Crime and Punishment Themes
The main themes in Crime and Punishment are crime and punishment, murder, and guilt.
- Crime and punishment: Raskolnikov's crime and punishment are both psychological and legal: his crime is pointless and born of pride, and his punishment represents both justice and the chance of rehabilitation.
- Murder: Raskolnikov's dream of committing the perfect murder drives him to kill the pawnbroker, which in turn sets off a series of events that can all be traced back to his crime.
- Guilt: Raskolnikov's guilt over the murder manifests as a series of physical and psychological ailments. He believes that being punished for his crime will relieve his guilt.
The most profound theme in Crime and Punishment involves the reasons for performing immoral acts and the resulting effects of both the acts and the reasoning. While Dostoevsky's later novels often employ the murder mystery plot device, there is no mystery here. This is a psychological novel whose chief focus is on a murderer, his family (of whom he is very fond, through all of his tribulations), and his associates. Some of the most interesting scenes in the text are those in which the examining magistrate Porfiry Petrovich and Raskolnikov spar with each other: Raskolnikov becomes more and more uneasy, and one can perceive early on that Porfiry knows that the young man is guilty. And, when Raskolnikov's loyal friend Razumikhin attempts to explain away the crime—"Nothing is admitted . . . I'm not wrong! I can show you their books [those of the socialists who claim that crime is simply the protest against "bad and abnormal social conditions"]: they reduce everything to one common cause—environment."—Porfiry says that he is quite wrong and soon recalls an article written not long before by Raskolnikov.
In the essay, published in a local journal, Raskolnikov (who claims not even to know that it was published) deals with "the psychology of a criminal during the whole course of the crime." Porfiry uses this text in his subtle and indeed annoying penetration of the mind of the murderer. While Raskolnikov at first denies the extreme claim of the article, that the "extraordinary" persons (unlike the "ordinary" ones, who "must lead a life of strict obedience and have no right to transgress the law") "have a perfect right to commit all sorts of enormities and crimes and . . . they are, as it were, above the law," he soon defends the assertion by stating that the "extraordinary" man "has a right— not an officially sanctioned right, of course—to permit his conscience to step over certain obstacles." Raskolnikov proceeds to offer historical examples, the most notable one being Napoleon, although he also names Lycurgus, Solon, and Mahomet—all of whom would be viewed as criminals by legal standards (and societal ones, too).
Even up to near the end of the book, Raskolnikov asserts (to himself, chiefly) that he did not really commit a "crime." Within eight pages of the end of the text, he still (after having already spent some time in prison) can say to himself that he would have been happy "if he really could have regarded himself as guilty of a crime!" A page later, he sets forth his essential reasoning about "guilt": "How . . . was my idea more stupid than any other ideas or theories that have swarmed and clashed in the world since the world existed? . . . Why does my action strike them as so hideous?. . . Is it because it was a crime? What does 'crime' mean? My conscience is clear." He concludes by saying to himself that his only "real" crime was not succeeding and in having confessed the act.
In view of this attitude, his "conversion" in the "Epilogue" to the novel strikes some readers as a bit contrived. It is true that Sonia, whom he comes to love, as she has long loved him, is a powerful agent in his redemption, which is the other principal theme of the novel. All along, she has represented the side of virtue and forgiveness. Sonia evidently comes to love Raskolnikov because she sees the possibility of goodness in him that only his family and the loyal Razumikhin sense. She pleads with Raskolnikov little effect.
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Dostoevsky, in a brilliant stroke of plotting, causes the other prisoners—who have scorned Raskolnikov because of what they see as his superior attitude and atheism—to become extremely fond of Sonia: "You're good and kind to us, Miss! You're like a little mother to us!" Finally, he suffers a horrific dream of the near end of the world, from which "Only a few people could save themselves in the whole world: these were the pure and chosen ones, destined to start a new race of men and a new life, to renew and purify the earth . . . ." This symbolic representation of the change that occurs in Raskolnikov's nature, added to the fear when Sonia falls ill, opens the way for the final scene, in which the "resurrection to a new life" commences, for both of them. So, the "love of a good woman" does much to bring the convicted murderer back into the family of Man: "And he had come back to life, and he knew it, and felt it with every fibre of his renewed being." As a concrete indication of his conversion, he picks up a copy of the New Testament and begins to wonder if he can now accept the beliefs that Sonia has tried so hard to share with him—the indication is clearly that he is already starting to do so. Thus, the novel ends with what Dostoevsky calls "the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual rebirth of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration." to pray and to seek God's blessing. At first, this sort of religious persuasion has little effect.
