Crime and Punishment
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...
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