Post-Con Arts, Through the Lens

Lens on Literature: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Note: This post inaugurates a new feature format on DevLens, in which a work of literature is examined briefly from the perspective of adult development theory. The intent is to provoke readers’ thinking about the psychological perspectives within the subject piece and in other writings, without conforming the blog post to the style of literary criticism or explication.

From the perspective of constructive-developmental psychology, Dostoyevsky’s classic novel might also merit the title Society Distinguishing Expertism from Opportunism.  (Wikipedia provides a plot summary and character sketches here.)

The Diplomat meaning-making system of mid-19th-Century Russia is the central axis around which the psychology within Dostoyevsky’s characters turns: particular societal expectations, as well as the general principle of deriving one’s identity from social status and interpersonal relations, are the foreground of this novel, with each character locatable somewhere on the Opportunist-Diplomat-Expert spectrum.  The novel explores the conflicts among these differently-developed characters as they struggle to understand the action logics of each other and to reconcile emotions of scorn, love, hate, and magnanimity.

In general, the label of “crime” reflects society’s designation of Opportunist behaviors beyond that society’s tolerance, behaviors that defy the society’s Diplomat worldview of proper roles and actions.  Criminal behavior is often characterized as “anti-social behavior” for this reason, even in contemporary systems.  The protagonist, Raskolnikov, can be seen as lamenting the arbitrary conflation of Experts with Conformists and striving to prove himself capable of acting as a reprehensible Expert who evades condemnation, as Raskolnikov’s model, Napoleon Bonaparte, has done.

One hypothesis: Raskolnikov may be seen as an Expert who feels constrained by the Diplomat nature of society.  He experiences stresses that perhaps temporarily limit his psychological capacity: extreme poverty and consequent hunger; the temporary reduction in judgment quality brought on by excessive alcohol consumption; and the experience of thought patterns and behaviors that may signal mental illness.  He understands social expectations, but he chooses deliberately to flout them.  What may signal a contraction rather than a maximal limit is Raskolnikov’s awareness of the spiritually constraining effects of these stressors when he sees them in other people (Marmeladov for alcohol and poverty both; Marmeladov’s wife for mental illness).  We even see Raskolnikov think through his decisions about how to respond to each of these stressors, and this awareness of choice implies that he is encountering the choice from a place of greater capacity yet that he chooses the less wise option intentionally (to give away his money, to drink, to rebuff therapeutic intervention for his apparent illness).

Another hypothesis, which I tend to favor: Raskolnikov may be seen as an Opportunist struggling and failing to make meaning at the Expert stage, which is beyond his grasp.  Perhaps he feels affinity for the aspect of psychological separation or distinctiveness that both these stages share, while he holds contempt for the integrative nature of Diplomat or Achiever.  Raskolnikov seems to admire successful Experts, though he chafes at antagonism from Porfiry Petrovich, the detective who follows an exacting and ultimately effective method in his investigations and prosecutions.  One argument in favor of viewing Raskolnikov as an Opportunist rather than an Expert is his desire to manipulate Porfiry in order to achieve Raskolnikov’s own ends, rather than a desire to have Raskolnikov’s view of the world validated by Porfiry as superior – though to some degree, the novel mixes these two goals.

Russian society, in a way a Diplomat-stage character in this novel, clearly sees Raskolnikov’s deed in an Opportunist light: murder for the sake of self-sustaining robbery.  Raskolnikov claims to hold loftier, philosophical goals that he means to distinguish himself from a common criminal, but ultimately he is forced to acknowledge that the underlying goal of proving his theory right is just as self-sustaining a motive as robbery.

Raskolnikov’s breakthrough in the epilogue may be the surrendering of an Opportunist self to the affections (integrative aspect) of Sonya’s Diplomat worldview, ceasing to justify his own actions and grieving the loss of the old way of holding the world, in which he was always right. In this way the experience of “punishment” may have served as adequate challenge for Raskolnikov’s transition toward Diplomat, with Sonya’s voluntary love as the support for that transition (unlike his mother’s love earlier, which was based on an involuntary relationship, a distinction important to Raskolnikov).

The most sympathetic characters of the piece, Razumikhin and Dounia, experience a transition from Expert stage to Achiever stage partly as a result of their participation in their friend and brother’s life during this period.  It is noteworthy that Dostoyevsky draws these two characters together in matrimony and lends to them more sympathetic portraits than to the novel’s protagonist, as if to highlight the distinction between their admirable qualities and the loathsome, immature nature of Raskolnikov.  In some ways, they may represent the psychological development to which Raskolnikov himself aspired, though in the end the latter must resign himself not to leaping forward in stage but to stepping out to Sonya’s affectionate Diplomat grace.


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