Posted by: thealienist | July 21, 2011

What Would You Do With Raskolnikov?

I just finished reading Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  In it, the main character, Rodion Rommanovich Raskolnikov, commits a double murder, and through the narrator we are given access to all his thoughts and feelings leading up to, continuing through, and following the murders.  In some ways, this is an excellent (though fictional) case study of an intensely conflicted and unstable mind.  Rodion is sometimes called “mad,” but no diagnosis is ever given.  All we are given are the “facts” of the case in greater detail than any court or mental health provider will ever experience.

So my questions to any readers who happen by here are as follows:

1.  Is Rodion Rommanovich Raskolnikov mentally ill?  How can we know?

2.  If you somehow knew what was going on, would you have involuntarily hospitalized him?  How would you approach the decision?

3.  In the book, Rodion is found guilty of the murder but was given a reduced sentence because of his mental state.  Was justice done?

I hope that these questions will generate some productive discussion and lead some to enjoy this fascinating book.



  1. My first thought is, OH MY GOD you actually read Crime and Punishment???!!!

    You probably know how I’m going to answer, but here goes:

    1. Does it matter?
    2. No, I would have him tried for his crime.
    3. No.


    • Rob,

      You’re right. Your answers are along the line I expected (and I find them defensible even if you did not defend them). Still, I wonder…is it really so “cut-and-dried” as this? Some have seen Raskolnikov’s thought and behavior as indicative of schizophrenia. I’m not convinced, but it does seem that he may have been having psychotic symptoms immediately prior to his crime (ideas/delusions of reference, possibly even auditory hallucinations (though it would be impossible to know for sure from the text)). On the other hand, he behaves in a more lucid and controlled way at other times before his crime. Might this fluctuating level of consciousness be more consistent with delirium? If you say that mental illness does not matter, then how do you justify punishing a man for behavior he cannot control (assuming the possibility of a mental illness in this case)?

      With regard to the second question, I agree that the trial for his crime was required, but can we say that no action to prevent the crime could conceivably been made? Of course, in the book, Raskolnikov never sought help, so the question never came up. But if I saw a person who displayed markedly disorganized behavior and had thoughts of killing a “louse” of a person to prove his rank among the “superior” members of his race, then what would be my recourse? Let him prove himself by commiting the crime? (This is too high a price to make Aliona and Lizaveta pay for another man’s freedom, IMHO). Jail him and try him for a crime he has not yet committed? (I don’t think either one of us would go for that.) Have someone shadow him to make sure he is not a danger? (Impractical and not much supperior to the previous suggestion.) Compel an evaluation and treatment if needed? (I think there might be some possibility here, though this is the point I think is most debatable)? Is there another option I don’t see?

      With regard to question 3, really? Only, “No”? I kind of hoped for a little more discussion on this one. I think that his trial and his imprisonment did a world of good for Raskolnikov (if the implications of the Epilogue are to be trusted). I think that in reforming Raskolnikov, it also did a good service for society. In what way do you see justice as not being served?

      Thanks to both you and Anonymous for your replies.


  2. I’m with Rob.

    1. Doesn’t matter. He knew right from wrong.
    2. No, I would have him tried for his crime.
    3. No.


    • I agree. Most schizophrenics are not violent. I do not have schizophrenia, but I do have depression that displays with psychosis and have violent intrusive thoughts- whether to harm myself or others. I have not acted on my intrusive thoughts and will not because I know it is wrong. He deserves to be tried for his crime. It was his arrogance and sense of superiority that led him to murder, not any sort of psychosis. He should have to serve a full term.


  3. John,What do we mean when we say “beyond one’s control”. Is there really such a thing as an irresistible impulse? I didn’t read the book, but if Raskalnikov were not in the throes of an automatism, his action was willed. He bears responsibility for his willed action. Obviously I don’t believe that crazy people have no free will


    • Rob,

      I think that this is the fundamental question. The two extemes are 1) that man has a sovereign will and that all his actions are thus his responsibility, or 2) that man only thinks that his actions are willed but that they are environmentally determined and thus not his responsibility. I have heard both extremes argued. I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle. I think that our choices are limited by our environment but that (under most ordinary circumstances) we have a choice about how we attend to and weigh the factors that influence our decisions.

