The Luzhin Question

936full-fyodor-dostoevsky

Dostoevsky himself.

From his very first mention in Crime and Punishment, in Pulcheria’s letter to Raskolnikov, the reader dislikes Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin. It’s hard not to. Pulcheria, no matter how hard she tries to hide it from Raskolnikov, has her doubts about Luzhin’s nature, calling him “a bit sullen and, as it were, arrogant” and “somewhat vain,” the latter of which she declares “almost not a vice” (35), proving that the extent of Luzhin’s unpleasantness prevents her even from lying to herself. Raskolnikov himself reacts violently to the idea of Luzhin from the start and is unable to bear him before he has even properly entered the story. Following his receipt of the letter, Raskolnikov wanders around St. Petersburg cursing Luzhin and his mother and sister’s plan. Indeed, Raskolnikov’s reaction to Luzhin is so strong and immediate that the first sentence Raskolnikov ever utters with relation to Luzhin contains the phrase “to the devil with Mr. Luzhin!” (40), ensuring that the reader subconsciously forms a link between Luzhin and the devil even before Luzhin himself has truly entered the narrative. As the story progresses, Luzhin gets worse and worse, refusing to give Dunya up, attempting to sully Raskolnikov’s reputation and frame Sonya. Luzhin is the only truly irredeemable character in Crime and Punishment and as such he plays an essential part in prompting Raskolnikov’s redemption and carrying Dostoevsky’s political message.

For Russian readers, there is an added element to Luzhin’s introduction and character in his name. Rather like Dickens, Dostoevsky has imbued his character names with certain meanings, to different effects. Raskolnikov’s own name comes from the Russian “raskol” which means “split,” referring to Raskolnikov’s internal conflict. Pulcheria and Sonya mean beauty and light, respectively. Razumikhin comes from the Russian for “reason” or “intelligence.” The connotations of all of these names are rather obvious. Raskolnikov is split (literally), Sonya is light and is therefore good and redemptive, Razumikhin remains a standard of sanity throughout the novel, even restoring Raskolnikov’s own reason to him. However, Dostoevsky’s choice of Luzhin is far less clear (and a whole lot more interesting). Luzhin in Russian comes from “Luzha,” which means “puddle.” So technically, Luzhin’s full name means rock son of rock puddle. The first effect of this choice on a Russian reader is comedic. It’s a lot harder to take someone seriously if their name is Mr. Puddle, so already Dostoevsky has discredited Luzhin, simply in naming him. Then, there are the connotations of the word “puddle.” Perhaps most obviously, the moniker connotes shallowness. By nature, puddles are not deep and so anyone named “puddle” probably isn’t either. And, sure enough, Luzhin is soon revealed to have a penchant for admiring himself in mirrors. “Having risen from insignificance, Pyotr Petrovich had a morbid habit of admiring himself, highly valued his intelligence and abilities, and sometimes, alone with himself, even admired his own face in the mirror” (306) Dostoevsky explains in one of the more detailed descriptions of Luzhin found in the book. From this passage, and others like it, it is astoundingly clear what Dostoevsky thinks of Luzhin (not much). However, Luzhin is not only shallow in his vanity (that very same vanity which Pulcheria noted and attempted to dismiss in the very beginning), but also in what he places value on in life, namely, roubles and kopeks. For Luzhin, nothing is more important than money—material wealth; all else is secondary. Luzhin derives all his “happiness” (if it can be called that) from wealth and status, never giving thought to the idea that there might be some sort of deeper meaning to life than raking in the dough. Even his idea of “love” (simply for lack of a better word have I chosen to call it thus) is predicated on money and status: his obsession with Dunya rises solely from the fact that she is of a lower rank than he, and poorer and therefore would be obligated to him following their marriage, as he would have given her status and wealth, the two most important things in his life.

