Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although Dostoevski never finished “The Crocodile,” it nevertheless stands as one of the most powerful indictments against humankind’s inhumanity to humankind. His narrator, Semyonitch, seems to be the only person truly concerned with Matveitch’s welfare. Even the victim’s wife decides that divorce would be best for her. The German owner of the crocodile and his mother are concerned only with protecting their investment. The German realizes that he can make huge profits by selling tickets to people anxious to see a man living inside a crocodile. Even the victim agrees that the “principles of economics” should rule the day. Dostoevski is thus making the point that when capitalist doctrines dominate human behavior, all notions of common decency among people will cease to exist.

During the 1860’s in Russia, such prominent intellectuals as Dmitry Ivanovich Pisarev and Varfolomei Aleksandrovich Zaitsev argued that Russia should look to Western Europe for its economic model. Regarding rapid industrialization as a paramount goal, Pisarev theorized that the perfect individual to thrive in a capitalist society would be a “superman” type not constrained by the bounds of good and evil. The prospect of combining capitalism and nihilism in Russia worried Dostoevski, who feared that Russian virtues would be trampled. These theorists had little or no faith in the potential of the Russian people.

Dostoevski expresses his distrust for both the political left and right in “The Crocodile.” Although the bureaucrat Matveitch is described as being politically “progressive” and is the victim of the story, he still agrees that economic interests should prevail over even his own safety. It can be argued that “The Crocodile” foreshadows the linkage that Dostoevski forcefully developed between nihilism and capitalism in his 1866 novel Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (Crime and Punishment, 1886). Many of his short stories touch on the issues that he more fully developed in his mature novels. In Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1913), for example, he touches on the idea of social theorists attempting to mold a perfect society without taking into consideration the rights of the individual. Dostoevski is noted for juxtaposing the individual against a bureaucracy, the city against the countryside, and religious faith versus atheism. Even unfinished, “The Crocodile” stands as a merciless portrait of where an amoral approach to life might lead.