Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Explore the psychological and spiritual consequences of a crime.
Crime and Punishment begin when a young man called Rodion Raskolnikov walks out of his tiny St. Petersburg apartment on an exceptionally hot July evening. He is in a state of hypochondria – an irritable, strained condition resulting from a long period of isolation.
As he leaves, he successfully manages to avoid his landlady, who scares him. But how can he still be afraid of her when he’s planning a thing like that?
Dostoevsky doesn’t immediately identify the “thing” that Raskolnikov is planning – but we eventually find out that it’s a murder. This deed and its consequences make up the book that is Crime and Punishment. But this is no simple “whodunit.” Instead, it’s often described as a “whydunit” – an exploration of why Raskolnikov becomes a murderer rather than precisely how he does it.
As is typical of Russian novels, Crime and Punishment is lengthy. For the sake of brevity, we’ll stick to the most iconic scenes and characters. Along the way, we’ll explore the psychology of Raskolnikov as well as the key philosophical insights.
Before the crime
A young man with dark hair and dark eyes walks out his door in anguish – he doesn’t know what to do about the “thing” he’s been contemplating. His name is Rodion Raskolnikov, and he lives in a tiny, stiflingly hot apartment the size of a closet. Outside, it’s no less oppressive: the St. Petersburg air is smelly and scorching.
As Raskolnikov wanders around the city, he mutters to himself incessantly. He tells himself that mankind would be capable of anything if it weren’t for cowardice. What people are most afraid of, he says, is “taking a new step” and “uttering a new word.”
We don’t at first learn exactly what Raskolnikov is planning, but we do discover that he’s on his way to a “rehearsal” of it. He walks exactly 730 steps from his apartment to a huge house that’s divided into tiny, working-class tenements.
He rings the bell of one of the apartments – that of an old woman called Alyona Ivanovna. She’s diminutive and withered, about 60 years old, with a sharp nose and sharp eyes. This is the pawnbroker Raskolnikov has been dealing with for the past several months in his ill-advised attempts to make some money.
As they talk, Raskolnikov studies the room, noting every object and its placement, as well as exactly how the sun will be peeking through the windows when “it” happens. They haggle over the price of a watch that Raskolnikov has brought; Alyona gives him a bad deal. Then he bids her goodbye and tells her he may be back in a day or two.
After leaving, Raskolnikov becomes erratic. He can’t keep up a consistent walking pace and stops several times. “Oh, God, how loathsome it all is! and can I, can I possibly…” he cries. An intense sense of repulsion overcomes him.
As he walks around in this state of agitation, Raskolnikov finds himself at a tavern. He has never actually been inside a tavern before, but after a month of isolated wretchedness, he suddenly feels a desire for company.
There, he meets Marmeladov, a retired clerk. Marmeladov engages Raskolnikov, philosophizing and telling him the story of the last few months of his life. He’s squandered all his money and become an alcoholic; he even sold his own wife’s stockings in exchange for a drink. His eldest daughter, Sonia, has had to become a prostitute to support the family.
Marmeladov is too drunk to make his way home alone, so Raskolnikov accompanies him. Before he leaves, he puts some money on the Marmeladovs’ windowsill.
There’s a lot going on in this part of the story, even though we’ve just begun. For starters, we’re getting a sense of Raskolnikov’s character. In Russian, the word raskolnik means “schism.” This is a hint that Raskolnikov will constantly be torn between two different aspects of his nature. We’ve already seen these in action. On one hand, Raskolnikov clearly has a ruthlessness, coldness, and pride about him. We also know he’s planning to commit some yet-unnamed but terrible deed.
On the other hand, Raskolnikov has also shown himself to possess great kindness and empathy. We saw this when he gave Marmeladov money despite his own deep poverty. Clearly, Raskolnikov is no psychopath – he’s capable of remorse.
At this juncture, we also see the different forces that have been influencing Raskolnikov’s behavior. A major one is his isolation. Being alone in his room has plunged Raskolnikov deep into thoughts, abstractions, and theories instead of the real, physical world. On top of that, his poverty, tiny apartment, and the St. Petersburg heat have increased the sense of psychological oppression and hypochondria he feels. Dostoevsky believed that city environments had a noxious effect on the soul – despite, or perhaps because of, being a St. Petersburg resident himself for almost 30 years.
