Crime and Punishment Summary

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment

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Crime and Punishment Summary

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Thematically Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 Russian novel Crime and Punishment addresses the question of whether or not the end justifies the means. It raises the idea to an inner psychological level as well as examining it in the context of the outward actions of main character Rodion Raskolnikov. Dostoyevsky explores the idea that suffering can bring about redemption. He also examines the effects of increasing one’s knowledge. Does considering concepts on an intellectual level free human beings or make them feel more entrapped? The text first appeared in the journal The Russian Messenger as twelve monthly installments before being released as a stand-alone volume. It was among the novels Dostoyevsky composed upon returning from ten years of exile in Siberia after being accused of reading and circulating banned materials.

Raskolnikov is a poor, young, former student in Saint Petersburg who plots to kill a dishonest pawnbroker for her money. He justifies this by citing the good he can perform with the money, saying that not only would that make up for the deed, but it would also rid the world of an undesirable person. He sees this as an experiment to weight his theory that some people are instinctively able to commit acts such as murder and thus have a responsibility to do so. Feeling that killing is acceptable if the end result is noble in nature, Raskolnikov compares himself to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Although his friend Razumikhin offers to help him sustain himself, Raskolnikov believes it is his destiny to to kill the pawnbroker/money lender Alyona Ivanovna. While making his plans, he meets Marmeladov, a drunk who has lost what bit of wealth his family had, and Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother, Pulcheria, and his sister, Dunya, announcing their imminent arrival in Saint Petersburg to discuss the sister’s wedding plans. Raskolnikov ponders the situation around him and proceeds to kill Alyona with an axe. When her half sister appears, he kills her as well. In a panic to leave the scene of the crime, he steals a few items but leaves much of the woman’s wealth behind. He leaves the apartment in which he committed the crime without being seen. As time goes on, he begins to obsess over what he has done. He hides the stolen items and attempts to clean his clothing of any evidence of the attack. He falls into a state of delirium and wanders around almost asking to be connected to the crime and caught.

Pulcheria and Dunya arrive in Saint Petersburg. Dunya had left her job as a governess for the Svidrigailov family when the married head of the family, Arkady, was attracted to her and tried to court her. She then met Luzhin, whom she agreed to marry to obtain security for herself and her mother. Raskolnikov rejects Luzhin as a husband for his sister upon realizing the reason she accepted his proposal. Next Raskolnikov meets Porfiry, a detective looking into the murders and who views Raskolnikov as a suspect. Raskolnikov, meanwhile, has begun a relationship with Sonya, the daughter of Marmeladov, who has turned to prostitution to support her family. Their relationship is not sexual. Svidrigailov arrives in the city to tell Dunya of his wife’s death; he tries to win her hand by offering her a lot of money. She refuses, believing he is being deceptive.

As the days unfold, Porfiry becomes more and more convinced that Raskolnikov is responsible for the murders but cannot find any solid evidence with which to connect him to them. Additionally, another man has been questioned and arrested and takes the blame for the crime. Raskolnikov becomes more and more unstable and confesses to Sonya. Svidrigailov overhears the confession and tells Raskolnikov that he will use what he now knows for blackmail if need be. Raskolnikov, in the meantime, has heard rumors about Svidrigailov’s past and suspects that he may have committed murders himself.

Sonya convinces Raskolnikov to go to the authorities and confess to relieve his conscience. He does so in spite of the fact that the only one who could potentially verify his guilt, Svidrigailov, has committed suicide. In an epilogue, it is learned that Raskolnikov receives eight years of servitude in Siberia as punishment, and that Sonya has accompanied him there. Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin marries Dunya, and Pulcheria dies of grief due to her son’s fate. As time moves on, Raskolnikov begins his journey towards moral redemption with Sonya’s support.

Significant to Dostoyevsky’s connecting of crime and punishment is that for the majority of the book, the punishment is self-inflicted by Raskolnikov as he drifts more and more away from reality and sanity as he obsessively worries about being caught. The “real” punishment that is put upon him at the end of the novel appears perhaps to be less significant than the mental anguish he suffered. It is only after he overcomes his inner turmoil that he is able to find redemption of the soul.