Themes in Crime and Punishment
Crime, Morality, and Redemption: The crime Raskolnikov commits and the ramifications it has on his soul and community serve as the primary theme explored throughout the novel. It is revealed that Raskolnikov wrote a paper claiming how “extraordinary” people may operate outside the confines of morality in order to achieve greatness. At first glance, Raskolnikov’s murdering the pawnbroker represents an attempt to test this theory and better society by removing a corrupt, greedy element. However, the remainder of the novel concerns philosophical and spiritual discussions on the possibility of moral rehabilitation in a world of crime and temptation.
Sanity and Mental Collapse: Many characters in the Haymarket struggle with basic survival—both physical and mental. Several, such as Sonya’s father, Marmeladov, seek solace through alcohol abuse, which leads to the poverty and his eventual death that drives his wife, Katerina, to madness. Others, like Raskolnikov, nurture an obsession that threatens to destroy their connection to reality. Finally, fear plays a strong role in the emotional health of the characters, seen most poignantly in the deterioration of Raskolnikov’s mental state after the murder.
Coincidence, Fate, and Free Will: Raskolnikov himself remarks on the series of coincidences that lead him to the pawnbroker’s room, which in turn lead him to question whether or not he actually had any choice but to kill the pawnbroker and her sister. Nearly all the characters in the novel have their own encounters with coincidence, with some ascribing it to the will of Fate or God and others attributing it to the power of their own choices. Dostoevsky explores this theme through how his main character perceives events: Raskolnikov identifies coincidences and then draws conclusions and meaning from them. However, Dostoevsky also uses the novel itself to explore coincidence and free will by never providing a simple rationale for Raskolnikov’s crime: the novel represents the chaos and unpredictability of life, serving as an exercise in the author’s freedom to organize events.
Love and Family: Families by birth and marriage are central to the novel. While Raskolnikov has a difficult relationship with his mother and sister, he recognizes the sacrifices they’ve made for his own well-being. This causes him to distance himself from their charity, but he continues to protect them—and his sister, Dunya, in particular—from others, such as Luzhin’s desire to marry Dunya, and Svidrigailov’s lecherous wishes. Raskolnikov’s fraught family relationships stand in contrast to others, like Razumihin and Sonya, who are completely devoted to their families and those they love.
Themes Examples in Crime and Punishment:
Part I - Chapter II
"Lord, Thy kingdom come!..." See in text (Part I - Chapter II)
Marmeladov holds out hope that even his sins and his self-proclaimed wretchedness will not keep him from ultimate forgiveness after death and that everyone will be redeemed on the day of judgment. This notion of redemption is one of the main themes in Dostoevsky's novel and is further explored throughout.
"And he will forgive my Sonia,..." See in text (Part I - Chapter II)
Marmelodov easily acknowledges his own transgressions and fault, but he practically begs for Sonia's sins to be forgiven in this passage. He firmly believes that her own sins are very forgivable because they are motivated by love for her father and family. Dostoevsky explores the issues of sin, forgiveness, and redemption throughout the novel, and many different characters have their own beliefs on these matters.
"And this is a consolation to me!..." See in text (Part I - Chapter II)
Marmeladov deals with his guilt by gladly being harmed by his wife because he claims that it eases the burden on him. The different ways guilt affects the human experience is explored in this novel as one of the main themes Dostoevsky incorporates into Crime and Punishment.
"only her little shoulders and her body kept shuddering..." See in text (Part I - Chapter II)
By prostituting herself at the behest of her mother-in-law and for the sake of her family, Sonia sacrifices her own body and innocence for others. This initial selfless act is a defining moment for her character, her role in the story, and introduces the theme of sacrifice into the narrative.
"Sofya Semyonovna has been forced to take a yellow ticket..." See in text (Part I - Chapter II)
Marmeladov's daughter, Sofya (Sonia) Semyonovna no longer lives with the rest of the family since the landlady, Leppeveschel, evicted her upon learning the girl had resorted to prostitution. Sonia did this in part due to the advice of Marmeladov's second wife, Katerina Ivanovna, and Sonia continues to sacrifice her own body for the sake of Marmeladov's family. We soon learn that Sonia now rents a room from a man named Kapernaumov.
Part I - Chapter III
"and believe in the mercy of our Creator and our Redeemer?..." See in text (Part I - Chapter III)
Pulcheria clearly raised her son as a Russian Orthodox Christian, so he is likely very familiar with the rules of the church and the promise of redemption that the faith offers. Notice how his relationship to God, the church, and the theme of redemption continue to develop throughout the novel.
"HE WAKED UP LATE next day after a broken sleep...." See in text (Part I - Chapter III)
While we have yet to encounter the reason for it, guilt becomes the most important theme in the novel. Notice how sleep, particularly Raskolnikov's lack of sleep, is used by Dostoevsky to show the impact of guilt on the human conscience.