Finally, we also get a first taste of Raskolnikov’s philosophy surrounding the “thing” he’s planning to do. He says humanity’s greatest obstacle is cowardice, and that people must be bold enough to take new steps and utter new words. Maybe he believes himself to be one of these people?
The next day, Raskolnikov contemplates visiting an old university friend. But no – he will visit him after it instead. These renewed thoughts of it send Raskolnikov into a fit of anxiety. He wanders into a tavern and downs a glass of vodka. The alcohol hits him hard, and he falls asleep in some bushes. There, he enters an intensely vivid and horrible dream.
In the dream, Raskolnikov is back in his childhood village. He is about seven years old. A crowd is gathered near a tavern, and outside of it is a large horse-drawn cart. The animal pulling the cart is thin, ragged, and obviously strained.
Out of the tavern bursts a group of big, drunken peasants. They begin shouting for everyone to get into the cart. The peasants’ leader, Mikolka, seizes the horse’s reins and begins to whip it, crying that he’ll make the horse gallop. People begin to pile into the cart, laughing and cracking nuts and yelling. The horse tries to pull them forward but can only struggle and gasp. Mikolka begins to beat the horse to death – first with the whip, then with other instruments; he screams that the horse is his property and he has the right to do what he wants with it. Other peasants join in, and the horse eventually totters to the ground and dies. Raskolnikov runs through the crowd and up to the horse, puts his arms around its neck, and kisses it all over its face. He tries to beat Mikolka, but then he wakes up.
Raskolnikov feels utterly broken when he awakes. He reflects on what he’s about to do: “Good God!” he cries. “Can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an ax, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open…” At last, Raskolnikov has spoken directly about the deed he plans to commit: murder.
That evening, just past six o’clock, he descends the 13 steps leading from his apartment. Along the way, he steals an ax hanging in the building’s kitchen.
When he arrives at Alyona Ivanovna’s apartment, his thoughts are oddly calm. He passes into the room without being invited but gives her a silver cigarette case to examine. While her back is turned, Raskolnikov pulls the ax out, swings it with both arms – barely conscious, almost mechanically – and brings the blunt side down on her head. She falls to the floor, and Raskolnikov bashes her again and again as blood gushes from her skull.
After the deed is done, Raskolnikov lays the ax on the ground and rummages around in her pockets, his hands trembling though his thoughts are quite clear. He moves into the next room and begins filling up his pockets with various trinkets that Alyona had been keeping under her bed. But then, he hears footsteps.
They belong, it turns out, to Alyona’s sister, Lizaveta. He hears Lizaveta moan. Presumably, she’s seen her sister’s body lying on the floor. He stays silent at first, then jumps up, grabs the ax, and runs out into the other room.
Lizaveta doesn’t scream, though her mouth is open. She backs away from Raskolnikov, but he rushes at her with the ax. Her mouth twitches piteously – almost like a baby’s. She doesn’t raise a hand to protect herself. The ax falls on her skull and splits her head open. She falls heavily, dead.
Immediately, Raskolnikov panics. He snatches up a bundle that Lizaveta had been carrying and runs out of the room. Fear is beginning to take hold of him – he hadn’t expected this second murder. He begins to feel a sense of dreamy dissociation as he washes his hands and the ax in a nearby bucket of water and examines his clothing.
In this section, Raskolnikov’s split nature manifests itself in his dream about the horse – a particularly famous and iconic scene. Mikolka, the man whipping the horse, represents the cruel, murderous side of Raskolnikov. Meanwhile, the young Raskolnikov in the dream represents the adult Raskolnikov’s compassionate, caring side. They are at war within him, pulling him in two very different directions.
As for the murders themselves, what’s really interesting is the contrast between Alyona’s death and Lizaveta’s. Alyona – the murder Raskolnikov had premeditated – is killed with her back turned. This means he doesn’t have to look her in the face when he strikes her with the ax, and he can do it “mechanically.” The act remains impersonal.
