Crime and Punishment Summary
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Crime and Punishment Summary

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is an 1866 novel about Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a young man whose life is irrevocably changed when he commits a murder.

  • Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker for no apparent reason. He receives a summons from the police but is relieved to learn that he is not a suspect
  • Wracked with guilt, Raskolnikov confesses his crimes to Sonia, a friend's daughter. He returns to the police station, where a detective named Porfiry plays mind games with him, heightening his paranoia.
  • Raskolnikov turns himself in. After entering a plea of insanity, he's sentenced to eight years in a Siberian labor camp.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevski treats the problem of crime and the criminal mentality. He is not interested in the social aspects of criminal behavior, and there is little said in the novel about the legalities of crime. Dostoevski has an interior view of criminality, a conviction that crime and its inevitable punishment are deeply seated aspects of the human spirit.

Raskolnikov (the novel’s hero) is presented from the inside. The reader knows what he did before knowing why he did it, and the story is told as a gradual revelation of the hero’s motives. That accounts for the uncanny suspense of the first several chapters: The reader continually searches for the reason that Raskolnikov has murdered the pawnbroker. Intertwined with the reader’s suspense is the slowly dawning realization that Raskolnikov himself does not know his motive. This “double suspense” creates a dense texture that gives the novel its complexity, a complexity laid over the relative simplicity of the plot.

As the novel progresses, Raskolnikov’s possible motives become ever more bizarre. The consistent notion behind his behavior is revealed in his confession to the innocent prostitute, Sonia, after the crime, when he blurts out that he did it because he only wanted to see if he could go beyond a normal person’s revulsion against such an act. This admission seems to suggest that Raskolnikov is an egotist, a self-styled superman who wants to see if he can get away with transgressing the law. The reader comes to find, however, that Raskolnikov’s impulses go more deeply than that: Raskolnikov wants to see if he can overstep the limits of evil itself, if he can exert ultimate power over another person. That is what the murder means to him.

Dostoevski’s brilliant unfolding of Raskolnikov’s deepest motive really begins after the confession to Sonia. Before this point in the novel, the reader is puzzled by a welter of seemingly conflicting evidence about the hero’s personality. Raskolnikov says he does not believe in God and that there is no arbiter of absolute good and evil. Yet he is numb with self-doubt. In spite of his logical decision to commit murder, he is troubled and hesitant. His horrible dream of the peasants beating a horse to death causes him to awake trembling at the very thought that he himself might be so cruel. As he later walks along the banks of the Neva, his obsession with committing an evil act alternates with a loathing for the very idea. Then, after the deed has been done, something curious occurs that turns out to be the key to understanding his true motive and the rest of the novel. It becomes clear that Raskolnikov’s response to having committed murder is merely puzzlement. In other words, he shows neither remorse nor joy. He realizes that he feels the same way that he has always felt.

Finally, the reader understands that the loathsome criminality of Raskolnikov’s motive lies in its amorality. He had decided to murder the old woman pawnbroker on strictly logical grounds, but the unease that he continues to feel is not a guilty conscience stemming from a too-strict logicality. Had he murdered for money or out of anger and then been caught, his punishment would have been easier than that which comes to gnaw at him. Having made a cold-blooded sociopathic decision to...

(The entire section is 1,018 words.)