‘Crime and Punishment’ is peopled by remarkable characters who represent a broad spectrum of character types and ideological dispositions, from the self-absorbed, troubled Raskolnikov, the calm and assuring Dunya to the sensual Svidrigailov. All are created with amazing depth and portrayed in detailed psychological relief.
Raskolnikov is the central character of the book and its anti-hero. He is a terribly poor student, burdened by the weight of great familial expectations and the guilt of seeing his family go over and beyond to help him. He has also come under the influence of a rational egoist and utilitarian philosophy that allows for the performance of acts that can bring about the highest amount of good, no matter the nature of the act.
That, and a belief that certain superior humans possess the capacity and moral authority to transcend traditional morality in service of an aim they deem noble, inspires Raskolnikov to murder an old and miserly pawnbroker who he sees as evil and therefore a net negative to society.
The cold rational intellectualization that allowed Raskolnikov to commit this murder is however only one component of his dual personality, as an essentially humane and compassionate nature still resides within him. This manifests periodically when Raskolnikov is moved to expend scarce and valuable resources to help people in need, such as the Marmeladovs. However, he often regrets his acts of kindness and charity moments after performing them and when he has subjected his behavior to his rational egoist intellectual framework.
Out of impulsivity, Raskolnikov might do a good thing due to an essentially pure base nature, but when he has had time to think about it, he immediately disapproves of the act. After killing the pawnbroker, he is unable to master his conscience and move above his allegiance to traditional morality. Although seeking to convince himself that he has done nothing wrong, his conscience, however, fails him, and he is wracked with guilt to the point of intense mental and physical suffering.
Raskolnikov exhibits outward traits of pride and arrogance, manifesting his attitude towards the poor of St. Petersburg. He finds himself disgusted by their wretchedness and is consumed with a feeling of superiority over them. His pride initially does not allow him to see the flaw in his belief system, or to suffer the ignominy of being seen as a coward by confessing after Sonia advises him to do so.
His poverty contributes to pushing him to crime, although its contribution turns out to be overshadowed by Raskolnikov’s naked lust for power as expressed through his subtle obsession with demonstrating his own strength, or more precisely, whether he is indeed among the superior men he believes possess the power to kill. In the end, he discovers he was not “superior” at all and that his ideas were defective. He accepts his suffering and, through the help of Sonia, gradually achieve true repentance and redemption.
Sonia is the daughter of Marmeledov. Her father is an irresponsible drunk and her step-mother lacks the capacity to care for the family sufficiently. This forces Sonia into a life of prostitution. Sonia is presented as a good-natured, humble and almost Christ-like woman who although conscious of the degrading nature of her profession nevertheless grasps firmly onto and finds hope in her faith in God.
She has great strength of character and a capacity for long-suffering and sacrifice. Most importantly, she functions as the embodiment of Raskolnikov’s better nature. In her, Dostoevsky fully dramatizes Raskolnikov’s fullest characteristic potential if he was not corrupted by dangerous ideologies.
As a result, Raskolnikov is drawn to her because a part of him sees her as kin. He is also drawn to her because he identifies himself with her position as an outcast and pariah. He equates his transgression with taking human life with her own transgression in tainting her soul by selling her body.
Sonia’s non-judgmental nature and her desire to secure salvation for Raskolnikov make her an outlet for Raskolnikov’s redemption. She urges Raskolnikov to repent and accept his suffering as penance for his wrongdoings. She was there to provide moral support for Raskolnikov, to allow him to be vulnerable and honest enough to interrogate his own nature and motives and subject his philosophy before her judgment.
Sonia is no expert in philosophy, but her simple nature, her refusal to play the role of God in people’s lives, as well as her silent anguish at Raskolnikov’s suffering and conviction of the right path to redemption all allows Raskolnikov to genuinely see the error of his ways and seek redemption.
If Sonia functions as the fullest realization of Raskolnikov’s better nature, Svidrigailov functions as the embodiment of Raskolnikov’s cold, rational egoist intellectualization. Whereas Raskolnikov tries to but cannot rise above conventional morality, Svidrigailov achieves this almost effortlessly. Svidrigailov does not believe in any higher purpose for humans, or any divine injunction or reason for existence. He believes in the absence of this, it is left to humans to define their own moral path.
