The Significance of Limits. The Parallels between Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Term Paper, 2018

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. Introduction

II. Limits for the Profane Mind
1. Empathy and Morality
2. Sexuality and Mortality

III. Overcoming Limits: Self-Absolutizing
1. Reason and Ethics
2. Science and Spirit

IV. Limits in a Secular World
1. Materiality and Immorality
2. Self-Containment and Death

V. Overcoming Limits: Transformation through the Other
3. Image and Language
4. Dialogue and Grace

VI. Conclusion: Transcendence in-and-beyond the Embodied

I. Introduction

The transgression of limits is a central theme of the novels by Dostoyevsky and Shelley. The stories examine the world of thought and action of two characters feeling trapped within certain limits and trying to break through them, while in their failures other limitations manifest themselves. These different levels add to a total picture reflecting the limits of a consciousness that seeks to overcome its own finitude – manifested in the embodiedness of the self and the factual resistance of the world – through the assertion of the self, but ends up trapped within itself. The stories eventually culminate in the realization that only the opening towards a genuine other can lead out of the entrapment within the self and factuality, and open up a dimension in which the embodied world and every single consciousness is given meaning and value.

I will show that the inner conflict of the two characters is essentially the same, despite the different personal convictions of the authors – Dostoyevsky as a conflicted Christian, Shelley in her critical opposition to religion – and that because of this difference, a resolution of the conflict is possible only in one case. Both authors place their figures in an ultimately profane world from which the latter have alienated themselves to the core of their existence and essence. The opening of the self towards an other is crucial for reconciliation – interhuman relation, however, is also met with limitations within the embodied world. The (im)possibility of overcoming these, at last, is not only conveyed through the content of the stories but concretely realized in the distinctive form of their narrative.

II. Limits for the Profane Mind

1. Empathy and Morality

Raskolnikov has a complex relationship with morals. He seems a morally sensitive and empathetic person to the point where his dreams reflect his subconscious engagement with morality; he is able to feel deep sorrow over the iniquity and suffering prevailing in the world. Instinctively, he confronts this inequity and does good where possible. In the face of the tragic fates of others he feels their pain just as his own. On the other hand, we find a huge gap between his self-conception and his conception of other human beings. This is manifest in two aspects.1

He repeatedly and consciously calls the pawnbroker Aljona, under whose injustice he suffers, a “louse”. After murdering her in a coldly calculated move and, under unfortunate circumstances, being forced to taint himself with her sister’s blood as well, he is not able and/or willing to admit its being a moral lapse, even less to feel remorse for his deed. Through this seemingly singular case the whole of his moral actions towards others as mentioned is relativized. His derogatory view of Aljona by degrading her to a subhuman cements his inability to universal empathetic relation to his fellow human beings.

Raskolnikov has constructed for himself his own metaphysics or anthropology of ethics in which he differentiates two classes of human beings: there is the common, low-minded man that is subjected to the moral law, and he whose sublime nature entitles him to transgress it. This enables the latter to deploy their ingenuity to the progress and the good of all humankind. Under this seemingly altruistic motif, Raskolnikov claims to be part of this class. Evident from these two aspects, he refuses to regard all human beings or all lives as equal or equally valuable.

The moment he learns of his sister Dunja’s fate marks an important step towards his decision to commit his crime. He sees himself to be justified breaking the common law for it because it is to him a limit to his opportunity to act, love and live. The reason for committing the crime is thus presented as ambiguous: on the one hand motivated by material aspects, on the other hand also as a mental attempt at transgressing the boundary of morality which he perceives to be a limit to his human self-actualization.2

2. Sexuality and Mortality

Frankenstein grows up sheltered in material and ideational prosperity. He has harmonious relationships with his parents and his adoptive sister and wife-to-be Elizabeth. Strikingly, he does not seem to develop carnal affection towards her throughout his whole youth. Despite his positive experiences he is not interested in building relationships with other fellow human beings. Instead, he develops from an early age a remarkable thirst for knowledge and spends much time burying his nose in (pseudo-)scientific books.

Another noticeable development point of Frankenstein is the resurgence of his urge to knowledge after it declines temporarily when he mother is removed by an illness. His reflections on her death and associated scientific ambitions testify to his fear of death. It is death that Frankenstein seeks to conquer with the means of natural sciences. His dream is the revival of dead bodies and thus the overcoming of the finitude of the embodied. The infinite cannot, however, have a beginning, just as it cannot have a physical end. The sexual generation of life is therefore anathema to him. This explains why his relationship to Elizabeth remains physically distant until the end: the female presents itself to him as the means of physical procreation and is rejected by him as the embodiment of sexuality and finitude.3

The monster’s death threat and its reception by Frankenstein unveil his psyche and combine the different aspects of the story. Frankenstein misunderstands the intention of the monster and fears for his own life on his wedding night. This fear reflects the dread of having to acknowledge his mortality and natural limitedness through the sexual act.

