act, firing only twice before laying the gun down. Her unwillingness or inability to kill Svidrigailov renders irrelevant the philosophical rationalizations of murder that prompt Raskolnikov’s actions. Dostoevsky seems to suggest that what matters is not whether the murder leads to the greatest good for the greatest number of people, but simply whether the individual with the gun can find it within him- or herself to kill another human being. Dunya clearly cannot, which distinguishes her from Raskolnikov.