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Free Sample Essay Example - Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment

Axe-murderer Raskolnikov, the main character of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, butchers an old woman and her sister - but a Russian critic says the environment, not the man is to blame. The author of this sample AP English essay disagrees. This example argumentative and literary analysis paper rebuts the critic's position by deeply examining Raskolnikov's motives and finding him guilty of the heinous crime. It would be a good reference for a student who must argue against a specific prompt.

The Heart of Crime - Environment vs. Human Nature

Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment poses an interesting question about the origins of criminal behavior - is the environment responsible for a person's actions, or does the desire for crime originate from within? Russian critic D.I. Pisarev believed the former. He theorized that Raskolnikov's "dire poverty" was the cause of his heinous actions, and because of this Raskolnikov is forced to choose murder and robbery in order to "keep his body and soul together." While Pisarev is correct in that the atmosphere in Saint Petersburg contributes to Raskolnikov's crimes, he fails to note that Raskolnikov himself shares responsibility.

Pisarev rightly concludes that the environment plays a major role in the novel. Saint Petersburg is a city brimming with poverty - the streets are filled with drunks and the buildings are decrepit. Even in his own apartment Raskolnikov cannot escape the "sick, frightened feeling" (Dostoevsky, 1) he has when wandering the city. Separated from family and the comforts of the university, he is alone and utterly helpless. In this state of destitution, the nature of Saint Petersburg intensifies his unhappiness. The "airlessness", "bustle and plaster" and even the "scaffolding" add to the "revolting misery of the picture" (2), that is Saint Petersburg. Raskolnikov cannot walk down the street without feeling the "profoundest disgust" (2) towards the city and its inhabitants. Though he may have a "refined face" and is "exceptionally handsome" (2) Raskolnikov cannot face the fact that he is poor like everyone else. Due to the "accumulated bitterness and contempt" (3) in his heart, Raskolnikov ignores his awful appearance. However, when Raskolnikov meets Marmeledov, he comes to understand the "evil system" of poverty. Marmeledov represents how poverty can destroy a man to the point where he does not care to fight his situation. Seeing what Pisarev calls the "ultimate degradation" of a human being, Raskolnikov becomes aware of his situation at last. Not wanting to end up like Marmeledov, he resolves not to live in just a "square of space" (177), and rise above the vile atmosphere of Saint Petersburg. However, his methods of doing so are far from orthodox. In his contempt for the environment, Raskolnikov comes to hate those who seem to leech off the less fortunate, like Alyona Ivanovna. Seeing the lack of dust in the old woman's apartment, Raskolnikov mutters that only "in the house of spiteful old widows" can one find "such cleanliness" (5). The old woman lives above the grimy streets, locked away with her fortune that could easily finance "a hundred thousand good deeds" (63). Since Raskolnikov cannot stand that she "is wearing out the lives of others" (63), he picks her as his target. Raskolnikov believes that eliminating her will allow him to rise above his impoverished state.

Raskolnikov develops a theory that justifies the murder of the old woman and will let him rise above the specter of poverty. The theory divides man into two types - ordinary and extraordinary. Raskolnikov does not want to be seen as the ordinary man, the type who must "live in submission" (245). Instead, he wants to view himself as a "man of genius" (245), the type that can transgress the bounds of morality "for the sake of the better" (243). In Raskolnikov's mind, the ordinary man would simply accept his situation and live with it. But a man with an independent mind can see past barriers that society may impose, like poverty, and "utter a new word" (243) that will ultimately benefit society. Though some may view the extraordinary man as a criminal because his actions run contrary to established views, people will eventually "set these criminals on a pedestal" and "worship them" (243). Raskolnikov believes that if he can transgress the law, he can rise above his situation and "become a Napoleon" (384). This ambition is what drives Raskolnikov to murder the old woman and her sister, because he desperately wants to see if the theory is true. More than ever, Raskolnikov desires to be delivered from a state of starvation to one of greatness. Just by conceiving the theory, he believes that he is different from most people - free from society and the physical restraints it puts on one's character. Thus, he concludes that he "didn't kill a human being but a principle" (256), as a way to clear his conscience. Ironically, Raskolnikov's actions, meant to deliver him from the depths of poverty, only serve to worsen his condition.

Yet while the environment does play a significant role in Raskolnikov's actions, he is still responsible for his own fate. Contrary to Pisarev's suggestion that the "evil system" forces Raskolnikov to choose between "crime and death by starvation", Raskolnikov never sells what he stole, hiding the items beneath a rock. This alone proves that hunger was not his motivation. Indeed, Raskolnikov himself says, "if I'd killed [the old woman] because I was hungry I should be happy now" (384). While Raskolnikov does resort to murder and robbery to try and "realize his tremendous natural abilities", it is not simply because "society left him no alternative." Pisarev suggests that by examining the "building of walls and the planning of rooms" (239) of Saint Petersburg it is possible to explain Raskolnikov's crime. Yet Pisarev's explanation fails to take into account that Raskolnikov "sat in [his] room like a spider," (386) while refusing opportunities to improve his situation. He consciously chooses to let his surroundings "cramp the mind" (386) and drain the body. While Saint Petersburg serves to incubate Raskolnikov's contempt, it is ultimately his desire to "have the daring" (387) to transgress moral law that brings about the murder. This ambition is part of the "retrograde" soul which does not "obey the rules of mechanics" (239), and Raskolnikov tragically gives into it. Sadly, he realizes too late that he is not one of the extraordinary men who can step over the law but simply a "louse."

There is no doubt that poverty exposes the darker side of humanity. When people are hard-pressed to find food and shelter, they often turn to crime and violence to solve their problems. Poverty has spawned riots and toppled governments. Yet there are many impoverished people who simply live day to day, without resorting to crime. These people restrain themselves from crime because they know how it will only destroy them further. Raskolnikov lacked this good sense. By not making any effort to escape poverty, he is ultimately responsible for his fate. Instead of choosing to work, he plots murder. While the environment affects him to the extreme, it is entirely Raskolnikov's decision to go forward with the plan. With that decision, he sets his final destination - Siberia.


This sample literary analysis essay is responding to a quote from Russian critic D.I. Pisarev. The author had to argue either for or against the critic - in this case, the author opposed Pisarev's viewpoint. This essay features a multi-part counterargument that is well developed and shows how the environment only pushes Raskolnikov so far - but he must take the final, murderous step.

This sample high school English essay could be improved if the author better connected the paragraph about Raskolnikov's "extraordinary human theory" to the thesis. While the paper is well-written, the reader is slightly thrown off by this paragraph; it should be explained in the first sentence that Raskolnikov commits the murder not because of his surroundings, but because he wants to test his theory about human behavior. This will add further ammunition against Raskolnikov and convince the reader that Pisarev is incorrect.
1,105 words / 4 pages

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