Svidrigailov sees his own sensual gratification as more important than any arbitrary ideal, and so commits himself single-mindedly toward this purpose. He goes to any length to satiate his desires, including harassing and raping people and feeling no remorse for his behavior afterward.
Even while married to his wife, he chases after other women. He courts Dunya and when she rejects his advances, he pursues her to St. Petersburg in hopes of exerting his will on her and securing her surrender. But her rejection a second time, and her attempts at murdering him, shattering his belief that he could live isolated from humanity and that he could assert his will without opposition. He kills himself as a result.
Svidrigailov is a complex character who though entirely evil was still capable of acts of goodness, for a variety of purposes. He decides to provide for Sonia and the children possibly with the objective of deceiving Raskolnikov as to his true intentions. But his final act of charity in the moments before he killed himself and with no obvious gain to himself can be interpreted as the result of his shattered philosophy or a small way to achieve penance for his evils.
The lead detective in the murder case involving Raskolnikov. Like Sonia, Porfiry is a redemptive character or a character that tries to guide Raskolnikov towards redemption. An intelligent detective who deduces early on from Raskolnikov’s weird behavior that Raskolnikov was the murderer, Porfiry played the part of a more advanced sage with the insight to properly produce an analysis of Raskolnikov’s motivations and potentials, and with that, prescribe a remedy.
He utilizes a “cat and mouse” investigative game with Raskolnikov aimed at trapping the latter into a mistake that would have given him away. Eventually, convinced of Raskolnikov’s guilt, he drops the act to offer heartfelt advice to Raskolnikov. Porfiry, like Sonya, is non-judgemental and sees great potential in Raskolnikov. But like Sonia, he believes Raskolnikov has to truly repent and accept his punishment first.
A Slavophile, Porfiry is invested enough in Raskolnikov’s redemption to not immediately arrest him after gathering enough material evidence. By giving Raskolnikov enough time to come to the realization of his guilt and confess himself, he opened the way to true redemption for Raskolnikov.
Dunya is Raskolnikov’s sister. Her actions, especially her ordeal with Svidrigailov and her impending marriage with Luzhin, turn out to be powerful contributors to Raskolnikov’s own behavior and actions in the novel. Dunya shares a lot of characteristics with Sonia in terms of being good-natured, honest, and full of perseverance, although she is not as timid. Dunya is a strong-willed and wise individual who is also extremely devoted to her brother.
This devotion makes her make certain sacrifices so she can support him together with her mother. She extends her stay under increasingly untenable conditions at Svidrigailov’s household because she had taken a salary advance for her brother’s sake. She accepts a marriage proposal from the disrespectful and predatory Luzhin because she wants to assist Raskolnikov. It is partly because of this marriage, whose self-sacrificial motivations Raskolnikov sees through, that makes Raskolnikov moves ahead to murder the pawnbroker.
Dunya shows incredible strength of character and maturity to calmly dismiss Luzhin when he gets too disrespectful, in sharp contrast to Raskolnikov’s more emotional and out-of-control reactions. She is also able to resist Svidrigailov, although she could not bring herself to kill him in the end. She shows remarkable spiritual insight to persuade her brother to accept his suffering for his crimes too, by so doing neither judging him nor diminishing his crime. Her marriage with Razumikhin signals a happy ending for her long-suffering arc.
Raskolnikov’s closest friend, Razumikhin is a poor student also who decides to work harder to support himself rather than take the route of stealing and murder like Raskolnikov. Razumikhin is a loyal and reasonable friend. He takes care of Raskolnikov during his illness unconditionally even though Raskolnikov mostly responds to his goodness and care with hostility and ungratefulness.
Razumikhin’s trusting nature does not allow him to suspect Raskolnikov of the murder, even when he learns the suspicion of some local policemen and detectives. Raskolnikov functions as a helper for Raskolnikov in very important ways. His willingness to take care of Raskolnikov’s mother and Sister allows Raskolnikov the freedom to alienate himself from his family, safe in the knowledge that Razumikhin will take care of them.
