In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevski treats the problem of crime and the criminal mentality. He is not interested in the social aspects of criminal behavior, and there is little said in the novel about the legalities of crime. Dostoevski has an interior view of criminality, a conviction that crime and its inevitable punishment are deeply seated aspects of the human spirit.
Raskolnikov (the novel’s hero) is presented from the inside. The reader knows what he did before knowing why he did it, and the story is told as a gradual revelation of the hero’s motives. That accounts for the uncanny suspense of the first several chapters: The reader continually searches for the reason that Raskolnikov has murdered the pawnbroker. Intertwined with the reader’s suspense is the slowly dawning realization that Raskolnikov himself does not know his motive. This “double suspense” creates a dense texture that gives the novel its complexity, a complexity laid over the relative simplicity of the plot.
As the novel progresses, Raskolnikov’s possible motives become ever more bizarre. The consistent notion behind his behavior is revealed in his confession to the innocent prostitute, Sonia, after the crime, when he blurts out that he did it because he only wanted to see if he could go beyond a normal person’s revulsion against such an act. This admission seems to suggest that Raskolnikov is an egotist, a self-styled superman who wants to see if he can get away with transgressing the law. The reader comes to find, however, that Raskolnikov’s impulses go more deeply than that: Raskolnikov wants to see if he can overstep the limits of evil itself, if he can exert ultimate power over another person. That is what the murder means to him.
Dostoevski’s brilliant unfolding of Raskolnikov’s deepest motive really begins after the confession to Sonia. Before this point in the novel, the reader is puzzled by a welter of seemingly conflicting evidence about the hero’s personality. Raskolnikov says he does not believe in God and that there is no arbiter of absolute good and evil. Yet he is numb with self-doubt. In spite of his logical decision to commit murder, he is troubled and hesitant. His horrible dream of the peasants beating a horse to death causes him to awake trembling at the very thought that he himself might be so cruel. As he later walks along the banks of the Neva, his obsession with committing an evil act alternates with a loathing for the very idea. Then, after the deed has been done, something curious occurs that turns out to be the key to understanding his true motive and the rest of the novel. It becomes clear that Raskolnikov’s response to having committed murder is merely puzzlement. In other words, he shows neither remorse nor joy. He realizes that he feels the same way that he has always felt.
Finally, the reader understands that the loathsome criminality of Raskolnikov’s motive lies in its amorality. He had decided to murder the old woman pawnbroker on strictly logical grounds, but the unease that he continues to feel is not a guilty conscience stemming from a too-strict logicality. Had he murdered for money or out of anger and then been caught, his punishment would have been easier than that which comes to gnaw at him. Having made a cold-blooded sociopathic decision to assert himself at the expense of another’s very identity, he finds his feelings locked into the conventional morality that his intellect so despises. He is thus caught in an emotional vacuum, the most inescapable kind of punishment. Raskolnikov has murdered an old woman, but the inability to have an authentically strong feeling about it has murdered him spiritually. In a dream, he tries to kill her repeatedly, slicing at her skull with an ax, but as he looks closely into her face he can see her laughing horribly. Raskolnikov has really killed himself with the ax of cold-blooded self-assertion. He has no clearly definable motive because he is a sociopathic personality.
In the end of the story, Dostoevski makes clear how problematic such a personality is for society. Once again, the author’s meaning is revealed in a dream sequence. Raskolnikov is ill in Siberia and dreams that he and the rest of the world have been devastated by an infestation of highly intelligent germs. The infestation causes insanity. The infected believe themselves to be logical, scientific, progressive, and morally sound; yet they get sick and go mad from the infection. Anarchy results, and human society disintegrates. Dostoevski’s point is that sociopathic personalities are like these microbes, able to kill everything that they touch.
The sickness of cold-blooded amorality is shown against a background of conventional, commonsensical standards that define the boundaries of good and evil. The relationship between them is seen in the novel’s other characters. Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, is about to be married to Luzhin, a manipulative businessman, and the morally grotesque Svidrigailov hovers around them, while the prostitute, Sonia, and the policeman, Porfiry, attempt to maneuver the hero into a confession. Each relationship is flawed by the characters’ tendency toward self-serving logicality, none more self-indulgent than that between Svidrigailov and Dunya, caused for the most part by Svidrigailov’s profligacy. Years of cold philosophizing have left Svidrigailov with no heartfelt values, not even the common sense to distinguish between the most fundamental kinds of good and evil. In order to escape his emotional wretchedness, he fills his days with a sinister kind of debauchery. When his love for Dunya is rejected, he is able to shoot himself with a cool detachment. Sonia, although kindly and sensitive, is nevertheless a prostitute; like the others, she has murdered herself by becoming a tool of the dissoluteness of other people. She, like the others, has defined herself by coolly deciding on a course of action that indulges others in their weaknesses. It is the ultimate punishment that results from sociopathic attitudes and behaviors: Like the crime, the punishment is cold, wretched, impersonal, and ultimately without any satisfaction.