A poignant work that brilliantly conveys a socially aware writer and thinker’s thoughts on some of the most radical ideas of his age, ‘Crime and Punishment’ merits its place at the summit of literary excellence.
‘Spoiler-Free Summary of Crime and Punishment
‘Crime and Punishment’ is about a social misfit’s attempts to gain a bit of power by proving himself to be among the class of superior humans allowed to go above conventional morality. Raskolnikov is this young man, and he is torn between giving in to his better nature and following the tenets of the radical new ideas he has adopted.
Under the throes of nihilistic sentiments that express itself through a ruthless utilitarian approach to life, Raskolnikov believes it is his destiny as a superior man to prove this superiority and do the deed that goes beyond the capacity of lesser men – the deed of murdering an evil person for the benefit of all. ‘Crime and Punishment’ explore the motivations behind Raskolnikov’s great crime and the aftermath. Would Raskolnikov truly transcend conventional morality and prove himself superior? Would he master his conscience and go scot-free? What would his punishment be like, and would he be able to see where he went wrong and achieve full repentance?
Crime and Punishment Summary
Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.
‘Crime and Punishment’ begins from the point of view of a young man living in squalid conditions at a St. Petersburg boarding house. The young man, Raskolnikov, is a poor student who has to sneak out of his house to avoid his landlady, whom he owes a long-overdue rent. He walks the streets of the city in tattered clothes, although he feels no shame, holding little regard for the destitute people who inhabit the neighborhood of St. Petersburg he is traversing. He visits the home of an old woman, a miserly pawnbroker with a reputation for cruelty called Alyona Ivanova, with the seeming intention of pawning his watch.
A rude and slightly suspicious Alyona offers what Raskolnikov considers to be inadequate money for the watch and reminds him of his outstanding debts from a previous transaction. However, we observe that Raskolnikov tolerates her offering because he has another hidden reason for visiting the old woman. Of late, he has been consumed with the idea of killing the woman and then stealing her money. He rationalizes that since the old woman was wicked, she did not deserve to live. However, despite this rationalization, he struggles with the physical act of committing the murder.
As he visits and converses with Alyona, we observe that he monitors the environment keenly. Raskolnikov informs the old woman that he will be coming at a later date to pledge another item before taking his leave. Once outside, he is filled with disgust at the prospect of carrying out the deed. Suddenly feeling a great thirst for alcohol and human company, he enters a tavern and orders a bottle of beer. However, while there, a drunken retired government official in tattered clothes engages him in an unsolicited conversation. The man, Marmeladov, narrates his life story, going over how he has disappointed his family by drinking himself to poverty and debt. His story depicts him as a highly irresponsible drunkard who spends all his money on alcohol.
Marmeladov has a wife from a noble background called Katerina Ivanovna, a proud woman who married him after the failure of her first marriage, which already produced three kids. He also has a daughter named Sonya, who had to prostitute herself to help the family. Marmeledov managed to get a new job, but lost it again not long after due to his drunkenness. Since he lost the job, he has not been able to go back home to face his wife and family. Throughout the narration, Marmeledov defies the mockery and jeers of the other tavern occupants who seem familiar with his drunken stories and alternates between self-pity and defiance.
After this narration, Raskolnikov allows Marmeladov to drag him to his household, which Raskolnikov finds to be a chaotic and destitute environment. He witnesses a fight between an enraged Katerina and Marmeladov, and watches as the neighbors come out to mock the couple. The landlady orders the family to leave the house. Raskolnikov is moved by the situation and decides to leave a small amount of money for the family, although he regrets doing so shortly after, feeling that the Marmeladov household was irresponsible for forcing Sonya to prostitute herself.
The next morning we began to know more about Raskolnikov. First, he is awakened by the maid, Nastasya, who informs him of the landlady’s intention to evict Raskolnikov from the house. She also brings him breakfast and a letter from his mother. In the letter, we learn that Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, had accepted a marriage proposal from a certain Petrovich Luzhin. This was after she lost her job as a guardian when her employer, Svidrigailov, made sexual advances at her. In the letter, his mother informs him that she and Dunya would be coming to Saint Petersburg in the coming days.
Clearly agitated by the letter, Raskolnikov decided to go on a walk while he ruminates over the contents of the letter. He disapproves of Luzhin, surmising that he was interested in Dunya because she was poor and would be beholden to him as her savior. Raskolnikov decides that Dunya was only marrying Luzhin, so she could be better placed to support him (Raskolnikov) financially, and so resolves to not let Dunya go on with the engagement. However, while waking, he saves a young drunken girl from an older man who was pursuing her. Later on, he falls into a deep sleep on the grass and has the first of many lucid dreams he will continue to have over time due to his heightened and agitated state.