But, then, Dostoevsky, in a brilliant stroke of plotting, causes the other prisoners—who have scorned Raskolnikov because of what they see as his superior attitude and atheism—to become extremely fond of Sonia: "You're good and kind to us, Miss! You're like a little mother to us!" Finally, he suffers a horrific dream of the near end of the world, from which "Only a few people could save themselves in the whole world: these were the pure and chosen ones, destined to start a new race of men and a new life, to renew and purify the earth . . . ." This symbolic representation of the change that occurs in Raskolnikov's nature, added to the fear when Sonia falls ill, opens the way for the final scene, in which the "resurrection to a new life" commences, for both of them. So, the "love of a good woman" does much to bring the convicted murderer back into the family of Man: "And he had come back to life, and he knew it, and felt it with every fibre of his renewed being." As a concrete indication of his conversion, he picks up a copy of the New Testament and begins to wonder if he can now accept the beliefs that Sonia has tried so hard to share with him—the indication is clearly that he is already starting to do so. Thus, the novel ends with what Dostoevsky calls "the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual rebirth of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration."
On the surface, Crime and Punishment belongs to the popular genre known as the crime novel. A young man (Raskolnikov) commits a murder and then tries to conceal his guilt and evade arrest. In the end he confesses, is arrested, and is sent to prison, where he begins a process of spiritual regeneration. The novel's suspense arises not only from the question "what will happen next?", but from Dostoyevsky's close and relentless examination of the murderer's psyche. Dostoyevsky is more interested in important philosophical questions than in the technical police procedures of bringing a criminal to justice. He is also interested in the criminal's motives, which are ambiguous. The title indicates Dostoyevsky's interest in opposites and in the duality of human nature. The nature of guilt and innocence, the role of atonement and forgiveness, and the opposition of good and evil (and God and the Devil) all play an important thematic role in the book. While Dostoyevsky also examines social and political problems in the Russia of his day, his concerns are universal.
Guilt and Innocence In large part, Crime and Punishment is an examination of the guilty conscience. For Dostoyevsky, punishment is not a physical action or condition. Rather (much as in Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost), punishment inherently results from an awareness of guilt. Guilt is the knowledge that one has done wrong and has become estranged from society and from God. From the very beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov (whose name derives from the Russian word for "schism") suffers from this estrangement. In murdering the pawnbroker, he seeks to prove that he is above the law. But his crime only reinforces his sense that he is not a part of society.
Although she is a prostitute, Sonya is the embodiment of innocence. Her motive in becoming a prostitute was not one of lust. Indeed, in all of the novel, there is no indication that Sonya has any lustful or sexual inclination. On the contrary, she is embarrassed by, and ashamed of, her profession. In Dostoyevsky's eyes, she is not guilty of any transgression. She does what she does out of sheer necessity, not out of any base instincts or any hope for personal gain.
In contrast with Sonya's sense of shame over the life she leads, Pyotr Luzhin is shameless in the way he manipulates Raskolnikov's sister and mother (Dunya and Pulkheria Aleksandrovna). He is guilty of emotional blackmail as well as of fraud. Arkady Svidrigailov is an even more "guilty" character. Luzhin's crimes are calculated, whereas Svidrigailov's crimes result from his complete surrender to his evil nature. Rather than facing up to his guilt and its consequences, as Raskolnikov does, Svidrigailov partially acknowledges his guilt but evades the consequences by committing suicide. Although Raskolnikov is the central figure of Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky suggests that Raskolnikov may not quite be the book's most guilty criminal. Svidrigailov and Luzhin are also guilty of criminal misdeeds, and they are less open than Raskolnikov to the possibility of redemption.