Lizaveta, on the other hand, is someone Raskolnikov never intended to kill. Yet she’s the one he must strike head-on while she stares at him in childlike terror. Raskolnikov could justify Alyona’s murder by thinking of it as the killing of a miserly pawnbroker. But Lizaveta’s death is nothing less than the murder of an innocent. It’s through Lizaveta’s murder that Raskolnikov truly realizes the magnitude of what he’s done.
The night following the murder, Raskolnikov tosses and turns restlessly in bed. When dawn breaks, he becomes feverish when he remembers everything that happened. He realizes he never shut his door, removed his clothes, or hid the items he stole from the pawnbroker. He wonders whether he’s going mad – and whether his punishment is already beginning.
Later that day, Raskolnikov receives a summons to the police station. When he gets there, he finds out it’s not related to the murder at all. His landlady has simply reported him as a debtor – Raskolnikov hasn’t been paying his rent.
During questioning by the officer, Ilya Petrovich Zametov, Raskolnikov is cantankerous and slightly delirious. Eventually, a strange feeling comes over him. He realizes he doesn’t care what anyone there thinks of him. He even feels revolted. There is a distinct sense that, even if the whole room were filled with his loved ones rather than police officers, he’d still feel empty in his heart. A sense of everlasting, agonizing solitude and separateness begins to form within his soul.
Shaken, Raskolnikov returns to his room, gathers the stolen goods, and buries them under a large stone in a random courtyard. As he walks, he lurches between extremes of emotion: unbearable joy after burying the stolen goods, bitter confusion as he realizes how erratic his own behavior is, then intense repulsion and hatred of everything surrounding him.
Suddenly, Raskolnikov realizes he’s standing outside of his friend Razumihin’s house – the same person he thought of visiting prior to the murder. He goes inside but is suddenly choked with rage and tries to leave. Razumihin ushers him back in, and Raskolnikov explains that he came to see Razumihin because he’s kinder and cleverer than anyone. But now he wants nothing and no one and asks to be left alone.
Razumihin calls Raskolnikov a madman but is nevertheless accommodating, encouraging him to stay and even offering him some translation work. Raskolnikov accepts, walks out, then heads back inside. He returns the work to Razumihin’s desk and leaves in a huff.
That night, Raskolnikov falls into a deep sleep. He has nightmares that transition into a days-long, semiconscious delirium.
In the immediate aftermath of the crime, Raskolnikov is barely able to remain conscious. He isn’t sure what’s real; mentally, he already can’t bear the consequences of the murder. At the police station, he’s overcome with feelings of isolation and disconnection. He realizes that by committing the murder, he has forever alienated himself from the rest of humanity. His “punishment” won’t just be physical; it’ll be psychological too.
In this section, we also meet an important character: Razumihin. Razumihin’s name includes the Russian word razum, which means “reason.” This is a heavy clue to the nature of his character – Razumikhin will continue to be a source of reason throughout the novel. Raskolnikov’s decision not to visit him before the murder suggests that perhaps Razumihin’s presence could have dissuaded him from committing the act.
From the beginning, Razumihin attempts to get Raskolnikov to engage in prosocial behavior. Outwardly, Raskolnikov resists – but in this section, we see him unconsciously being pulled toward Razumihin. It’s as if part of Raskolnikov’s nature hungers to be around people, to rejoin family, friends, and society. It’s the counterpart to his murderous side, which has festered and grown alongside his isolation.
A way out
After Raskolnikov awakens from his delirium, he leaves his apartment and begins erratically interrogating random passersby. Eventually, he finds himself at a café called the Palais de Cristal.
There, he encounters the head clerk of the police, Zametov. As they converse, Raskolnikov’s lips twist into a mocking smile. He begins to brag and tease Zametov about the murders, claiming that he knows a lot about crime – specifically this one. He even describes, in detail, the process by which he committed the murder. This arouses Zametov’s suspicions, but Raskolnikov assures him that he was really just saying how he would have done it.
After leaving the Palais de Cristal, Raskolnikov winds up – almost unintentionally – at Alyona Ivanovna’s apartment. He enters her room and sees two workmen redecorating it. Almost delirious, he asks them what happened to the blood on the floor. They threaten to take him to the police if he doesn’t leave, but ultimately, the porter simply throws him out.