In this particular dream, he is transported back to the scene of an incident in his childhood when he witnessed a group of peasants sadistically beating a mare to death. He was deeply moved by the incident, and it serves as a foreshadowing of his own sadistic actions as well as the subsequent repentance. Raskolnikov decides to murder the pawnbroker the next day after finding out fortuitously that the pawnbroker’s sister, Lizaveta, would be out of the house by 7 the next day.
The following day, he goes to Alyona’s house, and after distracting her with a tightly knotted item he supposedly intended to pawn, he kills her by repeatedly hitting her with an ax he had concealed in his coat. However, in the process of trying to steal the dead woman’s money, her sister, Lizaveta, unexpectedly comes into the house. Seeing what had happened, she was so shocked that she was helpless when Raskolnikov attacked and killed her also with the ax. The killings however terrify Raskolnikov, as he finds that he was not strong enough to face the consequences of what he has done. His murders were nearly discovered when two men suddenly come around to visit the pawnbroker, but Raskolnikov, full of dread and trepidation, was able to escape undetected from the building with the money he stole.
The next part of the novel concentrates on the immediate aftermath of Raskolnikov’s crime. He is clearly shaken, guilt-ridden, and terrified. Realizing that he had been with the money he stole from the pawnbroker for a while and was thus likely to be discovered with it, he hid the money in a hole in the war. Not long after, Raskolnikov was summoned to the police station because his landlady had reported him over his unpaid rents. Delirious and talkative, he soon passes out after overhearing two detectives discussing Alyona and Lizaveta’s murders. The fainting attracts the suspicion of the detective, Ilya Petrovich, who asks him what he was during the previous day during the time of the murder.
Raskolnikov goes home worried that the police suspect him of the murders. He removes the money from the hole he had initially hidden it in and instead decided to hide it under a huge stone in a courtyard. He visits his friend Razumikhin, who worries about Raskolnikov’s health and offers him a job, which Raskolnikov rejects. Raskolnikov goes back home and starts having weird dreams and hallucinations.
He wakes one morning to discover that had passed out for over four days and that there was a small group of concerned friends and acquaintances who had been watching over him, including Razumikhin, Nastasya, his landlady, and a stranger who brought him 35 roubles from his mother. Zamyotov, the detective, and Zossimov, a doctor had also come to visit earlier while he was passed out. The group then discusses the news of the murder, and we learn that Razumikhin had been working to clear the name of a painter who had been working close to the room where the murder was committed and was being suspected.
Raskolnikov sat irritable and quiet on his bed, only intermittently seeming interested and asking questions when the discussion veers towards the murder. While they were discussing, Dunya’s fiancée, Luzhin, visits to make the acquaintance of Raskolnikov and in the process makes an immediately unfavorable impression with his pomposity and arrogance.
Raskolnikov accuses Luzhin of wanting to marry Dunya mainly because she was poor and would be beholden to him. Luzhin is offended by this and rudely accuses Raskolnikov’s mother of misrepresenting his intentions. Hearing this, Raskolnikov orders him to leave his house in a rage. Shocked by Raskolnikov’s actions, Razumikhin and Zossimov try to reprimand him but are themselves ordered out of the house.
Feeling suddenly energized and clear-headed, Raskolnikov goes out in the streets, and randomly engages people in weird conversations. He enters a Café, the Crystal Palace, and engages the detective, Zamyotov, about Alyona’s murder. Imagining that the detective already suspects him of murdering the woman, Raskolnikov then proceeds to tease him, hinting that he might indeed have been the killer.
While leaving the Café, Raskolnikov encounters and engages in a heated exchange with Razumikhin who, despite Raskolnikov’s cold rebuke, invites him to his house-warming party held that night. Raskolnikov declares he would not go and instead impulsively enters into the flat of the pawnbroker whom he killed and asks two workers he sees redecorating the flat why they cleaned the blood. He refuses to answer their questions and instead walks away. He finds a drunk Marmaledov lying on the street after being hit by a horse-drawn carriage and then takes the man to his house where he slowly dies before his family.
