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Crime and Punishment | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment.

Crime and Punishment | Themes



Alienation takes many forms in this novel. Several characters struggle with being isolated, or cut off, from themselves or from others.

Raskolnikov alienates himself from those around him physically, mentally, and socially. As a student at the university "he kept aloof from everyone." After leaving school he has been cooped up in his tiny attic room where his isolation feeds his delusions and monomania. Arrogant, he sees himself as superior to others. His alienation both contributes to and results from his crimes. After the murders he finds he can no longer reach his loved ones across the gulf of his secret. Above all he is deeply alienated from himself. Redemption for Raskolnikov is only possible when he finally connects with Sonia in the Epilogue.

Many other characters face alienation through poverty. Sonia is alienated from her family and from normal society after turning to prostitution to support her family. Marmeladov and his wife, Katerina Ivanovna, an alcoholic and a consumptive, are also social outcasts. Dounia is threatened with alienation through Svidrigaïlov's overtures, a situation that Luzhin attempts to extort, but she is rescued through her association with Razumihin.

The novel also abounds with suicides and attempted suicides, possibly the ultimate form of alienation. Raskolnikov is minding his own business when a woman standing next to him suddenly leaps into a canal, nearly drowning before she is rescued. Nikolay also tries to commit suicide but fails. Both Sonia and Raskolnikov consider suicide but decide to live, although Raskolnikov believes that, when he commits the murders, he has symbolically killed himself. Marmeladov is a rumored suicide, and Svidrigaïlov, who drives a young girl to suicide, ultimately dies by his own hand.


Dostoevsky explores the title word crime in a broad sense, including crimes defined under the law such as murder, social crimes such as poverty, and crimes against humanity—bringing needless suffering upon oneself and others.

Two types of crime intersect in the character of Raskolnikov. He commits murder, a legal crime. He has a theory that extraordinary men can commit crimes, or violate moral boundaries, on their way to greatness without penalty. However, once he puts his theory into action, he finds that either it or he is flawed. His conscience tortures him. The murders he commits force him to recognize the suffering he has caused himself and others, beyond the murders themselves. Raskolnikov is often cruel to people who love him. He claims on numerous occasions to loathe all humankind, but his actions undermine his words while consistently demonstrating a hatred for himself. This is his psychological crime and punishment.

Svidrigaïlov has also committed illegal acts, including rape and possibly murder. He has spent time in prison for debts. But overall he suffers few external consequences for his actions. Like Raskolnikov, some of his crimes do not fall under the rule of law. His careless manipulation of others, such as his seduction of a married woman with children, is often very damaging to them. Still his conscience ultimately catches up with him, too, and is a major factor in his suicide.

Sonia's criminality is debatable. Prostitution fell in a gray area in mid-19th-century Russia. Previously considered a serious crime, it began to be viewed with greater tolerance once prostitution became regulated in 1843 via the "yellow ticket." This licensing system for prostitutes provided governmental oversight of prostitutes' health in order to curb the spread of venereal disease. However, an unregistered or infected prostitute could be arrested and detained. Regardless of whether it was a crime legally, it carried heavy societal consequences, demonstrated by Sonia's suffering.

Technically Luzhin is an upright citizen, a lawyer even, but his criminality can hardly be denied. He chooses Dounia to be his wife through her situation as Marfa Petrovna's governess. She is thus doubly "blessed" in his eyes: her reputation has been compromised by Svidrigaïlov's advances, and Marfa Petrovna has given sworn assurances of her purity. As a triple benefit, Dounia is poor. For all of these reasons, she is the perfect subject of his fantasies, a beautiful, righteous woman he can grind underneath his heel. The tortures he intends for her are only hinted at in the accusations of robbery he makes against Sonia.


Dostoevsky sees suffering as a double-edged sword—it can destroy or redeem depending on the circumstances. Suffering springs from a number of sources throughout the novel: crime, illness and disease, poverty, cruelty, self-hatred, alienation, rejection, and failure. These different types of suffering often overlap. For Dostoevsky the way characters respond to their own suffering or the suffering of others often defines them.

Suffering in the novel often has religious connotations. Marmeladov "tortures" himself with alcohol in the hope of being forgiven by God in the afterlife, and Nikolay seeks the punishment for murder to atone for lesser sins. Sonia, like Christ, takes on the suffering of others through compassion. She is instrumental in Raskolnikov's redemption in prison. It is only when Raskolnikov confesses and submits himself to the suffering of punishment that his mental healing can begin. His cycle of sin, struggle, confession, and redemption is at the core of Christianity.

Nearly every character in Crime and Punishment suffers from some degree of poverty, often with physical and moral consequences. Marmeladov suffers from uncontrollable alcoholism, forcing his family to suffer starvation, disease, and homelessness. Sonia is forced to work as a prostitute to support them and suffers the loss of her reputation. Raskolnikov barely has enough money to survive throughout the novel, but he frequently shares what he has with others who have even less.

In Crime and Punishment suffering is often psychological in nature: many characters face inner conflicts, particularly Raskolnikov and Svidrigaïlov, who struggle painfully with their consciences. Raskolnikov's suffering manifests itself in many ways. His crime and its desperate aftermath are a map of his pain. His dreams, such as the dream of the horse being beaten to death, reveal his terrible struggles within himself. In his interior monologues readers hear every detail as he obsesses in his own mind about how to cover up his crime or whether he should confess. Other characters suffer mental breakdowns or opt to attempt suicide when their suffering overwhelms them. Katerina's suffering eventually drives her mental breakdown and death.


The conflict between traditional morality, defined by Orthodox Christianity in Russia and based in faith, and the new "rational" concepts of morality that Raskolnikov favors, based in logic and reason, appears in many forms throughout the novel, with Dostoevsky clearly arguing in favor of religious morality. "Rational" concepts of morality emphasized reason and logic as the best paths for ethical and social change. Traditional Christian beliefs were based in faith, suffering, sin, and redemption.

Razumihin primarily argues for traditional concepts of morality, favoring the "living soul" over airless theories that lack humanity. However, Raskolnikov is torn between the competing moralities: he forms and executes a theory based on the new morality, based in rationality, but his conscience is rooted in the old morality, based in religion. The conflict ends up mentally unbalancing him. His insistence on living out his "extraordinary man" theory leads to a spectrum of suffering. Traditional Christian morality, focused on redemption through suffering, is his path to a new life.

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