“Shall I go there or not?” Raskolnikov wonders, thinking about turning himself in to the police as he stands in the thoroughfare, at a crossroads. He looks around, as if expecting an answer. But there is nothing.
Then, at the end of the street, he notices a crowd. They’re gathered around none other than Marmeladov, who has been run over by a horse-drawn carriage. Now, instead of going to the police station, Raskolnikov helps Marmeladov back home, where a doctor declares that Marmeladov will die.
After a priest delivers Marmeladov’s confession, a young woman makes her way through the crowd and into the room. She is wearing a gaudy silk dress, a straw hat with a feather, and is holding a parasol – a prostitute’s attire. Under the hat peeks a timid, pale face and frightened eyes. It’s Marmeladov’s 18-year-old daughter, Sonia.
Seeing Sonia, Marmeladov cries out “Sonia! Daughter! Forgive!” She rushes to her father, and he dies in her arms. Immediately, Raskolnikov offers Marmeladov’s wife, Katerina Ivanovna, a large sum of money to hold a funeral. Then he departs.
Raskolnikov returns home full of self-satisfaction. He feels that his acts of kindness toward the Marmeladovs have redeemed him – or, at least, he tries to convince himself they have.
In this section, Raskolnikov searches for various ways out of his predicament. At the beginning, he semi-confesses to Zametov but walks it back at the last second. He also returns to the scene of the crime. These are classic criminal behaviors – both expressions of guilt, a desire to be caught. But when standing at the crossroads, Raskolnikov falls short of actually deciding to go to the police station and confess.
Despite not confessing, Raskolnikov is clearly seeking redemption through his behavior with the Marmeladovs. He seizes the first opportunity to do something kind and selfless, and tries to convince himself that this means he’s atoned for his sins. But it will take much more than that – and deep down, Raskolnikov knows it.
In this section, we also get our first real introduction to Sonia. We’ll talk more about her later, but for now, just remember that Sonia’s full name is Sofya, meaning “wisdom.” This is an indication of her role in the novel. Despite her “fallen” nature as a prostitute, she will ultimately be the one to lead Raskolnikov to salvation.
The extraordinary man
Raskolnikov enters Porfiry Petrovich’s apartment on the verge of laughter, accompanied by Razumihin. Porfiry is the head of the Investigation Department, and the two friends are there to request the return of Raskolnikov’s pawned items from the deceased pawnbroker. Raskolnikov is purposely putting on a display of mirth as a cover for his anxiety.
Porfiry Petrovich immediately shows himself to be a much more intelligent and shrewd character than the clerk Zametov. He doesn’t once take his eyes off of Raskolnikov after asking him why he’s there. Raskolnikov swears that Porfiry already knows the truth – that he’s winking at him and toying with him.
As it turns out, Porfiry has been familiar with Raskolnikov for some time. Two months ago, he read an article Raskolnikov had published called “On Crime.”
The most interesting part of the article, Porfiry recollects, came at the end. Raskolnikov had suggested that there are certain people who are superior to the rest of humanity. As such, they have the right to commit crimes.
Raskolnikov clarifies – these extraordinary people have the right to transgress the law, but only if doing so is essential to the fulfillment of their ideas or for the benefit of all humanity. Say Newton’s discoveries couldn’t have been made without sacrificing people’s lives; Newton would then have had the right to eliminate them.
When they’re finished at Porfiry’s and Raskolnikov is back home, he is feverish once again. He frets about Porfiry and tries to convince himself that Alyona’s life really was worthless. Yet he also begins to question himself and his theories. Was he really the sort of extraordinary man he’d written about in the article?
Raskolnikov’s article, “On Crime,” is of great philosophical importance to the novel as well as to the history of philosophy. This is because Raskolnikov’s idea of the “extraordinary man” closely resembles later German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, or “Superman.”
Nietzsche, like Dostoevsky, explored the concept of nihilism – a theory that developed in Russia in the 1850s and 60s. Essentially, nihilism advocated the idea that there are no objective moral truths, and that traditional bonds of family and society should be rejected. Dostoevsky believed that nihilism was extremely dangerous. According to him, in the absence of a guiding moral system such as Christianity, humanity could use logical, utilitarian arguments to justify pretty much anything – including murder.
