April 11, 2010
“Extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary” (Crime and Punishment, 247). What makes someone think they are extraordinary? There are countless individuals who are known to be phenomenal members of society, but these aren’t the people you see bragging and talking about their accomplishments. The ones who consider themselves unbelievably uncommon are the ones who thrive off their own ego. They have no intentions of using their “greatness” to help mankind or spread their noteworthy knowledge. They are known to be the introverted, isolated, and consciously or unconsciously unhinged souls who contribute nothing to society. No matter how remarkable people might consider themselves, no one has the right to take the law into his or her own hands when it comes to the moral right to live. Human existence is universally granted to every being on this Earth. In other words, one person’s moral grounds for committing murder due to a selfish desire can never be justified. Does society play a role in feeding these psychologically unusual vile cravings? In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s, Crime and Punishment and Bret Easton Ellis’s, American Psycho, we see how a materialist society has horrible consequences in driving the ego to act immorally.
“Science now tells us, love yourself above everyone else, for everything in the world relies on self interest” (Dostoevsky, 145). In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov represents the modern day man. He has puts his faith in truth and science, rather than religion. Nihilism argues that there is no purpose in life. Nihilism rejects the traditional bonds of family and society. Dostoevsky has a problem with this, because it causes a lack of faith, and we see people putting oneself above the other. Raskolnikov believes that he has the right to manipulate society and place himself on a pedestal, because he’s better. Raskolnikov acts like he is “naturally selected” to better society; because he thinks he is doing mankind a favor.
Raskolnikov is a rational egoist. He is rationalizing the fact that he killed someone by plighting that he is carrying out a service for humanity. An elitist rational thought process drives Raskolnikov’s murders; “I am what I think.” Raskolnikov is an egotist. He loves himself so much that he thinks it is the role of the world to serve him. An egoist puts himself above everybody else, and therefore justifies all his actions due to his/her idea of supremacy.
Patrick Bateman is the protagonist in Bret Easton Ellis’s, American Psycho. He is also a rational narcissist. Narcissists are only dedicated to improving themselves. They have no concern with the outside world. In Bateman’s case, Freud would say that a narcissist’s self is not whole, therefore they’re on a search for fulfillment of the self. Bateman wants power and control. By finding power he thinks he will find himself.
Bateman is a Harvard graduate, who belongs to the upper class elite. We learn about Bateman’s thought process through his stream of consciousness, like Raskolnikov. As the story progresses, we begin to uncover Bateman’s violent urges and learn that he finds gratification in his sadistic and psychotic murders. Bateman has a smooth, slick and calm personality, unlike Raskolnikov. His idée fixe with perfection, wealth, superiority, and consumerism drives his ego to the roof. Bateman feels no guilt or remorse before, after, or during his killings. He is the literal and figurative meaning of the “American Psycho.”
As his conscience takes a toll on him and he begins to feel self-reproach, he confesses his crimes to his lawyer, Harold Carnes. Carnes does not take Patrick’s confessions seriously and laughs it off by stating that he just had dinner with one of his supposed murder victims just a couple days ago. Were all these murders a dream in Patrick Bateman’s head or was he lucky enough to get away with murder? Whether or not Bateman was dreaming the murders, or actually performing them, his psychotic thoughts and vivid imaginations are a by-product of America. In the 1980’s, consumerism is taking place. “I am what I wear,” is what’s going through Bateman’s head. The self is the commodity. Patrick Bateman is convinced that in order to be successful, and reach the glass ceiling, he needs to purchase, own, and invest more than any production industry. America constructs this psycho. Society puts so much pressure on looks, products, appearance and exploitation of consumer goods that the only thing people strive to accomplish is, “fitting in.”
Contrary to Bateman who thinks, “I am what I wear,” Raskolnikov thinks, “I am what I think.” Patrick Bateman is the modern day version of Raskolnikov. They are both tied around a class system, which they are not able to escape. The division in class allows both characters to perceive their murders uniquely. Raskolnikov is living in Russia in the 1800’s when the opposition of Russian spiritual values to Western rationalism is growing. Raskolnikov is a Russian radical, attending a university, who cultivates Western ideas of social-scientific approach that studies the material world. By following a western, utilitarian economic theory, he reduces it, to human compassion merely being replaced by economic utility and self-interest. Dostoevsky constructs a character that begins to have his conscious eat away at him after his murders. By killing the pawnbroker, Raskolnikov tries to prove that the material world of self-interest justifies immoral behavior, but he is wrong. He understands that human nature and compassion for others exists in society.