However, the connotations of “puddle” do not stop at shallowness; there is more to be gained from this particular appellation. Puddles, like Luzhin, possess seemingly harmless surfaces. Being so shallow, the surface of a puddle is nearly always flat and, more often than not, the sky or trees are rather pleasantly reflected in the surface of a puddle. However, beneath that harmless surface, who knows what there may be? Sticks, stones, hearts of coal? So too, with Luzhin. The reader first meets Luzhin in Raskolnikov’s tiny little shoebox of a room, which Luzhin visits in order to meet with Raskolnikov before Pulcheria and Dunya’s arrival in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky goes to great trouble to give his reader an exact idea of what Luzhin is wearing from his “exquisite pair of lilac-colored, real Jouvian gloves” to his “smart, spanking-new top hat” (145-146). “Light and youthful colors predominated” (146) in Luzhin’s outfit and he had gone to great pains in dressing the part of the fiancé: procuring an all-new set of fine clothes for the occasion. “His face, very fresh and even handsome, looked younger than his forty-five years” (146) and “even his hair, only slightly touched with gray, combed and curled by the hairdresser, did not thereby endow him with a ridiculous or somehow silly look” (146), and overall, he seems to look quite nice. However, a lot of things about Luzhin seem. This shiny, polished exterior is a carefully-maintained front for Luzhin—just as the few manners he possesses and niceties he exclaims are, used to hide the ugliness within. When Pulcheria first describes Luzhin to Raskolnikov in her letter, she cannot let go of the word “seems.” In fact, she uses it, or some variation of it, seven times in connection with Luzhin over the course of four pages. She tells Raskolnikov that Luzhin “seems somewhat vain,” “is intelligent and seems to be kind,” and “only seems [arrogant] at first sight” (35), among other things. Not only that, but she employs phrases and words like “at least from many indications” (35), “appearance,” and “apparently” to qualify her descriptions of Luzhin. It is very clear from the get-go that Luzhin’s appearance and his reality do not match up, though the disconnect hardly ever becomes obvious until it’s a bit too late and you’re already mixed up with him—rather like how the dirty water of a puddle appears clean until it’s been splashed on you and suddenly the dirt and mud swirling in it become painfully obvious.

Taking the puddle idea one step further, there is the connection between puddles and mirrors to consider. The obvious relationship Luzhin has with mirrors, I have already mentioned. However, perhaps more interestingly, Luzhin himself is a sort of reflection of Raskolnikov—or at least one side of him. Luzhin embodies the far extreme of “logical” Raskolnikov’s ideas. To Luzhin, people are expendable when economics demand it, which is justifiable by Raskolnikov’s theory of “allowing blood for the sake of an idea” (261). Luzhin explains his theories in full to Raskolnikov, Razumikhin, and Zossimov upon his first visit to Raskolnikov using the example of a caftan which, once torn in two in an effort to help one’s neighbor, becomes useless. According to Luzhin, “everything in the world is based on self-interest” and therefore to keep one’s caftan for one’s own and not to aid one’s neighbor actually benefits society more as “the more. . . whole caftans there are in society, the firmer its foundations and the better arranged its common cause” (149). What Luzhin is espousing is essentially rational egoism (the belief that an action is only rational if it maximizes one’s self-interest) mixed with trickle-down economics (best stated in Luzhin’s own words: “It follows that by acquiring solely and exclusively for myself, I am thereby precisely acquiring for everyone” (149)). Rational egoism was taking hold as a philosophy, particularly in Russia, in the middle part of the nineteenth century under the leadership of Nikolay Chernyshevsky. In Crime and Punishment, Luzhin is essentially representative of Chernyshevsky’s ideas, which, incidentally, Dostoevsky detested and which he refuted in Notes from Underground. Thus, Luzhin is actually key to Dostoevsky’s polemic in Crime and Punishment; without him, there would be no representation of the idea which Dostoevsky so heartily wishes to reject.

However, it is not enough for Luzhin to simply exist as a representation of rational egoism and be disliked; Dostoevsky’s hero (or anti-hero) needs to make the decision to reject Luzhin and his philosophies on his own in order to thoroughly refute them. Raskolnikov, himself, begins the book as a bit of a rational egoist. A large part of his theory of extraordinary and ordinary men is predicated on the maxim that if an extraordinary man has a goal in mind, he may do anything to further that goal, even to the point of murder, so long as it is in the service of an idea. Raskolnikov, however, is nowhere near as certain of himself as Luzhin is. Luzhin has taken Chernyshevsky’s (and really Raskolnikov’s) ideas to their logical extreme and is therefore the slightly distorted mirror-image of Raskolnikov, just as if Luzhin were the reflection Raskolnikov saw of himself in a puddle in the streets of St. Petersburg. The reflection is not perfect, but instead some elements of it (in this case Raskolnikov’s theories) are exaggerated, blown out of proportion.