Similarly, Nietzsche believed that nihilism would destroy all moral and religious convictions and lead to a moral crisis. But in the midst of this crisis, the Übermensch would arrive on the scene. The Übermensch would, unlike other people, be able to create his own morality. In doing so, he would model a new system of values and save people from the crisis.
Nietzsche intended his Übermensch to be something positive – an ideal to strive for. Dostoevsky, however, saw this as a dangerous concept and tried to refute it through the negative example of Raskolnikov, who believes himself to be a type of Übermensch. Raskolnikov’s mistake is neglecting his human nature, his innate conscience. He thinks that he can act based on logic alone, thus proving himself extraordinary – but his emotional turmoil suggests otherwise. For Dostoevsky, there’s a big difference between simply theorizing about moral boundaries and actually violating them.
After an emotionally charged conversation between Raskolnikov, his mother, his sister, and Razumihin, Raskolnikov makes his way to Sonia’s apartment. He asks after Sonia’s mother, Katerina Ivanovna. Sonia quickly becomes flushed and anguished as she defends her mother in spite of her mother’s madness. It’s as if an “insatiable compassion” is reflected in Sonia’s face; she longs to speak, to champion something.
When Raskolnikov suggests that Polenka, Sonia’s younger sister, will wind up as a prostitute too, Sonia cries aloud: “God would not allow anything so awful!” She repeats that God will protect Polenka, clinging to her belief. She sobs when Raskolnikov says maybe there is no God.
Raskolnikov tells himself that Sonia is a religious maniac, and that this religiosity is infectious and will soon latch itself to him. Still, he takes Sonia’s copy of the New Testament and demands that she read him the story of Lazarus, the man who was resurrected by Jesus. Sonia shakes as she reads. To Sonia, Lazarus is her story.
When she finishes reading, Raskolnikov tells her that he has broken ties with his family. Now Sonia is all he has, and he asks her to come away with him. He has no idea where; he just knows that they’re on the same road. Sonia looks at him, not understanding anything other than the fact that Raskolnikov is terribly, infinitely unhappy. For explanation, he offers that Sonia, too, has “transgressed” and “destroyed a life… [her] own.” Sonia is confused and agitated. Raskolnikov ends the meeting by telling Sonia that he may not come back tomorrow – but if he does, he will tell her who killed Lizaveta.
The next day, after the funeral banquet in honor of Marmeladov, Raskolnikov visits Sonia in her room. He sits down mechanically on her bed and tells her to guess who killed Lizaveta. “Take a good look,” he says, feeling his heart freeze. In her face, he sees Lizaveta’s – that same childish, helpless terror. The terror infects him, and an equally childish smile appears on his own face. Finally, Sonia guesses the truth. She seizes both of Raskolnikov’s hands and stares at him, then jumps up, wrings her hands, and sits back down beside him. “What have you done – what have you done to yourself?” she says in despair, embracing him.
Sonia promises that she will never leave him and asks him if he has a cross. She gives him her own and then decides she will wear one that had belonged to Lizaveta. Together, Sonia says, they will suffer and bear their cross – Raskolnikov will confess his crimes.
A common archetype in Dostoevsky’s works is that of the saintly prostitute – in this case, Sonia. Despite being a prostitute, Sonia is meant to be seen as the most virtuous character in the novel. She sacrifices herself for the good of her family in her seemingly endless compassion. This compassion extends to Raskolnikov, who she pities when he reveals that he is the murderer. She promises to follow him to Siberia, where he will be sent when he confesses. Sonia represents the suffering of all humanity – the unjustness of fate.
She is also the embodiment of blind religious faith in the novel. Whereas Raskolnikov’s faith has become a twisted, utilitarian ideology, Sonia’s faith is in God alone. She does not sequester herself in her apartment with theories and abstractions; she simply feels and believes.
Despite these differences, she and Raskolnikov do share a kinship – they are people who have “fallen” in different ways and must suffer as a consequence. But perhaps, as the story of Lazarus suggests, they can each rise once again.
After deciding to confess, Raskolnikov begins something of a farewell tour. First, he goes to visit his mother, then his sister, and finally Sonia. There, he retrieves his cross, and Sonia has him say a prayer. Raskolnikov doesn’t know why he accepts, but he does.
