Crime and Punishment Analysis

  • Raskolnikov might best be described as a nihilist. Nihilism is a philosophy that rejects all of society's moral principles, believing that they're meaningless. Raskolnikov commits murder to test if he can break society's rules with impunity. In the end, the novel rejects nihilism, and Raskolnikov is sent to a labor camp in Siberia.
  • Crime and Punishment is a study of the psychological effects of crime on the human psyche. Raskolnikov quickly discovers that being brought to justice is not the same thing as being punished, which can happen independently of the law. Raskolnikov's greatest punishment is guilt, which torments him after the murder.
  • Crime and Punishment employs Christian symbolism in its discussion of morality. Perhaps the best example of this is the cross, which is interpreted variously as a symbol of suffering (being crucified) and of redemption (being cleansed of one's sins).

Analysis

Crime and Punishment is a fairly traditional nineteenth-century novel is some ways. The plot starts with the main character whose intentions are made clear. Then, antecedent information is supplied, so that the reader may understand how things came to be as they are. The main difference between this approach and that of dozens of Victorian novels is that the latter usually place the antecedent information first. But, the effect is the same, and the plot strands are laid out clearly, with the Dunya/Luzhin/Svidrigaylov subplot worked in smoothly and credibly. Also, the use of the "Epilogue" to bring the plot to a clear and satisfying (at least morally) conclusion is not an uncommon device—one may be reminded of the final chapters of many Dickens novels.

The setting is also presented clearly and traditionally, although there is a heavy emphasis on darkness and fog and nocturnal activities. Dostoevsky tends to employ urban settings; and, his use of St. Petersburg is accurate and realistic: there are the relevant streets; there are the Neva River and the bridges. The indoor scenes are usually marked by disorder and gloom (and even, as in the case of Svidrigaylov's hotel room, horror; the mouse running over him in the ugly chamber is revolting), creating an appropriately negative tone for the book.

The real innovation is in point of view. As a number of commentators have noted, both Joyce and Proust (and others like them) owe much to Dostoevsky for his...

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Places Discussed

*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Capital of Imperial Russia. Deep within the glittering outer facade of St. Petersburg’s state buildings, elegant promenades, and gilded mansions is a central core of filth, stench, poverty, despair, and depravity. The outside order is mere cover for the horror and disorder within. Dostoevski lived in St. Petersburg for twenty-eight years, moving during this period into twenty different apartments. Minute details about places where Dostoevski lived appear in Crime and Punishment to provide descriptive realism along with significant symbolism. On the micro level, the scenes of Dostoevski’s novel unfold in the vicinity of the apartment he was renting at the time. On the macro level, St. Petersburg is symptomatic of the split in the Russian psyche between the cold Western rationalism and capitalistic materialism of the new Russia and the traditional Muscovite values of the old Russia. Like the city itself, the major character Raskolnikov (whose name means “split” or “schism”) must struggle to discover his identity in a battle between cold rationalism, which leads him to double murder, and his Russian soul, which seeks repentance and resurrection. As a student, Dostoevski himself fell into Western-style radicalism and was sentenced to death in 1849 by the repressive regime of Czar Nicholas I. After being placed before a firing squad in St. Petersburg, Dostoevski was pardoned and his sentence commuted to eight years in Siberia. Back in St. Petersburg, Dostoevski remained aware of a continuing inner struggle. As he says in Crime and Punishment, St. Petersburg has “gloomy and queer influences on the soul of man.”

*Haymarket

*Haymarket. District filled with vendor stalls, peasant stalls, bars, hotels, and brothels that developed in St. Petersburg during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. It was filled with alleys and crammed with all sorts of people from the lower classes. It was bordered by slums (where Raskolnikov, Sonya, and the pawnbroker live), yet it was only one-half mile from St. Petersburg’s fashionable Nevskii Prospect. All types of people pass through the Haymarket; it is here that an accidental encounter with the pawnbroker’s half-sister (Lizaveta) convinces Raskolnikov that the time is right to murder the pawnbroker. Here, too, he bows down to kiss the ground (a sign of connectedness to mother earth and traditional values) and then goes to the police to confess that he is a murderer.

