Crime and Punishment | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Crime and Punishment | Part 1, Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Part 1, Chapter 1

On a hot July evening in 1860s Saint Petersburg, Russia, a young man sneaks out of his boardinghouse because he owes back rent. Poverty stricken, he lives in a tiny, shabby garret and wears ragged clothes. He has become self-absorbed and alienated from other people. The young man plans a daring deed of some kind but wonders if he is capable of it or not. Nevertheless, he goes to an apartment in a nearby tenement in preparation for his plan. He is pleased to find that no one currently occupies the apartment across from the one he is visiting.

He rings a doorbell, and a suspicious old woman, the greedy pawnbroker Alyona, lets him in. He introduces himself as Raskolnikov, a student with a watch to pawn. He nervously takes in every detail of the apartment. The pawnbroker offers him less than half of what he asks for the watch, then deducts interest for a previous loan.

Raskolnikov notices where she keeps her keys and pays close attention as she unlocks a dresser in her bedroom to retrieve the money. He promises to return soon to pawn another item. Before leaving he asks, "Are you always at home alone?" The old woman deflects the question, implying it is none of his business. His actions suggest that Raskolnikov is planning a crime. Repulsed by what he has been contemplating, he locates a tavern.

Part 1, Chapter 2

In the tavern Raskolnikov notices a man who looks like a retired government clerk. Marmeladov is a man of contradictions. He appears to be a heavy drinker, and his clothes are torn and stained. Nevertheless, he has an air of respectability.

He tells Raskolnikov his story. He and his family are impoverished due to his alcoholism. His wife, Katerina Ivanovna, comes from an upper-class background. A widow with three young children, she married him out of desperation. At first he supported the family as a civil servant, but his alcoholism cost him his job. Now he steals from his wife to drink, and she has developed consumption (tuberculosis). His eldest daughter, Sonia, resorts to prostitution to feed the three other children. Because she is a prostitute, she can no longer live with the family. Marmeladov recently got his job back but returned to his old ways. Likely fired, he has not returned home in five days. Marmeladov tells Raskolnikov that in the end God will compassionately forgive all sinners, including Marmeladov and Sonia.

Raskolnikov visits the Marmeladovs. The family shares one small, shoddy room. As their three young children weep, Katerina Ivanovna berates her husband and pulls him by the hair, demanding to know where the money went. Raskolnikov quickly departs, leaving some coins for them. He immediately regrets his generosity and feels contempt for the family's situation, but he wonders if he shouldn't be kinder: "What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it's all as it should be."

Analysis

The setting and some of the major themes of the novel are introduced in these first two chapters. The setting of the story, central Saint Petersburg in the 1860s, is bustling, stinking, and poverty stricken. The summer heat is oppressive, mirroring the state of Raskolnikov's mind.

The following themes are introduced:

  • Alienation: Alienation can come from within or from society. Raskolnikov has become so self-absorbed that he has isolated himself from everyone around him, contributing to his anxiety and paranoia. Sonia has been alienated from society, which judges prostitutes as beneath contempt.
  • Crime: Raskolnikov's actions at the pawnbroker's suggest he is planning a crime, and he struggles with whether he can go through with it. Dostoevsky focuses on why people commit crimes and what effects those crimes have on both the victims and the perpetrators.
  • Suffering: Suffering haunts this novel like a ghost. Almost every character in these first two chapters suffers from extreme poverty. Raskolnikov is nearly destitute. Marmeladov and his family face starvation, illness, and social disgrace due to his alcoholism. Marmeladov's poignant belief that God will forgive him and Sonia balances suffering with compassion, a theme that obsesses Dostoevsky here and in his other works.
  • Morality: Marmeladov's situation contrasts religious morality with the realities of imperfect human behavior. The novel explores multiple definitions of morality, including Christian, utilitarian, and nihilistic.
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