      In my opinion, the fact that an action was willed is not sufficient to show that it was “under control.” For example, I have seen people with delirium who have behaved in ways that were very much outside their normal “controlled” behavior. They have thrown things at nursing staff. They have believed that they were in Nazi concentration camps. When they return to sound mind, they find it hard to believe that they behaved in these ways. In these cases, I would not hold them responsible for their behavior, but attribute this behavior to their illness.

      On the other hand, I have also known psychotic people who have believed that they were being stalked or subject to imminent attack who have lashed out at others. (This is not common in my experience but has happened.) They were aggressive to others due to their delusion. While I believe that this is a willed action, I attribute at least a part of this action to the illness. They considered themselves to be acting in self-defense (which is accepted by society) when in actuality they were not.

      I don’t know of anything that I would say for 100% certain is an irresistible impluse. I know some people who can resist very much and some who cannot seem to resist very much at all. In my considerations about this, I try to consider what the average man would be expected to resist (the impluse to steal (yes), the orders of a man holding a gun to your head (no)).

      Raskolnikov is an interesting character because he is intensely conflicted and recognized as ill (somehow). Just how much responsibility does he have? He certainly has enough forethought to plan a murder, but he does not execute his plan until he starts having strange experiences that seem to push him to act on his previous plans. Still, is he responsible for turning himself in but not responsible for the murder? His mental state is not much changed between the two events. We might be tempted to give him credit for one (turning himself in) but excuse him, at least in part, for the other (murder). Why?


  4. We might be tempted to give him credit for one (turning himself in) but excuse him, at least in part, for the other (murder). Why?

    Why indeed? John you have asked the crucial question. The assignment of a man’s actions to the categories “willed” and “unwilled” depend on how we FEEL about them, not about objective identification with a mental illness. Thus we do not say that Raskolnikov turning himself in is crazy, but his commission of the murder is.

    A girl dashes into traffic to save a woman who has fallen in the street. We don’t consider her crazy, or not in full possession of her faculties, and we do not say that she lacks free will. Why not?


    • Rob,

      My guess is that we (as a society) do try to protect both ends of this problem. In America, we can find a person to lack competence to participate in his own defense. Thus, if he behaves in a way that is not in his best interest, the trial can be postponed. This did not happen in Crime and Punishment, and I doubt it was an option at the time.

      I do disagree with you about judging “willed” and “unwilled” by how we feel about the action. While I’m sure it happens at times, I do not think that this is the way it must be. To be sure, this is a grey area in psychology and there are examples we could use to demonstrate each side of the argument. When someone reports that they “cannot sleep,” it generally does not help to tell they can sleep if they want to. Their desire may be very great, but their will is powerless to bring about their desire. On the other hand, if I am trying to figure out where I want to eat, I can consider many different places, the expected quality of their food, the distance traveled, the cost, the preferences of my dining guests, etc., but when I make the choice, I believe that I have freely made my choice. Unfortunately, examples like Raskolnikov are not as simple. A similar question arises in considering Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. In the beginning of the story, he stole food for his sister’s hungry family. Was this hunger compelling enough to excuse his stealing? Some say yes, some say no. (I say no as regards his guilt but would consider it a mitigating factor for sentencing.) Still, this dilemma (of being able to control impulses in the face of intense urges) has been recognized and sympathized with for a very long time. (Proverbs 6:30 — “Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving,” or Proverbs 30:9 — “Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”)