Raskolnikov drops 20 roubles to the family and promises future support-the action serving temporarily to satiate his raging guilt. Raskolnikov goes to Razumikhin’s house-warming party, where a drunk Razumikhin confides that Zossimov considers Raskolnikov mad. Feeling wobbly at his feet, Raskolnikov returns home with Razumikhin to discover his mother and sister at his house already. Seeing them, Raskolnikov immediately loses consciousness.
The third part of the novel continues the story within the context of Raskolnikov’s family’s arrival at his home. His Mother and Sister are grief-stricken at his condition, and when Raskolnikov comes to, he becomes irritated and orders them out. His insensitivity comes as a shock to Dunya and Pulcharia but Razumikhin who has been used to the behavior is on hand to explain away Raskolnikov’s behavior to be a symptom of his illness and urges his mother and sister to leave Raskolnikov alone for a time. During this time, Razumikhin falls in love with Dunya and tries to get her to not marry Luzhin.
The next day Razumikhin visits Dunya and Pulcharia, first by himself, and later on in the company of Zossimov who pronounces that Raskolnikov was obsessed with and agitated over something. Dunya shows Razumikhin a letter from Luzhin where Luzhin complains about Raskolnikov’s attitude towards himself. In the letter, he further instructs that both Dunya and her mother do not bring Raskolnikov along to their meeting with him. He further reveals how Raskolnikov had donated a large amount of the money Dunya sent him to a prostitute in an effort to smear Raskolnikov’s reputation to his family.
The next day they all visit a much improved Raskolnikov who apologizes to his mother, sister as well as Razumikhin for his rash behavior the previous day. However, he gets agitated again over the discussion of Dunya’s relationship with her fiancée and lets Dunya know of his opposition to the match. Dunya disagrees with Raskolnikov’s verdict of Luzhin.
A timid Sonya soon arrives and interrupts the discussion to invite Raskolnikov to Marmeledov’s funeral and the wake planned after it. Raskolnikov promises to visit the family the next day and after Sonya leaves resolves to ask, Porfiry Petrovich, the magistrate in charge of the Alyona murder case for the watches which he pawned to the woman before killing her. Together he and Razumikhin visit the detective, and Raskolnikov quickly suspects that Porfiry suspects him due to the nature of Porfiry’s questioning.
Razumikhin’s innocent disclosure that Raskolnikov seemed to faint whenever the murder is mentioned seemed to make matters worse for Raskolnikov. Porfiry mentions that Raskolnikov was the only person that did not immediately come to claim his items after Alyona’s murder and further brings up a two-month-old article published in the newspapers where Raskolnikov had argued that certain superior people had earned the right to commit crimes. Raskolnikov gets very nervous during the interview but feels confident that he had evaded the traps within Porfiry’s questioning laid to try to establish his guilt.
When Raskolnikov gets home, he is informed that someone has just been inquiring about him. So he traces this individual and finds him on the street, but the stranger simply calls him a murderer and leaves without further explanation, greatly worrying Raskolnikov. Back at home, he falls into a sleep and has a nightmare where he is back at Alyona’s flat and is trying to kill her again, only this time she wouldn’t die and would just laugh at him.
The fourth part of the book begins with Raskolnikov awakening from his dream only to find Sonya’s former lecherous employer, Svidrigailov, in his room. Svidrigailov, who had been the cause of Dunya’s problems, tries to explain himself here. He declares the purity of his intentions for Dunya and lays the blame for her travails on his late wife whom he demonizes. He informs Raskolnikov that he had come to put a stop to Dunya’s match with Luzhin which he finds inappropriate, and begs Raskolnikov’s help in setting up a meeting with Dunya.
He also mentions his intentions of setting things right with Dunya by gifting her a significant sum of ten thousand roubles, plus an additional three thousand left to Dunya by his late wife in her will. Raskolnikov informs Svidrigailov that Dunya would reject the gift. Raskolnikov finds himself disgusted by the free manner in which Svidrigailov justifies his immoral deeds and is also repulsed at Svridigailov’s repeated suggestions that he and Raskolnikov had a lot in common.
After Svidrigailov leaves, Razumikhin visits to confirm Raskolnikov’s suspicions that the police indeed suspect him of the murder, although Razumikhin himself could not understand why. Both of them attend Dunya and Pulcharia’s meeting with Luzhin, which greatly annoys the latter. Luzhin, out of spite, informs the family of Svidrigailov’s presence in Saint Petersburg and spends time demonizing Svidrigailov. Dunya openly expresses her disbelief at Luzhin’s accusations, and this offends Luzhin. In anger, Luzhin manages to offend everyone when he suggests that he did a good thing by agreeing to marry Dunya in spite of her damaged reputation over the allegations at Svridigailov’s place.
