The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Justice in Crime and Punishment: Aristotle, Bakhtin, and Dostoevsky in a Dialogic Penetration of the Ultimate Manifestation of Virtue

Justice in Crime and Punishment: Aristotle, Bakhtin, and Dostoevsky in a Dialogic Penetration of the Ultimate Manifestation of Virtue

By Verónica Copello

This paper argues that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment appropriates Aristotle’s interpretation of justice as seen in Book V of Nicomachean Ethics, and that this notion is manifested through a polyphonic reading according to Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. This thesis implies that a new reading of Crime and Punishment demands a consideration of classical concepts of the philosophical tradition in light of contemporary aesthetics. This paper’s analysis demonstrates the necessity for this approach as we consider multiple ways in which actions are deemed just. Previous readings of Dostoevsky have shown a concern for morality through a view of Christian ethics, and because of this rely on a predetermined moral disposition. However, a reading concerning Aristotle’s ethics attempts not only to understand where a character’s view of morality is rooted, but to open the dialogue concerning these multiple standpoints. In this sense, we examine the need for a dialogic interaction regarding the ultimate manifestation of virtue.


Previous Readings

Early readings of Dostoevsky have focused on Notes from Underground for two main reasons: first, the novella’s abundance of existentialist thought, and second, the fact that its satirical opposition to Russian Nihilism portrays Dostoevsky’s approach to morality through the underground man’s reasoning (Pevear 14; Frank 4).[1] Dostoevsky assimilates the major doctrines of the socialist radicals of his time into the life of his underground man in order to reveal inevitable, tragic enigmas (Frank 4). This tragedy is a result of the Nihilist’s reliance on reason, that is, the weight of his conscience as an intellectual, that leads to actions bounded by determinism and an excuse for moral shortcomings. Consequently, this drives Dostoevsky to explore the underground man’s conflict through a search for his character.

This approach has particularly influenced readings of Crime and Punishment, as explained by Joseph Frank in his introduction to the 1981 Bantam Classic edition of the novel, and other scholars who defend their own readings of Dostoevsky (e.g., Siddiqi, Emerson, and Morson). Raskolnikov, the main character and the person responsible for the murder of the old pawnbroker, clearly possesses traits of the underground man; an example can be seen in the tension between intellect and conscience as he contends that “extraordinary people” are permitted to breach moral law because they carry an idea essential to humanity. In light of this, readings of Crime and Punishment have predominantly focused on the question of morality, and most often in the context of Christian religion. This is given by Dostoevsky’s personal experiences and the dominant religious philosophy in the context of the novel (Frank vi). Hence, Christian values—amongst them forgiveness, love, and compassion—are evident throughout the work as principles of moral conviction. For instance, Marmeladov, the alcoholic pitied by Raskolnikov, confronts the latter’s characteristically utilitarian belief in the superiority of reason with the “intense religious pathos of the helpless reprobate who hopes for the miracle of a pardon from Christ just because he is so painfully aware that he is the least worthy to receive it” (Frank xviii). That is, characters present a contrast between the values they believe should be put into practice, and these values most often reflect Dostoevsky’s view of the ethics of Christianity.

Other readings of Crime and Punishment have focused on gender issues, particularly the portrayal of the female character. In her study, Elizabeth Blake considers whether female characters author themselves in any significant way in the work, or if they are inscribed in the story of the male hero (253). Blake addresses Sonia Marmeladov’s self-sacrifice of chastity, stating that Sonia “transgresses a Christian moral precept in the belief that she is acting in the name of a higher justice” (252). This study does not only address the woman question, but also takes a concern for the moral actions of the character. This moral concept is once again grounded in Christian values that relate back to Dostoevsky’s motifs in the context of the novel.

There have also been interpretations of the novel that consider subjects relevant to philosophy. Given that Dostoevsky is often studied alongside existentialist philosophers, reading his work in search for truths pertaining to humanity is not uncommon (Siddiqi). Known for his research on Aristotelian ethics, pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, and contemporary aesthetic theory, Knox Hill presented one such way to read Crime and Punishment, arguing for the philosophical remarks found through explicit statements and implications throughout the novel (123). This type of reading presumes that the author intends to convey an argument, or multiple arguments, with the novel, and that these can be situated in relation to other ideas. According to Hill, however, Dostoevsky doesn’t simply expose a thought: he demonstrates the difficulties of acting on it (132). For example, through the conflicting approaches of Sonia and Raskolnikov when it comes to justifying their actions, Dostoevsky shows us the impossibility of a man of Raskolnikov’s intelligence to act without thinking, and he also shows us that those who can act without thinking—such as Sonia—in the end only add suffering to the world. Hence, neither approach could represent the “salvation of the world” (Hill 132).