Stolyarny Lane

Stolyarny Lane. Street located near the Haymarket on which the main character, Raskolnikov, lives. The poverty-stricken former university student has a single shabby room with low ceilings, in an almost cavelike dwelling. Here, on a dilapidated couch-bed in his tiny, windowless room, Raskolnikov falls under the influence of the sinister plot to kill the pawnbroker and steal her ill-gotten gains. Although his room is a world unto itself, Raskolnikov always keeps the door unlocked, providing the opportunity for others to enter and for him to exit into the wider, ominous world of St. Petersburg.

*Sadovaya Street

*Sadovaya Street. Street not far from Raskolnikov’s building on which the pawnbroker Alonya Ivanovna and her half-sister, Lizaveta Ivanovna, live in the fourth-floor apartment. Their two rooms are kept clean due to the efforts of Lizaveta, who works as a virtual slave. Raskolnikov visits three times before murdering the pawnbroker and Lizaveta, who unexpectedly walks into the apartment shortly after the pawnbroker’s axe murder. A fortuitous set of circumstances allows Raskolnikov to leave the apartment unnoticed. Later, he returns to the apartment to relive the event.

Sonya’s room

Sonya’s room. Home of the prostitute Sonya Marmeladov, in a three-story house on the Ekaterinsky Canal. The room has many windows that let in light and overlook the canal, although the walls are yellowed, and the room is nearly barren. It is here that Raskolnikov tells Sonya about the murders, unaware that Svidrigaylov, an unscrupulous suitor of his sister, is in an adjoining room, listening to his confession through the door.

*Neva River

*Neva River. Major river of St. Petersburg which also boasts a tributary, the Little Neva. Bridges and water in general play an important symbolic role in Crime and Punishment. The Neva is the courier of rebirth but also of death. It brings discord but also calmness. Thus Raskolnikov thinks of throwing what he has stolen from the pawnbroker into the Neva but chooses instead to bury it under a stone. He throws the last of his money into the Neva as a symbol of his rejection of materialism. It is on Tuchkov Bridge, over the Little Neva, that Raskolnikov enters a mood of tranquillity and decides not to kill the pawnbroker. (The decision changes, however, when he enters Haymarket Square.) For evil characters such as Svidrigaylov, the river brings coldness and depression. After an excursion on Tuchkov Bridge, Svidrigaylov decides to kill himself.

*Siberia

*Siberia. Vast, desolate region of eastern Russia. After confessing his crime, Raskolnikov is sentenced to eight years imprisonment in Siberia. The faithful Sonya follows him into this frozen wasteland. Yet the prison, on the bank of a river, is the place of rebirth and salvation for Raskolnikov, where he discovers love and traditional Russian values. His apartment in St. Petersburg was more a prison than his cell in the wide-open spaces of Siberia. While here, he patiently looks forward to his future life with Sonya. Dostoevsky himself spent eight years in Siberia, four in a prison camp and four in military service, after which his life and beliefs took dramatic new shape.

Historical Context

Dostoyevsky's Russia: Social and Political Background
For most modern Americans, the Russia of Dostoyevsky's time is almost...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

Study of the penal code of Russia during the later nineteenth century will help to explain the moral dilemmas, Raskolnikov considers. The...

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Social Concerns

As the title suggests, the principal social emphasis in Crime and Punishment is on crime, both as a social phenomenon and as a...

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Compare and Contrast

1860s: Russia's government is a monarchy, with a head of state called the "tsar." But even at the time of Crime and...

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Topics for Further Study

Research the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. How did the city arise and develop? What are St. Petersburg's main features and landmarks?

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Literary Precedents

It could be said that everything that Dostoevsky wrote was original, but he was indebted to Gogol and a few other earlier writers. Dostoevsky...

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Related Titles

Some critics have observed that all Dostoevsky's works are related. Of course, it might be observed that his study of grinding poverty in...

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Adaptations

The appeal of this story can be estimated by the number and variety of stage and motion picture adaptations. Among these, the most prominent...

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Media Adaptations

The earliest film adaptation of Crime and Punishment was produced in France, released in 1935, and remade in 1958. The original title...

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What Do I Read Next?

Dostoyevsky wrote Notes from Underground (1864) just before Crime and Punishment. Narrated by a tormented, alienated anti-hero,...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky''s Poetics, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Bakhtin's analysis of language and...

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Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

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.