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Type of Work and Year of Publication . Crime and Punishment is a novel that probes the psyche of a young man with a good heart whose mind is infected by evil ideology. The narrative point of view is third person omniscient. The character development is outstanding. Although the novel is long, the plot moves forward swiftly. The cat-and-mouse game between Detective Petrovitch and Raskolnikov is
especially intriguing. Overall, the novel is one of the greatest ever written. The novel was serialized in 1866 The Russian Messenger before being published in book form. .
Setting . Almost all of the scenes in the novel take place in St. Petersburg, Russia, one summer in the middle
of the nineteenth entury. Near the end of the novel, the scene moves to Siberia.
Antagonist: His Conscience; Luzhin, Petrovitch, Svidrigailov
Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov (Rodya) Impoverished young man in whom good and evil war against each other. He believes himself intellectually superior to others and therefore entitled to take the law into his own hands to suit his purpose. He murders a grasping pawnbroker partly to prove his superiority to himself and partly to use her
assets for himself, his family, and other downtrodden members of society. Through most of the novel, he struggles to overcome the pangs of his guilty conscience.
Dmitri Prokofitch Razhumihin Raskolnikov's best friend. He is hard-working and morally
Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov (Sonia) Shy, caring young woman who becomes a prostitute to support her destitute family.
Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov Sonia's
father. He is good at heart but is a curse to his family because of his alcoholism.
Katerina Wife of Marmeladov.
Pulcheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikov Raskolnikov's
Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov (Dounia) Raskolnikov's sister.
Alyona Ivanovna Greedy pawnbroker whom Raskolnikov murders.
Lizaveta Ivanovna Simpleton sister of Alyona Ivanovna. She walks in unexpectedly moments after Alyona is murdered. Panicked, Raskolnikov murders her also.
Pokorov Student who had
given Raskolnikov the address of the pawnbroker in the event that Raskolnikov might want to pawn an item to raise money.
Zossimov Physician who treats Raskolnikov during his illness.
Porfiry Petrovitch Clever detective who plays on Raskolnikov's guilty conscience to get him to confess to the murders.
Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin Unworthy suitor of Raskolnikov's sister, Dounia. He uses his money to attempt to gain control of Dounia.
Arkady Ivanovitch Svidrigailov Man who employed Dounia as a governess and tried to rape her.
Praskovya Pavlovna Raskolnikov's landlord.
Zametov Police clerk who encounters Raskolnikov in a restaurant.
Children of Marmeladov
Life is going badly for a young man who lives in a shabby attic apartment of a five-story house in a working-class district of St. Petersburg, Russia. His name is Raskolnikov—Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, or Rodya for short. Deep in debt, he cannot afford to continue his university education and cannot pay his rent. His landlady, Praskovya Pavlovna,
has decided to report him to the police.
By Michael J. Cummings...©
Raskolnikov had made some money tutoring, but he gave that job up because he has no presentable clothing. Making matters worse is his fragile health.
But on an extremely hot evening in July, Raskolnikov forgets his personal woes for a short while as he shifts all of his attentions to a 60-year-old pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, who makes money from the misfortunes of others, including Raskolnikov. He walks a short distance down the street to a large
tenement, goes up the back stairs to her fourth-floor apartment, and knocks on the door. When she answers and allows him to enter, he offers her an old silver watch on a steel chain. She agrees to give him 1½ rubles for it but deducts interest he already owes her. He ends up with only 1 ruble and 15 kopecks. But it is not primarily for the meager pledge that Raskolnikov
has come to the pawnbroker's; rather, it is to observe her and her surroundings one more time as part of a rehearsal for murder.
On the way back from the pawnbroker’s, he stops at a tavern for a drink. There, he and a drunken man, Semyon
Zakharovitch Marmeladov, strike up a conversation. Marmeladov has financial problems of his own, aggravated by his drinking. He has a consumptive wife and three stepchildren, along with a daughter of his own, Sonia. Because he can no longer support his family, Sonia (Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladov) has turned to prostitution to provide money for the family to scrape by. Later, Raskolnikov
helps the staggering Marmeladov return to his house. The scene in the poverty-stricken home saddens Raskolnikov, and he leaves money behind.
