Getting Away With Murder?
by Kim Sandy
Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment[i] features Raskolnikov – a highly intelligent man who begins to question morality and wonders why he should do as society dictates. He longs to become a ‘superman’ character with the power to break free and rise above the moral restraints that bind all of humanity. Raskolnikov begins by callously committing two murders, he kills an old woman and her half sister, but interestingly, almost immediately, he begins to wrestle with something he had not accounted for… his conscience:
“The old woman was a mistake perhaps, but she’s not the point! The old woman was merely a sickness . . . I was in a hurry to step over . . . it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle! So I killed the principle, but I didn’t step over, I stayed on this side . . . All I managed to do was kill. And I didn’t even manage that, as it turns out . . .” (Part III, chapter VI)
Raskolnikov proves that even when the natural moral law is violated the principle stating that it is wrong to kill remains firmly in tact. With his conscience raging within him he begins to drown in guilt and quickly realises that his efforts to silence his conscience are futile. He has risen up against an opponent much stronger than himself.
Frances Shaeffer said in one of his lectures that we can do away with morality, and many people do, but we can’t do away with damnation – meaning that we can intellectually reject morality, we can rebel against it, we can violate the natural moral law, but we can’t escape the consequences of doing this or the accusations of our own conscience.
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The natural moral law that Raskolnikov has violated is so powerful that Petrovich, the local magistrate investigating the murders, knows he can’t escape and says:
“What is it, to run away! A mere formality; that’s not the main thing; no, he won’t run away on me by a law of nature, even if he has somewhere to run to. Have you ever seen a moth near a candle? Well, so he’ll keep circling around me, circling around me, as around a candle; freedom will no longer be dear to him, he’ll fall to thinking, get entangled, he’ll tangle himself all up as in a net, he’ll worry himself to death!” (Part IV chapter V)
I recently read a fascinating essay by Steve L. Porter[ii] that contrasts Dostoevsky’s original mid nineteenth century Crime and Punishment with Woody Allen’s retelling of the story in his late twentieth century movie, Crimes and Misdemeanours. I’ve never seen the movie, but Porter observes how much the cultural context has changed over the years. The film insists that protagonist, Dr. Rosenthal, who commits a murder, can get away with it and avoid punishment – he even enjoys peace of mind over his crime. Rosenthal is perhaps the ‘superman’ of Raskolnikov’s dreams, but perhaps, like the man that came from the planet Krypton, he too is just a fantasy figure…
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