Gary Saul Morson at The New Criterion:
As Dante makes the punishments of hell appropriate to one’s sins, Dostoevsky has his madmen experience a hell appropriate to their philosophy. The ghosts who pay social calls on Svidrigailov are decorous, boring, and not the least bit otherworldly. In their triviality, they promise a world to come even more pointless than this one. “We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast!” Svidrigailov observes. “But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like an outhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?”
When Raskolnikov reproaches him with his monstrous crimes, Svidrigailov points to the oddity of a moralist murderer, but he is also ready with excuses. If, as the progressives argue, people are wholly the product of their environment, if free will is an illusion, and if crime derives solely from bad social conditions, then how, he asks, can I be personally responsible? “The question is, am I a monster or am I myself a victim?” Besides, he continues, even if I have grievously insulted others, well, “human beings in general greatly love to be insulted” because taking offense allows them to feel morally superior. Why, people even seek out ways to feel offended! My students, who know just what Svidrigailov has in mind, appreciate Dostoevsky’s relevance.