Crime and Punishment Analysis
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Crime and Punishment Analysis

  • Nihilism is a philosophy that rejects all of society's moral principles as 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 punished.
  • Crime and Punishment is a study of the psychological effects of crime on the perpetrator. Raskolnikov discovers that justice is not the same thing as punishment, which can be enacted independently of the law. Raskolnikov's greatest punishment is guilt, which torments him.
  • The novel employs Christian symbolism in its discussion of morality. The crucifix is interpreted variously as a symbol of suffering and redemption.

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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 introduction of what is nearly a stream-of-consciousness point of view. While the thought of some of the other characters is revealed, the salient emphasis is on the thoughts and emotions of Raskolnikov. Indeed, these are the chief modes of characterization. What he does reveals little of his real personality; what he thinks and feels display a great deal.

One of the principal conflicts in the novel takes place within Raskolnikov himself. He continually argues with himself, doubts himself, and changes his mind. On the very second page, he is seen in the throes of uncertainty: '"Good Lord!' he thought to himself [this phrase appears repeatedly], with a strange smile,' here I am thinking of doing such a thing [the murder] and at the same time I am in a jitter over such a trivial matter.'" The interior monologue proceeds for a long paragraph and presages a series of such internal analyses.

Another aspect of Raskolnikov's nature, his insecurity, is displayed by his habit of asking himself what amount to rhetorical questions whenever he is under a strain. Near the close of Part Four, after a trying interview with Porfiry, Raskolnikov begins by asking himself, "How far, however, was he in danger?" For most of the rest of the page he puts fourteen queries to himself, all of them showing how uncertain he is of his position and, indeed, of his character. With this device, Dostoevsky may well be said to have directed the novel in an important new direction: inward.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*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...

(The entire section is 5,600 words.)