Atonement and Forgiveness The theme of atonement and forgiveness is closely related to that of guilt and innocence. As Dostoyevsky's title suggests, punishment is the only logical and necessary outcome of crime. Punishment, however, does not mean merely a legal finding and a sentence of imprisonment. In Dostoyevsky's view, the criminal's true punishment is not a sentence of imprisonment. Nor is legal punishment the definitive answer to crime. The criminal's punishment results from his own conscience, his awareness of his guilt. However, he must not only acknowledge his guilt. The criminal must atone for it and must seek forgiveness.
Raskolnikov at first tries to rationalize his crime by offering various explanations to himself. Foremost among these is his "superman" theory. By definition, the superman theory denies any possibility of atonement. The superman does not need to atone, because he is permitted to commit any crime in order to further his own ends. Raskolnikov also rationalizes his crime by arguing that the old pawnbroker is of no use to anyone; in killing her, he is ridding the world of an unpleasant person. Driven by poverty, he also claims that he wants to use her money to better his position in life. In the course of the book, he comes to realize that none of these excuses justifies his crime.
Raskolnikov's reasons for fearing arrest are equally complex. It is clear, however, that without the example and the urging of Sonya, he would not be able to seek forgiveness. He finds it remarkable that when he confesses his crime to her, Sonya immediately forgives him. She urges him to bow down before God and make a public confession. This act of contrition, she believes, will enable him to begin to cleanse his soul.
Svidrigailov is aware of his own guilt, but he does not seek forgiveness. Unlike Raskolnikov, he does not believe in the possibility of forgiveness. In giving money to Sonya and others, he attempts a partial atonement for his sins. However, even these gestures are motivated partly by base self-interest. Because he is spiritually dead, he feels that the only atonement he can make is to commit suicide.
Ubermensch ("Superman") Part of the motive for Raskolnikov's crime comes from a theory that he has developed. In an essay that he publishes, Raskolnikov argues that humankind is divided into two categories: ordinary people, and geniuses or supermen. Ordinary people must obey the law, but "supermen" — of whom there are very few in any generation — are entitled to break existing laws and make their own laws. Raskolnikov cites the French emperor Napoleon as the epitome of the superman type. He argues that Napoleon rose to power by overstepping the laws that govern ordinary people. Napoleon made his own laws and achieved his goals by killing tens of thousands of people in wars. Because Napoleon was a genius, Raskolnikov reasons, he was not regarded as a criminal. On the contrary, he was hailed as a hero. Early in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov has become obsessed with the notion that he himself is a "superman." Therefore, he thinks, he is not subject to the laws that govern ordinary people. (In the original Russian text, Dostoyevsky frequently uses a word that means "overstepping" or "stepping over"—that is, transgressing. This word is closely related to the Russian word for "crime" (prestuplenie). Raskolnikov decides to murder the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna partly to prove that he is a superman. However, his indecision and confusion throughout the novel indicate that he is not a superman. Moreover, in the course of the novel, Dostoyevsky seeks to prove that there is no such thing as a superman. Dostoyevsky believes that every human life is precious, and no one is entitled to kill.
Dostoyevsky's formulation of the superman theory (through Raskolnikov) clearly anticipates the ideas developed by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in the 1880s. For Nietzsche, the superman and his "will to power" were supreme ideals. Christianity stood in the way of the superman, and Nietzsche scorned Christianity as a "slave morality." Dostoyevsky's view of the superman is absolutely opposed to Nietzsche's. For Dostoyevsky, following the "superman" theory to its natural conclusion inevitably leads to death, destruction, chaos, and misery. Rather than seeing Christianity as a "slave mentality," Dostoyevsky views it as the true vision of the human place in the world and of the human relationship with God. In Dostoyevsky's view, all people are valued in the eyes of God.