Back at his drab apartment, he opens a letter from his mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikov,
informing him that his sister, Dounia (Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikov), plans to marry a man named Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin. The wedding is to take place in St. Petersburg, and Mrs. Raskolnikov and Dounia will be coming to the city soon. The news unsettles Rodya, for he knows that Dounia plans to marry this Luzhin fellow for his money so that she can provide for her mother—and help Rodya out
Rodya thinks again about the pawnbroker. Though he has a dream which he takes as a sign that he should abandon his plan to kill her, he nevertheless continues to plot against her. Why?
First, he wants her money so that he can help his family and others in need. Second, he wants to prove to himself that his “extraordinary man” theory is correct. He had explained this theory in an article he sent to the Periodical Gazette, an article that has yet to be published. In it, he contends that there are two types of men in the
world, ordinary and extraordinary. The extraordinary ones, like himself, are superior humans who have the right—nay, the duty—to violate the law, under certain circumstances, in order to benefit humankind. An extraordinary man even has the right to commit murder if the act will result in benefits to the unfortunate. The article, of course, does not reveal that Raskolnikov himself is planning
Over and over again, he thinks the murder through. Since the pawnbroker is little more than a bloodsucker who cashes in on the misery of the destitute, it would be no crime to kill her and use her money to benefit others. The murder
would demonstrate, too, that he is an extraordinary man. After deciding to go through with the crime, he finds out that the pawnbroker will be alone on the following evening. Her feeble-minded sister, Lizaveta, will be out. He is sure he has the composure and intelligence to get away with the crime.
On the designated night, he goes to the pawnbroker’s. Even though at the last minute a desire to flee seizes him, he commits the deed, driving an axe into pawnbroker’s skull. He grabs her purse, then rummages and finds a box containing valuables and loads his pockets. Unexpectedly, Lizaveta returns while he is still
inside. There is no alternative but to kill her too, and so he wields the axe one more time. Moments later, someone rings the doorbell and tries to enter, but the door is locked from the inside. Actually, there are two men at the door. One leaves to find the caretaker, and the other stays to watch the door. However, after a short while, he also leaves. After hearing him walk away, Raskolnikov
sneaks out, neglecting to close the apartment door, and returns to his apartment with his loot.
The following morning, while running a fever and coping with the gravity of his crime, he receives a summons to appear at the police station.
He jumps to the conclusion that the police somehow got on to him and want him to own up to the crime. But at the police station, he discovers the summons is for the back rent he owes. After signing a pledge to pay 115 rubles to his landlady, he overhears a discussion of the murders. In his weak physical state, exacerbated by the psychological effects of his crime, he faints. When he comes to, he
wonders whether he aroused suspicion.
At his apartment, he gathers up the loot—including the purse, which he does not open—and takes it to a courtyard, where he hides it under a large stone. He is satisfied now that the police—if they indeed suspect him—won’t be able to charge him because they won’t be able to find any incriminating evidence. On his way home, he visits a university
friend, Dmitri Prokofitch Razhumihin, who also has suspended his education for lack of funds. But he is working to save money so he can return to complete his education. Razhumihin is his only friends from the university; other students think Raskolnikov fancies himself superior to them, and they resent it.
Noticing immediately that Raskolnikov is ill, he feels his pulse. Raskolnikov pulls away, saying in broken sentences that he has come to see whether Razhumihim knows of tutoring work for him but adds that he doesn’t really want tutoring work. He is making no sense. Suddenly, he gets up and decides to
“Then why the devil have you come? Are you mad, or what?”
"Well, then, I came to you because I know no one but you who could help
. . . to begin . . . because you are kinder than anyone--
cleverer, I mean, and can judge . . . and now I see that I want nothing. Do you hear? Nothing at all . . . no one's services . . . no
one's sympathy. I am by myself . . . alone. Come, that's enough. Leave me alone."