These readings share one important aspect: a concern for the idea, that is, a concept that is exposed in Dostoevsky’s novel and that mirrors human life. However, while Christian readings concerning these ideas are not uncommon, classical readings are. According to classical philologist Carl Rubino, our tendency to idealize the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks has led us to cut them off from the world of today, and treat them as a closed system immune to our current concerns of human existence (152). However, the use of classical elements allows for a greater conceptual understanding of a modern preoccupation, and avoids the mistake of constraining our analysis by leaving out thinkers that could offer us relevant and perhaps perpetual arguments about our human existence. In this sense, a reading of Crime and Punishment implies the need for an interdisciplinary study that is able to combine historical, literary, and philosophical phenomena throughout the work. It also implies that a reading of the novel so closely concerned with morality demands attention to concepts of the philosophical tradition.


Aristotle and Bakhtin

One concept that has had little treatment in readings of the work is justice. Ironically, however, justice lies at the core of all other moral implications seen in the novel. This is evident as we refer back to the studies previously discussed in this paper: as Blake addresses the woman question, her focus on Sonia’s self-sacrifice is rooted on the higher consideration of whether her actions are just regarding the way they are manifested both towards herself and others; Hill’s reading for philosophical remarks is based on characters’ difficulties to act on ideas presented in the novel, as each character strives to act according to what they consider to be just. This concern for justice is in fact characteristic of one classical thinker in his study of human conduct: Aristotle. In Nicomachean Ethics, Book V, he takes us through his own intellectual journey in examining what he considers to be “ethical virtues.” Aristotle studies what sort of actions justice and injustice are concerned with, what kind of mean justice is, and between what extremes the just act is intermediate (Nicomachean Ethics 1129a).[2] He presents an examination of virtue that concludes in six types of justice, from which he considers one to be the best approach in order to determine what is just. We value this course of study for the ultimate manifestation of virtue because it implies the closest look into morality. In this sense, Aristotle creates a path for us to understand the importance of the expression of justice, and the multiple ways in which an action is determined just.

Following Rubino’s argument, the fact that this Greek philosopher wants us to think about how to make moral choices in a world of uncertainty is a sign of his modernity; Aristotle considers that our ability to make proper choices is rooted in a deliberation of character charged with uncertainty (Rubino 150). Therefore, we can look to his work in order to “start formulating an ethics appropriate to a world marked by novelty and spontaneity” (Rubino 152). This modern concern is carried onto the studies of Mikhail Bakhtin, whose highest academic consideration is aesthetics. According to Bakhtin, our world is one of “multiple values, multiple voices, and mess” (Emerson 7). He rejects absurd dichotomies and demonstrates the chaos of multivoicedness through the plots of great novels; Bakhtin understands the value of ethics through an examination of the aesthetic.

Taking this into account, a reading of Crime and Punishment that looks back at the classical concepts that Aristotle has defined demands to be considered through Bakhtin’s literary theory. We see this in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics as he navigates through Dostoevsky’s artistic form, and coins the term polyphonic to describe his thinking. Through a theoretical literary analysis, Bakhtin uncovers Dostoevsky’s artistic innovation. Therefore, it is necessary to recall the formal parameters that Bakhtin presents in order to perform a polyphonic reading of the novel.


Bakhtin’s Formal Approach

The chief characteristic of Dostoevsky’s novels is a genuine polyphony: a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses (Bakhtin 6). That is, Dostoevsky’s characters are not merely objects of authorial discourse, but rather independent and autonomous figures whose voices are heard alongside the author’s. In an analysis of previous theorists of Dostoevsky, Bakhtin takes us through attempts at understanding and synthesising characters’ multivoicedness. Observations by Valery Kirpotin, twentieth-century literary critic on Dostoevsky, are of interest to us as he defines Dostoevsky’s artistic method and recalls the author’s social and realistic character: Dostoevsky’s psychologism penetrates “the objective essence of the contradictory human collective [and reaches] into the very heart of the social relationships which so agitated him […] Dostoevsky thought in psychologically wrought images, but he thought socially” (qtd. in Bakhtin 37). This social thought is as much a concern for Dostoevsky as it is for Bakhtin and Aristotle; he portrays a world of interacting psychologies which much resembles the contradictions of human thought put forth by Aristotle’s examination of virtue, and is carried on by Bakhtin in his consideration of characters’ discourse. Each thinker’s work is rooted in the dialogic nature of human life and thought.