A deeply offended and shocked Sonya orders him away from the house to the delight of all. Luzhin leaves with a deep hatred for Raskolnikov, whom he blames for Dunya’s loss, although he never completely abandons hope of mending issues with her. Dunya then consents to Razumikhin’s plan for them both to enter the publishing business, but the joyful mood is dampened when Raskolnikov abruptly announces his plan to separate from his family for a long time. This dismays his family and when Razumikhin angrily confronts Raskolnikov, he is met with a cold look from the former that convinces Razumikhin of Raskolnikov’s guilt in the murder case.
Razumikhin rushes afterward to reassure Dunya and Pulcharia of his devotion to them and pledges to take care of them, while Raskolnikov heads to Sonya’s place to discuss with her. They have a heartfelt discussion and Raskolnikov notes that he and Sonya are both outcasts in society with Raskolnikov selling his soul, and Sonya, her body by virtue of being a prostitute. Raskolnikov learns that Sonya had been a friend of the sister of the pawnbroker whom Raskolnikov had murdered. He then makes her read to him a passage of the Bible about the resurrection of Lazarus, and afterward promises to tell Sonya who killed Lizaveta. We learn that Svridrigailov had overheard the entire conversation from the next room.
On the pretext of handing in a formal request for the possession of his valuables, Raskolnikov visits Porfiry, and they have another conversation. Raskolnikov again begins to feel that Porfiry was trying to lead him into a trap with his questioning and was about to give in to the pressure when another man who was being suspected of the murder, Nikolai, suddenly turns up and confesses to the murder. Although not entirely convinced that Nikolai and not Raskolnikov was the murderer, Porfiry nevertheless allows Raskolnikov to go. Raskolnikov’s day seemed to get better when the strange man who had earlier called him a murderer in the streets apologized to him.
The fifth part of the book opens at the residence of Luzhin and his idealistic roommate Lebezyatnikov. Luzhin is still smarting from his humiliation by Raskolnikov and his loss of Dunya. He attempts to achieve revenge against Raskolnikov and endear himself to Dunya once more in one stroke by framing Dunya as a person of unscrupulous character and by extension, revealing his initial assessment of Dunya’s character to be accurate at the expense of Raskolnikov’s. He invites Dunya to his room and, under the pretext of gifting her 10 roubles, slips a further 100 roubles undetected into her pocket. Dunya then leaves for Marmeladov’s memorial service, which Raskolnikov and several guests-mostly neighbors of Katerina-attend.
The affair becomes acrimonious and chaotic after Katerina’s acerbic remarks at the landlady cause a quarrel. Luzhin however, arrives to inadvertently put an end to a brewing fight. However, he immediately accuses Dunya of the theft of his 100 roubles, and when in vigorous efforts to prove her daughter’s innocence, Katerina herself searches pockets and discovers the money, it seemed Luzhin’s plan might work. However, at this point, Lebezyatnikov, who had found his way to the memorial after Luzhin, comes forth to reveal that it was Luzhin who planted the money himself. Raskolnikov was also on hand to further exonerate Sonya by divulging Luzhin’s intention of getting back at him by disparaging Sonya.
Seemingly failing at his objective, Luzhin flees the place, but not before someone hurls a bottle at him that missed and instead hit the landlady. Blaming her for everything, the landlady immediately orders Katerina out of her house. Sonya is however overwhelmed and hurriedly leaves for home, but is followed by Raskolnikov, who contemplates confessing his crimes to her now. At Sonya’s home, Raskolnikov finally confesses to the crime by dropping hints that Sonya understands, to her horror. Raskolnikov fails to justify the crime to both Sonya and himself but extracts assurances from Sonya that she would not abandon him, although she urges him to confess to his crimes publicly and accept his suffering as penance. Raskolnikov however is suddenly repulsed by these ideas and at Sonya as a whole.
Information comes out that Katerina who had been turned out by the landlady had gone mad at this point and was forcing her children to beg in the streets. Sonya immediately rushes to her and Raskolnikov goes home to find his sister Dunya who assures him of her loyalty, believing him to be innocent of the murder of Alyona and Lizaveta and of being the subject of undue and unjust suspicion. She believed that this was what was making Raskolnikov act strange towards the family.