Razhumihim offers him a share of a project translating a German manuscript into Russian. At first, Raskolnikov accepts it, then
rejects it and leaves. Out on the street, he is nearly run over. Hours later, in the evening, he arrives home, unable to remember where he had been since leaving Razhumihim’s. He lies down on a sofa, shivering, drawing his coat over him.
When he awakens in mid-morning, the landlady’s servant, Nastasya, who is a good friend of Raskolnikov, is in the room with a bearded young man. Razhumihim also comes in, informing Raskolnikov that he has been deliriously ill for four days, unable to take anything but tea by the spoonful. He had tracked down Rodya after the latter had left his residence four days before.Zossimov, a physician, has
been in to examine him. His finding: Raskolnikov is not seriously ill; he just needs to eat more, take better care of himself, and settle his nerves.
The bearded man then announces that he is a messenger with money—thirty-five rubles—from
Raskolnikov’s mother. At first, Rodya refuses the money but, on coaxing from Razhumihim, accepts and signs for it. Later, Razhumihim and Nastasya get him soup.
In the following days, when Razhumihim and the doctor return to check on him during
his convalescence, Dounia’s fianceé, Luzhin, visits Raskolnikov to inform him that his mother and sister are expected in St. Petersburg in a few days. Raskolnikov accuses Luzhin of taking advantage of his sister. Because she is poor, Rodya says, Luzhin plans to use his wealth to maintain control over her and use her as he wishes. Luzhin leaves in a huff.
Discusses the Murders
Meanwhile, as Raskolnikov recovers, he follows news of the murder investigation closely. At the Palais de Cristal Restaurant, while having tea and reading back issues of newspapers with accounts of the murders, he runs into a police clerk named Zametov. He is a friend of Razhumihim who had visited Rodya’s apartment with Razhumihim during Rodya’s
four days of delirium. When they discuss the murders, Zametov opines that it was the work of an amateur. Raskolnikov, taken aback, describes the modus operandi as it actually happened and even tells what he would have done with the loot if he had committed the murder.
“You are a madman,” Zametov says.
Then Raskolnikov says:
"And what if it was I who murdered the old woman and Lizaveta?"
Zametov turns white for a moment, seeming to believe that Raskolnikov is the murderer. Then he rejects the possibility as
After Raskolnikov leaves the restaurant, he comes across a crowd gathered around a man who has been run over by a carriage. It is Marmaledov. After Raskolnikov tells police he knows the man and will pay for a doctor to
attend him, they carry Marmeladov home and set him down. Two of Marmeladov’s small girls, Lida and Polenka, are terrified. His wife has Polenka fetch Sonia, who is working her prostitute’s trade. A short time later, Marmeladov dies in the comforting arms of Sonia. Raskolnikov gives 20 rubles to his wife and leaves his name and address with Polenka, who hugs him before he leaves.
In spite of the unnerving experience, Raskolnikov now feels good about himself. He will forget about the old pawnbroker and the murder investigation. He will get on with his life. Excited, he goes to see Razhumihim, who is entertaining guests. However, when
he arrives, he is feeling a bit faint, and Razhumihim accompanies him back to his apartment.
Raskolniknov’s sister and mother are there. After they all have a joyful reunion, he collapses onto the floor. Mother and daughter are greatly alarmed.
After he recovers and reassures them that he is simply getting over an illness, he tells Dounia of his angry encounter with Luzhin and that he does not want her to marry him on his account.
She reacts with dismay. Razhumihim calls the mother and daughter aside and asks them to excuse his friend’s behavior, which he says is due to his illness. They become very concerned, but Razhumihim tells them not to worry; he will send for his doctor friend, Zossimov, and then stay with his friend overnight. While talking with them, he becomes
fascinated with the attractive Dounia, who is tall and beautiful.
When Zossimov arrives, he agrees to stay the night elsewhere in the building to check in on Rodya from time to time. Razhumihim takes mother and daughter home, taking many
opportunities to compliment Dounia, then returns.