Razumikhin also partly functions as Dostoevsky’s own authorial presence in the novel, providing counters to Raskolnikov’s nihilist and utilitarian arguments that reflect Dostoevsky’s thoughts on the issue. Razumikhin is one of the few wholly good characters in the book, and his romance with Dunya serves as one of the more positive things that happened in the story.
Katerina Ivanovna Marmeladov
The consumptive wife of Marmeladov of noble heritage, although her marriage with Marmeladov sends her deep into poverty and lack, for which she is deeply resentful. Hers is a story of complete tragedy, having to deal with a completely irresponsible drunk for a husband while catering to multiple children. She had to deal with her husband selling off her valuables just to have money he could spend on alcohol, as well as humiliation from her landlady and neighbors as a result of her poverty.
After her husband’s death, her persistent conflict with the landlady comes to a head, and Katerina Ivanovna is forced into the streets with her children. Overwhelmed by her humiliations and suffering, she runs mad and soon dies.
Her suffering as a consequence of her husband’s irresponsibility helps to highlight Marmeladov’s worthlessness and pathetic situation to Raskolnikov. The inevitability of her doomed end also highlights the unfairness of life. Raskolnikov’s presentation of the bleak reality of her and her children to Sonia serves to aggravate Sonia’s sense of hopelessness and anguish.
Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov
A conflicted, self-absorbed public official who Raskolnikov meets in a tavern. He is a drunk who is well aware that his drinking was ruining his family, but is unable to stop. His addiction is serious, and he goes to great lengths, even stealing from his wife and taking proceeds meant for the family’s upkeep from Sonia’s prostituting to buy drinks.
Sometimes deeply repentant and ashamed of himself and other times proud and defensive, Marmeladov is a complex character whose primary function in the narrative was to connect Raskolnikov to Sonia. By regaling Raskolnikov with his pathetic history and then dragging Raskolnikov to witness the chaos of his home, Mermaledov allowed Raskolnikov to glimpse the intensity of human suffering and the unfairness of life in great detail and from up close. The story of Sonia-the pure soul forced into prostitution for her family’s sake-strikes him deeply and would sow the seed of a deeply important relationship.
Luzhin is the rising civil servant of some means that Sonya gets engaged to. He is a disagreeable and pompous character who deliberately seeks out Sonya because she meets the profile of a beautiful but poor bride who would be beholden to him and who he can lord over.
Deeply insecure and arrogant, Luzhin is miserly and clouds his selfishness under a rational egoist philosophy, which he pretends to hold entirely because it will bring out the overall best outcome for society. The philosophy argues that acts of private charity do not really do much good and that society would be better served if those who have held on to what they had. He is also spiteful and has no qualms about hurting a completely innocent Sonia in an effort to get back at Raskolnikov, who he blames for the failure of his relationship with Dunya.
Pulcheria is Raskolnikov’s mother. A woman of little means who survives from a meager pension, from which she also supports Raskolnikov. She has high hopes for Raskolnikov and continues to believe in him throughout her life, even though he never fulfills her expectations of him. Her strong devotion and faith in Raskolnikov contribute to placing a weight of expectation that inspires Raskolnikov down a dark path.
Is Raskolnikov the protagonist of ‘Crime and Punishment?’
Depending on your point of view, Raskolnikov can either be described as a protagonist or an anti-hero. He fits the description of a protagonist because the story follows his fall and redemption. Although deeply flawed, Raskolnikov is ultimately a character we are meant to relate to and sympathize with
Which characters best represents Dostoevsky’s views?
Sonya and Porfiry. While Sonia represents the Christ-like humility and conservatism that Dostoevsky feels humans should approach important ideological questions with, Porfiry furnishes the intellectual argument against the dangerous ideas Dostoevsky sought to oppose
Who is the villain of ‘Crime and Punishment?’
The likes of Svidrigailov, Luzhin, and pre-redemption Raskolnikov function as the villains of the story