Having established this polyphony, Bakhtin continues with an analysis of the hero’s role, and the author’s position in regard to him. The hero is presented as a point of view, and what must be discovered about him is his final word on himself and the world (Bakhtin 48). What dominates the construction of the hero is self-consciousness, and is dominant precisely because it breaks down the monologic unity of the work. This grants a characteristic unfinalizability as there is nothing to say about the hero that he does not already know. The hero himself cannot finalize any definition, opinion, or prejudice about him because he is so painfully aware of them. This unfinalizability, then, is seen in a complexity where the character is often held at a threshold. And it is in this scenario that the personality is best made available, and only through what Bakhtin refers to as a “dialogic penetration.” This means that Dostoevsky’s hero constantly seeks to destroy words about him that attempt to finalize him. Following Bakhtin’s analysis of Raskolnikov’s characterization, the author enters the great dialogue of the novel as an equal to the hero, who in turn draws into dialogue all evaluations and points of view on his personality; he questions, provokes, and reinforces his thoughts, and argues with the author as much as any other personality in the novel (Bakhtin 75).

The final element of Bakhtin’s theory that interests us is the idea.[3] Dostoevsky’s hero is an ideologist, best seen when his discourse about the world merges with his discourse about himself. This is because the idea is inseparable from the hero, and can only become fully valid through his unfinalized nature. In Bakhtin’s words, there is a “great and unresolved thought” in each of Dostoevsky’s characters, and the most important evaluation of these characters is not the ordinary qualifications of their actions but their devotion to the idea (87). Therefore, the first condition for a truly valid idea is the unfinalized nature of the character. The second condition is to understand that the idea lives in dialogue: in order for a thought to be genuine, it must be “inter-individual” and “inter-subjective” (Bakhtin 88). The idea must exist in the dialogue between consciousnesses. Consequent to these conditions, Dostoevsky reaches into the nature of human beings in order to expose a thought representative of a character. He maintains a genuine dialogue through what he deems to be sincere thought: questioning, thinking, and even combining or juxtaposing human orientations (Bakhtin 95).[4]

The idea is of major concern to our analysis but, as previously established, it cannot develop without the hero’s conditions and a genuine polyphony. As we understand Aristotle’s examination of justice, the necessity for these conditions will become evident. However, it is first pertinent to understand the limitations of Bakhtin’s theoretical approach, as put forth by recent critical literature.

Bakhtin has mainly been criticized for his vagueness and generalizations. Caryl Emerson, who has devoted much of her work to Bakhtin studies, evaluates his ideas by examining a fundamental question in her research: “Do [Bakhtin’s] core theoretical ideas survive when they are applied, or does continued work with them only bring into focus their paradoxical, perhaps even fatally flawed sides?” (503). Emerson is most concerned with Bakhtin’s obsession with the novel’s “openness” and the lack of responsibility that this entails for each character. His argument that the primary task of the novel is rooted in the unfolding of potentials that can mimic real life precisely because they are unforeseen is an example of significant reliance on ambiguity (Emerson 510). This is reflected in the presence of the other that is the core element to polyphony: the implication that we do not know who we are or understand our own word until others respond to us. The main problem with this claim is the dependence on others to identify the self, and the possibility that those who shape the self may be wrong. Bakhtin’s loophole for this possibility is “an infinite supply of additional words to counter any verdict […] which works to define us in ways we can live with” (Emerson 513-514). This is where he insists on the importance of dialogue and a predisposed benevolence of the environment. Under these conditions, then, Bakhtin’s poetics are not problematic; however, because he fails to address the moral dilemmas that arise from his implications, his own theory becomes a dichotomy between real life and aesthetics. That is, a series of moral questions arise out of the ambiguous openness that Bakhtin authors great works with: how can we ultimately define our identity? How are we responsible for ourselves when the self relies on the other? (Emerson 512).

