What is the overall theme and meaning of Crime and Punishment?
It is hard to define just one overall theme and/or meaning of any Dostoevsky novel. They are far too lengthy and complex for a simple answer.
This novel has a basic crime/murder plot. While the question of "Who is the killer?" is already known by the reader - the suspense is built instead by "What is going to happen to Raskolnikov?" Through this plot - Dosoevsky manages to intertwine several related themes.
The first is the psychology of crime. After the main character commits murder, the book deals with all the different emotions he experiences, from guilt, to justification, to courage, to despair, to terror, to empowerment.
Another theme is the basic idea of isolation, alienation, or loneliness. Raskolnikov's primary character trait is one of self-centeredness and superiority. Throughout the story he pushes away the people who are trying to help him. In his mind, he is a "superman" who is superior in society, therefore he is above societal rules. This "superman" theory is the third major theme presented in the book. It presents the question of is it okay to break the law (or a moral code) if it could possibly end in something great?
Like the rest of Dostoevsky's novels, Crime and Punishment is basically about psychologically intense (and somewhat twisted) characters and how they perceive the world. I believe the author's main purpose in this type of genre is to present political, religious, and social questions that the average reader would otherwise never ask - and certainly be reluctant to otherwise examine.
There is little to add to the post directly before this response as it is most comprehensive and thoughtful. However, within the context of the psychological theme please consider, too, the role of conscience in the human individual. As has been mentioned, guilt is, indeed, one of the emotions that Raskolnikov experiences. But, as he seeks to surpress this sense of guilt, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov finds doing so increasingly difficult as he searches the eyes of Porfiry Petrovich, the unorthodox police inspector who is more absorbed in criminal psychology than in standard police procedure. The examination of Dostovesky into the conscience of Raskolnikov is what is key to the theme of this most intriguing novel. For, as great a theoretician as the student Raskolnikov is, he is not of a criminal mind, the sociopathic individual who feels no guilt.
To me, there are two major themes that are closely connected to one another.
The first is that all people are subject to the law of God. No one is above the law. There is no one who truly is a "superman" like Raskolnikov thinks he is at the beginning of the book. We see this especially in Raskolnikov's dream in the Epilogue.
The second theme is the possibility of atonement and forgiveness. We see a couple of different attitudes towards this. Svidrigailov concludes that he cannot be forgiven, that he cannot atone. Therefore, he kills himself. Raskolnikov decides (with Sonya's help) that he can atone. He ends the novel having found forgiveness and peace.
I would have to add that one of the themes is the role of confession as an integral part of redemption.
Dostoyevsky was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, and his treatment of confession can't be understood outside of that context. Though it's admittedly difficult to distill such a complex topic into a few short talking points, here goes -
Basically, the text posits three distinct types of confession:
- Confession to self. When Raskolnikov eventually confesses to Sonya, she repeatedly rejects his confession. Each time he offers an explanation for his crime, she tells him that he hasn't got it right. Essentially, Sonya forces him to acknowledge to himself the awful truth of what he's done. Remember, he's tried to justify his actions by framing them in terms of Nietszchean philosophy - the whole "übermensch" thing. Sonya refuses to hear that, however, and Radya is forced to strip away all of his justifications and face the simple and unalterable fact that he is a murderer. He has to confess to himself.
- Confession to God. This is where Dostoyevsky's faith comes in. In the Orthodox tradition, individual believers have no access to Christ on their own. The whole idea of a personal relationship with Jesus is uniquely Protestant and would have been foreign to an Orthodox believer. Raskolnikov can only come to Christ, can only confess his sins, through an intercessor, one who goes between him and God. In the Church, this is the role of the priest. In this novel, however, the task falls to Sonya. Keep in mind that her full patronymic is Sofia Semyonovna. "Sofia" is from the Greek "sophia," meaning "wisdom." Sonya is part of the Victorian literary tradition of female characters who "save" their male counterparts: think Lucie Manette from "A Tale of Two Cities." These women are unfailingly good, unceasingly forgiving, and unendingly pious. They light the way for their men, showing them the path to God. Thus, Agnes in "David Copperfield," stands in front of the stained glass window in the church and is lit up from behind, glowing as if she were an angel. Which, of course, is what she's meant to be. This is an archetype, one that Dostoyevsky uses for Sonya.
- Confession to Others. Confession isn't complete, however, until it's been made publicly. After Raskolnikov has confessed both to himself and to Sonya, he still has to go to the police and make a public reckoning of the crime he has committed. He doesn't want to, of course, and he nearly walks away. But the ever watchful eyes of God (that is, Sonya) stop him in his tracks, and he finally completes the confessional journey that began so many pages before when he gave his "if I were the murderer, this is how I would have done it" speech to Zametov.