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Nihilism in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Michel Martin del Campo, Kerry Gray
  • Author
    Michel Martin del Campo

    Michel has taught college composition and literature for over16 years. He has a BA from DePauw University and a Master's degree from Texas A&M International University. He has worked as an educator, speechywriter, ghostwriter, and freelancer.

  • Instructor
    Kerry Gray

    Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Learn about nihilism in Crime and Punishment. Discover this philosophy's role in the novel by analyzing its connections to themes of family, materialism, and ethics. Updated: 08/22/2022

Table of Contents


Crime and Punishment Plot and Background Information

Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the last two hundred years. The plot follows Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov is a former law student in 1860s St. Petersburg who decides to murder a pawnbroker and use her money to start a new life for himself. Despite being intelligent and handsome, Raskolnikov is living in abject poverty, dressing in rags and barely able to afford food. He excuses his planned crime by initially convincing himself that ''extraordinary'' men must sometimes cross legal and moral boundaries in order to achieve their goals.

To explore the novel's major theme of nihilism, Dostoevsky uses Raskolnikov to explore the psychology of crime, its psychological effects, and whether Raskolnikov really believes his own justifications or whether they are born of desperation and alienation.

In his personal letters, Dostoevsky wrote about the dangers of nihilism and how he had to rewrite certain sections of the novel to better portray the intended message. This critique of utilitarianism continues from his earlier work, Notes from the Underground.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of Crime and Punishment.

Painting of Fyodor Dostoyevsky created before 1881.

Nihilism in Crime and Punishment

Nihilism is the idea that morality and values are meaningless, as nothing can be known with full certainty. The philosophy is closely associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher who argued that nihilism could lead to the collapse of all moral and metaphysical restraints. Nihilism is often tied together with utilitarianism, the belief that actions can be judged by how much happiness they bring to the greatest number of people.

Nihilism in Crime and Punishment is used to justify the murder of Alyona the pawnbroker. In Rodion Romanovich's mind, he is one of the great men in the world, only held back by poverty, and improving his situation is, thus, the logical thing to do. He also expresses a lack of belief in any sort of afterlife when Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, his sister's former employer, talks with him about seeing his wife's ghost, showing that Raskolnikov believes in strict materialism.

Analyzing Nihilism in Crime and Punishment

The novel condemns the concept of nihilism as a destructive force, which usurps institutions and leads to heinous acts.


A nihilist, by believing that laws and morals are useless, is also a person who would place the ultimate importance of life on material things. To this person, family, religion, and laws would have no purpose. This would make them a materialist, someone who believes the only things which have any value are those which are physical.

Raskolnikov embodies the philosophies of both nihilism and materialism, the latter of which being the philosophy that only the physical exists. His initial plan involves getting money from someone who is swindling the community and is not well-liked. In strict utilitarian terms, Alyona the pawnbroker's death would indeed benefit more people than her being alive.


Raskolnikov has a complex relationship with his family. While he has gone three years without seeing his family, he is also angered at the fact that his sister Dunya must marry Luzhin in order to help the family financially. He prioritizes the murder and theft over seeing them, committing his crime to help himself only. When Dunya and his mother arrive in St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov is angry that they keep sacrificing to benefit him: he would rather they focus on their own lives.

Raskolnikov's attempts to shrug off his family stand, in some ways, in stark contrast to the prostitute Sonya. She becomes involved in sex work in order to help her family in desperate times.

However, when he finally realizes his mistake at the end of the novel, he finally admits how much his family does mean to him; he imparts this when he tells his mother, ''I have come to tell you that though you will be unhappy, you must believe that your son loves you now more than himself, and that everything you thought about me, that I was cruel and didn't care about you, was all a mistake.'' He gains enough insight to realize the murders and his treatment of his family were wrong.


Raskolnikov's strongest trait throughout most of the novel is his belief that he is one of the great men in history, like Napoleon. His nihilism translates into a disregard for laws, though he still understands that he will suffer consequences if he breaks them. His crimes are both self-centered and atrocious.

After murdering Alyona, he robs her and steals a coin purse, then flippantly tosses the two crosses she had hanging on the purse strings over the body. This is another example of nihilism, as even a non-believer would view the act as insulting and in extremely poor taste. This is in line with how he treats others, often dismissing them for not being on his own level.

Trying to find more money in her bedroom, he hears someone walk in and finds Alyona's sister, Lizaveta, has returned to the apartment and found her dead sister. Without hesitating, ''axe fell with the sharp edge just on the skull and split at one blow all the top of the head. She fell heavily at once. Raskolnikov completely lost his head, snatching up her bundle, dropped it again and ran into the entry.''

After killing both sisters, however, Raskolnikov experiences a series of panic attacks and crazed episodes as he struggles with his crimes and what they mean. Though he begins the novel sure of himself and certain he is one of the great men who can change the world, he cannot grapple with the guilt of the murders. Dostoevsky juxtaposes this with Dunya, who also tries to sacrifice herself for material gain but takes a cold and rational approach: marrying the well-off Luzhin. She understands her own limitations and what she must do to survive and accepts that reality, saying, ''I'm marrying Peter Petrovich because I have decided to choose the lesser of two evils. I intend to do everything he asks me to do honestly, so I'm not deceiving him.''

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Frequently Asked Questions

Did Dostoevsky believe in nihilism?

Dostoevsky did not believe in nihilism. Crime and Punishment is designed to show the danger of such a philosophy, since Raskolnikov hurts others, including his own family, due to his belief in nihilism.

What is the concept of nihilism?

Nihilism posits that nothing matters. There is no grand plan and all values and morality are baseless. A nihilist would place the greatest value on physical reality and would therefore likely also subscribe to materialism.

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