Furthermore, the presumption that dialogue is the optimal condition for the novel’s development also proves problematic. Emerson presents us with Aaron Foegel’s Coercion to Speak in order to consider an anti-dialogic perspective to Bakhtin’s assumption that dialogue is natural and social. This study argues that dialogue is not the normal human relation, and that in fact most human speech is forced or under constraint. This is certainly seen when Raskolnikov receives an unexpected visit from Porfiry Petrovich, who claims he wants to explain why he believed Raskolnikov to be guilty of the murder. Raskolnikov’s thoughts dominate the dialogue more than his speech, as he is forced into a situation, on the threshold, that he cannot escape. His dialogue is not natural, especially when compared to his other interactions with Porfiry, interactions where Raskolnikov is at the very least aware and willing of the situation. However, Bakhtin claims that the three meetings between Raskolnikov and Porfiry are authentic polyphonic dialogues, mostly because of Porfiry’s “special dialogic intuition that allows him to penetrate the unfinalized and unresolved soul of Raskolnikov” (61). This is one circumstance in which Bakhtin is capable of eliminating the concern for unnatural dialogue with his predisposed condition of benevolence. The appeal for value and a genuine concern to seek meaning drives him to ignore other conditions capable of dominating a situation.

However, even as we question the application of Bakhtin’s theoretical ideas, we cannot undermine their value in what literary critic Wayne Booth considers to be the essential task of all criticism: to drive readers to rethink the critical standards applied to canons, and the anticanons that those standards lead to (xxvii). In other words, while Bakhtin’s analysis of Dostoevsky may be ambiguous and guilty of generalizations, his intellectual journey of the novel has led us to consider literature from a theoretical point of view that places enormous value on the human condition; his material for ideas unfolds from reality. We see this in the value he places on dialogical and analogical thought, in an attempt to unite the human condition with the aesthetic. This he shares with Aristotle: a social view of the world where the interactions between human beings are essential to the development of an idea. Gary Morson, scholar in Slavic studies, indirectly addresses this phenomenon when he states that “great works invite the dialogic process” (356). In fact, he also argues that experience defines the self, a characteristically Aristotelian thought, in his defense of Bakhtinian ideas. But what best encapsulates the importance that we give Bakhtin’s theory in this analysis is Morson’s claim that “Bakhtin inherited the moral urgency of Russian literature and turned it into a theory” (350).

In fact, that “moral urgency” is what we regard as the examination of justice in Crime and Punishment. As previously stated, we are concerned with this concept because it is the ultimate manifestation of virtue in a world driven by social and dialogic interactions. Therefore, it is necessary to define the term just as put forth by Aristotle’s intellectual journey, and understand why the Bakhtinian model is necessary for its treatment, not only in the novel, but also in the real-life experiences that its plot resembles.


Aristotle’s Justice

As a moral disposition, justice indicates certain behaviors: it makes a person apt to be just, act justly, and desire justice (Nicomachean Ethics 1129a). These behaviors, however, do not define the term. Therefore, Aristotle takes us through six different types of justice to understand the many ways in which it can be manifested. He first settles on the concept of law-abidingness: he examines what it means to be unjust in order to understand what the rightful conduct looks like. In this sense, the just is the lawful and the unjust the unlawful (Nicomachean Ethics 1129b). More so, the law pertains to moderation, to the actions that embody social well-being, and consequently to the actions that constitute all other virtues: hence his second interpretation of justice as complete virtue. The purpose of laws is not only to prohibit people from unjust behaviors, but to incentivise rightful ones. Complete virtue, then, consists of actions displayed towards someone else. According to this interpretation, being a just person is not only abiding the law, but also exercising all other virtues for the good of others. Contrastingly, to be vicious is to be unjust. Aristotle provides us with examples to further understand this concept. Temperance, for instance, is not only a measure for oneself, but a measure that takes into consideration how one’s actions affect others.

Furthermore, justice can be seen as fairness. Distributive justice argues that what is unjust is unequal, and, respectively, what is just is equal.[5] Justice, then, is based on proportion, on the distribution of goods depending on people’s needs: the person who is unjust has an excessive portion of a good. When considering evils, the lesser evil is reckoned a good, for it is “more worthy of choice than the greater” (Nicomachean Ethics 1131b). Another interpretation of justice as fairness is that of corrective justice. This is employed when there is an unequal distribution of goods, and as a result demands a punishment that balances the injustice. A judge’s task, then, is to ensure that action (injustice) and suffering (consequence of said injustice), which have unequally been distributed, are equated with a punishment that takes away the action’s gain (Nicomachean Ethics 1132a). Therefore, the just is an intermediate between a gain and a loss.

