Crime and Punishment (novel)

From New World Encyclopedia

Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание) is a novel written and published in serial form in the Russian Herald in 1866 by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. The novel was Dostoevsky's first great novel and signaled his emergence as one of the world's great writers. The storyline was reportedly based on a story of a murder in the newspaper that caught the author's attention. The central narrative violates the traditional technique of the detective story. Unlike the traditional murder-mystery novel, the plot begins with the commission of a crime. The reader knows from the beginning who committed the crime. The question that Dostoevsky wants to examine is why that character commits the crime. He delves into his character's psychology through the use of "skaz," (from the Russian verb "skazat'," to speak) an external narrator who nonetheless narrates from the point of view of the character.

Raskolnikov, the main character, is Dostoevsky's most original creation. Torn in two (the root of his name, "raskol'," means schism in Russian) he tries vainly to find his place in the world, eventually opting to act on his pet theory and kill an old pawnbroker to demonstrate that he is not bound by the morality of the common man. The rest of the novel is a story of his coming to terms with his decision, and seeking and finding redemption.


The central drama of the novel centers on a destitute Saint Petersburg student named Raskolnikov, who appears to be planning to murder a miserly, aged pawnbroker to prove that he is a "superman" who can transgress boundaries, like Napoleon. What originates as a kind of thought experiment for this "student" (who, in fact, has dropped out of school and is rather aimless) turns into action after Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother. The letter informs him that his sister, Dunya, has concocted a plan to "save" her brother by entering into a loveless marriage with an opportunist named Luzhin, a well-to-do lawyer who is attracted to Dunya because of her vulnerability. His mother's letter also informs him that she and his sister are coming to Petersburg for a visit. The letter greatly agitates Raskolnikov, who then decides to carry out his thought experiment. His effort to enact his plan goes awry. He oversleeps on the way to commit the murder, allowing the pawnbroker's sister to return before he leaves the flat and requiring him to kill her as well. It is through sheer blind luck he is able to escape detection.

After falling ill with fever and lying bedridden for days, Raskolnikov is overcome with paranoia and begins to imagine that everyone he meets suspects him of the murder. He is irresistibly drawn back to the scene of his crime, but becomes increasingly aware that he is not the superman of his theoretical construct, but a normal person who must come to terms with his own guilt. Along the way he is guided to two figures. The first is Porfiry Petrovich, the detective who reads Raskolnikov's article about the "superman" who is not bound by common morality and immediately suspects him of the crime. Porfiry plays a game of cat and mouse with Raskolnikov in an effort to trap him into making a confession. The other is the prostitute, Sofya Semyonovna. Raskolnikov is drawn to her from the first moment he first hears about her. She turns to prostitution to help support her family, even though it means her own degradation. While Porfiry plays cat and mouse with Raskolnikov, he is drawn to Sonya's unconditional acceptance. Eventually he confesses his crime, first to Sonya and later to Porfiry. He is sentenced to Siberia where he apparently finally accepts responsibility for his actions.


Redemption through suffering

The standard interpretation of the novel is a kind of Christian existentialism. Raskolnikov commits a crime, for which he must suffer in order to attain salvation. Such a reading is not entirely wrong, but incomplete. It is true that Raskolnikov suffers throughout the novel, but it is expressly not the kind of suffering that can bring about moral regeneration. He does not experience any pangs of guilt, even when he confesses. He expressly rejects any the notion that he should experience guilt or remorse over the killing of "an old louse." His inability to experience guilt for his crime is the central psychological and moral dilemma of the novel.

Raskolnikov's superman theory

Raskolnikov's grand idea, his superman theory, predates the nihilistic philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche called Dostoevsky the only psychologist from whom he had something to learn. Raskolnikov argues that certain great men are not bound by the ordinary moral law, but are entitled to “step over” the boundary. (The Russian word for crime has the same etiology as the verb “to step over.”) He invokes the example of Napoleon as someone who was above the conventional moral law. The use of Napoleon as a model was common in nineteenth century literature and culture. (See Stendhal’s The Red and the Black.) However, Dostoevsky’s use here is somewhat ironic. In the first place, Raskolnikov’s murder of a decrepit pawnbroker hardly matches the exploits of Napoleon. Secondly, Raskolnikov is unable to live up to his idea. He can kill the old pawnbroker, but he cannot turn himself into a superman in the process. His idea is a failure.

