‘Crime and Punishment’ contains numerous themes, reflecting Dostoevsky’s preoccupation with and response to the flurry of ideologies coming into Russia from Western Europe. Asides from complex ideological issues like nihilism and utilitarianism, everyday relatable issues that occupied Dostoevsky like poverty, suffering, and societal alienation are also addressed within the work.
The Dangerous Effects of Nihilism
One of the key themes of ‘Crime and Punishment’ is the effect of harmful ideologies. The problem here is not simply that an individual comes to wholly believe in a dangerous idea and so carries it out, it is also about the parasitic effects of these dangerous ideas as they slowly corrupt our minds and subtly strip us of control and autonomy, pulling us towards the actualization of its destiny even when our hold of and understandings of these ideas are incomplete and tenuous.
Before Raskolnikov decided to kill the old pawnbroker whom he had deemed expendable on the basis of her wickedness and nastiness, Raskolnikov had written an article where he argued for the right of a certain class of special, superior men to raise themselves above conventional morality and commit crimes in service of aims they deem noble.
For Raskolnikov, this means an ascendancy to a Napoleon-like personality who has earned the right to kill and commit all sorts of crimes in service of greatness. This extraordinary person is marked by his capacity to commit this crime and profit off it, feeling neither remorse nor weakness in a manner that would undermine the validity of his ideas, or his greatness.
The more Raskolnikov became possessed by the truth of this idea, the more he wished to be an extraordinary man, to prove he has the capacity to transcend conventional morality in order to do what Raskolnikov deemed noble. Gradually this small theory assumes the nature of an obsession with proving his strength, and that culminated in the murder of the old pawnbroker. It resisted Raskolnikov’s erstwhile moral conscience.
Even when Raskolnikov gets disgusted at the idea of killing the old woman and feels free from the thoughts, he loses control when he overhears at the Hay market that a prime opportunity for the murder was going to present itself soon with the availability of Alyona alone at the house without her sister,
Raskolnikov finds himself without any control and is thrust into an autopilot program, driving him to test his theory and prove himself extraordinary. The idea took on a life of its own in Raskolnikov’s head and convinced him of its own validity. But when Raskolnikov tries to justify his murder in terms of it being in service to humanity, he finds that he cannot sincerely explain his motivation that way. He discovered that none of the motivations he put forward in his conversation with Sonia inspired him as much as the simple, selfish desire to prove he was “extraordinary”.
A much less pronounced, but definitely evident, theme in the book is that of Egoism. This is an idea espoused to different degrees by a number of characters in the book-namely the likes of Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov, and Luzhin. It can express itself in a direct, undisguised form in service of evil aims, as we see in Svidrigailov’s behaviors.
Svidrigailov lives for his pleasures and base desires and is not embarrassed by them. He speaks freely to Raskolnikov about desiring and relishing the effort to get these desires. He lives entirely for his own pleasures and is not concerned about others until the very end. Furthermore, he is ruthless in the pursuit of his own gratification and does not consider a grander, nobler aim, nor pretends to consider it in any way.
Raskolnikov is also similar but up until his real motivation is unraveled and understood, he masks this with a pretense of employing his capacity and actions for a larger good. He convinces himself that he was only killing the old pawnbroker because she was a net negative to humanity and her death would benefit many in terms of redistributing her wealth to the poor and preventing her from being wicked to the vulnerable under her.
It was not until Raskolnikov was forced to examine his motivations for the murder that he realizes that his main aim for committing the murder wasn’t humanistic altruism but rather a naked, selfish pursuit of power, just the same way Svidrigailov was pursuing pleasures. Luzhin similarly masks his egoism under a front of benevolence. In his first encounter with Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, he argues that private charity was in the end counterproductive to the poor and that there would be a net good to society if those who are privileged focused on themselves and refrain from giving handouts to the poor. This argument is obviously only an excuse to legitimize his miserliness.
