Crime and Punishment Themes
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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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.

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(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 4,067 words.)