Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Robin Small

Robin has a BA/MAT in English Ed, and teaches 6th grade English and Writing Lab.

Crime and Punishment is the best known work of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Read a summary of this famous novel, and analyze what this story meant to readers in Dostoevsky's time as well as what it means to us today.

Dostoevsky Delves into the Human Psyche


As is common in many of these classic Russian novels, the list of characters in Crime and Punishment is lengthy, full of names English speakers may find difficult to recall. Added to this, there are Russian nicknames: the main character Rodian Romanovitch Raskolnikov is called Rodya, Rodenka, and Rodka. Sorting out who is who in Dostoevsky's work pays off. Through their thoughts, dialogue, and interactions with each other, the characters inhabiting 'Crime and Punishment' offer deep questions and fascinating insights about how the human mind works. Rodya, a student with some half-formed philosophies about morality, is the most complex of all. If you follow him on the journey through this novel as he imagines his crime, commits it, and bears the consequences, you can be certain, it is a trip you will never forget.

Rodya's Dilemmas

Rodya is in debt to his landlady and facing eviction. He has been selling possessions to a predatory pawnbroker, an old, cruel, greedy woman by the name of Alyona Ivanovna. When we first meet him, he is agonizing over the idea of a crime against her. He tells himself the world would be better off without her. If he killed her and took the money, he would do good things with it. Rodya, in some sense, justifies his plan, so that the reader may begin to agree with him.

Before he goes any further into planning or executing his crime, Rodya meets a drunk in a tavern, Marmeladov. This man has given up fighting against poverty and is drinking himself to death. Rodya learns Marmeladov's daughter Sonya became a prostitute to feed the family while Marmeladov is occupied with his drinking. Rodya is disgusted and filled with pity for the daughter, and he brings the drunk home and leaves all the money he has with him on their windowsill.

Rodya and Marmeladov

Soon things get even worse for our main character. He receives a letter from his mother explaining how his sister's reputation has been ruined by her married employer, who pursued her. Rodya's sister Dounia refused the man, but she lost her job and her spotless reputation. The letter assures Rodya that a man named Luzhin has offered to marry her, and that Luzhin and Dounia will be in town shortly. Rodya is angry and tortured by his inability to help Dounia or support their mother, and his poverty weighs even heavier on his mind.

Crime and Consequences

Rodya has been planning out his crime and has convinced himself that it is a blameless act. Still, when he goes to the pawnbroker's apartment to murder her, his mind reels and whirls, and he is upset and frantic. This causes a delay in his carefully planned timeline, so after he kills Alyona with the blunt side of an ax, her sister Lizaveta returns, and he is forced to kill her too, splitting her skull with the sharp end. He leaves with just a few items, wanders back to his room, and falls asleep.

He wakes up to a police summons. His initial interview at the station is brief and goes well. Then he hears people talking about the murder and passes out. He fantasizes about turning himself in, falls in and out of consciousness and fever. He alternates between completely forgetting the murder and thoughts of suicide. He discovers that the police will be investigating everyone who owed debts to Alyona, and Rodya finally leaves his room, determined to not be arrested.

Suspicion and Bonding

Marmeladov, the drunk from the tavern, appears again, run over in the street, drunk, and dying. Rodya takes him back to his family, including Sonia the prostitute, and gives her mother 20 roubles. Later, Rodya blocks the marriage between his sister Dounia and Luzhin. His college friend, Razmukin, has developed feelings for Dounia, and he supports this. Meanwhile, Rodya decides to go see Porfiry, the detective in charge of the murder investigation, to ask for his pawned goods back.

Porfiry suspects Rodya, and he brings up an article Rodya published about crime, referencing Rodya's idea that ordinary men must obey the law, but extraordinary men have a right and even a responsibility to break it, especially when breaking it serves a higher ideal. Porfiry is sure he's the murderer.

Dounia realizes Luzhin's true character, and she dismisses him. Through a series of meetings, Sonya and Rodya bond, and he tells her that he is the murderer. She insists he confess to the police but promises she will follow him to Siberia. He resists and leaves.

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