Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483
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.