On the surface, Crime and Punishment is the story of a murder, set in the city of St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital. It is not, however, a murder mystery: we know the murderer’s identity from the very beginning. Moreover, although Dostoyevsky depicts the crime and the environment in which it takes place with great realism, he is more interested in the psychology of the murderer than in the external specifics of the crime. Raskolnikov plans to murder and rob an old woman.
After the visit, Raskolnikov feels miserable, so he stops at a tavern for a drink.
There he meets a drunk named Marmeladov who tells him how his daughter Sonya became a prostitute to support her family. Raskolnikov helps Marmeladov home, and he is touched by the pitiful scene of poverty he sees there. After leaving the family some money, he returns to his cramped room. The next day, Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother. She informs him that Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya is set to marry a bachelor named Luzhin.
Raskolnikov realizes that his mother and sister are counting on Luzhin to give him financial assistance after the wedding.
As he sees it, Dunya is sacrificing herself for him, a sacrifice that reminds him of Sonya’s prostitution. He berates himself for his passivity. Soon afterwards, he falls asleep, and he dreams of watching a peasant beat an overburdened horse to death. When he awakens, he articulates for the first time his plan to kill the pawnbroker with an axe. Hearing that the pawnbroker’s sister would be away from their apartment the next evening, he realizes that the time to execute his plan has arrived. The murder itself does not unfold as intended.
Lizaveta, the pawnbroker’s sister, returns home unexpectedly, and Raskolnikov kills her too. Distraught, he finds only a few items of value, and he is nearly discovered by two of the pawnbroker’s clients who knock at the door. When they leave momentarily, Raskolnikov slips out of the apartment undetected. During the next few days, Raskolnikov alternates between lucidity and delirium. He feels torn between an impulse to confess his crime and an impulse to resist arrest. He begins a game of cat-and-mouse with an examining magistrate, who investigating the murder, Porfiry Petrovich.
Porfiry has read an article written by Raskolnikov in which Raskolnikov expounds the theory that a few select individuals may have the right to commit crimes if they think it necessary to attain special goals. Raskolnikov now explains his theory to Porfiry, beginning with the idea that there are two categories of people in the world—the masses and the elite. The first group, that is the material, are, generally speaking, by nature staid and conservative, they live in obedience and like it. They ought to obey because that is their destiny, and there is nothing at all degrading to them in it.
The second group is all law-breakers and transgressors, or is inclined that way, in the measure of their capacities. The aims of these people are, of course, relative and very diverse; for the most part they require, in widely different contexts, the destruction of what exists in the name of better things. But if it is necessary for one of them, for the fulfillment of his ideas, to march over corpses, or wade through blood, then he may in all conscience authorize himself to wade through blood—in proportion, however, to his idea and the degree of its importance—mark that.
It is in that sense only, their right to commit crime. Proud, aloof, and scornful of humanity, at the beginning of the novel Raskolnikov has become obsessed with the idea that he is a “superman” and is therefore not subjected to the laws that govern ordinary humans. He has not only published an essay, he also tries to prove this theory, by killing an old pawnbroker, whom he regards as worthless. However, the murder goes horribly wrong: he also kills the old woman’s simple-minded innocent sister (Lizaveta), who stumbles upon the scene of the crime. So ironically, the crime fails to confirm Raskolnikov’s cool superiority.
Tormented by feelings of guilt, he acts erratically, and he fears that his guilt will be obvious to others. Much of the novel centers on Raskolnikov’s irrational state of mind and the eccentric behavior that follows from this. On several occasions he comes close to boasting that he could have committed the crime, and dares others to prove that he did it. He insults his friend Razumihkin and deliberately offends his mother and sister. However, he also acts in ways that show he still has a moral conscience. For example, he defends his sister against her scheming fiance Luzhin. He gives money to Marmeladov’s widow Katerina Ivanovna.
He recoils in horror from the depraved Svidrigailov. Most significantly of all, he is drawn to the young prostitute Sonya Marmeladova, who is morally pure and innocent despite her terrible life. He ultimately confesses his crime to her and begins his journey to redemption. The Russian word Raskol means “schism”. The term was used to describe a split in the Russian Orthodox Church that occurred in the mid-1600s. Dostoyevsky’s Russian readers would have been aware of the significance of Raskolnikov’s name, which suggests contradictions in his own personality as well as his rebellion against God.
In the complex Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky created one of the most interesting and most human of all fictional characters. In large part, Crime and Punishment is an examination of the guilty conscience. For Dostoyevsky, punishment is not a physical action or condition. Rather 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 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. 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 result 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 Sonya, she 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. The novel’s epilogue focuses on Raskolnikov’s experiences as a convict in Siberia. Raskolnikov initially feels a deep sense of alienation from his fellow prisoners.
During Lent and Easter, he falls ill, and he has a strange dream in which everyone in the world becomes infected with a disease that causes each person to believe that he or she is the sole bearer of truth. The deluded people kill each other, and the world heads toward total collapse. After recuperating from his illness, Raskolnikov walks to a riverbank and gazes at the landscape. Sonya appears at his side. Suddenly, Raskolnikov is seized with an entirely new sensation of love. Both he and Sonya realize that something profound has occurred within his soul.
Love has raised him from the dead, and he will become a new man. Dostoyevsky concludes his novel by stating that the story of Raskolnikov’s regeneration might be the subject of a new tale, but that the present one has ended. Raskolnikov’s main motivation to kill the pawnbroker is actually fairly simple to understand. After hearing a student talk to an officer in a pub about “Killing her, taking her money and with the help of it devoting oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all”, he took the person’s idea and completely ran with it.
Raskolnikov drove himself to madness after murdering the pawn broker and her sister because he had no one to confide his emotions in. Whether his loss of reason is due to guilt or repulsion at himself, he ended up wanting to get caught and eventually turned himself in. “You see… I’ve come to the conclusion that this way will perhaps be more to my advantage… I’ll be sent to prison… ” The same thing happens when a child just gives up while trying to get away with the stealing of a cookie. They know they are about to get caught and would rather turn themselves in than have another person force them to.
I remember an incident years ago. It happened when I lived with my uncle and his family, which mirrored that exact facet of human nature. My cousin, who was three at the time and slept with a stuffed lamb, was treating me as if I was a second class citizen in her house. So, I came up with the brilliant idea to take the lamb away, and hide it in a place that she would never look. Unfortunately, the entire house soon learned that the lamb was the only thing that actually put my cousin into a state that was restful enough for sleep, which not only greatly affected her, but the rest of us.
Therefore, no one was able to get to sleep very easily the next week and a half because my cousin was crying every night about her lost “Sleepy Sheepy”. But I stood my ground and refused to give up the whereabouts of that lamb, even when my mother and uncle grilled me about any involvement I had in the lamb’s disappearance. Of course I felt guilty about it. Hearing my cousin cry every night wasn’t any picnic, but at that point it was almost like telling the adults what I had done would have been worse than anything else, so I just would not do it.
Raskolnikov believed he had the best of intentions at the beginning, but as most extreme plans go, it turned into complete chaos. Unfortunately, that aspect of human nature is in all of us, and sometimes it comes through. Raskolnikov thought he was doing what was best for his fellow neighbors who had also been swindled by the pawnbroker, but he did not think his actions through. I thought I was doing what was best for my cousin and myself, but I did not consider the consequence carefully. However, when someone realizes that their decision might have not been the best one, their mental anguish is much worse than if they were just to confess.
Cite this Book Report of the Novel ‘Crime and Punishment’ Essay
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