The last two definitions are that of reciprocity and equity. Reciprocity in accordance with a proportion guarantees the unity of a community, given that people constantly look to return actions they deem others deserve (Nicomachean Ethics 1132b). This can often be seen as corrective justice: when a judge regards it necessary for a punishment to reflect the suffering caused by an injustice, reciprocity determines what is just through a rectifying action. Equity, on the other hand, relates to the concept of law-abidingness. However, while equity is just, it is not according to the law. This is given by the fact that laws are universal, but there are situations in which subjects cannot be treated universally (Nicomachean Ethics 1137b). Therefore, equity occurs when the universality of the law must be corrected precisely because its extensive nature causes it to be incomplete. In such cases, Aristotle argues that it is best to act with discretion to the law than to completely abide by it. Having said this, the fair man is defined as he who chooses the practice of just actions and tends to take less of his share, for even though he has the law on his side, he is equitable (Nicomachean Ethics 1138a).

With this understanding of the ultimate virtue, the necessity for the Bakhtinian model is clear: there is not one type of absolute justice, but rather a dialogue over the sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust. More so, these ideas are determined by their carriers, who set them in dialogue with other “consciousnesses.” What we obtain in the end are concepts derived from experience and human life placed in the context of a great novel, and an aesthetic theory analogous to this experience that allows us to reach into the implications of said concepts. It is thus essential to apply this approach to Crime and Punishment as we reach a new understanding of the significance and development of moral actions.


Justice in Crime and Punishment

First we will enter one of the great dialogues between Raskolnikov and Porfiry Petrovich. They are accompanied by Razumihin, Raskolnikov’s friend, as they address Raskolnikov’s contention of “extraordinary people” being able to transgress the law. This dialogue presents a conflict between the concept of law-abidingness and Raskolnikov’s defense of equity. That is, Raskolnikov contends that what is just is not the action that follows the law, but the action that transgresses it for the sake of the better. He argues that if it is necessary for men to destroy or shed blood in order to utter a “new word,” then they must, as this will lead the world in the name of progress. He also states, however, that each man who does this will find “in his conscience, a sanction […] that depends on the idea and its dimensions” (Dostoevsky 243). Therefore, we have a case for discretion that is determined by the value of the idea, and that is not indifferent to man’s consciousness. Raskolnikov nonetheless assures us of the impossibility of this “right,” as people will punish those who do not abide by the law in order to “fulfill quite justly their conservative vocation” (243). It is reasonable for Raskolnikov to defend this point of view, for it reflects his own actions. He believes that the murder of the old pawnbroker will ultimately benefit humanity, as she is a despicable human being whose death will eliminate the suffering her existence caused. However, the fact that he believes in a punishment subjective to the person’s consciousness shows that having a right to commit a crime does not eliminate the fact that the action is still a crime. In fact, as he later states, “if he has a conscience, he will suffer for his mistake” (246). Raskolnikov reaffirms this idea with his declaration that suffering is inevitable for the intelligent man. In maintaining the polyphony of this exchange, this reasoning is probed by Porfiry’s questioning and Razumihin’s occasional remarks. As the magistrate in charge of investigating the murder, Porfiry defends the notion of law-abidingness, and inquires Raskolnikov not out of pure curiosity, but as part of his investigation. Therefore, both parties establish that the crime in itself is an unjust act, but Raskolnikov maintains that the “extraordinary person” is not unjust, for he is rightful in his need to reveal a “new word.”

We understand, then, the unfinalizability of this dialogue: the multiplicity of possibilities in an exchange. Since this is certainly a Bakhtinian, utopian view of dialogue, its characteristic openness is also capable of leading to tragedy and pain (Emerson 89). That is, the simple, structural concept of words being spoken one after the other ruptures this utopia by implying each character’s desire for a final word, or with the simple structural impossibility of a simultaneous utterance of words. However, even with this formal obstacle of the novel, Dostoevsky is able to engage in a genuine polyphony by focusing a substantial amount of the dialogue on thoughts and questions. As Porfiry Petrovich questions Raskolnikov, the latter contemplates, returns the question, or answers directly. Similarly, Porfiry doesn’t only question: his statements (of the provocative nature) also stand by his belief of law-abidingness.[6] Thus we do not observe a final word or an absolute statement as product of this conversation; rather, two interpretations of justice are given (in an acknowledged tension), which do not rejoice in a utopian fashion, but are equally valid provided the logic that precedes them.