NarrativeCrime and Punishment is written in the third person. However, Dostoyevsky's narrative focus shifts throughout the novel. Crime and Punishment is widely credited as the first psychological novel, and in many passages, Dostoyevsky is concerned with the state of mind of the central character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. In these passages—including those that relate Raskolnikov's brooding, the murder itself, and his encounters with the inspector Porfiry Petrovich—Dostoyevsky puts us inside Raskolnikov's head. We view the action from Raskolnikov's viewpoint and share his often-disordered and contradictory thoughts. These passages read more like a first-person confession than a detached third-person fictional narrative. At the same time, he describes exterior events with clear realism. Critics have pointed out that Dostoyevsky is essentially a dramatic novelist. He does not so much tell a story as enact it. Crime and Punishment is full of dramatic scenes, of which Raskolnikov's murder of the pawnbroker is only one. There are also a number of dramatic confrontations between characters. Dostoyevsky's characters rarely have calm discussions; rather, they have fierce arguments and verbal duels. Generally (but not always) Raskolnikov is at one end of these confrontations. At the other, in various scenes, are his friend Razumikhin, his sister and mother, his sister's corrupt suitor Luzhin, the police investigator Porfiry Petrovich, the innocent prostitute Sonya, and the cynical landowner Svidrigailov. These duels and pairings help to illustrate the idea of the double, discussed further below.
Setting The action of the book takes place in St. Petersburg, the capital city of Russia, in the summer of 1865. (The brief epilogue is set in Siberia.) Crime and Punishment is a distinctly urban novel. In choosing a definite urban setting, Dostoyevsky was paving new ground for Russian fiction. His Russian predecessors and contemporaries such as Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoy generally set their stories on country estates. In confining the action of his novel entirely to St. Petersburg, Dostoyevsky was emulating the English author Charles Dickens, who set his well-known stories in the British capital, London. Moreover, St. Petersburg is not just a backdrop, but it is an inherent part of the novel. Dostoyevsky recreates St. Petersburg's neighborhoods and its streets, bridges, and canals with great realism. In his narrative, Dostoyevsky does not give the full street names, but uses only abbreviations. (In the very first paragraph, for example, he refers to "S—Lane" and "K—n Bridge.") Readers who were familiar with St. Petersburg would probably have been able to identify most of these specific locations, as modern scholars have done.
Much of the action takes place indoors, generally in cramped tenement apartments. With these settings, Dostoyevsky creates a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere. For example, in the weeks before he commits the murders, Raskolnikov has been lying in his tiny room and brooding. He retreats to this room after the murders, occasionally leaving his lair to wander the city's streets.
Most of the book's main characters are not natives of St. Petersburg, but have come to the city from Russia's far-flung rural provinces. Thus, they are not at ease in this urban setting. Provincial Russians might normally regard the capital city, created by Peter the Great as Russia's "window on the West," as a place of opportunity. However, for Raskolnikov, Katerina Ivanovna, Svidrigailov, and other characters, the city turns out to be a destination of last resort, a place where their diminished expectations are finally played out. (Svidrigailov remarks that "there aren't many places where there are as many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of man as there are in St. Petersburg.") This sense of the city as a dead-end is emphasized by the settings. The apartments where Raskolnikov and the Marmeladovs live are so small that there is scarcely enough space for a small group of visitors. Moreover, at several points in the novel, characters are threatened with eviction and fear that they will wind up on the streets. Near the end of the book, Katerina Ivanovna and her children beg on the streets by singing and dancing.
Most readers tend to think of Russia as a "winter" country, with lots of snow and cold weather. Dostoyevsky contradicts these expectations by setting his story during an unusual summer heat wave. The heat and humidity add to the general sense of discomfort that pervades the narrative. They also reflect and reinforce the feverish state that afflicts Raskolnikov throughout the book.
StructureCrime and Punishment is divided into six parts plus an epilogue. Each part is broken further into several chapters. For the most part, each chapter centers around a self-contained dramatic episode. Much of this episodic structure is attributable to the fact that Crime and Punishment was written for serialization in a magazine. Magazine readers wanted each installment to be complete in itself and to contain colorful incidents. Many chapters end with the sudden, unexpected arrival of a new character. By introducing such developments at the end of many of the chapters, Dostoyevsky maintained a high level of suspense. He knew that his readers would be curious to know what would happen in the next chapter and that they would look forward to the next installment. Moreover, an unresolved complication at the end of a particular chapter would also stimulate Dostoyevsky to write the next chapter. This method of writing helps account for the numerous abrupt shifts in the plot focus.
Coincidence Like many other important nineteenth-century novelists, Dostoyevsky does not hesitate to use coincidence to advance the plot. Indeed, many of the crucial developments in Crime and Punishment depend on sheer coincidences that seem highly unlikely to the modern reader. However, coincidence was an accepted literary convention of the period. Dostoyevsky does not attempt to explain away his coincidences, but on the contrary he simply states them as matters of fact. He uses this technique as a shortcut to bring together certain characters and set up dramatic situations.