      With regard to your closing example, on what basis would we call this action “crazy”? If we consider the “4 D’s,” then is it deviant (likely), dysfunctional (not likely), dangerous (yes), and distressing (apparently less so than letting a woman get run over in the street)? So we have deviant and dangerous behavior — is that enough for us to say it should be labelled with a diagnosis? We don’t usually diagnose this combination. Otherwise, skydiving, extreme sports, and certain jobs would be signs of mental illness. It is conceivable that a person who is well-grounded in reality and reasonably able to control impulses would find this behavior acceptable regardless of the outcome. Now, let’s say that we have a manic person who believes that he is indestructible and and can stop cars with the power of his mind. He sees a woman fall in the street, and (happy to finally have a stage on which to show his new-found super powers) jumps into traffic to protect her. Is this “crazy”? I would say that this is a sign of mental illness. Not that saving a woman is a sign of mental illness, but that his behavior is dysfunctional because it is based at least in part on a lack of contact with reality. I don’t know whether the man would find his behavior acceptable when he discovered that he was not indestructible nor able to stop cars with the power of his mind. If he survives the attempt, I think he should be offered the chance to make that decision for himself.


      • “Thus, if he behaves in a way that is not in his best interest”

        According to whom?


      • Rob,

        Ultimately, according to himself. I think you make a mistake by assuming that people (regardless of their situation) behave in their own best interest. When the stakes are high enough (loss of life or loss of freedom) society empowers some people to make an assessment as to whether a person’s actions are taken in an informed and voluntary way. If so (and the behavior is not illegal) they are usually allowed to proceed. If not, then it is usually desired that the person is restored to the ability to act in their own interests.


  5. I think I understand what you’re saying, but I’m focused on the language that we use. We NEVER say “X is severely mentally ill. He is highly likely to hurt or kill himself or somebody else.” Instead, we say “X behaves in a way that is not in his best interest.”

    I maintain that if we meant the former we would say so. But we don’t. We literally mean what we say. We are over-eager to determine what is and is not in another man’s best interest.

    Just an example. My wife goes ballistic whenever a Republican is elected president, and exclaims aloud “How can all these people vote against their best interest!” What she means is, “I don’t like President-elect’s position on re-distribution of wealth, etc.”


    • Rob,

      You know your wife better than I do (since I’ve never met either of you), so I have to trust what you say she means. However, some people who say that “people are voting against their best interest” mean that people are voting for politicians or policies that in fact make their own problems worse. Now, I don’t know how people would know that. For instance, I could say that a person who was a union worker but was voting for traditional Republicans might be “voting against his best interest,” but that supposes that he has no other interests that might be more important and might be more in line with Republican goals.

      For the purpose of determining mental illness, I think that the idea of not behaving in one’s own best interests is valuable as one aspect to be considered (for example, “I want my family to leave me alone so I tell them I want to die and lock myself in my room where they know I have a gun and a pint jar of old medications I’ve been saving to overdose.”) On the other hand, with regard to hospitalization (especially involuntary), mere not behaving in one’s best interest is not enough. It should be a higher standard, such as “likely to hurt or kill himself or someone else.” Overall, however, I would agree with you that it would be very good for us to watch how we express ourselves so that we are clear. Thanks for pointing this out.


  6. Be functional in a Sick Society is not sign of health. Raskolnikov is not sick


    • Raskolnikov was not functional during much of the book. He was alienated from most of his family and friends. I’m not saying that that is enough to call him “sick,” but it certainly does not argue for his good health.


  7. I have just finished the first part and can bet that raskolnikov is a darling.i think he has the ability to think for himself and the society sucks,he does not bother.he does what he wants to.does anybody have a problem?he does not care,remember.and the stuff murder,yeah he committed double murder.i only consider the next one being wrong and he acted out of fear and despair.but that pawn broker was really better than a louse.but the question that do raskol had mental disorder is bizarre.ask better,”did not the surrounding of raskolnikov lead a precious man like him to insanity?”yes read the description of the will get the answer.poverty,brutality,sexual slavery,humiliation etc etc.will not one who is sensible develop apathy cum paranoia cum mood swings?


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