Svidrigailov - the Biggest Unpleasantness of Crime and Punishment

Svidrigailov comes into the storyline after Raskolnikov becomes aware that he is not an “extraordinary man”: he is not someone who is exempt from following the regulations that control what the ordinary man does such as knowing the distinction between right and wrong, behavior that follows the approved standards of morality and reputability, and the belief in God. This, in fact, seems more similar to Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov is depicted as the evil villain in the novel. “Yet because of the complexity and expansiveness of his portrait in the novel we must see Svidrigailov as more than a melodramatic villain”. In “Understanding Crime and Punishment,” Michael Katz states, “Svidrigailov can do both good and evil and neither one has much meaning to him.” He is a mysterious character that consists of many different and connected parts. The reason why Svidrigailov is such a complex character in Crime and Punishment is revealed in his actions through the book. For example, in “Dostoevsky and Suicide,” critics Foy and Rojcewicz say:

Svidrigailov is a self-centered, pleasure-seeking man, who manipulates, brutalizes, and ridicules people to gain his ends. His servant is so misused that he is finally forced into suicide. Svidrigailov sexually abuses a young girl, and the child kills herself. In a very dramatic scene, Svidrigailov dreams of this girl’s tragic fate prior to his suicide. He sees the girl who has drowned her self, and she is smiling: “the smile on her pallid lips was full of an unchildlike and limitless sorrow and a great, complaining lament”.

He is shown as a patron to Sonya and her siblings after their parents died, but this is solely a tactic to be closer to Raskolnikov, who was the brother of Dunya, his lustful object. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Svidrigailov’s lack of morality allows him to want authority over people, and when he fails to achieve this goal, he decides to commit suicide in order to rise above conventional morality and perform his final triumph over the world of the weak.

In Crime and Punishment, Svidrigailov believes he has authority over other people. This is shown through the sexual relations he engages in with his servants, which he describes as he is talking about the restrictions Marfa put on him, saying, “Marfa Petrovna would occasionally allow me to cast an eye in the direction of the servant girls, but only with her confidential knowledge”. Svidrigailov’s actions manifest how he thinks because he has authority over the women that work for him, he has the right to take advantage of them sexually. This is why Svidrigailov is the ubermensch that Raskolnikov describes in his essay on crime in Crime and Punishment. In this essay, Raskolnikov says that there are “extraordinary' people who have the right to commit crimes without being punished because they can surpass societal constructs and fulfill the ideas they have resolved to be rational in their conscience without feeling any guilt. Svidrigailov exhibits all these characteristics: he does what he determines is right, which is to get what he desires, without feeling remorse for his actions. Even with his superiority over the laws that run society, the ubermensch is still not alone. Svidrigailov’s independence is reliant on the way he applies authority over other people, and this suggests that his heightened masculinity is reliant on the people he controls and dominates. This idea is shown when Dunya says she does not and will never love Svidrigailov:

So you don’t love me? he asked quietly.

Dunya made a negative sign with her head.

And…you can’t?…Not ever? he whispered with despair.

Never! Dunya whispered.

Dunya is his last resort—he believes that she may have the ability to save him, similar to how Sonya saves Raskolnikov; but Dunya will not do the same. “Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment is a ruthless pursuer of his own pleasure, trying to seduce Dunya the hero’s sister, and leaving several deaths in his wake”. This desire of love for himself is not able to be forced on Dunya or reached through a lack of morality. He loses the expectation of ever finding love, and as opposed to Raskolnikov, he understands that his beliefs and ideas are incorrect. Dunya’s lack of affection for Svidrigailov aids in his decision to kill himself because his twisted misconception of life is destroyed. Although Svidrigailov thinks of himself as an authoritative figure, this does not free him from his need of others. In not being able to force others to his own accord, in not being able to carry out the reason for his existence, there is no person more deserving or in any better position to penalize ineffectiveness than the man in authority himself. Eventually, Svidrigilov commits suicide, because when he failed himself, he has committed a felony to the sole authority he thinks is significant: him. Svidrigailov becomes aware that suicide is the final retribution for his failure to surpass the convictions of mankind and vulnerability.

Svidrigailov is depicted as many things throughout the novel: a villain with his own intentions and shrewd methods, someone who is enslaved to his desires; but no one can repudiate the fact that he owns up to his actions. In contrast to Raskolnikov, he does not try to rationalize his unjustified desires and acts, because if he did this, that would mean he is controlled by morality. He does not even wish to show that he is more superior than other people, something that is dissimilar to Raskolnikov as well. Instead, it appears as if he has absolutely and remorselessly epitomized this characteristic in the way he acts. In his view, he is above it all. Svidrigailov does what he wants and is indifferent to morality and respectability while he does it. When Raskolnikov comments on his status and ability to act like a decent person, Svidrigailov responds with, “Oh, I’m not really interested in what anyone thinks of me”. He is so disoriented in his mind that others only take part as a limited role. Rather than being an image of weakness and loss, Svidrigailov’s suicide is the pinnacle of his ascendancy above conventional morality. It is his last declaration of victory over the world of the weak, and it depicts his ultimate authority over others. At this moment, it is discovered that the final result of the man with authority’s way of thinking, which was depending on himself for a degree of truthfulness, virtue, and happiness, caused self-destruction in the end.

In conclusion, Svidrigailov’s lack of morality allows him to want authority over others, and when he fails to achieve this goal, he decides to commit suicide in order to rise above conventional morality and perform his final triumph over the world of the weak. In Crime and Punishment, there are similarities between Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov. Svidrigailov notices this and says, “Well, didn’t I say that we had certain points in common, eh?” The significance of Svidrigailov’s suicide is that Raskolnikov could have potentially endured the same fate. There were times where Raskolnikov contemplates suicide, telling Dunya, “I wanted to end it all there, but…I couldn’t bring myself to do it…”. However, in the end, their decisions give readers two extremely distinct views of life and where to discover its purpose. Raskolnikov picks life and religion through Sonya by turning himself in for his crimes, while Svidrigailov never thinks that the human condition can be reversed. Without his control over Dunya, he does not have a reason to live. For him, the sole method in terminating human suffering is to commit suicide before the time is up. The message Dostoevsky conveys through their decisions is that the conscience Raskolnikov possesses, however much it torments him, is superior to Svidrigailov’s reckless impulses. Even though Raskolnikov suffers because of his conscience, Svidrigailov suffers as well; but Raskolnikov turns to God and allows himself to be saved with the help of Sonya and the thoughts of his family and friends, while Svidrigailov has no one to go to and no one to rescue him, ultimately leading to his decision to end his life.  

07 July 2022
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