While he is walking down the street, Raskolnikov comes upon the scene of an accident. The accident victim turns out to be Marmeladov, a drunken civil servant whom he had met earlier in the novel. Marmeladov has been run over by a horse-drawn carriage. Raskolnikov takes charge of the situation and has Marmeladov carried home, where the injured man dies. This coincidence leads to Raskolnikov's first meeting with Marmeladov's daughter Sonya, who has turned to prostitution to support the poverty-stricken family. Drawn to Sonya by her meek nature and pure heart, Raskolnikov will later confess to her. In another coincidence, Sonya turns out to have been a friend of Lizaveta. This disclosure serves to increase Raskolnikov's sense of guilt and further points up Sonya's selflessness.
It is also purely coincidence that the scheming Luzhin happens to be living temporarily in the same building as Katerina Ivanovna. This makes plausible his appearance at Katerina's funeral party and his attempt to frame Sonya for robbery. Later, Svidrigailov just happens by coincidence to be renting the apartment next door to Sonya's apartment. Thus, he is able to overhear Raskolnikov's murder confession. Svidngailov's awareness of Raskolnikov's guilty secret helps set into motion another chain of events. There are many more such coincidences in the course of the story. That such coincidences involving a relatively small number of characters would occur in a large city like St. Petersburg is almost unbelievable. However, Dostoyevsky's narrative has such dramatic force that the reader is able to overlook the implausibility of these coincidences.
Symbolism and Imagery As already discussed, Dostoyevsky's literary technique mixes narrative realism, dramatic scenes, and psychological analysis. He also uses symbolism and imagery, not so much for aesthetic effect as to emphasize certain points about his characters' psychology. One of his main symbolic devices is the pairing of certain characters. Early in his writing career, Dostoyevsky formulated the idea of the "double." That is, he believed that there may be two sides to a human personality. In giving a character like Raskolnikov several "doubles," Dostoyevsky emphasizes certain aspects of Raskolnikov's personality by contrasting him with these "doubles."
Among Raskolnikov's symbolic "doubles" are Marmeladov, Razumikhin, Dunya, Sonya, and Svidrigailov. Where Raskolnikov is obsessed with a theory, Marmeladov lives entirely by impulse. Where Raskolnikov is extreme, Razumikhin is reasonable. (The Russian word razum means "reason.") Raskolnikov cuts himself off from his family, while his sister Dunya is completely dedicated to the family. Sonya too sacrifices herself for her family. Furthermore, her meekness and faith contrast with Raskolnikov's pride and his rejection of God. Raskolnikov is literally sickened by his crime and does not give any indication that he will commit more murders, whereas Svidrigailov takes pleasure in his criminal lust and persists in it.
Appropriately enough, blood and blood imagery pervade the book. Before he commits the murder, Raskolnikov has a horrific nightmare in which a group of drunken men flog "a little grey mare" to death. The notion of "shedding blood" becomes quite literal. Raskolnikov's murder of the pawnbroker and her sister with an axe is naturally a bloody act. As he attempts to escape notice, Raskolnikov becomes obsessed with the idea that he is covered in blood and that this will give him away. Toward the end of the novel, his sister Dunya tells him that "you have blood on your hands"; Raskolnikov defiantly replies that the world is covered in blood. It can be noted, as well, that the novel's blood imagery is paralleled by frequent references to tears.
Dostoyevsky uses dreams to give insight into his characters' psychology, as well as for symbolic purposes. Critics have debated the meaning of Raskolnikov's nightmare about the horse, mentioned above. As well as indicating his tormented state of mind, this nightmare may also symbolize the brutality of murder and the helplessness of the innocent. In the book's epilogue, in Siberia, Raskolnikov dreams that the world is swept by a terrible plague that turns people mad. This dream is generally believed to symbolize what would happen if all people rejected traditional morality and acted out Raskolnikov's "superman" theory. Svidrigailov, too, has terrible dreams and claims that he has seen the ghosts of his deceased wife and of a servant. The night before he kills himself, he dreams about a little girl whom he has victimized. In this dream, he sees the moral consequences of his crimes.