Crime and Punishment: Svidrigailov as Raskolnikov’s Doppleganger

Well, I’m far beyond posting for every chapter now. I am exactly 62% through the book (the glory of having a Kindle is that I know this) and I am disheartened; there’s now so much I want to say that I’m not even sure where to begin.  So before I get into my main topic, just a few updates on wrong assumptions.

1. I don’t think Raskolnikov’s mother is manipulative after all. I think that, if we can trust anyone, we can trust the omniscient narrator. These are the facts that Dostoyevsky wants to share with us about his plot.  And omniscience says that Pulcheria “had only that morning thought rupture with Luzhin a terrible misfortune” before the family gives him the boot at dinner.  So Pulcheria, I believe, really is just a hand-wringing babbler who wears her heart on her sleeve. She did, in fact want the marriage to Luzhin to happen.

2. The reoccurring theme of power vs powerlessness manifests itself with the discussion in Sonia’s room.  Raskolnikov fluctuates wildly, first bowing to all the suffering of humanity/kissing Sonia’s feet and then scorning her immense sacrifices, which provide no real solution at all to her family’s problems. Sonia is still unable to alter her family’s destiny, and Raskolnikov rubs her helplessness in her face. Once again, it’s the pull of two Raskolnikovs–one that wants to give every last penny away as he starves (like Sonia) and one that is like his father that advises avoiding trying to help others because, well, what can he do? Indeed, what can Sonia do?

3. I was wrong in assuming the men in the bar just planted the thought of murdering with the excuse of justice in Raskolnikov’s brain. I had forgotten about one of the most important parts of Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov’s article that was of such interest to Porfiry. Raskolnikov had the idea of justified killing far before it was suggested at that bar, so it really was as if circumstance was eerily setting up the murder of the pawnbroker and poor Lizaveta. Oh, I have so much to say about that article he wrote…oh well, another time.

And now for the topic at hand: Raskolnikov’s rather sinister but more suave twin, Svidrigailov.

The first time I read this book, I thought Svidrigailov was pure evil. I especially thought that after the rather dramatic scene with Dounia near the end. He was conniving, devious, a little rapey, terrifying…what isn’t pointing to evil? But every re-read, I have liked Svidrigailov more and more (and Luzhin less and less). Certainly I’d noticed that Svidrigailov had said he and Raskolnikov were alike before, but only this time do I realize how right he his.

The way Raskolnikov reacts to Svidrigailov when they first speak is quite like how others react to Raskolnikov (specifically, “He is a madman” and “‘You are certainly mad'”). Svidrigailov has the same awkward laughter, as if he has inside jokes with himself. He daydreams aloud without thinking, alarming those around him (think of Raskolnikov scaring off the friendly stranger after handing money to the young girl singing at the market).  He’s significantly introspective and forces people into conversations that make them uncomfortable.  He believes he sees ghosts, just as Raskolnikov sees things in delirium. He speaks of being ill, and he imagines that eternity might be one little corner filled with spiders (this tiny space to inhabit is a reoccurring theme in Raskolnikov’s thoughts, though the spiders seem to be lacking in his version, thankfully). Raskolnikov cries about the justice of Svidrigailov’s described eternity, but really only one manifestation of Raskolnikov is concerned with justice–the little boy that wants to kiss the dead horse and come to blows with its owner. The other manifestation of Raskolnikov believes Sonia’s stepsiblings will be left helpless and all her sacrifices will be for nothing, and he has no trouble confronting the injustice head on. This version of Raskolnikov, to me, sounds very much like the cynic who would picture a corner of eternity with spiders.

Svidrigailov “rarely lies,” and he’s so blunt I’m prepared to believe him. Think of the sentence “‘What do I mean? I really don’t know…’ Svidrigailov muttered ingenuously, as though he, too, were puzzled.” 1. It’s quite clear that he is honest, and perhaps too muddled in the brain to be otherwise, and 2. wow, how easily could that line be coming from Raskolnikov? But, while being honest, Svidrigailov avoids full disclosure.  He must. So his speech is full of phrases that he knows bear a heavy significance to him and him only, and, understanding others cannot know what is in his mind, he playfully hints at a larger picture. An example of this is Svidrigailov’s abstractly described “journey” (proving, in my mind, he has planned to kill himself before even getting to St. Petersburg).  Raskolnikov does this constantly as well–he loves to talk about the murder with people and chuckle and hint at things of great significance, but only for his own personal enjoyment–or masochism.

