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Dostoyevsky and Kafka: Guilt, Redemption and the Modern Man

Claire Stone


“To take upon us the mystery of things” – what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia – this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously (Nabokov 251).


In direct opposition to the popular logical positivistic tendencies of his time, Derrida rejected the attempt to produce a “science of writing” as a misguided approach to literary criticism (1823). Derrida saw this project, which “with tranquil assurance [...] leaps over the text toward its presumed content, in the direction of the pure signified” (1826), as symptomatic of the metaphysical bias of the Western philosophical tradition towards the search for transcendental principles at the expense of the individual and particular. The name itself – a “science of writing” – presupposes the possibility of an objective, universal framework for text interpretation. Such a framework could only provide an “extrinsic and contingent” reading, because, Derrida insists, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (1825-6). Rather, as critical readers “we must begin wherever we are [...] in a text where we already believe ourselves to be” (1829). This is not therefore a neutral standpoint; Derrida particularly realises the profound impact of psychoanalytic theory on the modern reader: we are already “within a certain network of significations” which colour our experience of any text (1827). However, this does not justify “putting the literary signifier as such within parentheses” (1827). We have access only to the text, and to selectively acknowledge only the “literary ‘symptoms’” that accord with our external critical agenda is to “[blind] oneself to the very tissue” – and hence the “literary signifier” (1826). The project of literary criticism, therefore, becomes a question of the author’s writing “but also of our reading” (1825); the author does not wholly determine the signifier, and the reader does not passively receive it. In my analysis of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Franz Kafka’s The Trial, I am not offering a strictly deconstructive reading: the extreme focus of Derrida’s specialised deconstructive method (sometimes based on a single word), is not appropriate to the comparison of two, very different novels. However, in recognition of the relevance of Derrida’s criticisms to the treatment of these novels in past critical literature, I wish to acknowledge that my own “production” of a critical reading is “necessarily a text, the system of a writing and of a reading which we know is ordered around its own blind spot” (1830). Furthermore, I hope to offer an open reading which respects the “irreducible point of originality” (1827) of these works, and the possible arbitrariness of the dichotomies which, in a comparative essay, must necessarily be drawn between them. My focus will be primarily on the issues of the role of guilt, or negation of the self; the affirmation of the “other”, both as a necessary condition for the “authentic existence” of the character; and finally, the character of these novels in relation to reality and fantasy, and to realism and modernism.


Existence and Guilt


The role of guilt is immediately suggested in the titles of both novels. ‘Crime and Punishment’ is suggestive in that it is conspicuously missing ‘The Trial’: yet the crime and its punishment themselves are literally marginal to the text. It is Raskolnikov’s ‘trial’ of himself which is the focus, and appears to be the cause of the crime, its consequence, and its conclusion (in his final decision to confess, and thus condemn himself). The Trial is lacking even the crime: it is a ‘trial’ without cause, and to a certain extent, without progress. From the outset, Josef K. declares that “if it was an act, he would play along with it” (Kafka 6), and it is part of the idiosyncratic ambiguity of Kafka’s writing that it preserves throughout (in our minds as in K.’s) the possibility that “the whole thing” is just a “hoax”: “perhaps he only needed somehow to laugh in the guards” faces and they would join in” (5). Even as he is led to his death, there seems something self-willed in the act, as if K. is still playing his part, which he could yet reject:


Although the visit had not been announced, K. sat in a chair near the door, also dressed in black, slowly pulling on new gloves that fitted tightly over his hands, in the attitude of someone who was expecting guests. He stood up at once and looked at the men with curiosity. “So you have come for me?” he asked. The men nodded [...] “Why did they have to send you!” he cried out rather than asked (168-9).


There is something profoundly discomforting in the unforced nature of K.’s death; similarly, when we hear in Crime and Punishment that “the criminal firmly, precisely, and clearly supported his statement, without confusing the circumstances, without softening them in his favour, without distorting the facts, without forgetting the slightest detail”, it is as unsettling to the reader as it is to the fictional jury, who pronounce him the victim of “morbid monomania” (Dostoyevsky 535-6). This intractable acceptance and even invitation of guilt parallels Nietzsche’s theory of “bad conscience” as the operation of a repressed sadistic instinct which, turned in on itself, practices relentless self-persecution. Yet the element of Nietzschean philosophy most commonly associated with Raskolnikov is its opposite: the self-affirming übermensch, a


man of the future, who will redeem us as much from the previous ideal as from what was bound to grow out of it, from the great disgust, from the will to nothingness, from nihilism [...] which once again gives the earth its goal and man his hope, this Antichristian and Antinihilist, this conqueror of God and of nothingness (Nietzsche 76).