The following day, Raskolnikov is sleeping soundly, and Razhumihim calls on Pulcheria Alexandrovna and Dounia to tell them that everything seems all right. Everyone decides to visit Rodya—mother and daughter, Razhumihim, Zossimov. During the visit, Sonia appears. In the presence of so many people, she is extremely shy. Haltingly, she explains that
she has come to extend her family’s thanks to Rodya for his help and to ask him to attend the funeral in the morning and a lunch afterward.
Later, Raskolnikov talks alone with Razhumihim about the murder investigation, noting that from time to
time he had pawned various items, including a ring and a silver watch, at Alyona Ivanovna’s. Because these items connect him with the pawnbroker, police might regard him as a suspect. He asks his friend whether he knows the chief investigator on the case, Porfiry Petrovitch. Razhumihim indeed knows him, for he is a relation. Rodya then asks for advice: Should he go to the police station to
disclose this information, showing that he has nothing to hide—or to Petrovitch? Razhumihim says the latter, and they decide to go to see Petrovitch at that very moment.
At this point, a great cat-and-mouse game begins between Petrovitch
and Raskolnikov. Petrovitch, rotund and good-humored, is a wily, highly competent detective with piercing eyes. He tells Raskolnikov that he was expecting him. What is more, he says, he already knows what items Raskolnikov pawned, that he has been ill, that he encountered the police clerk Zametov, and that he helped the Marmeladovs. But the coup de grâce is that he read the article that
Raskolnikov wrote for the Periodical Review. Raskolnikov is dumbfounded on two accounts. First, he was not aware that his article had been published. Second, he is surprised that Petrovitch knows so much about him. It must be that he considers Raskolnikov a prime suspect.
Petrovitch says he was intrigued by a central thesis in the article: that extraordinary people—people with superior intellects—have the right to commit a crime. Raskolnikov says he believes that, yes, but only under when there are no legal options to remedy a problem.
“I simply hinted that an 'extraordinary' man has the right . . . that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep . . . certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea—sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of
humanity.” Napoleon, for example, waged war but was admired by millions, Raskolnikov notes.
Raskolnikov further explains that “if the discoveries of Kepler and Newton could not have been
made known except by sacrificing
the lives of one, a dozen, a hundred, or more men, Newton would have had the right, would indeed have been in duty bound to eliminate the dozen or the hundred men for the sake of making his discoveries known to the whole of humanity.”
Petrovitch questions him further about this idea, with Razhumihim occasionally interrupting to ask whether his friend is serious about his strange ideas. Then Petrovitch says, “When you were writing your article, surely you couldn't have helped, he-he!
fancying yourself . . . just a little, an 'extraordinary' man. . . .”
“Quite possibly,” Raskolnikov says with contempt.
Back at his
apartment, Raskolnikov gets some needed sleep but has a disturbing dream in which he is striking the pawnbroker. But no matter what he does, she does not die.
In the evening, he receives a visitor, Arkady Ivanovitch Svidrigailov. He had
sexually harassed Dounia when she was a governess in his household, but his wife, Marfa, mistakenly thought Dounia had made a play for her husband. She fired her, then attempted to ruin her reputation with gossip. Later, when she discovered Dounia was innocent, she attempted to make amends. She even introduced Dounia to Luzhin, believing he was a good match for her. Not long afterward, Marfa died
of an undisclosed cause and left 3,000 rubles to Dounia in her will. It is possible that Svidrigailov murdered Marfa. Now that he is free to marry again, he wants Rodya to help him get back into the good graces of Dounia and offers to give her 10,000 rubles to help her get rid of Luzhin. Svidrigailov defends the way he behaved with Dounia, saying he loves her and has her best interests at
heart..But Raskolnikov refuses to cooperate, saying “We dislike you. We don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
Dounia Rejects Luzhin
Meanwhile, Dounia has an argument with her other suitor, Luzhin, and breaks off with him. Raskolnikov, his mother, and Razhumihim—who has been lavishing his attentions on Dounia—are all extremely pleased with this development.
