The search for justice in a world where justice is often defined by those in power is often a difficult and individual search for justice on one’s own terms. This is especially true for Raskalnikov, the main character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, as his definition of justice and how his definition changes is a central theme of the novel. Raskalnikov’s (Rodya) understanding of justice for the majority of the novel is that an individual receives his or her reward or punishment according to their ends, without judgement on the means by which these ends were achieved. This is exemplified in Raskalnikov’s theory of the Ubermensch, someone who is above the law because they have a higher purpose. Rodya’s seach for justice on these terms proves fruitless for him, and only when his understanding of justice changes to one of retribution and confession is he satisfied in his search for justice. This search contributes to the work as a whole by asserting that Rodya’s second definition of justice is the correct one. This search is also central in characterizing Sonia and Rodya.
Rodya’s understanding of justice at the beginning of the novel is that each person should be judged according to what he or she has accomplished, with a blind eye to the means by which they did so. This is exemplified in Rodya’s theory that some people, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, are above the law because they have greater ends to justify their means. This implies that each person forms and acts on their own sense of justice and that sense can be skewed by personal motivations, as demonstrated in the pawnbroker’s murder, in which Rodya’s intent to use her wealth for charity skewed his vision of his own means of achieving it.
The search for justice in these terms proves unsuccessful for Rodya and only when his definition of justice is changed to one of confession and punishment does his search come to a close. The failure of his first definition of justice is demonstrated by the guilt and incompletion of his initial humanitarian intentions in his murder of the pawnbroker. This implies that no one has the right to overstep the law, regardless of their intentions, because no one is selfless enough to hold that position. Rodya’s search for justice in this definition fails, as he continues to feel guilt for the murder and realizes that his ends were only an excuse to commit murder. The conclusion of his search for justice only arrives when Sonia alters his sense of justice.
The significance of Rodya’s search for justice to the work as a whole is that it contributes to the novel’s argument that justice can only be achieved by confession and suffering in retribution. This is done by Rodya’s failure to find justice in his definition that the end justifies the means, and success in finding justice in his confession and suffering for his crime.