"Stepping Over"

While the transgression of boundaries is introduced overtly as a philosophical theme, the philosophical discussions masks a more subtle psychological treatment of the issue. The novel opens with Raskonikov, who lives in a cramped apartment, sneaking out to avoid detection by his landlady. The third sentence of the novel describes his abode: "His little room, more like a cupboard than a place to live in, was tucked away under the roof of the high, five-storied building." Many key scenes take place in hallways or other cramped areas. In that opening paragraph, readers discover that he is "heavily in debt" to his landlady, which causes him great shame. This emphasis on cramped and marginal spaces and his burden of debt to his landlady prefigures what readers discover in the letter he receives from his mother. Raskolnikov's emotional response to his mother's fateful letter is one of unbridled rage, based on a deep sense of shame and inadequacy. Pulcheria makes it clear that she has scripted the role of family savior for her son and she is determined that he will fulfill it. Raskolnikov’s reaction to her letter makes it clear that her profession of love is her means of manipulating him into doing what she wants him to do, and his decision to put his plan into motion only comes after he finds out that she is planning on moving to Petersburg, from where she will more effectively be able to manage his affairs.

Raskolnikov feels like a marginal player in his own life, unable to effectively control the boundaries of his own person. The "stepping over" the boundaries of Raskolnikov's theory turns out to be a philosophical transposition of the "stepping over" boundaries that he experiences in his relationship with his mother. His idea, that some people live above the common morality, inflicting their will on others, essentially describes how he feels about his mother's manipulation. This raises some issues for the traditional interpretation of redemption through suffering. In fact, it turns out that Raskolnikov commits the crime based not on the desire to suffer, but rather on the hope that he can end his suffering. It is not through his own suffering that he is ultimately redeemed. Rather, his grudging acceptance of his own culpability and subsequent transformation takes place gradually through the intervention of Porfiry and Sonya, who play surrogate father and mother roles, giving him both the unyielding insistence that he needs to take responsibility for his actions and the encouragement and unconditional support which enables him to eventually confess and acknowledge his guilt.

Sacrifice and salvation

This is generally understood as the Christian story of sin and conversion, however, it should be noted that the epilogue, which is usually cited as proof of Raskolnikov's embrace of the central Christian message, is much more ambiguous than is often acknowledged. It is not Raskolnikov who reads the Bible every day, but Sonya. He does not make any confession of faith, but eventually, in a moment of acceptance of his moral responsibility, breaks down in tears, signifying not so much his conversion to Christianity, but recognition of his transgression and reintroduction into the moral community.

Still, the idea of sacrifice and salvation are central elements. The novel presents numerous variations, both positive and negative, on these themes. Dostoevsky weaves the various narrative threads together to demonstrate his conviction, later expressly stated in The Brothers Karamazov, that "we are all responsible for all." This is not simply a moral judgment on his part, but an acknowledgment that what we take to be our individual lives are deeply influenced by the actions of others, for good or for ill. There are numerous examples, but the two main ones are Dunya's sacrifice to save her brother by her engagement to Luzhin, and Sonya's sacrifice of her virtue and her place in "honorable" society by becoming a prostitute to save her family from financial ruin.

Dunya's sacrifice is, ironically, an element in Pulkheria's plan for Raskolnikov to become the family savior. According to her plan, Raskolnikov will go to university, become rich and successful, and bring honor and wealth to the family. He learns of Dunya's plan to save him, that is, of Pulkheria's determination to enforce the script, even if it means that she has to move all the way across the country. Raskolnikov's response to the letter is sheer anguish and humiliation, with which it is apparent that he is quite familiar. His behavior is, in large part, his response to his relationship with his mother and an attempt to escape the kind of control that she exerts over him. He is intrigued by Sonya, even before he meets her. Marmeladov, Dunya's father, tells Rodya her story in their first meeting early in the novel. Marmeladov, whose name is derived from the word "marmelade," is an alcoholic who tried to save Katerina Ivanovna after her husband, but he succumbs to his compulsion and destroys the family. Sonya saves the family by going into prostitution to support it. Raskolnikov recognizes that she has faced similar circumstances to his own, but has not succumbed to the same sense of pain and humiliation, despite the fact that she is socially reviled. He wants to meet her to ascertain her secret. Dostoevsky uses this relationship as an allegory of God's love for fallen humanity, and of love's redemptive power.