Other polyphonic dialogues are seen between Sonia and Raskolnikov. One of these occurs when he visits her after having parted ways with his mother and sister. As Sonia begins to contemplate what is to be of her, Katerina Ivanovna, and the children after her father’s death, discourse develops around her unselfishness and “insatiable compassion.”

All at once he bent down quickly and dropping to the ground, kissed her foot. Sonia drew back from him as from a madman. And certainly he looked like a madman.

“What are you doing to me?” she muttered, turning pale, and a sudden anguish clutched at her heart.

He stood up at once.

“I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity,” he said wildly and walked away to the window. “Listen,” he added, turning to her a minute later. “I said just now to an insolent man that he was not worth your little finger… and that I made my sister honour making her sit beside you.”

“Ach, you said that to them! And in her presence?” cried Sonia, frightened. “Sit down with me! An honour! Why, I’m… dishonourable… Ah, why did you say that?”

“It was not because of your dishonour and your sin I said that of you, but because of your great suffering. But you are a great sinner, that’s true,” he added almost solemnly, “and your worst sin is that you have destroyed and betrayed yourself for nothing. Isn’t that fearful? Isn’t it fearful that you are living in this filth which you loath so, and at the same time you know yourself (you’ve only to open your eyes) that you are not helping anyone by it? Not saving anyone from anything? Tell me,” he went on almost in a frenzy, “how this shame and degradation can exist in you side by side with other, opposite, holy feelings? It would be better, a thousand times better, to leap into the water and end it all!”

“But what would become of them?” Sonia asked faintly, gazing at him with eyes of anguish, but not seeming surprised at his suggestion. (299-300)

Raskolnikov believes that Sonia acts unjustly towards herself. This is not only due to her sacrifice, but because she is not improving the conditions of the people she is sacrificing herself for. In this sense, she embodies an unnecessary “great suffering” as she attempts to perceive her actions through the concept of “complete virtue.” Sonia believes she is being just when she gives herself up for others. However, this is far from an intermediate: it is an inaccurate distribution of goods (Raskolnikov’s argument). In this sense, Sonia has too much suffering, and is hurting herself and those around her because of it. Raskolnikov enhances this through her characteristic, Christian virtue: compassion. Her “holy feelings,” as he states, are incompatible with her self-deprecation. While Sonia understands that she has a moral duty beyond herself, Raskolnikov only regards the responsibility she has to herself: “Break what must be broken, once for all, that’s all,” he later tells her, “and take the suffering on [yourself]” (307). Raskolnikov is aware of the inexorable fate of suffering, but sees no purpose in it unless there is a gain of equal value.

How does this dialogue unfold at a formal level, then, in order to offer equal worth to both understandings of justice? Sonia’s gentle uneasiness with the question, “But what would become of them?” encapsulates the subjective nature of what is considered just. Juxtaposed to Raskolnikov’s insatiable remarks, we understand the latter’s regard for logic and reasoning. It is illogical for him to have two extremes, “shame and degradation” and “holy feelings,” without a virtuous mean. Furthermore, these characters rely on each other’s word in order to author themselves. Raskolnikov does not hesitate to define Sonia through a contradiction of her character, and, respectively, Sonia does not limit herself to accepting Raskolnikov’s words. Even with her small remarks, the simple fact that feelings dominate her character in this dialogue determines her search for an imminent sensitivity in Raskolnikov. Thus, they are both in search of the virtue they believe is missing from each other’s character.