Part I - Chapter IV
"and begin life anew…..." See in text (Part I - Chapter IV)
This longing Raskolnikov feels after having had such dramatic emotional shifts represents his desire to somehow make life better for himself. Notice how his attempts to do this are misguided and how he ultimately seeks renewal and redemption--major themes that Dostoevsky explores in the novel.
"future millionaire Zeus..." See in text (Part I - Chapter IV)
Raskonikov emphasizes his inability to help his family with their financial burdens by denying that he could "save them" from Zeus, the supreme god of Greek religion and mythology, who is used as a stand in for Fate, God, or anything that has already decide the fate of his family. The theme of fate and chance in the novel surround Raskolnikov's actions and discussions of crime later in the book.
"Sonia's fate..." See in text (Part I - Chapter IV)
Raskolnikov equates his sister's actions with Sonia's decision to become a prostitute in order to help her family. However, he continues this line of thought to reveal that at least he consider's Sonia's actions as more necessary and somewhat acceptable than his sister's. An important take away from this monologue, aside from how dangerously quickly Raskolnikov's mind changes on the matter, is that he appears to not understand their self-sacrifices and the rational behind them.
"concubine..." See in text (Part I - Chapter IV)
A concubine is a woman who lives with a man without being married to him and usually maintains a lower status as a mistress. Raskolnikov states this because he sees their marriage as a poorly thought out transaction that he believes his sister would never make for her own sake, but that she would gladly sacrifice herself for the sake of her family.
"at sacrificing her daughter to her son..." See in text (Part I - Chapter IV)
Raskolnikov concludes that his sister's planning to marry Luzhin for the benefit of the family is a sacrificial act. Note the Christian reference above when he compares what Dounia is doing Jesus Christ bearing the cross for mankind: "Bitter is the ascent to Golgotha." This adds to the theme of sacrifice and self-suffering prevalent in the novel, much like how Sonia sacrificed her own life to become a prostitute to help her family's financial problems.
Part I - Chapter V
"As though it had been lying in wait for him on purpose!..." See in text (Part I - Chapter V)
By "Later on..." at the start of this paragraph, Dostoevsky relates the thoughts that Raskolnikov has much later in his life regarding this moment in time. He realizes that there was no reason for him to go home through the Hay Market, and he somewhat attributes this choice to it being predestined for him. This creates a sense of foreboding, as if the crime he intends to commit is outside of his control.
"“Lord,” he prayed..." See in text (Part I - Chapter V)
Having told himself that he can't possibly carry out the crime, Raskolnikov desperately prays to God to save him from these murderous thoughts. Afterward, feels as though he is free of his burden, but this brief feeling of redemption quickly dissipates later in the day.
"He went in like a man condemned to death...." See in text (Part I - Chapter V)
After hearing the news that Lizaveta will not be home the following day at a specific time, Raskolnikov's feelings of peace and redemption leave him, and he enters his home "like a man condemned to death." This simile reveals his thoughts to us: Raskolnikov believes that fate has decided he will go through with the murder.
Part I - Chapter VI
"“When reason fails, the devil helps!”..." See in text (Part I - Chapter VI)
While Raskolnikov has subtly indicated that a kind of divine hand has guided him to this moment, he attributes this moment of good fortune to the work of the devil—which is more appropriate considering the sin he intends to commit. This incident serves to reinforce his belief that his actions are preordained by (un)holy powers.
"But Raskolnikov had become superstitious of late...." See in text (Part I - Chapter VI)
The chance encounter with Lizaveta in the Hay Market has made Raskolnikov think back on the series of strange events that have brought him to the bring of committing murder. In his mind, these moments all lead him down this path as if it was Fate or God's will that he carry out the deed. Additionally, the memories in this chapter serve to provide readers with Raskolnikov's rationale and justification for the coming murder.
Part I - Chapter VII
"But again the porter was not at home..." See in text (Part I - Chapter VII)
In a final act of fate or chance acting on Raskolnikov's behalf, he is able to return the axe and get to his room without encountering anyone on the way. In his weakened condition, he likely would have been unable to deal with speaking to anyone and could have given himself away had that happened.
"deliverance..." See in text (Part I - Chapter VII)
Another instance of how Raskolnikov believes Fate is helping him escape, he sees an open, empty flat to hide inside. The choice of words here, "deliverance," implies that he has been rescued by some higher power.
"The steps died away...." See in text (Part I - Chapter VII)
Notice how there are several points during Raskolnikov's escape where it appears as if Fate is helping him. He comes to believe this himself, and Koch's impatience at the door and his leaving allow Raskolnikov a chance opportunity to leave the apartment.
