When reading Dostoevsky’s work in a certain order, one realizes there is a progression in his writing and that certain books fit in nicely in developing his ideas. Just like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album is one sequential track where each song on its own has its merit yet comes more to life as a whole album; so does Dostoevsky’s work, as it contains themes that develop and reveal themselves throughout multiple novels. One of these themes is the motif of Doubles which starts with the fitting novel The Double, continues in Notes From Underground, and progresses in his best known novel, Crime and Punishment. I propose that throughout these novels exists the development of a comparison and contrast between two characters which grows and becomes relatable and then breaks through in Crime and Punishment, where the double motif finds itself not only between different characters but collapses within the individual. With the character of Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky uses the double motif to create one of the first successful examples of combining the man of thought and the man of action in one picture, rivaling and possibly surpassing Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In The Double, the protagonist Golyadkin descends into madness as his doppelganger manifests itself. To express his point on the duality of man, the young Dostoevsky creates two different but identical physical characters. Golyadkin wants to be original, yet the society he lives in crushes his individuality. We all sacrifice some of our personality to be part of society but Golyadkin is the extreme case, where he is unable to express any part of it. Thus he splits into two distinct personalities. While one side is extremely neurotic, unable to escape his thoughts, and acts inappropriately in social situations; the other side is a free spirit, able to express himself and act accordingly in society. We all attempt to fit in and be one thing or another, but the reality is that we are light and dark, conscious and unconscious, good and evil in one. Because Golyadkin is unable to escape the prison of his own mind, he has a break to let out this hidden side which has been suffocating. At the office, it is the double that takes over and finishes his work, communicates with his boss, and converses with his co-workers. The double is extroverted and able to behave without the acute rational control of the original. Golyadkin could never believe himself to behave that way, and so must see the double as someone outside himself. The problem with such an extreme case is that it becomes an abstract work of art to those not suffering a similar illness. One cannot show someone a different colour. Although the novel is a regarded by some as being a perfect work of art, for the majority of readers it will be jarring and discombobulating.
A much more mature Dostoevsky progresses this idea in the novella Notes From Underground to create a more appealing notion of the doubling motif. The man from the Underground has opinions about society which seem rather true and makes him more charismatic than Golyadkin, even though like his predecessor he is also a man of acute conscious. He specifically compares the man of action to himself. He speaks constantly about his hate and envy of the man of action and his inability to do anything. Unlike Golyadkin, he is completely aware of his illness himself. We are introduced to the story with “I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man”(Dostoevsky, “Notes”, p. 1). The underground man knows what is good for him, but purposely does the opposite in spite of himself. Golyadkin is someone most people cannot relate to, but everyone can recall a time when they did something even though they knew it would harm themselves in the future. The difference is the underground man happens to do it all the time. Nonetheless, we can still see our own reflection in him and can imagine a situation where we too would be bitter and hateful and unable to do anything because of it. Society once again plays a huge role in creating this underground man as he can’t stand the rationality and utopian view of the world. The idea of this perfect enlightened society that took on so much power across Europe, especially with French intellectuals and filtered through to the Russian intellectuals was very problematic for Dostoevsky . The underground man creates his own dystopian life to counteract the idea of the Crystal Palace. The underground man is not someone to strive for, but he is the type of person that will appear everywhere if the notion of the Crystal Palace and rationality is idealized in society. Man possesses both a rational and irrational side and to strive for one and ignore the other will only cause disturbances to the human psyche. We see this all over the place today in the form of school shootings and other mass killings. Dostoevsky then took his underground man and put him in what most consider his greatest story, bringing together the man of action and the man of thought.
In Crime and Punishment the double motif reaches a form of expression that was almost unheard of at the time in literature. Dostoevsky continues to develop the double motif in different characters but also masterfully combines the notion in a singular person. It is Inspector Porfiry that tells Raskolnikov that “Human nature is a mirror, sir, a mirror, of the most transparent kind!” (Dostoevsky, “Crime”, p.403). People reflect each other and more often than not it is easier to see part of oneself in someone else. I once had a guest staying with me who was quite dirty. He would drink my coffee and not empty out the coffee maker, spill water over the washroom floor, soil the toilet and not clean up after himself. His behavior made me clean my whole house, including all those areas I had neglected. I emptied out my fridge, cleaned the washroom and behind the oven, wiped the floors and vacuumed every nook and cranny . Although I have some aversions to cleaning, this man was a level of filth I had never experienced. But I saw that part of me in him. I was coming face to face with my shadow side, and that is what triggered my cleaning frenzy. I did all that, just so I could be as different to him as possible.
This same idea comes to life in much higher stakes with Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov. Raskolnikov wants to believe he is different than Svidrigailov, that he is a better person able of being redeemed. But when he sees Svidrigailov face to face, he recognizes how similar they both are and Raskolnikov’s own reflection stares right back at him, which disgusts him. This is one of the factors that keeps him from commiting suicide, that he still thinks he can be a help to society and wants to prove to himself he is better than Svidrigailov. Then there is Sonya, she too has sinned, and who is another reflection of Raskolnikov. While Svidrigailov is Raskolnikov’s shadow side, Sonya is the bright side of the mirror. She is able to live with her sins because she believes in redemption, suffering and love. At the end of the novel when Raskolnikov finds out Svidrigailov is dead and walks down from the stairs of the police station unwilling to confess, he sees Sonya standing there. At that moment, both the reflections come to life in Raskolnikov’s subconscious. If he leaves, then he is no different than Svidrigailov, but if he surrenders, then there is a solution for him and Sonya.
These are just two examples of the double motif that are found throughout the novel. None of the characters in this story are ever one thing or another. They are each (perhaps with the exception of Luzhin) sinners and saints. Not only is there a double between characters, but characters are within themselves a double as well. Raskolnikov not only sees his double in others but is both the man of thought and the man of action. While Dostoevsky brought the idea of the duality of man to life in The Double, he had to conjure up a whole new person to do it. After 20 years, Dostoevsky brings it all together in Raskolnikov and gives birth to this duality in one picture. Here is a character who is not only capable of murder (without a significant motive) but also able to give all of his remaining money to impoverished strangers while still being completely believable to the reader.
Dostoevsky was among the first to bring the duality of man to light, with such well known stories as Dr.Jekyll and Hyde following 20 years after Crime and Punishment. Beginning with The Double, he introduces a somewhat docile, harmless and unrelatable man who has a split personality. In Notes From Underground, the potential for harm is increased, even if the man himself is unable to act. The dangers of having a society value only one side of man is prophesized. Finally with Raskolnikov, who happens to be the most relatable of the three protagonists, the most dangerous person also has the most potential to do good. It is here in Crime and Punishment where Dostoevsky reaches his most prophetic heights, telling the world what would happen if man chases after ideologies. Dostoevsky then develops a different type of duality in The Idiot, comparing the notion of good and evil in man, “But at this point a new story begins, the story of a man’s gradual renewal, his gradual rebirth, his gradual transition from one world to another, of his growing acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. This might constitute the theme of a new narrative – our present narrative is, however, at an end.” (Dostoevsky, “Crime”, 630).
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by David McDuff, London: Penguin Books, 1991.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Notes From Underground. Translated by Jessie Coulson, London: Penguin Books, 2006.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double (Two Versions). Translated by Evelyn Harden, Michigan: Ardis Publishers, 1985.