A number of dreams, although short, feature prominently in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. During the course of the novel, Raskolnikov finds himself experiencing disturbing and violent visions as he sleeps. Their seemingly disjointed imagery may initially appear confusing, but the symbolism belies a deeper connection with his responses to the events of the text. The dreams pry open Raskolnikov’s subconscious in ways that the rest of the novel often struggles with achieving. They offer an unguarded glimpse into his mind and thoughts. Raskolnikov’s dreams specifically act as venue for his subconscious to play out his anxieties regarding his extraordinary man theory.
Raskolnikov struggles throughout most of the novel with trying to reconcile his extraordinary man theory and accepting his reality as an ordinary man. One of the main motivators for the murder of the pawnbroker can be said to stem from his beliefs. He asserts that “an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right…that is, not an official right, but his own right to allow his conscience to…step over certain obstacles, and then only in the event that the fulfillment of his idea—sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind—calls for it” (259). If Raskolnikov counts himself as one of the extraordinary, then his transgression, the murder, can be justified as it helps the rest of humanity, or at least those who had suffered from the old woman’s greed. However, as Porfiry and Razumikhin point out, the theory contains some significant flaws. Raskolnikov offers no way of distinguishing the ordinary from the extraordinary. This easily allows for some dire mix-ups where “a person from one category imagines he belongs to the other category” and may murder without guilt (262). The ordinary man, believing himself extraordinary, might step over those obstacles but only bring destruction rather than betterment to humanity because of his ordinary status. The rebuttal implies that Raskolnikov himself might be one of those ordinary men deluding themselves as extraordinary. The dissection of his theory creates new fears and doubts which are brought to a head in his dreams.
Parallels to Porfiry’s and Razumikhin’s objections regarding the theory most obviously appear in Raskolnikov’s last dream, where he finally confronts the flaws in his belief and accepts his ordinary status. The apocalyptic content of the dreamscape presents an extreme version of the theory’s failings. The disease his fevered mind conjures up acts as an analogy for the ordinary men who convince themselves that they are extraordinary. In the dream, the infected people “considered themselves so intelligent and unshakable in their truth” that they were able to justify killing each other over the differences in their individual truths (547). Unsurprisingly, the actions of these ordinary men masquerading as extraordinary only wrought destruction and the almost complete extinction of humanity. Raskolnikov, presented with this vision, finally accepts that he had symbolically fallen ill to such a disease. This realization, however, is not the first time he makes the connection between disease and crime in the novel. Even within the first part of the novel, while Raskolnikov braces himself for the murder, he meditates on the two. He concludes that the “darkening of reason and failure of will take hold of a man like a disease, develop gradually, and reach their height shortly before the crime is committed; they continue unabated during the moment of the crime itself and for some time after it, depending on the individual; then they pass in the same way as any disease passes” (71). This non-descriptive disease echoes the one of the nightmare. Raskolnikov, however, simply has not accepted so early on in the novel that he too has fallen prey to the same illness he outlines and that his sickness will not pass as easily as in the description. He must first cross that threshold that will allow him to consider his limits.
Raskolnikov’s dream about murdering the pawnbroker again emphasizes a critical moment in the narrative in which he must begin to consider the flaws of his theory. All of the scenes in and surrounding the dream are rife with images of a threshold. Raskolnikov stands on bridges, at gates, and in intersections, such as after chasing the man who accused him of murder, at moments when he needs to come to a decision about himself and the crime (272). Likewise, the nightmare is bookended with Svidrigailov’s terrifying arrival specifically at the doorway of Raskolnikov’s apartment. The emphasis on thresholds imbue the dream with an eerie quality, letting imagination and reality bleed together, “as if the dream were still going on” even after he wakes up. This muddling gives more legitimacy and immediacy to the events of Raskolnikov’s dreamscapes. They are just as important as the events of the waking world. Raskolnikov lingers at and crosses over multiple thresholds in the dream, revealing that he has changed a major component of his beliefs, even if only subconsciously. For the third dream, this is him beginning to doubt his place in the extraordinary man theory. Much of the dream deals with impotency. At the climax, Raskolnikov futilely attempts to kill the pawnbroker again, who only laughs at his ineffectual efforts. When he turns, he finds a crowd watching, “all hushed and waiting, silent,” just as the still “copper-red” moon earlier in the scene had watched an increasingly panicked and agitated Raskolnikov (277). He cannot deal with others, whether its humanity or nature, watching his failure and judging his actions. He feels shame. This emotion goes at odds with his theory, which believes that only ordinary people experience guilt and “whip themselves” for their transgressions (262). A truly extraordinary individual would not. The dream shakes Raskolnikov so much in part because he realizes that he does feel some measure of guilt or shame and consequently starts doubting whether or not he really is the extraordinary man he believed himself to be all along.
Raskolnikov’s dreams live out the subconscious doubts he retains regarding his extraordinary man theory and his place in it. Some of the main flaws of the concept are made explicit by Porfiry and Razumikhin’s critiques. These objections manifest mostly in the last dream in the form of an apocalyptic disease. Although extreme, the nightmare highlights how reprehensible, corrupt, and lethal of an idea the theory espouses. The scene finally pushes Raskolnikov towards the possibility of redemption in the epilogue, but only after he allows himself to admit that he might be ordinary. He does so in the third dream where he relives the murder and fails to kill the pawnbroker again. The emphasis on reoccurring thresholds and judging eyes show how Raskolnikov has reached a moment of change in the novel. He finally begins to doubt himself in earnest and consider the possibility of his ordinary status. By the end, it is a designation he learns to embrace.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. Crime and Punishment. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Print.
4 pages; 1,100 words