The competing forces of natural good and learned evil
In ‘Crime and Punishment‘, Raskolnikov seems to struggle with the moral demands of his conscience and that of his adopted nihilistic and rational egoistic philosophical outlook. Possibly resulting from his Christian background or a naturally altruistic and humanistic disposition, Raskolnikov seemed to have a basic constitution that has molded a conscience that inspires him to do good. We see this sentiment in his acts of charity towards the Marmeladovs as well as towards the young girl he saves from the lecherous individual stalking her on the streets.
However, Raskolnikov has also been exposed to and adopted new dangerous ideas which emphasized a cold utilitarian outlook towards life in service of one’s self-interest. The philosophy of the extraordinary emphasizes his elevation over the troubles of the common people. It encourages a cold, statistical approach to life that sees the common people not as individuals but as numbers.
So just after he rescues the young drunken girl from her stalker, he immediately regrets the action because there were bound to be people like her all the time who will make up the number of people who would be vulnerable to predators, who are condemned to a life of prostitution, diseases, and vulnerability. It was a mathematical and sociological certainty, so why bother trying to interfere?
Also, when he gives Sonia money after he was dragged to the home of the Marmeladovs, he regrets doing so almost immediately for the same purpose. For large stretches of the book, Raskolnikov struggles between these two competing aspects of his personality.
The theme of Alienation is a prominent one in ‘Crime and Punishment‘. Raskolnikov’s alienation from society as a result of his haughty ideals, as well as his overpowering guilt as a result of his murders, is one of the plot points that move the book. Raskolnikov’s ideas separate him from most of the rest of humanity in theory and principle. His conviction that society is divided between a few superior men and a mass of inferior men sets him on a proud and arrogant path that alienates him from most people whom he views as inferior.
Although poor and near destitute, Raskolnikov still manages to feel disgusted at the surrounding poverty in his area of St Petersburg. After committing the murders, he is overpowered with guilt and a strong sense that he did not belong with society and with the pure people around him, who are far removed from his destructive and tortured state of mind. His guilt makes him believe he cannot bear to continue to interact and coexist normally with his family and friends, who are good people.
The theme of helplessness is also featured in ‘Crime and Punishment‘. Raskolnikov is a very poor student who is dependent on sacrifices from his mother and sister to be able to sustain himself. Given that his family has high hopes for him and views him as a potential breadwinner, Raskolnikov finds himself under great pressure.
His poverty strips him of any capacity whatsoever to help his family and realize the expectation placed on him. Worse of all, he could do extremely little to prevent his family from enduring humiliating circumstances like Dunya’s employment at Svidrigailov’s and the prospect of a less than happy marriage with an unsavory character, like Luzhin.
This sense of hopelessness contributes to driving Raskolnikov towards the robbery and murders. Other characters in the novel also find themselves in helpless situations. Marmeledov cannot conquer his addiction and bring himself to stop drinking away the little money the family is able to procure, largely out of Sonia’s prostitution. Sonia herself is helpless against the forces that drove her into a life of prostitution against her will.
Punishment and Suffering
The theme of suffering and punishment is predominant in the book. The book seems to advance the idea that only commensurate punishment and suffering can put the condemned and guilty on the path to redemption. Repentance is not enough and must be backed by a genuine willingness to pay for one’s sins. After Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker, his punishment begins almost immediately after. He suffers from crushing guilt, illness, and self-loathing. He cannot master his conscience, and in the end, he succumbs to it.
His guilt and the triumph of his conscience mean he cannot get away with his crime. He betrays himself and therefore leads himself to be suspected by the authorities. This punishment however can only be expatiated by further punishment. Raskolnikov can only get reprieve and redemption if he confesses publicly to the police and suffers the embarrassment of being thought a fool with crazy ideas and a weak constitution, as well as suffer the disappointment of his family and friends, as well as the loss of his freedom.
Analysis of Key Moments
- Raskolnikov witnesses a young student argue with an army officer over the morality of killing the old, detestable pawnbroker, Alyona.
