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Raskolnikov and Frankenstein: The Deadly Search for a Rational Paradise

Jonas Zdanys

Cithara: Essays in the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, 16:1 (1976), 57-67

[{57}] European thought of the nineteenth century is marked by the Romantic belief in, and the struggle against, the idea of the importance of unlimited individualism, a concept first made popular by the German philosopher Johann Fichte. According to this idea, which spread quickly and widely from Germany, the ego becomes the "creator of the world," and makes use of objective reality only as a means through which subjectively predetermined, and rationally conceived, ends can be served. That notion finds its most extreme expression in this period in the idea of the "hero," a figure who is allowed to act in whatever way he deems necessary in order to insure the progress and the development of world-history. The "hero," in this view, manipulates outside reality, lives free of the compulsions of morality and necessity, and strives to lead the world toward perfection, to a "heaven-on-earth" shaped by the unfettered work of his own hand. This is the Nietzschean idea of the superman which, like the earlier Hegelian idea of the necessarily immoral and even criminal "executor of the world-law," seems to work only as a speculative abstraction. Other writers of the period, especially the philosophical novelists, in their examinations of the idea question its moral and philosophical validity and demonstrate that the attempt by the "hero" to institute an earthly paradise leads only to excess, to a situation in which heroic strivings degenerate into the demonic, and through which the "hero" falls prey to the very forces he unleashes and attempts to manipulate. The "hero," in this case, is a victim of himself and suffers through the torments of self-affliction. As is the fate of Napoleon in his last years, he finds that his own intense strivings in the end have brought him only the pain of exile, and the terrible fall into social and intellectual impotence. As Paul Ricoeur writes in The Symbolism of Evil, "freedom must be delivered, and . . . this deliverance is deliverance from self-enslavement."1 It is this idea, -- that the "hero" as conceived and portrayed by some important writers in the last century is a character who enslaves himself as he searches to find or to institute a rational paradise, -- which I will examine in this essay.

{58} Fictional portrayals of the search for a rational paradise, for a man-made state of perfection, involve presentations of the activities of characters who aspire to a goal of their own design, motivated by supreme ambition. It is ambition, and the pride that attends it -- a Titan-like rebelliousness of spirit and attendant belief in the ability of the individual to overcome all obstacles on his own, relying only on his own powers of reason -- which make for difficulties for characters who are not capable of adequately dealing with the situations. Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, suffer the fates or all those caught in like circumstances: unprepared, they fall victim to their own schemes. Their ultimate fates differ, though, in that one finds release and salvation while the other does not; one allows his dreams of saving mankind to perish while the other perishes at the hands of his embodied dream. I would like to begin this discussion with a look at why Raskolnikov, even though he indulges in "heroic" excess, comes to find salvation.

Rodion Raskolnikov exists in a moralistic universe, in which he struggles to prove to himself and to the world that he is possessed of a "mankind saving" power, that he is an "extraordinary" man. Unlike the Faustian hero-villain, for example, who is really possessed, Raskolnikov is not possessed by a readily identifiable outside entity. Rather, he is a man torn by two different aspects of his own self: a passive, religious personality and an imposed, aggressive, Western personality.2 It is the aggressive part of Raskolnikov's personality that seeks to dominate. The Faustian hero-villain, a character literally possessed, is destroyed, primarily, because one of the two absolutes, good or evil, must triumph in the world of absolutes in which he lives. The moralism of his universe insures his defeat. Raskolnikov, on the other hand, figuratively possessed, is saved because he has the potential within himself -- embodied in the passive, religious half of his personality -- for salvation. The moralism of his universe paves the way for redemption.

Raskolnikov lives in a world which outwardly has few absolutes. His society is crumbling: Petersburg is floundering as a result of the collision of traditional Russian passivity and imposed Western aggressiveness. It is a society, with its "reeking, dusty, corrupt air," which drives men to commit acts they cannot control. Yet, beneath these surface manifestations, Raskolnikov's world is a world in which traditional Christian concepts of suffering and guilt operate. Suffering is inherent in his universe. There is a consciously established dichotomy in the book which pits suffering, passive, innocent women -- Sonia, Lizaveta, Dunia -- the absolute self-sacrificers, against impure, aggressive victimizers. There is a dichotomy between "earthly" ambitions to dominate and "spiritual" passivity and acceptance of suffering.

{59} In that world, Raskolnikov is a man guilty of misdirected ambition and rational pride. Raskolnikov primarily desires to prove to himself that he belongs to the category of "extraordinary" people, that he is not a "louse" and "scoundrel" unconditionally dependent upon the laws created for him by others, and upon the restrictions imposed on him by nature. In short, he wishes to live a "heroic" life. To make his point, he murders a pawnbroker and her sister. In his resolution to kill the old moneylender, he persuades himself that he intends to do his duty toward humanity, to adjust God's creation. Soon after the murder, however, he realizes that the act he had considered transcendent, falling within the boundaries of the "heroic" and the "extraordinary," is nothing more than an act committed solely for personal gratification, though certainly of a rather complex variety. He realizes that he has murdered solely to satisfy his ambition and vanity.

I simply killed her; I did it for myself, for myself alone.
He falls ill from wounded pride, and from the sad realization that the "heroic" in his hands has become the barbaric. He admits to himself that he has failed, and even contemplates suicide, but his wish for punishment is stronger. He who would be a great hero must suffer greatly. Self-humiliation becomes an indispensible pleasure:
I am a louse because I myself am perhaps worse and nastier than the louse I killed, and I knew beforehand that I would say that to myself after I had killed. Is there a horror like it! The pettiness! The villainy!
Commendably, Raskolnikov does not shift his responsibility onto others or vent his fury on them. He does, however, torture Sonia after his defeat.3 He reduces the meek and innocent girl to tears because he is frustrated by the collapse of his grand schemes. He later exclaims:
Oh, how low I've fallen! No, what I wanted was her tears; I wanted to watch her fear: I wanted to see her aching, suffering heart! I had to have something to hang on to, a chance to linger and watch a human being suffer! And once I dared to aspire, to hope and to dream! What a beggar I am, what a nobody! How vile, vile!
With this realization, that he is not "extraordinary," he experiences a tormenting feeling of self-hate and a longing to take revenge against himself. It is that desire, along with the desire to rid himself of "the blind melancholy and anxiety" he feels, which motivate him to return to Peter Petrovich and confess his crime.

Raskolnikov, thus, because of his ambitions, becomes a man who seeks to victimize in an attempt to prove that he is capable of victimizing, of asserting himself and living up to his own theory of heroism and of the accompanying, necessary transcendence of Law. Theoretically, before he has actually committed the murder, Raskolnikov {60} believes that he can act with control, that the aggressive side of his personality has that ability. However, in practice, he does not act with control. Schizoid, possessing both an aggressive and passive personality, Raskolnikov, in the end, cannot transcend his own nature. He reproaches himself, feels humiliation and guilt. He internalizes the evil act, feels that he has failed in his attempt to transgress, and longs for chastisement. As Paul Ricoeur writes, "guiltiness is never anything else than anticipated chastisement itself, internalized and already weighing down upon consciousness."4 Raskolnikov's guilt is that which designates "the subjective moment in fault."5

Raskolnikov's self-accusative guilt is the result of the failure of his attempt to carry out his prideful, "extraordinary" project. He is guilty not only because he has committed an act which is ugly and evil, but also because he has committed an act he could not control: his ambitions have been greater than his power to control the situation he has created. His conception of reality has compelled him to regard his ambitious striving for power and domination as heroic courage. He has misled himself: engrossed in his own idea, he has overlooked reality, overlooked his real self,6 and feels humiliated because he has blindly misjudged everything. As such, he feels himself defiled, defiled through an act of murder, and is filled with self-hate:

Would Napoleon sneak up to an old bag like that along her bed! Oh hell!
. . . The old woman was only a disease I wanted to step over as quick as I could. . .
. . . To step over, ah, to transgress . . . I didn't kill a person I killed a principle! I killed that principle, but step over -- well, I didn't step over. I stayed on this side. . . .
Raskolnikov's defilement, defilement that comes from spilled blood, is not something that can be removed by washing. Moreover, writes Ricoeur, "the maleficent power of which the murderer is a bearer is not a taint that exists absolutely without reference to a field of human presence. Only he is defiled who is regarded as defiled."7 Raskolnikov is defiled because he feels himself defiled:
I am a louse . . . because, in the first place, I'm pondering the fact that I'm a louse.
Raskolnikov has been guilty of the pursuit of a rational paradise and a heroic ideal that do not exist. Like Faustian man, Raskolnikov has been guilty of the sin of pride, guilty of sacrificing himself to the illicit pursuit of earthly ambition. However, if the Faustian hero-villain is at the extreme pole in the good-evil dichotomy, then Raskolnikov is trapped between the two poles, possessing in his schizoid personality the potential for either. He is defiled. seeking expiation. Caught {61} between the two poles, possessing the ability to move either way, Raskolnikov has the potential to find salvation. Throughout, Raskolnikov vacillates between defilement and purification. He has defiled himself through a murder triggered by misdirected ambition. His expiation and purification come, finally, through the removal of guilt, with the attendant epiphany and acknowledgment of responsibility for one's predicament, and the acceptance of order. This is as far as Dostoevsky takes us. The question of the process of Raskolnikov's salvation, we are told, is the subject of another story. We are left with Raskolnikov awaiting his spiritual regeneration.

Still we are faced with the question of how Raskolnikov manages to rid himself of guilt and move to order through expiation. L. A. Zander, in his book Dostoevsky, speaks of a "spiritual transformation," the result of a miracle that takes place within Raskolnikov which cannot be explained and which we take on faith alone. Zander states that the Lazarus story Sonia reads to Raskolnikov is "the anticipation of what was to happen to him who had murdered his own soul and lay, unrepentant. in the stench of sin."8 These elements are certainly present. Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov's "spiritual transformation" as an occurrence no less than miraculous:

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him at her [Sonia's] feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees . . . He had risen again and knew it and felt it in all his being.
Raskolnikov's expiation, his "miraculous" spiritual transformation, is the result of and grows out of expiation of self-accusative guilt through confession -- not only to others, but also to himself. Raskolnikov confesses to himself when he states: "I simply killed her; I did it for myself, for myself alone." Once he has confessed to himself, once he realizes that he has acted falsely and for improper motives, that he has transgressed laws which had been formulated to prevent "ordinary" men from committing transgressions, he burns with the need to confess to others. He decides to "declare himself" to Sonia, to tell her that he is the murderer. Raskolnikov confesses because he no longer wants or needs to delude himself. Confession is the process by which atonement can begin. By confessing, Raskolnikov, the victim of ambition and rational pride who had sought to victimize others to justify his belief in and search for a rational paradise, accepts his rightful place in the social order. More importantly, however, Raskolnikov realizes just what his act of victimization really was. As he says to Sonia:
Did I kill the old hag? No, not the old hag -- I killed myself. I went there, and all at once I did away with myself for ever!
{62} Here, Raskolnikov, a man who had attempted to establish himself as a "hero," in the end realizes that he has acted for an empty concept and that he has victimized only himself.

Raskolnikov's realization, however, saves rather than destroys him. He is not, like the Faustian hero-villain, driven to despair by the knowledge that all he has believed in has been singularly without meaning or value. Because he possesses his dual personality, he is capable of accepting suffering and of absorbing such a realization without succumbing to despair. In Raskolnikov's case, self-victimization is that which opens the door to salvations. Without it, without the insight offered by the personal epiphany he undergoes, without the realization that he alone is responsible for his actions and for his condition, Raskolnikov would have continued floundering, caught inextricably by the blind melancholy and anxiety which plagued him. In the end, he would have taken the path his "double" Arkady Svidrigailov takes: unable to resolve the crucial question of the book, "Am I a monster or am I a victim?" Raskolnikov, like Svidrigailov, would have found a gun and ended his torment. But, because he realizes that he is both monster and victim, and that he has monstrously victimized himself, Raskolnikov is renewed and reborn into a different. better life, marked by a renunciation of human selfishness, a denunciation of the idea of "heroism," and a movement back into a community with others. It is there, and only in this way, Dostoevsky tells us, that hope is restored, that the ravaging effects produced by the misdirected "heroic" search for a rational paradise are reversed, and the process of finding salvation is completed.

Self-victimization is not a source of salvation for Mary Shelley's tormented Victor Frankenstein. His misguided, "heroic" search for a rational paradise, spurred on by his "curiosity, [and] earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature" [1.1.5], ends in pain, defeat, and death. That ending is made all the more painful because Victor Frankenstein realizes that his own attempts to "penetrate the secrets of nature" [1.1.7] have caused his demise. The culpability is on his own shoulders:

When I look back, it seems to me as if this change of inclination and will [he refers to a time in his youth when he gave up his ill-fated studies] was the immediate suggestion of the guardian angel of my life -- the last effort made by the spirit of preservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars and ready to envelop me . . . It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual. Destiny was too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terrible destruction. [1.1.10]
He means, of course, that his own insatiable curiosity to learn the "secrets of heaven and earth" [1.1.6] prevented any sort of premonition or {63} warning made by the universe from having its effect. His ambition to be more than a man, his "heroic" dream to establish and to control an earthly state of perfection, drives him on. Ironically, he ends his search by pursuing, attempting to kill, and being killed by that embodied dream.

Victor Frankenstein, unlike Raskolnikov, does not desire to prove that he is capable of transcending existing laws or of violating socially sanctioned moral codes, although he, like anyone in search of an earthly paradise, ends up doing just that. Rather, he attempts to determine the basic causes of life and, like an ambitious demi-god, create it on his own. The contrast here between Raskolnikov and Frankenstein is significant: Raskolnikov, in the attempt to prove his theories of transcendence of law, takes life; Frankenstein, in his attempt to achieve that "glory [which] would attend the discovery [of the] elixir of life" [1.1.8], creates life. Frankenstein, however, is the guiltier of the two: Raskolnikov only takes; Frankenstein gives then attempts to take back. As the creature he creates from materials gathered in cemeteries, dissecting rooms, and slaughter houses comes to life, Frankenstein flees. His previous zeal to create life changes to repulsion at the ugliness he had created:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite plans and care I had endeavored to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun sockets in which they were set, his shriveled complexion and straight black lips . . . the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. [1.4.1]
By fleeing this terrible vision, Victor Frankenstein rejects his creature, and throughout the tale continues to deny it the happiness and security it craves.9 This rejection and denial, from one perspective, is the root cause of Victor Frankenstein's tragedy. Having taken upon himself the ambitious role of godlike, heroic creator, Victor refuses to assume the accompanying responsibilities and thereby forces his creature to grovel miserably in a world in which other beings also reject it for its external ugliness. This continuous rejection leads the creature eventually to become a "monster" bent on a murderous revenge.

The revenge the creature takes, while terrible, is not without {64} motive or reason. Confronting Victor the creature explains his actions:

Believe me Frankenstein, I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me . . . These bleak skies I hail, for they are kinder to me than your fellow beings. If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my destruction. Shall I then not hate them who abhor me? [2.2.6]
The creature, then, whom "misery . . . made a fiend" [2.2.5], asks Victor for the love a creator ought to hold and adds, "if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends" [2.2.4]. The creature places the responsibility for his actions squarely on his creator's shoulders, but the creator fails to recognize the significance of the act. By refusing, by replacing heroic determination with the shudders of a coward, Victor damns his friends and wife to death, and himself to a life of torment.

The creature's revenge, though indirect, is a revenge against his creator. Although he cannot strike out directly against his "god," the creature can abuse his creator by "destroying all [he] lovedst" [Walton 12]. "One by one," Victor tells Walton, "my friends were snatched away: I was left desolate" [3.6.4]. The irony, of course, is that Victor not only has a chance to prevent all this, but that he is directly responsible for the deaths of his friends and for his own torment. After all, he created the creature; he created the very instrument by which his own doom is sealed.

That realization, sadly, comes too late. Victor stuns himself with the sudden epiphany: "the murderer whom I have created, . . . is a miserable demon whom I have sent abroad into the world for my destruction" [3.6.5]. This realization, that he has been responsible from the very start for his own fate, along with the torments he has already endured, prove too much for Victor. Exhausted and abandoned, feeling himself "cursed by a devil" and carrying around within himself his "eternal hell" [3.7.3], Victor dies. The would-be hero becomes a victim of himself and of his own misdirected and proud ambitions. Victor can find release only through death. There is no peace or salvation to be found on earth (and no promise of salvation after death) for the man who wished to make the earth conform to the guidance of his hand. In the end he learns that such a hand only grips itself.

Viewed from another perspective, Frankenstein is more than the story of a man who creates a creature who eventually drives his creator to destruction. The relationship between Victor and the monster, as Harold Bloom writes, is "based on a central duality in Mrs. Shelley's novel . . . the monster and his creator are the antithetical halves of a single being."10 Such a view, of course, involves {65} a metaphorical reading which shines a different and, perhaps, more illuminating light on the idea of the disintegration of heroic strivings into the blind gropings of the self-victimized examined by the novel. More importantly, it points out a major theme in all works which examine that issue: if Frankenstein and his creature are antithetical halves of one self, then the struggle between them is actually a struggle between opposing parts of one "self," a struggle between the self and a part of itself. Victor recognizes this and the fact that the creature is part of him early on:

I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind and endowed with the will and power to effect my purposes of horror, such as the deed which he had now done, nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave and forced to destroy all that was dear to me. [1.6.8]
That realization is a powerful and a painful one; it haunts Victor throughout the rest of his life and is a major motivating factor in his pursuit of the creature. Faced by the deaths of his friends he exclaims: "I am the assassin of those most innocent victims, they died by my machinations" [3.5.2], and drives onward to settle the score.

The struggle that ensues involves a blurring of the distinction between pursued and pursuer, a significant point when the metaphorical and psychological nature of that struggle is taken into account. The resolution of that struggle, if, indeed, it is a struggle between warring parts of one "self," involves the death of one part [Frankenstein] because of the other [the creature]. That, in the end, leads to the death of both. The creature realizes that his victory is a hollow one: "while I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires." Feeling himself to be "miserable and . . . abandoned, . . . an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on" [Walton 15], he realizes that the only avenue of escape left him is death. In agony, he springs from Walton's ship onto an ice raft and floats away to his inevitable and necessary demise.

The Victor-Creature "self" in Frankenstein ends its self-inflicted torment through death. Unlike Raskolnikov, who is also a "duality," the Victor-Creature "self" cannot find salvation because it lacks the ability to fall back on religious or spiritual faiths and because it cannot accept a place among "ordinary" men because it is so far from the ordinary. It has nothing outside of itself to sustain it. It faces the universe alone. There can be no rebirth of the Victor-Creature "self" because it has placed its reliance on and belief in the ability of its own reason to transcend and overcome all obstacles as it tumbles headlong in its "heroic" search for a rational paradise. It does not realize that one obstacle cannot be transcended or overcome: in the end it cannot transcend itself. "Polluted by crimes and torn by the {66} bitterest remorse" [Walton 16], trapped in a world which does not promise ultimate salvation, it is the cause of its own temporal and eternal demise.

Thus, rather than the theoretically possible paradise-on-earth established by exertion of rational processes and heroic actions proclaimed by some in the 19th century, in practice all that's found is external void and internal vertigo.11 Heroic gropings, we learn from these two works, lead only to severe confusion and to the terrible destruction brought about by the enslavement of the self by the self. Dreamt of transcendence becomes only a descent into the darkness of self-annihilation, a state which can be avoided only rarely and only by the man who, through suffering and the attendant epiphany based on faith, is capable of acknowledging culpability and prudently reaccepting his place in the established order. We learn that the destruction of the would-be "hero" is brought on by his own action and perversity, and this, coupled with the sense of retributive justice which marks his fate, not only makes the suffering of the self-victimized intelligible, it also points the finger of blame in warning: human suffering and evil are stamped with the mark of human responsibility. There are few, if any, gods to blame. He who wishes to become great through the illicit pursuit of selfishly determined ends, does so at the sure risk of gaining nothing and losing all. The would-be superman, we are told by these works, becomes only another poor creature of threadbare existence, frantic and grasping, whose bold attempt to force the world to progress ends only in personal regress. This idea stands in powerful and significant opposition to that expressed in the 19th century by the proponents of unlimited individualism. More than that, it stands as an answer to the persistent call for the "hero" to fill in the gap left by the proclaimed death of God. Here is a reaffirmation through negations: as the "hero" attempts to fill that gap, he succeeds only in defeating himself and his purpose; by doing so, he demonstrates the weakness of the man who has cut his link with the cosmos, and thereby casts a suspicious light on the very notion of "heroism," and, by implication, reaffirms the need for God. This is an important aspect of 19th-century fiction, and a reevaluation of the crucial works of the period in light of this idea may prove valuable for a better understanding of the age as a whole.


1. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston, 1967). p. 152.

2. Temira Pachmuss, in F. M. Dostoevsky: Dualism and Synthesis of the Human Soul (Carbondale, Ill., 1963), writes that Dostoevsky's novels dramatize the duality in man. They "show man in all his hidden perplexities and contradictions and reveal powers at goodness and evil within him such as most men would seldom be ready to acknowledge to themselves. With merciless artistic force [Dostoevsky] exposes human nature with its deeply rooted conflict between reason and instinct, and the dual struggle between man's spiritual and creaturely being." (p 17)

3. See especially Part IV, Chapter 4, Sidney Monas translation.

4. Ricoeur, p. 101.

5. Ibid.

6. For an elaboration of this idea, see Pachmuss, p. 34.

7. Ricoeur, p. 36.

8. L. A. Zander, Dostoevsky, trans. Natalie Duddington (London, 1948), p. 18.

9. See Harold Bloom's "Afterword" in Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (New York and Toronto, 1965). Bloom also says that if "Frankenstein had been an aesthetically successful maker," none of his troubles would have arisen, for "a beautiful 'monster' or even a passable one would not have been a monster."

10. Bloom, "Afterword," p. 213. Bloom explains what he means by this in the following way: "Frankenstein is the mind and emotions turned in upon themselves, and his creature is the mind and emotions turned imaginatively outward, seeking a greater humanization through a confrontation of other selves." Muriel Spark makes a similar point; see especially Chapter 11, Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1951).

11. "Void" and "vertigo" are terms I borrow from Robert Martin Adams' brilliant study, NIL: Episodes of the literary conquest of void during the nineteenth century (New York, 1966).