His own enjoyment or masochism. That’s the clincher. That’s why Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov are the most alike.  And it’s why I think I like Svidrigailov no matter what a knave he is. They never bother to think about what others think of them. They simply do not care an iota. They’re so lost in their own psyche that other people only play a fringe role. Sure, Raskolnikov cares if the police know what he’s done–when they’re around, and only because it concerns his future.  What he never thought of until recently in the book is what Razumihin will think when he finds out. And Razumihin has furiously defended Raskolnikov throughout the book, so it’s rather a surprise to think Raskolnikov never had a moment of “if only you knew!” Likewise, Svidrigailov says “I am certainly idle and depraved” and makes no apology for it or show any concern that Raskolnikov thinks it. In fact, he plainly says, “I am not particularly interested in anyone’s opinion” when Raskolnikov talks about how others view him, and from the bluntness of the entire conversation, it’s hard for me to think he isn’t telling the truth.

For someone trying prove he is Napoleon, Raskolnikov sure cares little about how others see him. He is possible the least self-conscious character I’ve read, at least as far as his awareness of how he comes off to others and his concern as such. It’s all about proving his thoughts internally harmonious–with proving himself to himself. He is the opposite of Luzhin, seeking affirmation and flattery everywhere he goes. So Svidrigailov is the opposite of Luzhin, too. It’s what I like about Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov–in that way, as well as others, they are very alike.

2 responses to “Crime and Punishment: Svidrigailov as Raskolnikov’s Doppleganger

  1. Hi. Are you still doing this blog? Just finished C&P and thought S. was perhaps the “dead” identity R. left behind, the Lazarus who never rose. S. is the perfect antithesis of R: he is calm, calculating, manipulative, un-selfconscious and nihilist. He kills himself. R. swerves close to all of those things but does none, although he “kills himself” metaphorically in his act of murder (as he himself says to Sonya). Had R not turned himself in and embraced his suffereing and repentance, he would have ended up like S.

    • Wow, apologies for this terrible unresponsiveness. I was out of the country when you commented and it just flew under the radar when I came back. I’m pretty much the world’s worst blogger.

      I think this idea is fascinating. You’re right. Where Svid is calm, Rask is a hysterical mess. Svid is calculating, as you say; Rask tries to plan, obsesses over his plans, even, but is so unstable and impulsive that you get the feeling he has no control whether or not he follows through on anything he’s thinking. All the things you list, yes, totally–Rask is the opposite. And I think there’s a really good argument to be made that, for that reason, they’re way closer to potentially being the same.

      However, I personally wouldn’t make the exact argument that you’re making here, that Rask would become Svid if he hadn’t turned himself in. And I’ll tell you why. The book is loaded with evidence that Raskolnikov is mentally unhinged in a desperate way. He was even before he murdered the pawnbroker, and it only got worse from there. I don’t know how that resolves itself, but I don’t think he would just turn a corner and become the self-assured, jolly-faced (he can’t wear a mask for more than five minutes–see the encounter with Porfiry with Raz), and womanizing (ESPECIALLY womanizing!) person that Svid is. There are a lot of things that have to happen in order for him to go from the Raskolnikov we see in Crime and Punishment to Svidrigailov. I’m trying to imagine Raskolnikov getting mentally stable enough to even conduct himself in public like Svid instead of wandering around, muttering to himself. Rask needs some serious intervention by a professional/meds that I don’t think even existed then for him to become the cool, collected, and rather randy dude we see in Svid. It’s hard for me to imagine the path to that, and I would need someone to show me that path (oo, a sequel idea?) before I’d believe it.

      That being said, I’d love to see a more detailed argument for what you’re saying. Do you blog? You should. This is an idea worth sharing on a larger scale, and I’d love to see what a challenge to what I’ve said here looks like.

      Anyway, your thinking is the kind that will make reading rewarding on a level most people won’t get to experience. A lot of people just take in the words on a page until it’s time to close the book and move on to the next one. You’re doing the kind of reading that leads not only to excellent literary criticism but also to the best experience with books one can have.

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