Raskolnikov, like Dostoevsky's other rationalist characters, such as the title character in Notes from Underground and Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov, became models for many twentieth century literary characters. Razumikhin serves as a foil for Raskolnikov. Placed in the same situation as Raskolnikov, Razumikhin does what Raskolnikov is unable to do; he takes a tutoring job and eeks out a living with dignity. Raskolnikov's solution is grandiose and narcissistic, dominated by his own "internal demons." He seemingly creates suffering for himself, constantly tries to reach and defy the boundaries of what he can or cannot do (throughout the book he is always measuring his own fear, and mentally trying to talk himself out of it), and his depravity (referring to his irrationality and paranoia) is commonly interpreted as an affirmation of himself as a transcendent conscience and a rejection of rationality and reason. However, his internal dialogue, his deep sense of humiliation and suffering, his lack of a clear, animating purpose and inability to find his footing in the world would have a wide influence in the succeeding century. Walter Kaufmann considered Dostoevsky's works to be the inspiration for Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. By his own admission, Albert Camus's The Stranger was deeply influenced by Dostoevsky. His influence can also be seen in writings by Jean Paul Sartre, Herman Hesse, and Knut Hamsun.


Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, variously referred to by the diminutive forms Rodya and Rodka, is the protagonist from whose perspective the story is primarily told. A drop-out who is living in abject poverty in a top-floor flat in the slums of Saint Petersburg, hiding from his landlady to avoid paying rent. The root of Raskolnikov's name, "raskol'," is Russian for schism, or split.

Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladova

Sofya Semyonovna Marmeladova, variously referred to by the diminutive form Sonya and Sonechka, is the daughter of a drunk, Semyon Zakharovich. Raskolnikov meets Marmeladov in a tavern at the beginning of the novel and learns that Sonya, his eldest daughter, has been driven into prostitution to support the family. He is immediately interested in her, although they do not meet until Marmeladov's tragic death, when Raskolnikov generously gives her family the money that his mother has sent to him to help them pay for the funeral. Although she is a prostitute, Sonya is the spiritual center of the novel. Rodion is drawn to her because, like him, she is asked to play the role of family savior. She willingly takes on the role of prostitution to save the family, and while she recognizes her shameful place in society, her inner person remains untouched due to her faith. It is this feature which so attracts Raskolnikov. He finds himself drawn to her to such an extent that she is the first person to whom he confesses his crime. Despite the fact that one of the victims, Lizaveta, was a friend of hers she supports him—encouraging him to accept responsibility for his action and confess. After his confession she follows him to Siberia where she lives in the same town as the prison—it is here that Rodion finally falls in love with her.

