I’ve finished Crime and Punishment, and I’m more certain than ever that Svidrigailov is what Raskolnikov would be if he’d been born into different circumstances. Well, let me qualify–the two are hardly twins in their core values, and their social personas are quite different. But their nature is composed of the same stuff, I think.
Yes, Svidrigailov disgusts Raskolnikov. Notice Dounia and Raskolnikov are both extremely chaste and seem fairly scandalized by anything that has to do with sex. So in this sense, Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov are nothing alike. But by the time that he and Svidrigailov meet in the pub (their last interaction), Raskolnikov knows that he doesn’t have much moral high ground. His former hope that he is an exceptional person is unfounded, and he knows it. So Raskolnikov calls Svidrigailov base due to his disgust for Svidrigailov’s particular vice. But Raskolnikov has his own vices–pride, indulgence of sadism, etc.
And, really, think of the interactions that go on in Sonia and Svidrigailov’s building. Svidrigailov makes it quite clear that Dounia is completely at his mercy. In fact, he comes right out and declares his intent to assault her then and there, noting that his physical strength is much greater than hers. It’s certainly true that Raskolnikov would never do anything of that sort. But think of the way he treats Sonia in her room. Doesn’t he seem to come there just remind her how helpless she is? Make her feel trapped? Doesn’t he come to there outrage and horrify her?
And as hostile as we might feel toward Svidrigailov due to the nature of his threats, consider this–all Svidrigailov’s anecdotes point to his psychological power to seduce. He knows exactly what his target is thinking, he understands what governs their behavior, and he knows how to manipulate people. During the bar conversation, Svidrigailov claims to have had a woman completely convinced that she was innocent of any wrongdoing throughout an affair, only to tell her afterward that he believed her to be just as eager as he. Now, Dounia couldn’t sacrifice her purity willingly–he knows that she is too chaste. And he truly believed that they had shared some kind of chemistry back when she was his governess. What Svidrigailov was doing was attempting to seduce Dounia by giving her a way out, a guilt-free way to give in to her feelings for him without hating herself. When Svidrigailov saw from the look in her eyes that she was completely cold to him, he quickly let her go on her way. He’s never wanted to have any woman against her will, and especially not Dounia. He gets off on consent. He likes to manipulate his way there, true, but he wants to be wanted back.
And I think that Svidrigailov felt differently toward Dounia than he did toward other extramarital prospects, I really do. I mean…
PAUSE FOR SPOILER ALERT. Do not read on if you aren’t finished with the book.
…he does kill himself afterwards, and how many other women have there been and could there be int the future? Dounia was special. (I think there was another reason he killed himself as well, since he showed his suicidal intent before being rejected by Dounia. But I’m just saying. He doesn’t do it until after seeing if she’ll have him.) Just as Raskolnikov is not as bad at heart as he seems, neither is Svidrigailov. It’s proven in other ways, too.
Think of Svidrigailov’s last night. If Raskolnikov was rich, couldn’t you see him doing the same thing? Giving away everything he had, spending a feverish night dreaming of children with lost innocence, hallucinating that he is helping people only to find them turning on him…tell me that isn’t Raskolnikov through and through.
The difference is that Svidrigailov is bored. He can afford to be bored because he is comfortable. He’s past his more youthful days where he might be more inclined to brood, rage against the system and try to find his identity through testing theories. And he wasn’t starving and sick. Imagine Raskolnikov growing up more comfortable than he is, marrying into wealth, and trying to adjust to life from there. He’s not much inclined toward sensuality, but surely he’d become lost in another passion in order to keep himself from dying of sheer boredom. It’s a world with too little to offer such a mind. Svidrigailov is terminally bored. He says so several times. And he doesn’t really care for the money. He just gives it all away. I think Svidrigailov is just what Raskolnikov would have become if he had developed under different circumstances and was fifteen years older. He’s maybe not the mirror image, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities.