Amidst the squalor of Crime and Punishment stood a dark figure who was Svidrigailov. He appears after the main character, Rodya Raskolnikov realized that he was not an extraordinary man, exempted fro,m the rules than govern the affairs of the common man such as morality, decency and religion.
Svidrigailov treads the line between a villain and a sympathetic character. In this sense, he seems to be one of the most complex and enigmatic character’s in Dostoevsky’s Crima and Punishment.
The complexity of his character is manifested in the acts he undertakes through out the novel. He is presented as a generous benefactor to Sonya and her family when her parents died, yet the reader would know that this is only a ploy in order for him to get closer to Rodya, brother of the object of his lust, Dunya. It is unclear whether he is absolved of killing his wife, and it is even more unclear whether it is mere lust or is it a much deeper love which propels him towards asking Dunya’s hand in marriage. His motivations, tainted by base desires and his means, two-faced and vaguely suspicious lead the reader to think that he is a clever mastermind who is ready to do anything to achieve the object of his desires.
However, this theory of an enigmatic but one-dimensional villain becomes weak when one considers the point of the novel. I have already established in a previous article that one of the possible aims of the novel, Crime and Punishment, is to criticize the Nietzsche-an theory of the extraordinary man, a human person who is naturally exempted from the constraints imposed upon him (or her) by society through its rules of morality and propriety. Seen in this light, Svidrigailov may be viewed as the realization of Nietzsche’s hypothetical person.
Svidrigailov, much like Raskolnikov, seems to not be incapable of doing “good” things. The readers see this in his final actions before he “goes to America.” Here he had nothing to gain. He had already been turned down by Dunya, and in no way does this benevolent act help him achieve any diabolical goal. Perhaps, one may say, it is appeasement to his battered conscience. But up to the last moment, we see no regret or remorse in the part of Svidrigailov. We only see a gun in his mouth and his finger pulling the trigger.
Svidrigailov is shown to be a lot of things in the story: a villain with his own motives and clever means, a slave of desire… But in all this, it cannot be denied that he exhibits full responsibility and agency for his actions. Unlike Rodya, he does not turn to some philosophy of some greater good in order to justify his perverse goals and actions. To do so would man he is still subject to some code of morality. He does not even harbour an insecure urge to prove himself above others, unlike the main character. Rather, it seems that he has fully and unapologetically exemplified this fact in his actions. As far as he is concerned he is above it all. And we do not hear from him a monologue justifying how he is. He just straight up does what he wants to get what he wants: disregarding morality and decency in the process.
This is what makes Svidrigailov more of an ubermensch than the main character. But what does his development as a character tells us?
It may tell us that even with his transcendence of the codes that govern human society, the ubermensch is still not an island. The fact that his independence is dependent upon how he exerts power over others means that his overman-liness is dependent upon the individuals he dominates and subjects. This point is seen through how Dunya’s rejection led to Svidrigailov’s eventual demise. The overman’s life and power does not exempt him from his necessity of other people. And in failing to subject other people to his will, in failing to fulfil the point of his very existence, there is no executioner more worthy nor more capable of punishing impotence, the overman’s only possible crime, than the overman himself. Ultimately, Svidrigailov kills himself, for in failing himself, he has commited a crime to the only authority he deems worthy: himself.
Here we may find significant differences in the characters of Rodya, the insecure pseudo-overman, and Svidrigailov, the epitome of the ideal overman. I have already said that while they both have perverse intentions and undertake evil acts to pursue their own ends, Raskolnikov felt the need to appeal to a conception of a greater good., while Svidrigailov seems to be absolved of this. But more importantly, in being thwarted, they both contemplate suicide. They both realize that this is the ultimate punishment for their failure to fully transcend the shackles of humanity and dependence. But only Svidrigailov followed through. Rodya found himself to weak to do it, and in doing so he further proves to himself that he is not an extraordinary man.
Rather than an expression of weakness and defeat, Svidrigailov’s suicide is the culmination of his transcendence over traditional morality. It is his final expression of triumph over the world of the weak. Here we find the ultimate consequence of the overman’s philosophy of relying on himself for a standard of truth, goodness and happiness: self-destruction. And Dostoevsky hits this point even harder with Raskolnikov’s dream.
Raskolnikov’s final dream, like the one he had with the tortured horse, is his soul trying to make sense of the implications of his philosophy, without the insecurity and pride which he is blinded of when he is awake. In his sleep, he sees a society wherein everyone was the final authority on their own versions of truth, and fought tooth and nail to impose it on others. Everywhere was war and chaos and disunity. In a society where there is no morality but one’s own interests, where everyone is exempted from the constraints of decency and propriety and are thus free to pursue their own goals, might makes right (if there is such a thing as right), and things fall apart.
The dream leads Rodya to realize that the independence of the overman cannot be reconciled with the mutual interdependence imposed upon everyone by external circumstances. The overman cannot exist as true master and tyrant over the people on whose existence his power and will is dependent upon. And if everyone aspired to be tyrants, to be masters of our own fate and captains of our own soul, we will all aspire to be lords over other lords, which would only lead to a state of war.
On a personal level, Rodya is reconciled with humanity in realizing his need of external forces, of other people, to fulfil his longing for love and salvation from the tyrant which is his own pride and selfish interest. He is not an ubermensch. He cannot live like an ubermensch. He realizes his limitations and needs and his own hypocrisy, and thus begins his journey back to humanity, the paradise he lost. And the journey begins in repentance.