- Raskolnikov has a dream where he tries to prevent some peasants from heartlessly maltreating a mare
- Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother outlining the interesting events happening at home with his family
- Raskolnikov kills Alyona the pawnbroker and her sister Lizaveta.
- The police begin to suspect Raskolnikov due to his strange behavior at the station after his landlady reports him over unpaid rent.
- Luzhin makes the unfavorable acquaintance of Raskolnikov.
- Dunya and Pulcharia arrive in Saint Petersburg. They are shocked at Raskolnikov’s cold and erratic behavior.
- Dunya breaks off the engagement with Luzhin; A spiteful Luzhin blames Raskolnikov and plans his revenge.
- Svidrigailov tries and fails to rape Dunya
- Porfiry encourages Raskolnikov to confess and accept his suffering in a heart-to-heart talk.
- Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonia, then the Police.
- Raskolnikov repents for real in a Siberian prison and acknowledges the defectiveness of his ideas.
Tone and Style
‘Crime and Punishment’ is a forerunner of the realistic style that would come to replace the romanticism that was dominant in Western literature at the time. Dostoevsky’s novel is a classic detective story, but the norms of the genre are subverted when we see the killer commit the crime in the first few pages. There is no mystery as regards who committed the crime or the surface level motivations behind it, rather the novel immediately devotes itself to the consequences of the crime on the individual in a psychological, ideological, and spiritual sense.
Dostoevsky employs realistic descriptions to bring into sharp relief the starkness of Raskolnikov’s poverty, and his very deliberate world-building and scene-setting allow us to glimpse some motivation behind his crime through the skillful use of strong opinionated characters and interesting, realistic dialogues.
Dostoevsky brings forth the opposing arguments he wants to comment on and allows them to fight as fairly as possible in the world in which he has set them out. Dostoevsky lends little outright authorial or editorial presence in the book, as the omniscient narrator stays mostly objective. But Dostoevsky advances his ideas through the mouths of certain characters. Through dreams, Dostoevsky provides clues as to the psychological makeup of the characters, as well as the principal motivations for their actions.
Analysis of Symbols
The Hay Market
A section of St. Petersburg that is reserved for the very poor. This area is the symbol of poverty, and of the common destitute that Raskolnikov feels himself above. There is a distinct sense of filth and wretchedness that Raskolnikov comes to be all too aware of when he passes by. By making Raskolnikov come here to confess, Sonia makes sure Raskolnikov gets the fullest possible punishment for his murders. This is because the hay market is populated by a mass of people whom Raskolnikov despises and thinks are inferior to himself. Confessing here accentuates his humiliation but at the same time fast tracks his redemption.
The cross is a symbol of wilful suffering in service of pious and redemptive aims. Raskolnikov goes to take Sonia’s cross only when he is ready to confess publicly for his sins.
The city of Saint Petersburg was often seen as the most Westernized Russian city, therefore for Slavophiles, or people with slavophilic sentiments in post-Petrine Russia, Saint Petersburg was the most corrupt of Western cities, the city that has strayed farthest from traditional Russian values. The city is depicted this way in ‘Crime and Punishment‘. Raskolnikov’s descent into the dark extremities of radical ideals begins only after he abandons the conservative society of rural Russia for corrupting Saint Petersburg. The city disgusts Raskolnikov, too, with its stench of filth and poverty and cynical residents. It is infested by “foolish” ideologues, too.
What are the major themes in ‘Crime and Punishment?’
‘Crime and Punishment‘ contain themes like helplessness, poverty, nihilism, suffering, and alienation, among others.
What did Dostoevsky set out to achieve in ‘Crime and Punishment?’
Dostoevsky’s major objective is to display the folly and dangers inherent in radical ideals like utilitarianism, atheism, and nihilism
What literary style did Dostoevsky employ in ‘Crime and Punishment?’
Realism. Dostoevsky wrote in a very realistic style, favoring an accurate mimicking of reality over romanticism.