Consider with me the contents of chapters four and five of Crime and Punishment. (See, I’m not going to do a post per chapter after all.)
Short summary: Raskolnikov goes wandering and musing, as he is apt to do. He thinks about his mother’s letter and of his murderous plans and becomes extremely upset, as he is apt to become. He then sees a young girl with her clothes torn, completely drunk and unaware of her surroundings, and he perceives that a man following her has designs on her in this state. Raskolnikov attacks the man, determined to save this young girl from any further trauma, and he gives a policeman a great deal of his remaining money to get her a ride home. Then, as quickly as it came, his sympathy dissolves and he laughingly tells the policeman to just let the man do as he will. No use interfering with fate. The policeman thinks he’s crazy. He’s probably right.
Raskolnikov falls asleep in the bushes and has a terrible dream about being a child walking with his father and watching a helpless old horse be beat to death. It’s one of the worst parts of the book, but it’s so important. Then he walks home, swearing off all murderous thoughts and feeling better for having made the decision. He takes a long route home and stumbles upon the pawnbroker’s sister, Lizaveta, in conversation. He learns Lizaveta will be away from the house tomorrow evening, and he, in despair, decides this opportunity to catch the pawnbroker alone means that his fate is sealed. He must kill the old woman.
Here come the contradictions that make Raskolnikov so human and so interesting. He believes that, if he doesn’t make a decision about the murder, he must resign himself to an entire life of helplessness. “He must decide on something, or else…’Or throw up life altogether!’ he cried, suddenly in a frenzy–‘accept one’s lot humbly, as it is, once and for all…'” Raskolnikov will later claim that the murder was an assertion of power, an expression of his supremacy and control. Yet, when he makes a decision in chapter five–a decision not to kill–it seems to him as though fate then takes away this ability to make decisions and assert his agency. Killing the pawnbroker means powerlessness to Raskolnikov in this moment, not power.
After he decided to renounce his “dream,” as he calls it, of killing the pawnbroker, his meanderings bring him through the haymarket, which he claims to like to visit. Despite that the chapter gives a reason for him to be there–he likes it there–he thinks of the detour from the route home as a cruel magnetic pull of fate and nothing else. To him, it is as if some bizarre circumstance for which no one could possibly account cursed him and sent him to that place, sealing his future actions without his permission. Dostoyevsky says Raskolnikov felt “superstitiously impressed” that this route was the “predestined turning point of his fate,” and it was “as though it had been lying in wait for him on purpose.” He hears of Lizaveta’s impending absence and “he felt suddenly in his whole being that he had no more freedom of thought, no will, and that everything was suddenly and irrevocably decided.”
It’s strange because it takes much more choice to actually go out and kill someone, or even to take a different route home because you like the area. Yet these are the things that strip Raskolnikov of his feelings of agency. Deciding to take no action against the pawnbroker–to let fate decide her path and to not intervene–made Raskolnikov feel free. After dreaming of the horse’s violent death and hearing his father say “it’s not our business” and encouraging Raskolnikov to take no action, you would think that it would be the opposite–that it would be action that gave Raskolnikov relief. He could certainly (outwardly) justify killing the pawnbroker. Doesn’t she act as a symbol of all the abusive and greedy monsters Raskolnikov has encountered in life? Isn’t she like the fat woman, rich and gluttonous, cracking nuts and laughing as the poor horse is struck with an axe? (Well, no, but that’s another post. I’m saying he could certainly convince himself that this is righteous vigilantism.)
He has such intense bouts of empathy for others, and he very much wants to intervene. The situation with the young girl and the horse are completely parallel. Something helpless is in trouble and Raskolnikov will do anything for them: fight for them, give them every last penny. In his dream, his father encourages him not to interfere in these injustices. With the young girl, you can almost see the father figure rise up and overcome child-Raskolnikov as he turns 180 degrees, claiming no one should intervene–it isn’t anyone’s business what happens but the girl’s and her stalker’s.
What Raskolnikov seeks is power, but all he sees–and some of this is probably self-imposed martyrdom–is his helplessness at every turn. This is Raskolnikov’s struggle. He wants to do something good in a world that makes him feel powerless to do good. Or he wants to at least avoid the pain of trying to change things and being helpless to make a difference. He can’t make either one happen.