Raskolnikov however is unable to reveal the truth to her and when he wanders on the street shortly after meeting Dunya, he chances on the now mad Katerina and the kids begging on the streets. When she injures herself after falling, Katerina is rushed to Sonia’s home, where she dies. Svidrigailov offers to use the 10k roubles he had planned to give Dunya to Sonya to use to take care of the children and herself, but hints to Raskolnikov that he had overheard his confession to Sonya.
Raskolnikov is reprimanded by Razumikhin later on for abandoning his family, but Raskolnikov succeeds in entrusting the responsibility of caring for his family to Razumikhin. From Razumikhin, Raskolnikov learns that Porfiry did not believe Nikolai was the murderer of the old pawnbroker.
Porfiry would visit later to declare his absolute conviction that Raskolnikov was the murderer and to urge him to confess before Porfiry himself would come to arrest him, as he had found material evidence of Raskolnikov’s guilt. He maintains that while Raskolnikov was great and with noble potential, his ideas however were defective. After Porfiry goes away, Raskolnikov hurries to see Svidrigailov, who had earlier hinted that he knew about Raskolnikov’s crime. Raskolnikov warns him against any designs on Dunya, threatening to kill him if he does anything.
In a typical fashion, Svidrigailov disgusts Raskolnikov with his indecent tales of sexual philandering, annoying Raskolnikov more with an unhindered and loose declaration of his fantasies for Dunya. Raskolnikov leaves in disgust, and so is not around when Dunya comes to see Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov had earlier enticed Dunya into the visit by sending her a letter informing her of some important information about Raskolnikov he wanted to discuss with her.
He tells her of Raskolnikov’s murder, attributing his motives to some new theories Raskolnikov had and offering advice on a path to escape for Raskolnikov. However, it turns out that Svidrigailov’s true intention was to seduce Dunya and when she rebuffs him, he moves to forcefully obtain sexual gratification but is stopped when Dunya shoots at him twice from a gun she had come with. Although both shots miss Svidrigailov, he is shaken by Dunya’s rejection and allows her to leave. He then proceeds to put his affairs in order by redeeming his pledges to Sonya and Katerina’s children as well as to his 15-year-old fiancee, before proceeding to kill himself.
Around the same time as this is happening, Raskolnikov goes to meet his mother and while there declares his love for her and requests that she prays for him. She in turn reveals she’d read his article and was convinced he was destined for greatness. When Raskolnikov goes home, he finds Dunya there, and she lets him know that she was aware that he killed Alyona and Lizaveta and that she expected him to willingly confess and accept his suffering as penance for his wrongdoing. Although Raskolnikov admits that he needs to confess, he still sees nothing wrong with his ideas, maintaining that his only crime was a failure to overcome his conscience.
He then goes to Sonya to inform her of his decision to confess, and while there he takes a wooden cross from her. When he kisses the floor at the hay market as a sign of penance, he is mocked by passers-by and is embarrassed and disheartened, but forges on when he notices Sonya at a distance watching him. When he gets to the police station to confess, he learns that Svidrigailov had committed suicide and was about to leave the police station once more, thinking himself off the hook with this new information, when once again he sees Sonya watching him. He goes back into the station and this time confesses to the murder.
The book then concludes with an epilogue that takes place in a prison in Siberia, eighteen months after the day of the murder and nine months after Rodion Raskolnikov had been confined in the prison. Raskolnikov had received a lighter than usual sentence of just 8 years because of the circumstances of his confession-having confessed even though another had confessed to the murder-, as well as numerous witnesses testifying to his numerous acts of charity, mental instability as well as the fact that he had not spent any of the money. We learn that Dunya and Razumikhin are married and that Sonya had moved to Siberia to be close to Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov gradually moves from being sullen and distant as well as being antagonistic to Sonya to eventually realize the error of his theories and appreciating Sonya’s importance to his life.
What is the central idea in ‘Crime and Punishment’
At its core, ‘Crime and Punishment’ is about the dangers of nihilism in Russian society. Raskolnikov’s confidence, arrogance, and eventual downfall serve as a cautionary tale for those who advance dangerous ideologies
Is ‘Crime and Punishment‘ an easy read?
‘Crime and Punishment’ is easily digestible. Dostoevsky employs simple, uncomplicated sentences and narration and dialogue rooted in realistic, everyday experiences.
Why is it important to read ‘Crime and Punishment’
‘Crime and Punishment‘ is worth reading because of its great, almost prophetic insight into the impact of nihilistic ideas on society. Aside from this, it is a pioneering work of realistic fiction and contains profound psychological and sociological insight.