Raskolnikov wants to lend a helping hand and “kill [Aliona and Lizaveta], take her money and with the help of it devote [himself] to the service of humanity and the common good. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds. For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay” (Dostoevsky, 66). Raskolnikov wants to kill the pawnbroker so he can be noticed as being above her. He wants to rise and feel important in the Russian class system. Whereas Raskolnikov murders, because he wants to change Russian society, Bateman is a victim of the American society. Even when Bateman silently cries for help and admits to being a murderer, he suffers no repercussion, because no one believes him. This is a critique on society. Voices are often silenced when it comes to class division. The poor, and even the elite consumers who realize America is exploiting are not heard, even when they speak up. America tries spreading it’s own voice to its citizens and expects its people to unconsciously buy into what they are selling. An ego driven society is dangerous and gives morally powerless individuals the strength to put themselves above humanity.
Raskolnikov believes his crimes are justified due to his “exceptional” position in society. He has given himself the title of “superman” which emphasizes the power and authority he has endowed upon himself. Is this Nihilistic and Utilitarian attitude Roskalnikov has towards the world true? Lester, a character in Woody Allen’s film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, would agree with Raskolnikov’s Utilitarian position. Lester is a TV/film producer who says, “They don’t pay off on high aspirations. You’ve got to deliver.” Lester believes he has a specific role in society, similar to Raskolnikov. He has “delivered” so well to the public’s interest that the public now puts him on a pedestal.
Like Raskolnikov, Lester has an ego. Lester however, does not contemplate over his thoughts and actions. He has chosen to be the best, therefore is the best. Clifford Stern is Lester’s foil, a documentary maker in, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Cliff does not “deliver” to the public; therefore he is a “starving artist.” The characters of Lester and Clifford are prevalent in Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov has a side of him who thinks his murders are justified. This is the viewpoint that is similar to Lester, because they are both convinced that what they are “delivering” is supreme. On the other hand, Raskolnikov begins to wonder whether his previous utilitarian ideals are correct, as his guilty conscience begins to eat away at him.
Clifford Stern does not change his style so the public loves him. He is an example of an individual who stands next to his values. Clifford keeps his views and perspectives to himself. The public has no interest to him. As Raskolnikov begins to slowly engage in society and come face to face with his crime, he realizes that it might not have been in the interest of the public to kill Aliona Ivanovna, the pawnbroker and her sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna. Yes, they might be a nuisance to society for Raskolnikov, but he should have been passive rather than active in keeping his personal opinions to himself.
Lester, Raskolnikov and Clifford are educated men who have a lot of pride behind their ideals. Each has similar yet different views of what someone’s role in society really is. When you know what the public wants and you deliver well, you will strive, like Lester. Lester has no inner turmoil or internal battle in his conscience. His concerns in life are not associated with veiled, deep-rooted emotions. His focal interest is consumerism; money and fame. When a character becomes more complex, like Clifford, it is not so easy for a character like him to forget his purpose in life. Clifford’s major purpose is for his voice to be heard and understood by the public. Clifford does not care about selling the voice of the public to the public. Clifford is a real member of society who symbolizes individuality. He wants to sell his OWN voice. A mixture of Cliff and Lester form an even more convoluted character such as, Raskolnikov. Unlike Clifford and Lester, Raskolnikov makes the mistake of murder, because he is caught between two ideals; continuing to live his life believing he committed a murder in order to “deliver” what society would want, or to accept that his choice was irrational and ego driven.
Like Patrick Bateman from, American Psycho, Judah-a character who finds murder to be his only solution- does not get punished for his murder. It’s interesting how a decent, hard-working man commits adultery, and has his guilt lead him to his only possible solution; the murder of his adulteress. On the other hand, an arrogant man like Lester would never commit murder, even though he is a product and exploiter of a materialist society he adorns. Woody Allen writes:
And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.
Woody Allen does a good critique on society through Crimes and Misdemeanors. He shows how society and human nature shapes us all. Even a hardworking accomplished guy like Judah, is able to commit a crime without suffering the pangs of conscience. Paradoxically, Judah, a family man, executes a murder that Lester, the egotist of the story would never be able to engage in. Every one is affected by consumerism in separate ways. Everyone lives to fulfill his or her ego contrastive from everyone else.
Society does play a role in feeding these psychologically unusual vile cravings of Lester, Raskolnikov, and Patrick. Patrick is a concrete example of someone who is personified as a commodity. He is a product of the American society and is not able to escape it, even after he accepts his wrong doings. Society has already placed him in a division of class that not even the law can touch. Raskolnikov is an example of someone who suffers from his guilt, admits to his murders, and learns how compassion does exist in society, because he pays for his crimes through punishment. Lester does not commit any crime. He will live in his fantasy world of fame and fortune never understanding the purpose of reality. Finally, Judah symbolizes how people should never be judged by their cover, because appearances are definitely deceiving. It will be easier for individuals like Lester, Raskolnikov, and Patrick to really evaluate the world they live in, once they overcome the urge of copying, Ego, an invisible man who tries enforcing people to follow self-interest, rather than human nature.
Crimes and Misdemeanors. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Martin Landau, and Mia Farrow. Orion Pictures, 1989.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2007. Print.
Ellis, Bret E. American Psycho. Vintage Books, 1991. Print.