Polyphonic dialogues are further seen between other characters and in other instances where more than one view of what is just is considered. However, it is in the epilogue of the novel, in one of Raskolnikov’s dreams while delirious in Siberia, that we see an explicit preoccupation with moral judgements:

He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree on what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. (501-502)

This dream is a reflection on Raskolnikov’s thought: for him, the ultimate virtue is intellect, and it is only through intellect that he is able to determine rightful “moral convictions.” However, as other people have different determinants of their morality, there is not one absolute truth or agreement on conduct. As Aristotle reasons, universal laws are meant to insight virtuous conduct and punish those who do not act accordingly, but there are also instances where the law cannot be the only determinant of what is just. The underlying factor to justice is uncertainty. Its consequence is the need for dialogue in order to understand what each person values, and where their interpretation of justice is rooted.



This analysis leaves us to consider the multiple ways in which a person can be virtuous, and the multiple determinants of virtue. It gives us the formal approach to understand how Crime and Punishment addresses this real life, human preoccupation with the nature of judgements. The limitations of this approach have been established, as it is both ambiguous and utopian. It is also important to note that Bakhtin’s consideration of Dostoevsky’s works as polyphonic in their entirety is a generalization; polyphonic dialogues are certainly observed throughout Crime and Punishment, but they are not the sole constituent of the novel.

Furthermore, we evaluated situations in which the “moral urgency” of Crime and Punishment is evident due to conflicting approaches to justice. We have precisely seen these in conflict, as they both develop their full validity. However, we did not examine the possibility of having interpretations of justice concord with each other, and how this would look formally. In fact, this would be extremely valuable in order to further understand how one character’s ideas permeate another’s. It would also be of interest to consider a classical reading of the novel that would complement the studies of Christian virtues. As a source for moral deliberation, an exploration of the Christian tradition alongside classic philosophical concepts can perhaps bring us to the most holistic interpretation of morality in Crime and Punishment. For now, we have understood the urgency of a classical reading and the value of dialogue above all other formal aspects in a literary study concerned with morality. ■


Works Cited

Aristotle. Book V. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated and edited by Roger Crisp, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Dostoevsky’s Polyphonic Novel and Its Treatment in Critical Literature.” Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, translated by Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 5-46.

—. “The Hero, and the Position of the Author with Regard the Hero, in Dostoevsky’s Art.” Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, translated by Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 47-77.

—. “The Idea in Dostoevsky.” Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, translated by Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 78-100.

Blake, Elizabeth. “Sonya, Silent No More: A Response to the Woman Question in Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment.’” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 50, no. 2, 2006, pp. 252-271.

Booth, Wayne. Introduction. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Caryl Emerson, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. xiii-xxvii.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Constance Garnett, Bantam Books, 1981.

Emerson, Caryl. All the Same The Words Don’t Go Away: Essays on Authors, Heroes, Aesthetics, and Stage Adaptations from the Russian Tradition. Brighton, Academic Studies Press, 2011.

—. “Problems with Baxtin’s Poetics.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 32, no. 4, 1988, pp. 503-525.

—. “Gasparov and Bakhtin.” All the Same the Words Don’t Go Away: Essays on Authors,

Heroes, Aesthetics, and Stage Adaptations from the Russian Tradition, Academic Studies Press, Brighton, 2011, pp. 74-96.

Frank, Joseph. Introduction. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Constance Garnett, Bantam Books, 1981, pp. v-xxii.

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[1] The underground man represents the Nihilist of Dostoevsky’s time. He considers himself to be superior to others due to his intellect, and accepts all reason entails. See Joseph Frank’s interpretation of the novella, “Nihilism and Notes from Underground.

[2] Aristotle defines a virtue as the mean between two extremes. See “Virtue and the Mean” in the introduction to Nicomachean Ethics, p. xiv.

[3] Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics includes two other sections concerning genre and discourse. While these analyses are pertinent to elements of plot-composition and metalinguistics, we are not primarily concerned with them because they deviate from the idea and instead probe considerations for specific formal elements. Bakhtin develops the notion of the carnivalesque in his theory of genre, the second characteristic element of his theory (the first is polyphony). For a complete overview of this, see Caryl Emerson’s “Problems with Baxtin’s Poetics” and her book, All the Same the Words Don’t Go Away: Essays on Authors, Heroes, Aesthetics, and Stage Adaptations from the Russian Tradition.

[4] A “human orientation” is synonymous to the characterization or role of a person: criminal, lawyer, juror, and so forth (Bakhtin 95).

[5] For Aristotle, distribution is the ultimate path to justice, the virtuous mean.

[6] For the complete dialogue see pages 241-248 of the Bantam Classic edition of the novel, translated by Constance Garnett.