This “redeemer” or “creative spirit” (76) bears striking parallels to Raskolnikov’s theory, which divides mankind into a “lower” or “material category [...] serving solely for the reproduction of their own kind; and people proper – that is, those who have the gift or talent of speaking a new word in their environment” (Dostoyevsky 261). Despite his claim to believe that “all men’s rights are equivalent” (261), the division is a derogatory one: the “ordinary” as merely a “mass of people, of material”, who exist “only so that finally [...] through some interbreeding of stocks and races [...] it may finally bring into the world [...] one somewhat independent man in a thousand.” (263) Once produced, the “great geniuses, the fulfillers of mankind” (263), may “in his conscience [...] allow himself to step over blood”, “for the sake of his idea” (261). This is a very Nietzschean moral framework, in which “the meaning of guilt, responsibility, and consideration is unknown to these born organisers; the fearful egoism of the artist presides in them, with its gaze of bronze and sense of being justified in advance to all eternity in its ‘work’” (Nietzsche 67). [i] However, the similarities between these conceptions are often emphasised at the expense of recognition that Raskolnikov fails to fulfil this rationalisation of his criminal motives; in fact, it becomes increasingly clear that he is far closer to the figure of ressentiment in Nietzsche’s moral vision. Raskolnikov harbours intense, jealous hostility towards his own society:


gaining possession of him almost minute by minute [...] a certain boundless, almost physical loathing for everything he met or saw around him, an obstinate, spiteful, hate-filled loathing. All the people he met were repulsive to him [...] If anyone had spoken to him, he would probably just have spat at him, bitten him (Dostoyevsky 110).


This reveals Raskolnikov’s reasoning as self-deceptive. He confesses, in a rare moment of clarity, that this hatred “was more a sensation than an awareness, an idea”, “spontaneous”, “tormenting” and overwhelming (104). After being forced to confront his own theory in the tense interview with Porfiry Petrovich, Raskolnikov’s bearing changes: he moves with “slow, weakened steps”; his actions are “powerless”, “painful”, and draw from him a “weak moan”: “he suddenly felt with loathing how weak he had become” (273). He admonishes himself:


“I should have known,” he thought, with a bitter smile, “and how knowing myself, anticipating myself, did I dare take an axe and bloody my hands! I had to have known beforehand... Eh! But I did know beforehand! ...” he whispered in despair (274).


Raskolnikov is forced to acknowledge consciously what he knew all along: that he is not a “true master”, but merely the “aesthetic louse” with vainglorious ambitions: “and I had anticipated beforehand that I would tell myself so after I killed her. Can anything compare with such horror!” (275). Yet instead of despair, he relishes the pronouncement: ““yes, I really am a louse,” he went on, gloatingly seizing upon the thought, rummaging in it, playing and amusing himself with it” (274). Finally, he declares himself the “lower” kind of man: “obey, trembling creature” (275). Raskolnikov performs the role not of redeemer but of “the sick man” (Dostoyevsky 255); and it is in these terms that Nietzsche describes “bad conscience” as a “deep sickness” (Nietzsche 64). His descriptions of this man’s “internalized animal” (72) are highly suggestive of Raskolnikov’s inner turmoil:


"The man who [...] for want of external enemies and resistance tears, persecutes, gnaws, disturbs, mistreats himself, [...] rubs himself raw on the bars of his cage, this deprived man” who transforms himself into “a place of torture, an uncertain and dangerous wilderness – this fool, this yearning and desperate prisoner" (65).


The “will to mistreat the self” (Nietzsche 68) suggests an explanation for the motive, result and conclusion to his crime. Raskolnikov professes a wish to rise among the ranks of man through money and power; but he rejects all material gain from his murder, and sinks into further torment. Raskolnikov finally finds relief only in what Nietzsche deems the final masochistic act: belief in a God, which man created “in order to carry his self-punishment to the most horrific pitch of harsh intensity” (Nietzsche 72). This, for Nietzsche, “represents a kind of madness of the will in psychic cruelty which simply knows no equal”, and in committing the murder, committing himself to prison and finally to God, Raskolnikov cuts off “once and for all any escape from this labyrinth of idées fixes”, establishes “the palpable certainty of his unworthiness with respect to that ideal. Oh this insane, sad beast, man!” (73). Thus one can read Raskolnikov’s motivation as to fall, not to rise; his struggle is resolved not by Nietzschean self-affirmation, but by Christian asceticism: a “philosophy of malice”, but against himself (Friedman 162).


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[i] The similarity of Raskolnikov’s diction in this exposition to Nietzsche’s is striking: the literal translation of übermensch is ‘over man’; Raskolnikov repeatedly describes the action of such men with the verb ‘to step over’ (Crime 261); he even describes these ‘extraordinary’ men as “made not of flesh but of bronze!” (274)