Raskolnikov, upon meeting Luzhin, is immediately repulsed by him—an interesting fact to note, considering the similarity of their ideas. That Raskolnikov takes such an immediate dislike to Luzhin—a dislike that merely intensifies following Luzhin’s actual explanation of his ideas—suggests that Raskolnikov was never cut out for the life of a rational egoist, for in Luzhin’s extreme version of his theory he recognizes its inherent dangers and is repulsed by them. In this way, Luzhin provides an impetus for Raskolnikov to take the path toward eventual redemption.

In order for Luzhin to serve this purpose, though, he must represent totally the ideas which Dostoevsky wished to refute. Unlike every other character in the book, Luzhin is utterly irredeemable. Why? Because Dostoevsky was worried that if there were even so much as one bright spot to him, one motivation with which Raskolnikov or a reader might sympathize, the point would be lost, Luzhin might be liked, and Raskolnikov might not reject his theories.

Luzhin is by far the flattest character in Crime and Punishment; his motivation and attitude do not shift from the first time he appears in the novel to the last. The only thing that ever changes about him is the attitude that other characters hold towards him throughout the book (it gets progressively more negative). However, this does not hold true for Svidrigailov, the character generally considered to be the villain of Crime and Punishment. Svidrigailov is abhorrent when we first hear of him, but, as the story progresses, he becomes more and more human until, in the final chapters, we end up inside his head and cannot help but pity him, sympathize with him even. True, at face value, Svidrigailov’s crimes would seem to far outweigh Luzhin’s. After all, all Luzhin is really guilty of is self-interest and greed, whereas Svidrigailov raped and caused the death of at least one young girl—probably more—and almost certainly played a part in the death of his wife, Marfa Petrovna. But Svidrigailov also gave money to the Marmeladov orphans, placing them in a good orphanage; gave money to Sonya; and left whatever was left of his money to his teenage fiancée before his death. There was no ulterior motive behind any of these acts. Svidrigailov did them simply because he felt like it and, inarguably, they were good acts, which saved lives. If that was not enough, Svidrigailov, near the end of the novel, pledges his love (undeniably honestly—there was no reason to lie at that point) to Dunya and, having been met once more with rejection, commits suicide, ridding the world of his evil. In that moment, when Dunya rejects Svidrigailov for the last time, we cannot help but feel for Svidrigailov as he “look[s] at her with an inexpressible look. Suddenly with[draws] his arm,” and “turn[s] away” (497) before letting her leave him forever, valuing her happiness over his own gratification. That night Svidrigailov is plagued by nightmares of the little girls he has raped, obvious manifestations of his guilt, and he awakes “feeling all broken” (510). That morning he commits suicide rather than remain alive, plaguing the woman he loves. Only Luzhin would not sympathize with such a pitiable picture. And that is precisely the point.

Svidrigailov—evil, disturbing, creepy Svidrigailov—has, by the end of Crime and Punishment, achieved redemption. If he can do it, why not Luzhin? Every character except for Luzhin has, by the end, some redeeming quality. Lebezyatnikov—whom Dostoevsky teased for his mindless progressivism and foppish utopian socialism—rescues Sonya from Luzhin’s plan. Raskolnikov achieves redemption in Siberia with the help of Sonya. Marmeladov led a pitiable life, but was forgiven in the end. Everyone who needed redemption got it, or at least was set on the path to it. But not Luzhin. Luzhin went from bad to worse in his pursuit of Dunya, his attempt at dirtying Raskolnikov’s name in the eyes of his family, and finally in his framing of the completely innocent Sonya and subsequent refusal to repent or even admit to what he had done. That it was Sonya that Luzhin took advantage of drives Dostoevsky’s point home even harder. Sonya is the epitome of goodness and innocence in the novel, Dostoevsky’s one shining light in the darkness of St. Petersburg. To take advantage of her is a far worse crime in Dostoevsky’s eyes than to take advantage of the little girls that Svidrigailov did, for Sonya is the pure prostitute, the representation of all that is good and holy. For Luzhin to take advantage of her is absolutely irredeemable.