Finally, Raskolnikov heads toward the police station. On the way, he takes a detour to the Haymarket. He remembers that Sonia told him to go to the crossroads, bow down to the people there, and kiss the earth. Suddenly, he feels his misery and anxiety spread throughout his body, softening everything within him, and he falls to the ground on the spot.
Immediately, Raskolnikov’s actions are met with laughter and jeers from onlookers. He gets up and continues walking to the police station. He sees Sonia following him from 50 paces away and is assured, once and for all, that Sonia will follow him to the ends of the earth.
With renewed conviction, he enters the police station but almost leaves without confessing. Again, he sees Sonia looking on, pale and horror-stricken. He stands still for a minute, grins, and walks back into the station. His lips white and his voice broken, he confesses to Zametov, the head clerk: “It was I killed the old pawnbroker woman and her sister Lizaveta with an ax and robbed them.”
At this point, the novel fast-forwards into the future, to a year and a half after the murders. Raskolnikov has been imprisoned on the banks of a broad river in Siberia for nine months. As promised, Sonia accompanied him there.
Going to prison does not instantly redeem Raskolnikov nor make him repent his crimes. At first, he still believes there is nothing wrong with what he did. In what way is his theory any more stupid than the countless others that have ever existed? His action may have been a legal breach, but it wasn’t wrong per se.
Throughout Raskolnikov’s time in prison, Sonia repeatedly visits him outside of his window. But one warm day, they’re finally able to meet outside in the yard. They sit next to each other for a few brief moments, holding hands. Suddenly, something seizes Raskolnikov and he bursts into tears, throwing himself at her feet. She is frightened at first, but then she understands, and a light of infinite happiness sparks in her eyes – he loves her beyond everything. Their pale, thin figures stand together, sick but bright with the dawn of a new future.
The same night, Raskolnikov thinks of Sonia in a fit of ecstasy. That evening, he can’t analyze anything consciously; he exits the realm of intellect and theory and enters the realm of feeling. He takes Sonia’s copy of the New Testament from under his pillow. He doesn’t open it, but he wonders whether Sonia’s convictions are now his own.
Raskolnikov doesn’t know this yet, but his new life is just beginning. It won’t be easy – in fact, it will come at the cost of great suffering. But, as the narrator of Crime and Punishment puts it, that’s a matter for another story – not this one.
For Dostoevsky, Raskolnikov can’t be redeemed in God’s eyes until he confesses his sin and accepts his punishment. Importantly, he has to do this not only at the police station, but also publicly, to the earth itself. He has to confess to God and humanity – not just the law.
When Raskolnikov gets to Siberia, the environment provides a perfect contrast to the St. Petersburg we’re introduced to at the very beginning of the novel. Siberia is cold and wide open – very unlike the packed, hot, stifling city. Here, Raskolnikov’s mind has a chance to break free of the thoughts that have been plaguing it. He is no longer in the isolated realm of intellect and theory, though it takes time for him to truly escape it.
It’s maybe because of this that Raskolnikov is finally able to accept Sonia’s love. In a sudden flash, the two experience their resurrection together – their Lazarus moment. There’s no lead-up to this instance of divine grace and love. After this experience, as Raskolnikov thinks of Sonia, he is no longer trapped inside a logical labyrinth. His faith has been transferred from his theories onto God. It’s the start of his redemption, which Dostoevsky leaves for another story – one that’s never actually written.
A young man named Rodion Raskolnikov comes to the conclusion that he has to kill an elderly pawnbroker. Believing it will prove he’s an extraordinary man, superior to the rest of humanity, Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker with an ax. Then, unexpectedly, the pawnbroker’s sister walks in on the crime scene – and he’s forced to kill her too.
This crime happens within the first 100 or so pages of the novel. The remaining 600 pages are devoted to the punishment, where Raskolnikov deals with the psychological consequences of the murders – including delirium, semi-insanity, and a profound sense of isolation.
Ultimately, Raskolnikov is urged to confess to his crimes by Sonia, a virtuous prostitute. The novel ends with Raskolnikov heading to a Siberian prison and experiencing a moment of divine grace – the beginning of his redemption.