A paragon of realist literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky deftly exposes nihilism in his novel, Crime and Punishment, published in 1866. Its protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, is intelligent yet bitter and unfeeling, having denounced his morality and bonds with society. He embodies the qualities of nihilism, the desertion of all emotional and ethical concerns. This philosophical doctrine is historically ubiquitous, particularly with the Nihilist Movement, one of Imperial Russia’s Great Reforms, and the growing apostasy and atheism of postmodernity; both instances aptly highlight the abandonment of virtue, individual and societal.
Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex-student living in St. Petersburg, the grimy, plagued, and urbanized capital of the Russian Empire. He “is nothing but a poor half-crazed creature, soft in temperament, confused in intellect” (Waliszewski), a maverick who believes he must deliver society from mediocrity. Deluded, he murders Alyona Ivanovna, a pawnbroker, and her unsuspecting half-sister, Lizaveta. Throughout the story, Raskolnikov undergoes transformations in all facets of his life, many of which are attributed to his infatuation with Marmeladov’s humble daughter, Sonia. Forced into prostitution, she is seen by Raskolnikov as a fellow transgressor of morality, but also as a savior that will renew him. This new development causes him to decry his nihilistic lifestyle as desolate and insufferable and to expiate, ending his self-imposed alienation and long suffering. Notwithstanding the title, the story has little to do with the crime or the punishment; the true focus is the turbulent internal conflict of Raskolnikov - the constant doubting of his motives and the psychological torment he endures.
Raskolnikov’s egotism and unsentimentality alienate him from society, for he views himself superior and all others as subordinate. He narrowly evades confronting his landlady, not out of shame of his unpaid dues, but because “he had become so completely absorbed in himself, and isolated from his fellows that he dreaded meeting, not only his landlady, but anyone at all” (Dostoevsky 1). This strict, voluntary estrangement from his peers and society exhibits nihilism, because he values only the individual.
Intrusive thoughts do not always develop into actions, as most people dismiss them as ‘fleeting annoyances’, but when they do, the consequences are potentially disastrous. Raskolnikov has many intrusive thoughts about murdering the miserable pawnbroker. After a close encounter with his landlady, he thinks, “I want to attempt a thing like that and am frightened by these trifles’” (Dostoevsky 2). This is one of several duplicitous ideas that pass through Raskolnikov's mind. He is contemplating the death of an innocent not so much for her money - the obvious motive - but to prove his superiority to society, which he blames for his crippling poverty. Even theoretically, he is a nihilist because a mere consideration of killing requires some...