And so it is perfect for Dostoevsky. The reader cannot help but hate Luzhin following his attempt to frame the innocent Sonya. And if Raskolnikov had maintained the tiniest shimmer of doubt with regard to Luzhin, that doubt was assuaged following his treatment of Sonya. By the end of the novel, Luzhin fades out of the plot himself, though he is mentioned a couple times in conversations between Sonya and Raskolnikov and Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov. In both these conversations, Luzhin is held up as the prime example of evil, first by Raskolnikov, then by Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov, speaking to Raskolnikov, asks him whether he thinks it better for “Luzhin to live and commit abominations” (436) or for Sonya to die, echoing the question Raskolnikov asked Sonya earlier: what if it depended on you whether Luzhin should go on living and doing wicked things, or Katerina Ivanovna should die? For both Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov, Luzhin is completely irredeemable, totally evil. There is nothing within him to latch onto, no bright spot to save him. Instead, Raskolnikov and the reader can hate him and his ideas whole-heartedly, rejecting them just as Dostoevsky intends us to.

Citations:

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Random House, Inc., 1993. Print.

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1 comment
  1. Ramzey Q. said:

    Hello,

    This was wonderful to read, and I have to say I was very impressed with the analysis and your approach altogether. The Luzhin question, how appropriate of a title that is. Perhaps out of all the characters in the novel I was most fascinated with him, not merely as a character but as a foil to others. As you have pointed out Luzhin seems to take Raskolnikov’s practicality to the full extreme, he lives to serve ‘the idea of a gentleman’, he is the epidemy of the ‘self-made man’ having pulled himself out of poverty with the aid of his own cunning and self-determination; though it is notable to mention that even though Luzhin represent the affluent, the cultivated, and the elite, it is emphasized over and over again that he lacks a formal education. His success and subsequently his ‘rational egoism’ as you put it is founded upon how others value him. He wears everything on the outside; everything that is to be known about him can be deduced instantaneously by simple examination. He is perfectly embodied through the idea of the puddle. You pointed out two prominent feature of puddles; the capacity to reflect and a lack of depth. In regards to reflection, Luzhin behaves exactly how he believes others expect him to behave as ‘a gentleman of refined qualities’. All of this can be found out by observing his first entrance:

    Enter the figure of a Mr. Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin who stoops at the entrance of the cabin in which the small crowd of persons has assembled. Before entering he awaits a sort of invitation, half eager for a formal introduction yet half withdrawing as to delay entry into such an unkempt lodging. So it is with a theatrical half step that he enters the room upon their request and so to speak ‘threads his way in’ between their tightly pressed bodies. Of course all this not before a scrupulous examination of the surroundings, a disappointed assessment of the would be ‘brother in-law’, and the shedding of a few superfluous articles of clothing; namely lavender gloves and fresh round hat which he grips all too tightly in his clenched fist. Before taking his seat amidst them but after stating his business he deliberately begins a gesture in which he gracefully reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out fat gold watch. He glances down at it, opens it, and not at all intending to read the time, lets out a tired almost boorish yawn, before closing it and letting it rest in the pocket once more.

    His life is one of theatrical demonstration; his very hesitation to enter the room indicates he is searching for cues of how others expect him to act in such a situation. He is a mirror in the sense that he needs prompting from others in order to understand how to act; others create the image of this so-called ‘gentleman’. And what is Dunya to him other than another accessory, another showpiece? Only she is more animated then the gloves, he intends for her to tell him of his marvelous achievements, of his benevolent heart for his ‘pulling her out of the gutters of poverty’. What’s more, she is a woman of good family and education, she is the most luxurious object he could have in his possession. Her education and proper standing will allow him to have those qualities by proxy. She completes his superficial identity, she is the final piece of the puzzle, the last quality of a gentleman that he needs in order to become complete. A woman of good standing and education does not marry an idiot, so it must be that Luzhin is not an idiot but in fact a true gentleman, an intellectual even. As for the other quality, the one of shallowness, it can be easily identified that he has no sense of direction, no content beyond this capacity for reflection. In other words there is nothing further to penetrate into, he cannot be redeemed because he is a caricature, a fleeting moment, a puddle bound to evaporate.

    Anyhow, your website is very impressive, I would love to learn about how you created it, it would be amazing to set up something like this for myself in the future. I have written a few pieces myself and have something of a growing collection but no way to receive feedback from a broader audience, no way to put my works into general circulation. I have just finished a piece on Hegel concerning ‘Civil Society and the Principle of Entropy’ and would love to hear your opinion if you have the time to read it. Well, it was great stumbling upon this, and best of luck to you in the future.

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