In our upcoming vlog post (currently in editing) by Carolyn Ho and Kate Penney , we compared Raskolnikov, the tortured hero of Crime and Punishment, with a star of contemporary pop culture, Spider-Man, using the concept of vigilante justice as a lens. Below is an edited version of the vlog script.
Stills from the forthcoming vlog (Kate holds the book)
Both Raskolvnikov and Spiderman operate under the notion of vigilante justice. The dictionary defines “vigilante” broadly as “a self-appointed doer of justice.” The term is from the Spanish word for “watchman” or “guard” and entered the English language sometime in the 19th century.
The creators of Spiderman and other comic book superheroes were familiar with the idea of vigilante justice and based their characters upon the notion of an individual who, because of his or her superior physical powers, has a right and a duty to commit often illegal and violent acts for the good of the social whole. Peter Parker does this every time he puts on his mask and uses own superior powers to fight for good and punish evil.
Stills from the forthcoming vlog by Kate and Carolyn
Dostoyevsky, a 19th century Russian, would have been unfamiliar with the term “vigilante,” but he was clearly familiar with the concept. Raskolnikov, though he lacks superpowers in the literal sense, believes himself to be above the law by virtue of his own extraordinariness. He publishes an essay titled “On Crime,” in which he argues that “there are certain persons who can…that is, not precisely are able to, but have the perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes and that the law is not for them.”
Here, it is not the powers or ability necessarily that matters–whether they are literal superpowers like Spiderman’s, or just extraordinary intelligence like Raskolnikov’s, but because these individuals have the physical or intellectual powers in the first place that not only gives them the right to operate outside and above the law, but also the duty. Often, these people will be misunderstood, ostracized and even thrown in prison in their own time, but as Raskolnikov argues in his essay, “the masses will punish them or hang them in the generation…but the same masses will set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them.” He concludes that “all great people must by nature be criminals.”
Raslolnikov, Napoleon, Stalin…
So is this theory correct? Do great individuals not only have the license but the duty to commit breaches of morality in order to honor justice and protect society at large? Spiderman lore and superhero lore in general, seems to point to, well, yes. Spiderman’s violence is portrayed as heroic sacrifice.