Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student, plans to commit the perfect crime by murdering an old female pawnbroker. He hopes to gain money for himself and others and to demonstrate that he belongs to the portion of mankind not subject to conventional morality. Having studied the careers of men such as Napoleon Bonaparte, he embraces the theory that an elitist few are justified in pursuing their objectives through any means.
No sooner is the murder committed than events begin to call his theory into question. When the pawnbroker’s half sister arrives unexpectedly, Raskolnikov kills her also. In his haste and confusion, he overlooks most of the money and is unable to use the small amount he does take. Following the crime, he rapidly sinks into physical and mental illness.
As the hero experiences intense guilt, other characters influence the course of his expiation. The cunning detective Porfiry discovers the truth early but waits until Raskolnikov is ready to accuse himself. Raskolnikov eventually realizes that he must choose one of two alternatives--confession or suicide.
Characters such as Luzhin and the sensual Svidrigailov defeat themselves by exploiting others for their own selfish ends. Svidrigailov’s suicide demonstrates to Raskolnikov the futility of egoism. Other characters--Raskolnikov’s sister, Dounia, his friend Razumihin, and Sonia, a young prostitute--willingly sacrifice themselves and suffer for others. Aided by Sonia, who grows to love him, Raskolnikov chooses life, confession, and punishment, without, however, achieving true repentance.
An intense psychological account, the narrative presents thoughts and emotions from each character’s point of view. When the character is confused, the reader is also, for no authorial voice intrudes to clarify the situation. Unable to understand his own motives for the crime, the protagonist recognizes that one risks psychic disintegration by sweeping aside traditional morality.
Jackson, Robert Louis, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Crime and Punishment.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Includes an essay by Dostoevski on Crime and Punishment. Offers many theories on Raskolnikov’s personality. Considers the metaphysical point of view in Crime and Punishment.
Johnson, Leslie A. The Experience of Time in “Crime and Punishment.” Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1984. Explains the use of time in the novel as a means for building anxiety and suffering in the characters. Shows how time is manipulated in Crime and Punishment and how the treatment of time in other works by Dostoevski is different.
Jones, Malcolm V. Dostoyevsky: The Novel of Discord. London: Elek Books Limited, 1976. Gives an overview of the complexity and chaos that are to be expected in Dostoevski. Extended selection on Crime and Punishment.
Leatherbarrow, William J. Fedor Dostoevsky. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Includes a biographical sketch of Dostoevski. Commentary on his works, including Crime and Punishment. Bibliography, index.
Miller, Robin Feuer. Critical Essays on Dostoevsky. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Contains an essay by Leo Tolstoy and criticism and commentary on Dostoevski. Indicates how perceptions of Dostoevski have changed over time.
1. Describe the importance of the city to the plot. How does the city serve as a symbol of society and of Raskolnikov’s state of mind?
2. What impact do the descriptions of the various apartments—including those of Raskolnikov, Alyona, Sonya, Luzhin, and Dunya and Pulcheria Alexandrovna—have on our understanding of the characters who inhabit them and the events that take place within them?
3. Compare the characters of Raskolnikov and Razumikhin. How does Razumikhin describe Raskolnikov, and vice versa? Does Razumikhin serve as Raskolnikov’s foil? Are there other characters who are foils to Raskolnikov?
4. Discuss the use of foreshadowing in the novel. How does foreshadowing increase the level of suspense? Are there times when knowing what will happen later decreases the suspense? What effect does having the murder occur at the very beginning have on the structure of the novel?
5. Lebezyatnikov spouts a variety of theories about society. What role does he play in the novel? How might his character reflect Dostoevsky’s own political experiences?
6. Discuss the development of the theme of religious redemption over the course of the novel.