Other characters

  • Avdotya Romanovna Raskolnikova—Raskolnikov's sister, Dunya for short, who with her mother's blessings plans to marry the wealthy, yet morally depraved, Luzhin to save the family from financial destitution. She is followed to St. Petersburg by an obsessive Svidrigailov, who, unable to make a conquest of her seeks to win her through blackmail, appealing to her desire to save her brother. In the end, she escapes Svidrigailov, rejects Luzhin, and marries Raskolnikov's loyal friend, Razumikhin.
  • Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov—Wealthy former employer and current pursuer of Dunya, suspected of multiple acts of murder, who overhears Raskolnikov's confession to Sonya. With this knowledge he torments Raskolnikov and attempts to blackmail Dunya. His motives for pursuing Dunya are complex. His desire is certainly aroused by her rejection, but it also seems that he is looking for some kind of redemption himself, and hoping that she can provide it. Their relationship is the opposite of the Raskolnikov/Sonya relationship. When Dunya tells him she could never love him (after attempting to shoot him) he lets her go and commits suicide. Despite his apparent malevolence, Svidrigailov is similar to Raskolnikov with his random acts of charity. He fronts the money for the Marmeladov children to enter an orphanage (after both their parents die) and leaves the rest of his money to his rather young fiance.
  • Dmitri Prokofych Razumikhin—Raskolnikov's loyal, good-natured, and only friend. The root of Razumikhin's name, "razumny," means reason. Unlike his friend, Razumikhin does not overreach in an attempt to become a new Napoleon. He shows that a poor student who is willing to work hard and live within his means can achieve success. He is a contrast to Raskolnikov, who rejects this approach.
  • Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladova—Semyon Marmeladov's long-suffering wife. Katerina is a proud woman without the means to support her ambitions. After her husband dies, Mameladov "saves" the family by marrying her, but their relationship is doomed from the beginning. She is humiliated by her inferior position and berates her husband. Already at rock bottom, after Marmeladov's death she loses everything. She goes insane and dies shortly thereafter.
  • Porfiry Petrovich—The detective in charge of solving Raskolnikov's murders who, along with Sonya, guides Raskolnikov towards confession. Despite the lack of evidence he becomes certain Raskolnikov is the murderer after reading his article. Porfiry plays a cat and mouse game with Raskolnikov in order to get him to confess.
  • Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov—Hopeless drunk who "saves" the widowed Katerina Ivanovna by marrying her, but who is unable to satisfy her ambitions. Marmeladov, whose name is derived from marmelade, has a "jelly-like" character who indulges in his own suffering. He apparently humiliates himself in order to be berated by his wife.
  • Pulkheria Alexandrovna Raskolnikova—A widow, and the mother of Raskolnikov. She professes motherly love for her son, but from Raskolnikov's perspective, she uses it to manipulate him into playing the role of family savior. He feels inadequate to her demands, as expressed in his dream of the beaten mare who cannot pull the load. Raskolnikov's murder of the old pawnbroker is a veiled strike at his mother. After he confesses to the murder, he meets his mother one last time. She is unable to acknowledge that he is a murderer, and continues to maintain that he is going to perform some great act. In the end, she cannot accept reality, goes mad, and dies.
  • Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin—Despicable man who wants to marry Dunya so she'll be completely subservient to him. Raskolnikov does not take kindly to him and Luzhin is embittered. When Dunya proves ungrateful for his efforts to save her family, he attempts to frame Sonya for theft, and is cast out.
  • Andrei Semyonovich Lebezyatnikov—Luzhin's radically [[Socialist] roommate who witnesses his attempt to frame Sonya.
  • Alyona Ivanovna—Old pawnbroker who Raskolnikov describes as "an old louse." Raskolnikov kills her to carry out his plan.
  • Lizaveta Ivanovna—friend of Sonya, Lizaveta is Alyona's simple, innocent sister who arrives during the murder and is subsequently killed.
  • Zossimov
  • Nastasya Petrovna
  • Ilya Petrovich
  • Alexander Grigorievich Zamyotov
  • Nikolai Dementiev
  • Polina Mikhailovna Marmeladova


The novel is divided into six parts with an epilogue. Each part contains between five and eight chapters and the epilogue has two. The entire novel is written from a third person, past tense ,omniscient perspective chiefly from Raskolnikov's point of view though it briefly switches to Dunya, Svidrigailov, and Sonya during its course.

In 1971, an unpublished scene written in first person perspective from Raskolinkov's point of view was released with Dostoevsky's annotated manuscript of the Russian Literary Monuments series. A translation of that scene is available in most modern editions of the novel.

Movie versions

There have been literally dozens of film adaptions of the novel. Some of the best-known are:

  • Crime and Punishment (1935, starring Peter Lorre, Edward Arnold, and Marian Marsh)
  • Преступление и наказание (USSR, 1969, starring Georgi Taratorkin, Tatyana Bedova, and Victoria Fyodorova)
  • Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1998, a TV movie starring Patrick Dempsey, Ben Kingsley, and Julie Delpy)
  • Crime and Punishment in Suburbia (2000, an adaptation set in modern America and "loosely based" on the novel)
  • Crime and Punishment (1979, miniseries starring Crispin Glover, Vanessa Redgrave, and John Hurt)
  • Crime and Punishment mini-series (2002, starring John Simm)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blackmur, R.P. "Crime and Punishment: A Study of Dostoevsky." Ray B. West, ed. Essays in Modern Literary Criticism. New York, 1952.
  • Jackson, Robert Louis, ed. Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Crime and Punishment. Englewood Cliffs, 1974.
  • Johnson, Leslie. The Experience of Time in Crime and Punishment. Columbus, 1985.
  • Lindenmeyr, Adele. "Raskolnikov's City and the Napoleonic Plan." Slavic Review 35 (1976): 37-47.
  • Reeve, Frank D. "In the Stinking City: Dostoevskij's Crime and Punishment." Slavic and East European Journal 4:127-36
  • Snodgrass, W.D. "Crime and Punishment: The Tenor of Part One." Hudson Review 13: 202-53.
  • Wasiolek, Edward, ed. Crime and Punishment and the Critics. San Francisco, 1961.

External links

All links retrieved January 11, 2024.


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