Later, Raskolnikov—under severe pressure because of the murder investigation—sees Sonia, whose mother has recently died. He tells Sonia that both of them are ill-fated creatures. They commiserate, and at his request she reads a passage in the Bible, the story of Lazarus.
The next morning, Raskolnikov reports to Petrovitch at 11 a.m.—as Petrovitch had requested—with information about the watch Raskolnikov had pawned. When they discuss the crime, the clever detective says all he needs to do is observe his suspect—and let the suspect know that he is being observed. “And
he'll keep circling round me, getting nearer and nearer and then--flop! He'll fly straight into my mouth and I'll swallow him, and that will be very amusing, he-he-he!"
Raskolnikov becomes uneasy and asks Petrovitch point blank whether he
suspects him of the murder. “I will not allow myself to be tortured,” Rodya says. “Arrest me, search me, but kindly act in due form and don't play with me! Don't dare!"
Without answering Raskolnikov's question, Petrovitch dismisses him but says
he will need to see him again. Shortly thereafter, Raskolnikov confesses the crime to Sonia, telling her about his extraordinary-man theory. It doesn’t register with her. But she says she will stand by him and urges him to confess to the police.
At his next meeting with Petrovitch, the detective says Raskolnikov is the type of man who would have committed the crime. If he confesses, the courts will be less harsh with him. But Raskolnikov withholds his confession.
Meanwhile, Svidrigailov has been giving money away—some to Sonia, some to another family. The next morning he shoots himself.
Raskolnikov sees Sonia one more time. She gives him a cross
to wear. Then he goes to the police and confesses. Because he was considered mentally incompetent at the time of the murders and because people testify about his good acts, he receives just eight years in prison in Siberia. Sonia follows him.
Razhumihim marries Sonia. Raskolnikov’s mother dies of an illness. And, after Raskolnikov is released from prison, he and Sonia begin a new life together.
The climax of Crime and Punishment
occurs when Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonia. This confession starts him on the road to redemption. He does not complete this redemption until he repents his wrongdoing after he is sentenced to prison in Siberia.
Theme 1: No one is above the law. At the time Dostoevsky was writing Crime and Punishment, nihilism was gaining sway among young radicals in Russia. Nihilism (a term derived from the Latin word nihil,
meaning nothing) is a philosophy that calls for the destruction of existing traditions, customs, beliefs, and institutions and requires its adherents to reject all values, including religious and aesthetic principles, in favor of belief in nothing. Raskolnikov believes at the beginning of the novel that he is above divine and state laws against murder—indeed, that he is above all laws and
is free to do anything that he wishes. This radical view is nihilistic. Dostoevsky intended Raskolnikov's gradual breakdown and ultimate admission of guilt as a refutation of nihilistic philosophy.
A human being often consists of a Hyde and a Jekyll. Raskolnikov commits a heinous crime but treats the downtrodden—in particular, the Marmeladovs—with true Christian charity. Sonia becomes a prostitute but otherwise lives a saintly life. Marmeladov is a drunken wretch, but he cares about his family.
Theme 3: Success in life requires hard work and righteous living. Razhumihin succeeds in life because he is industrious and morally upright. In this respect, he represents
the position of Dostoevsky after the author rejected political and ideological views he held as a young man.
Theme 4: Love is loyal. Even though
Raskolnikov confesses to murder, Sonia stands by him and follows him to Siberia after he is sentenced. She sees the good side in him and helps him exorcize the evil side. Razhumihim remains a loyal friend to Raskolnikov through all of his tribulations.
Theme 5: No one is beyond redemption. Although Raskolnikov has committed what society often regards as the unforgivable sin, murder, he redeems himself through suffering, penitence, and love.
Theme 6: Foolproof plans can quickly become foolhardy. Raskolnikov is confident that the murder is well planned—even foolproof. But when he carries it out, his plan falters badly. The pawnbroker’s sister returns, and he has to murder her, too. People knock on
the door, unnerving him. When he finally exits the crime scene, he leaves the door open. And then his conscience gnaws at him, presenting him fitful dreams and exacerbating his illness.