"She fell heavily at once...." See in text (Part I - Chapter VII)
Raskolnikov killed Alyona Ivanovna for a specific reason and believed that this act would be benefitial to the community. However, he kills Lizaveta, an innocent bystander, simply to accomplish his plan. This act heavily adds to and compounds the guilt that will soon start to eat away at him.
Part II - Chapter I
"He was flinging himself on his knees to pray..." See in text (Part II - Chapter I)
As he struggles with the guilt that is forming inside of him and the meaning of the police summons, Raskolnikov momentarily considers throwing himself on the ground to pray. While he doesn't do this, his original intention illustrates the internal struggle he is feeling between his desire to be extraordinary and above feelings of guilt and to seek divine redemption for his actions.
"Surely it isn't my punishment coming upon me?..." See in text (Part II - Chapter I)
Considering the title of the novel, this line is significant. Raskolnikov has just committed a crime that he believed would benefit him and others. However, despite his reasons for doing it, this line suggests that he feels that punishment for committing the crime was inevitable, and that he will pay for it in one way or another.
"He lost consciousness...." See in text (Part II - Chapter I)
After searching his belongings for blood and hiding the trinkets he stole, Raskolnikov suddenly becomes overwhelmed with exhaustion, unable to think clearly. He momentarily falls asleep here, but he then does it again shortly. These periods of sleep suggest that his guilty conscience has already started forming and taking hold of him.
Part II - Chapter II
"It seemed to him, he had cut himself off from everyone and from everything at that moment...." See in text (Part II - Chapter II)
The charity from the old woman reminds Raskolnikov that he is a part of humanity, and he somberly reflects on his past while standing over the Neva. He throws the last of his money into the river as a symbol of his rejection of materialism and as a sign that he rejects any offers of redemption, effectively cutting himself off from the rest of humanity.
"it's the same thing over again..." See in text (Part II - Chapter II)
Having unconsciously wandered to Razumihin's, Raskolnikov immediately believes that fate or destiny has once again guided his actions. Dostoevsky uses these moments of coincidence to advance the plot, which was an accepted literary convention of the period. He doesn't try to explain these coincidences and simply states them as matters of fact.
Part II - Chapter VII
"Pray sometimes for me, too...." See in text (Part II - Chapter VII)
His act of compassion towards the Marmeladov family has filled Raskolnikov with new energy and purpose. This dialogue with the young girl represents this change in his behavior and mental state, and asking her to pray for him signifies a willingness on his part to seek redemption for his own crimes.
"The service was over...." See in text (Part II - Chapter VII)
Marmeladov's death and the small ceremony with the priest serve as a pivotal moment in Raskolnikov's story. The symbolism of Marmeladov's blood alludes to the blood that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples as an act of communion. This moment with Marmeladov and his family is an opportunity for Raskolnikov to experience communion and seek forgiveness for his crimes and purpose for his life.
"A priest..." See in text (Part II - Chapter VII)
By calling for a priest instead of a doctor, Marmeladov vocalizes what everyone believes--that he is going to die. His reasons for having a priest likely include wanting to give a final confession and receive the proper kinds of funeral and burial rights. Marmeladov earlier professed his belief that redemption lies in death and acceptance into heaven for both him and his family.
Part III - Chapter I
"But I won't accept the sacrifice..." See in text (Part III - Chapter I)
In this line, one of the main themes of the novel is vocalized. Thus far, Sonia and Dounia have both made sacrifices for others, and in his sister's case, Raskolnikov does not want to be the reason for his sister to sacrifice her own happiness.
Part III - Chapter II
"thrice accursed yesterday...." See in text (Part III - Chapter II)
Similar to the "three fishes" statement at the end of the preceding chapter, Dostoevsky alludes to the Trinity---a religious symbol that groups God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit together. This allusion reinforces the underlying themes of Christian redemption in the novel.
Part III - Chapter V
"Lazarus’ rising from the dead..." See in text (Part III - Chapter V)
Porfiry refers to the biblical story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from death. Considering the themes of redemption and rebirth in the novel as they pertain to guilt, this question is less about Porfiry's curiosity and more about Raskolnikov's belief in the possibility of redemption.
"the soul is reactionary..." See in text (Part III - Chapter V)
Dostoevsky is saying, through Razumihin, that a person's soul is the exact opposite of what socialism declares it to be. Therefore, a human soul cannot co-exist within a socialist society. Socialism was on the rise in the 19th century, and this philosophical discussion not only comments on that trend, but it is a theme throughout many of Dostoevsky's works.
"It began with the socialist doctrine...." See in text (Part III - Chapter V)
Razumihin is stating that in socialism, the cause of a crime is only an individual's protesting against society. This theory removes the blame for the crime from the individual. The idea is in sharp contrast to Razkolnikov's internal guilt. The following conversation adds much to the theme of guilt in the story, and Porfiry uses it to his advantage to learn more about Raskolnikov.
