‘Dostoevsky’s World is Peopled with Abnormalities’ – Discuss

The central characters of Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment are anything but ordinary individuals.  Both men have overstepped society’s conventional boundaries and adjusted their lives according to their individual, unorthodox reasoning.  Furthermore, in Crime and Punishment, other characters displaying unconventional attitudes, are also introduced, thereby lending support to the statement that Dostoevsky, on the evidence of these two works, chose to ‘people his world with abnormalities’.  However, to give full justice to such an extreme assertion it would seem necessary to look within Dostoevsky’s fictional worlds for standards of ‘normality’ against which to contrast his extraordinary characters.  Within this framework, it must be acknowledged that many of the characters encountered by the nameless underground man and Raskolnikov exhibit conventional behaviour and uphold traditional moral values.  Simonov, Zverkov, and Liza, none without personal flaws, nevertheless must be considered as representative of the conventional, or normal.  In Crime and Punishment, traditional standards of virtue and relatively uncomplicated attitudes to life are chiefly provided by Avdotya Romanovna and her mother Razumikhin, and Sonya Marmeladov.

Both the underground man and Raskolnikov are victims of the socio-political climate of contemporary society and both have undergone an identity crisis, manifesting definite traits of paranoia and schizophrenia.  Both men are obsessed with an extreme idea of personal autonomy.  The underground man is prone to hypochondria and suffers from hypersensitivity and a chronic lack of self-confidence which manifests in perversely anti-social behaviour and acts of self-abasement.  He relates a deprived childhood: as an orphan, he grew up prematurely and saw his childhood and schooldays as representing ‘wretched bondage’.  He was ‘browbeaten’ into introspection and acute shyness so that on entering school he already considered himself a misfit.  Believing himself endowed with more than usual sensitivity, he proceeded to cultivate his innate vanity in intellectual pursuits, thus isolating himself further from his schoolfellows and setting the pattern of his future behaviour.

While yearning to participate in life, this appears to him to be impossible and he feels impotent and resentful.  Choosing self-exclusion from a world of hypocrisy, he holes himself away in his ‘mean and shabby corner’ in largely self-imposed poverty, to contemplate the evils of the world and his own inadequacies.  His self-degradation is extreme; he constantly refers to himself as an insect: ‘I was a fly, a nasty obscene fly’ adopting insect-like movements and activities: ‘darting’; ‘crouching’; ‘I would gnaw and nibble and probe and suck away at myself’.  In his aberrant fashion, he rationalizes that conformity would be impossible for him and even if made possible, not worth the effort, but that either way, some inherent or intellectual resistance would prohibit any such exertion.  In this way, he accounts for his extraordinary mode of existence.  Like Raskolnikov, he vacillates between a compulsion towards exclusion and a desire for acceptance in society.  In his desire for intensified sensation, he deliberately courts humiliation in degrading acts, relating, for example, his strangely comic and pathetic campaign against an officer who inadvertently insulted him, and expounding on the pleasures of toothache.

There are many incongruities in the underground man’s character; he indulges in romantic and lofty dreams of heroic pursuits and despite his malice, he is nevertheless tolerated to a remarkable degree by his friend Simonov and shown pecuniary trust on more than one occasion by his superior, who ‘never lent money to anybody’.  His eloquent and fundamentally altruistic speech to the unfortunate prostitute, Liza, not only serves as her moral corrective, but leads to her demonstrating absolute faith in his heroic qualities.  Paralleling Sonya Marmeladov, Liza, through her purity, can offer the underground man redemption, but this is ultimately rejected because of his own doubts about his motives.  Nevertheless, through the attitudes of such characters, Dostoevsky generates sufficient sympathy for the underground man to leave the reader in some doubt as to whether he is abnormal or simply idealistically confused.

Raskolnikov is an altogether more attractive character than the underground man, while at the same time sharing some of his aberrant traits.  Raskolnikov, too, has retreated into his miserable ‘coffin-like’ room, there to indulge in bouts of introspection.  He, too, lives in poverty and debt, though less, in his case, from personal choice.  To some extent, the reader sympathizes with Raskolnikov from the outset.  We are presented with an agreeable young man, impoverished through social injustice, to such a degree that he is unable to complete his chosen career.  Raskolnikov contemplates freedom, but in a rather different way from the underground man.  His motive for murder transcends conventional rationale, being complicated by his individual thesis of humanity.  His motive is partly philanthropic and partly a scientific exploration of his own ego. 