Theme 7: Suffering brings illumination. Raskolnikov suffers through poverty, isolation, confusion, and great psychological and physical stress that ultimately reshape him into a good and worthy human being.
Attic Apartment: Raskolnikov lives on the top floor of a five-story building. This “lofty” location seems to represent his view that intellectually he is far above ordinary human beings—so far above them that he is above their law and their moral codes. But his “penthouse” is a small, shabby room, suggesting that he is quite ordinary in many
respects—in some ways even inferior to the common man. Here, then, we have a veiled foreshadowing of where the novel is going.
July Heat: In the opening paragraphs of
the novel, the narrator tells the reader that it is an extremely hot day in St. Petersburg. The oppressive heat appears to symbolize the feverish state of Raskolnikov’s mind and body as he contemplates murder.
Pawned Ring, Watch: These items appear to represent the moral values Raskolnikov grew up with and abandoned. The ring was a gift from his sister; the watch was his father’s. These items remain in the limbo of the pawnbroker’s apartment while Raskolnikov is in the limbo of nihilism, struggling to hold onto his new and dangerous ideas while his
conscience tells him to redeem himself by reaffirming the old and unchanging moral values.
Illness: Raskolnikov’s physical debilities represent his moral and
philosophical debilities. As long as he rejects proven moral truths, he rejects healing medicine.
Seven Hundred Thirty Steps: That is the number of steps Raskolnikov
must walk from his residence to reach the residence of the pawnbroker, for he has counted the steps. This number seems to represent the self-confidence of Raskolnikov in his scheme to kill the pawnbroker. After all, he has planned every detail, even going so far as to measure the exact distance from his residence to the pawnbroker’s. His planning helps prop up his view that he is a superior
Cross: The cross Sonia gives Raskolnikov near the end of the novel represents redemption.
Irony and Paradox/Oxymoron
Holy Sinner: Sonia, a prostitute, is the novel’s saintliest character.
Immoral Altruist: Raskolnikov rejects the moral law but helps the downtrodden.
Freedom That Enslaves: Raskolnikov believes that he is free to make any decision, even an immoral one, without suffering consequences. But when he commits murder, his conscience seizes control of him.
Imprisonment That Liberates: Raskolnikov does not become truly free until he is in prison.
Wealthy Poor: The Marmeladov children are rich in what really counts in life, love.
Superior Simpleton: The pawnbroker’s moronic sister, Lizaveta,
unwittingly thwarts the perfect crime planned by a self-styled superior human being. Although she dies and Raskolnikov escapes, she sets in motion a series of events that eventually result in Raskolnikov’s confession.
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born on November
11, 1821, in Moscow. While he was a teenager, both of his parents died. It has been said that his father, a stern physician, was murdered by serfs on an estate he bought later in his life. However, this report cannot be documented. After Dostoevsky graduated from a military engineering school, he served for about a year in an engineering corps, then quit his job to pursue writing. In 1847 he
joined a group of socialists who discussed their political ideas and read banned books.
In 1849 he and other members of the group were arrested and imprisoned. After eight months, they were taken to a place of execution where a firing squad stood ready. Moments before they were to be executed, the czar commuted their sentences. Dostoevsky then served four years at hard labor in a prison in Siberia and four more years in the military.
Notes From the House of the Dead, one of his major novels, is based on his prison experience. Among his other major works—which are among the finest novels in western literature—are Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1870), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879). Dostoevsky died on February 9, 1881, in St. Petersburg.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Who is the most admirable character in the novel? Who is the least admirable?
- What causes Raskolnikov to confess his crime? Is the reason remorse or weariness of being under suspicion?
- Research the real-life American court case involving two young men, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who were convicted of murder. Then, in an essay, compare and contrast them and their motives with Raskolnikov and his motives. To begin your research type the phrase "Leopold and Loeb" in an Internet search box, press ENTER, then select from the
- Write an essay comparing and contrasting Raskolnikov and Razhumihin, who are similar in some ways and markedly different in others.
- What was life like for ordinary Russian citizens (like the Marmelodovs) in the middle of the nineteenth Century?