If a hero is defined as a man or woman with noble attributes who carries out difficult and frightening tasks, to what extent is Raskolnikov a hero?
At first glance, Raskolnikov seems the opposite of a hero. He murders a defenseless old woman, then insists he has done nothing wrong. Still, his conscience torments him: He worries about his actions, his family, and the nation in which he lives. Because he thinks deeply about moral problems, Raskolnikov is ultimately able to commit brave acts, turning himself into the police and atoning for his sinful past. Though Raskolnikov spends most of the novel in a decidedly non-heroic state, his keen, searching conscience allows him to attain grace in the closing epilogue and he ends the novel a hero.
To be sure, Raskolnikov engages in numerous unheroic thoughts and deeds. Toward the beginning of the novel, he attacks and kills the moneylender Alyona Ivanovna. He tells himself he has behaved admirably; by his perverse logic, moneylenders are so cruel that they do not deserve to live. “Crime?” he says. “What crime?” He likens Alyona Ivanova to a “louse” that has “sucked the life-sap from the poor,” and claims that killing her was a virtuous act that should earn him forgiveness for forty sins. Raskolnikov also develops a worldview in which some men are so farsighted and brilliant that they may kill anyone who displeases them, counting himself as one of these men. This pattern of selfish thoughts and actions certainly does not seem heroic.
On the other hand, Raskolnikov’s active conscience distinguishes him from most people. The guilt he feels after killing Alyona Ivanovna is the most brutal punishment in the novel. Even the police investigator, Porfiry Petrovich, admires Raskolnikov for his finely-tuned sensibilities. His conscience causes him to worry not just about his own sins, but also about the sins of nineteenth-century Russia. He refuses to marry, seeing the institution as deeply flawed and imbalanced, and he forbids his sister to marry Luzhin because such a marriage would reduce her to a servant. The status of Russian women enrages him and his heart aches for Sonya, who prostitutes herself to feed her family. Tormented, he dreams of a poor, weak horse that gets crushed in the street. To Raskolnikov, the horse represents Russia’s starving masses, sacrificed in the name of progress. These moments of bitterness and idealism show that Raskolnikov has an extraordinary conscience.
Raskolnikov’s active, well-developed conscience ultimately enables him to commit heroic acts. These acts of heroism occur toward the very end of the novel, after the psychological torment proves too much to bear and he turns himself in. Sentenced to hard labor in Siberia, the young man accepts his fate with surprising courage and grace. Though it doesn’t happen immediately, Raskolnikov eventually renounces his selfish thoughts and realizes that he had allowed himself to become alienated from the human community. The resolute loner even declares his love for the steadfast Sonya, an act of pure faith from a man who has despised marriage for so long. “Instead of dialectics,” Dostoyevsky writes, Raskolnikov realizes that “there was life, and something different to work itself out in his consciousness.” He changes from a self-pitying criminal into a generous, compassionate man, capable of loving another person.
It may seem strange to call a murderer heroic. But Dostoyevsky persuades us that Raskolnikov has undergone a beautiful transformation—from peevish liar to mature and penitent man. Raskolnikov has the courage to examine his past, admit that some of his beliefs are wrongheaded, and change the way he thinks and acts, and in so doing he undertakes a daunting, rare, and admirable journey—a journey that can certainly be described as an act of heroism.