The underground man would perhaps have scorned at Raskolnikov’s ‘rational egoism’ and discounted such logic.  It is Raskolnikov’s thesis that mankind comprises two distinct types: a minority of supermen-leaders and a majority of weaker followers.  Those supermen, he feels, are not, and should not, be bound by convention or moral restraint.  In order to prove his thesis and assess his own qualifications to the group of supermen, he justifies his murder plot.  However, a superman, by definition, is superior to other men and therefore not ‘normal’.

Raskolnikov’s instability is shown in his vacillation between cynicism and compassion in all his actions.  Razumikhin describes Raskolnikov’s ambivalence: ‘He is kind and generous… [but] sometimes, however, simply inhumanly cold and unfeeling.  Really, it is as if he had two separate personalities each dominating him alternately’ [Part 3, Ch. 2].  And just like the underground man, Raskolnikov demonstrates this duality throughout the story in his constant swings between alienation from society and the urge to identify with it.  Unlike the underground man, however, Raskolnikov accepts the tortuous path of expiation and redemption offered by the purer mind of Sonya.  The sympathy Dostoevsky evokes in the reader for Raskolnikov seems to indicate that he views his character not as an abnormality, but rather as an explicable and understandable deviant.  Raskolnikov’s mental disturbance was exacerbated by his circumstances and is fully redeemable.

The reputations and characters of Svidrigaylov and Luzhin precede their appearances in Crime and Punishment; in Svidrigaylov’s case, provoking such disgust in Raskolnikov that he adopts the name as a term of abuse long before he meets Svidrigaylov in person.  Svidrigaylov’s past is rich in hints of atrocity and crime; of violence and several murders – none of which, curiously enough, is actually verified.  Whatever the truth may be, Svidrigaylov cannot be considered to belong to Dostoevsky’s small cast of virtuous, uncomplicated characters.

From his first meeting with Raskolnikov, his easy manner and implied recognition of a kindred spirit, sets him firmly in company with Raskolnikov and the underground man, the significance difference being that Svidrigaylov, does not belong to the minority group of supermen to which Raskolnikov aspires and of which the underground man is contemptuous.  Raskolnikov’s group of supermen are not amoral.  Their actions are means to a higher end, whereas Svidrigaylov lacks all moral restraint, ignoring any distinction between good and evil.  He lives his life solely in pursuit of sensual experience, but this is mostly borne out by suggestion; for example, it is never made clear if he is responsible for the deaths of Marfa Petrovna, the servant, Filipp or the young deaf-mute girl; but there are strong hints of nympholeptic tendencies with his sixteen year old fiancée; and after overhearing Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonya, he uses his information not, as Raskolnikov fears, to elicit justice, but in a desperate and rather pathetic plot to satisfy his overwhelming lust for Dunya.  Svidrigaylov’s final dream before his suicide re-emphasizes his perverse sexual appetite and the sheer insouciance of his suicide sets him apart from ordinary mortals.  Instead of a superman, he is perhaps, in some respects, a subman.

Svidrigaylov condemns himself, which saves the reader from having to do so.  At every appearance he is presented more as a charming rogue than a monstrosity.  His acts of generosity are seemingly performed without any expectation of gratitude or redemption.  The sole key to his salvation having been withheld by Dunya, Svidrigaylov chooses suicide as the ultimate experience and the only escape from the tedium of life.  Unlike Raskolnikov’s two alternatives (‘a bullet through the brain or Siberia’ [Part 6, Ch. 6]), Svidrigaylov had none.  He had stepped so wide of the boundaries that for him there could be no retreat and so ironically, he compounds his fate in the euphemism of a journey to America.