Part III - Chapter VI
"He tried to scream and woke up...." See in text (Part III - Chapter VI)
This is the third symbolic dream that Raskolnikov has had in the story. Here, he tries to repeatedly kill the pawnbroker to prove that he is extraordinary. The laughter and her inability to die in the dream symbolically demonstrate his impotence and how the pawnbroker has become a kind of embodiment of his conscience. Additionally, the laughter shows how Raskolnikov's actions are connected to others--he does not exist in a moral vacuum--which further demonstrates how "ordinary" he is. He has become a prisoner of his own mind, unable to be freed from his guilt.
Part IV - Chapter IV
"I am the resurrection and the life..." See in text (Part IV - Chapter IV)
This is a very famous quote from the Bible in the book of John 11:25 that speaks about the redemption and resurrection for those who believe in Jesus Christ. For someone who has committed the crime of murder and considers his life potentially forfeit, Raskolnikov finds this message of resurrection and rebirth attractive.
"I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all the suffering of humanity..." See in text (Part IV - Chapter IV)
Raskolnikov's actions here directly relate to the themes of sacrifice and suffering in the novel. He declares that Sonia represents the suffering of all of mankind. His mean questions and statements were designed to see whether or not she truly was worthy of the praise he gave her when with Luzhin and his family. Raskolnikov is humbled before Sonia because she is able to remain so pure, despite her circumstances.
Part IV - Chapter V
"You don't believe me?”..." See in text (Part IV - Chapter V)
Declaring that criminals will be unable to ignore the "law of nature," Porfiry asserts his belief that humans are unable to ignore their guilt, strongly hinting that a criminal (i.e., Raskolnikov) will either go mad or confess. Through his butterfly analogy, Porfiry emphasizes his argument, saying that the two outcomes are inevitable and that guilt is a moral force that cannot be denied or ignored.
Part V - Chapter IV
"We will go to suffer together, and together we will bear our cross!..." See in text (Part V - Chapter IV)
Sonia's willingness to go with Raskolnikov demonstrates how she perceives the process of healing, forgiveness, and redemption: it is similar to resurrection, and it is symbolized by the cross. Sonia tells Raskolnikov to take her own cross, an offering that is both literal and figurative, so that he will be strong enough to confess his crime.
"what have you done to yourself?..." See in text (Part V - Chapter IV)
Sonia's immediate concern is for Raskolnikov's own personal well-being rather than his victims or others. This line speaks to the quality of her character, and how she portrays herself as more of a saint and plays an instrumental role in Raskolnikov's redemption.
Part VI - Chapter II
"It will be infinitely more to your advantage and to my advantage too, for my task will be done...." See in text (Part VI - Chapter II)
Readers might wonder why Porfiry says this. Recall that Porfiry prefers to have cases settled with direct evidence and confession, which would be accomplished should Raskolnikov take Porfiry's suggestion. Additionally, should Raskolnikov confess, this would likely result in a lighter prison sentence for him. Porfiry appears to be honest when he says that he does like Raskolnikov, and he appears to want to help rehabilitate Raskolnikov through the criminal justice system.
Part VI - Chapter III
"Because it may be only chance...." See in text (Part VI - Chapter III)
Dostoevsky has provided moments in the story that support the idea of fate or chance as having a guiding hand in Raskolnikov's actions. The choice of words here by Svidrigaïlov to call their meeting a "miracle" (a very positive choice) and for Raskolnikov to dismiss it as "chance" (far less positive) indicates the similar yet different attitudes both men have towards fate.
Part VI - Chapter VII
"Crime? What crime?..." See in text (Part VI - Chapter VII)
Raskolnikov still struggles with accepting Dounia's (and Sonia's) belief that he should confess and suffer for his crime because those he killed were either criminals themselves or idiots. He challenges whether or not suffering is actually worth what Dounia and Sonia profess it to be. This reaction demonstrates how his pride still has a hold on his thoughts and actions, and while he is close to seeking redemption, he still has much to consider.
"Aren't you half expiating your crime by facing the suffering?..." See in text (Part VI - Chapter VII)
Dounia expresses the same belief as Sonia: Raskolnikov must confess, suffer the consequences, and then his crimes will be forgiven. This ties into the theme of sacrifice and punishment as necessary to redemption that Dostoevsky has explored throughout the novel.
Epilogue - Chapter II
"He wept and threw his arms round her knees...." See in text (Epilogue - Chapter II)
Raskolnikov finally understands and recognizes his love for Sonia. In this moment, they realize that they both love each other, and Raskolnikov experiences a fundamental change within himself; he has been redeemed and given new life through his love for Sonia and her love for him.