The monster as the hypostasis of the dark side of his psyche is, however, in fact planning to murder Elizabeth who threatens the infinitude striven for by Frankenstein. His fear of his own demise drives him away from Elizabeth on his wedding night and is in this sense to blame for her death. The seeming deliverance of Frankenstein of the threats of sexuality and thus mortality comes with an obvious price: it alienates him from his true nature as an embodied being.

III. Overcoming Limits: Self-Absolutizing

1. Reason and Ethics

As mentioned, Raskolnikov tends to – spontaneously and out of his character – treat his fellow human beings with good-heartedness. It is, however, interesting to notice how his good-heartedness always comes to an abrupt end whenever he ineluctably beings to reflect on the reasons for his behaviour. He appears as a very rational person. Rationality manifests itself in Raskolnikov in stark opposition to empathy for it destroys his unmediated relation to his fellow human beings which expresses itself in naturally empathetic closeness.

Raskolnikov appears to combine in his metaphysics/anthropology two of the prevalent (although doubtful with regard to their success) moral philosophies following the Enlightenment. His murder is effectively a symptom of a “metaphysical crime”: As soon as the moral law cannot be retained as absolutely and universally binding, all value becomes relative. Instead, ethics begins to centre around the supreme importance of the individual will as Existentialism proposes. In Raskolnikov’s worldview, much of Nietzsche’s later moral philosophy is anticipated: The self and the individual will become the absolute measure of morality; the prevailing moral system has to be overthrown in a steady development of progress. For the few selected individuals that are able to be judges of right and wrong, value and its lack, and to live according to it, the prevailing moral system is an oppression of the value-creating activity of their will. The judgement seat is assigned to the individual conscience.

Joined to this existentialist foundation is a utilitarian approach to value as well as the machiavellic principle of the end justifying the means: Raskolnikov balances Aljona’s life against the good of many people who would profit from her death. By objectifying and relativizing human life the murder really becomes a means to the realization of the new world order in which the selected individual decides over life and death.

If the common man attempts to transgress the moral boundary, he becomes weak. In a worldview rationalized through and through there can be no room for compassion; empathy can only be a sentimental obstacle to greatness, forcing conscience into a state of weakness. This is reminiscent of Spinoza’s concept of the conatus; within its context empathy is regarded as a limitation to the individual fulfilment.

The positioning of the individual will as absolute, however, eventuates in absolute arbitrariness. Rationality that is not bound to anything, has no foundation, cannot justify morality. The emphasis of the will is the fatal in Raskolnikov’s ethics, for the intellect, degraded to the slave of the will, does not provide a reason for the acknowledgement of the other and therefore self-transcendence. The ethics of the individual will ultimately collapse through the fixation on the self.

Although Raskolnikov delivers himself up to his punishment, he submits to the law only outwardly. In his mind he is still convinced of his innocence. Instead of repentance, he regards the punishment as a natural consequence for his failure to show the strength that characterizes a man of the higher class. His confession to Sonja is no more than a recognition of the intellect. His unconscious suicidal urge when he is almost run down by a carriage is the wrong form of repentance: It is not done with true realization and repentance. It is left open whether Raskolnikov will eventually undergo transformation.

2. Science and Spirit

Frankenstein is fascinated by and engaged in the natural sciences and natural philosophy, especially their occult movements. He takes his first steps through theoretical alchemy. In its mystic form alchemy unites the perfection of the material with that of the adept’s soul. The transformation of non-noble substances into “immortal gold” corresponds the transformation of the human being into a new divine existence. The liberation of matter of its finite existence was hence a means of reflecting the raising of the self over human mortality.


1 The following refers to: Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, Constance Garnett (1961): Crime and Punishment, London: Heinemann.

2 The following refers to: Mary Shelley (2013): Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, Penguin Classics.

3 Cf. Georg Levine: The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein, in: U.C. Knoepflmacher (1982): The Endurance of Frankenstein. Essays on Mary Shelley's novel, p. 9.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Significance of Limits. The Parallels between Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and Shelley's "Frankenstein"
University of Cambridge  (Faculty of Divinity)
Religious Themes in Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Transzendenz, Dostojewski, Schuld und Sühne, Verbrechen und Strafe, Shelley, Frankenstein
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Céline Sun (Author), 2018, The Significance of Limits. The Parallels between Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and Shelley's "Frankenstein", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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