Like Svidrigaylov, Luzhin also lacks a conscience.  Clearly Luzhin represents a type of person for whom Dostoevsky can feel nothing but contempt and this is evident in his total absence of sympathy for this character.  If Luzhin is not ‘abnormal’, he is certainly odious.  He is a manipulator of the lowest order; avaricious and unscrupulous in his exploitation of the more vulnerable characters.  He is esteemed by no one, except perhaps the late Marfa Petrovna, who has distant kinship to excuse her.  The good-hearted Pukeria Alexandrovna was alerted to Luzhin’s baser instincts at their second meeting, when he callously outlined his requirements in a wife; and she swiftly and apologetically calculated what her own fate would be on Dunya’s marriage.  Luzhin’s meanness, aimed at keeping the impoverished woman under his thumb shows his interest in money as power.  His plan backfires, but it is his inherent vindictiveness and overriding obsession with revenge that ultimately brings his downfall; his pecuniary god turning against him.  ‘Why the devil was I such a Jew’ he laments, ‘I simply wanted to keep them as badly off as possible and so lead them to see me as Providence’ [Part 5, Ch. 1].  Luzhin reaches his nadir of depravity when he crosses the bounds of normality with his base trick on Sonya which fails because of his misjudgement of Lebeziatnikov, an unsavoury character who has been used and abused by Luzhin.

Dostoevsky comically and colourfully condemns Lebeziatnikov as a ‘putrescent abortion… uninformed, obstinate fool’ [Part 5, Ch. 1], but in the end, Lebeziatnikov is redeemed by his ‘great kindness of heart’ which causes his spontaneous intervention in Luzhin’s malicious plot against Sonya, thus demonstrating his innate moral sense.

If Luzhin is Dostoevsky’s least attractive character in Crime and Punishment, the unfortunate Marmeladov and his wife are certainly the most pathetic.  The Marmeladovs have not transgressed the social boundaries in the same way as Raskolnikov and Svidrigaylov, but they are tragic victims of their society.  Marmeladov’s consumptive wife is almost magnificent in her madness.  As his wife, she had been brought to the lowest social depths while continually feasting on past memories and delusions of grandeur.  She responds to any act of kindness by elevating her benefactors in social status and conferring upon them the privilege of acquaintanceship with her father.  This is the highest expression of her gratitude and not one she expects to be rejected.  When Luzhin does so, she is left ‘thunderstruck’.  ‘She could not understand how Peter Petrovich could disown her papa’s hospitality, she herself regarded it as gospel’ [Part 5, Ch. 3].  In sublime irrationality, Katerina Ivanovna spends her last roubles on a commemorative dinner for her unworthy husband and later dresses her children as street singers and forces them to dance and beg in the streets, while she herself is dying.  She is passionate in her sense of justice to her last hour, when she dramatically rejects the services of the priest to save a rouble and puts almost defiant trust in divine justice.

Like the underground man, Marmeladov seeks out degradation and humiliation, claiming a ‘thirst for affliction and weeping’.  When he tells Raskolnikov ‘I drink because I wish to multiply my sufferings’ [Part 1, Ch. 2], he is echoing the underground man’s desire for intensified experience of life.  He earns public derision by relating his story in a tavern; relishes the humiliating prospect of being dragged by his hair as is his wife’s habit and stoops to the lowest point of degradation in talking the last kopeks of Sonya’s ill-gotten earnings for drink.  He illustrates the underground man’s final words that man has lost his way in the world because of an inherent antagonism to a mode of conduct based on rational egoism.

To return to the statement that ‘Dostoevsky’s world is peopled with abnormalities’, this essay has examined some of these apparent abnormalities through the author’s eyes and the eyes of other characters interacting with them.  Dostoevsky himself might have viewed his creations as spiritually defective, rather than  ‘abnormalities’, or perhaps as victims of an oppressive social climate, rendered extraordinary by their individual attitudes and approaches to the difficult task of survival in such a world.  It is perhaps true that a writer like Tolstoy would have little use for such characters, and one like Jane Austen would have no use at all, but this does not render them unreal.  Charles Dickens, after all, peopled his world with not entirely dissimilar characters.

About the author of this work

Lynette Sofras is a former Head of English at a London High School.  She now divides her work days between editing and writing (mainly) women’s fiction.  You can read about her novels on her website: http://www.lynettesofras.com

(Texts referred to: Penguin Classics edition of Notes from Underground and Oxford World’s Classics’ Crime and Punishment)

The free online text of Notes from Underground is available from Gutenberg Press

and for Crime and Punishment

Further online reading (all sources accessed June 2016):

Kant's Aesthetics in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

The Literature Network

Notes from Underground: The Guardian: Review

Brief Chapter by Chapter Summary of Crime and Punishment


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