Reading Pointers for Sharper Insight

To fully appreciate the complexities and intricacies in Crime and Punishment, pay attention to the following concepts as you read:

  1. Crime and Punishment is essentially a murder-mystery with a twist. Since the murder takes place early in the novel, the focus of the mystery is not on who the murderer is, but on why the murder is committed and what the punishment will be. As the novel progresses, Raskolnikov presents a variety of reasons why he committed the murder. Pay attention to how his rationalizations change as the book progresses. The title Crime and Punishmentsets up an expectation that he will be punished. As you read, consider what his punishment might be.

  2. Crime and Punishment is a novel characterized by dichotomies, comparisons of opposites. As you read, pay careful attention to these opposites and how they are portrayed. The name of the protagonist, Raskolnikov, comes from the Russian word “raskol'nik” meaning schismatic, a splitting or coming apart, and his friends often comment that it is as if there were two people inside him. As you read, notice the divisions in his character. For example:

  3. This novel takes place in a very turbulent time, as Russia struggles to catch up with the Western World without losing its unique identity. Just five years prior to this novel's publication, the serfs throughout Russia were emancipated from a condition similar to slavery. Dostoevsky's novels are deeply influenced by the new ideas that invaded Russia during his life and the moral repercussions of these new ideas entering into a traditional society. This novel is especially influenced by three theories that were gaining prominence in Russia at this time.

    • Nietzsche's theory of the “superman” [übermensch] – The German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche created a theory describing the “superman” as a new class of individuals who could ignore and rise above the constraints of tradition and law to change the world.

    • Nihilism – The drastic changes in society led some people to go beyond just revising traditions. The Nihilists went so far as to propose the destruction of all traditions in creating a new society. The theories of Nihilism, however, never proposed a plan to replace the traditions that were destroyed.

    • Psychology – The theories of early psychologists play an intrinsically important part in this story. The detective, Porfiry Petrovich, uses these “new” psychological techniques in tracking down and putting together traps for the murderer. It is important to remember that, although these techniques may seem obvious or even quaint by modern standards, his methods were quite unique for the time. Psychological theories also play a large part in how Raskolnikov's suffering is portrayed.

    As you read, note both the characters' and the author's view on these theories. Dostoevsky's intimate knowledge of the ideas of his time and the subtlety of his opinions sometimes make it seem as if he is supporting the theories that he eventually attacks.

  4. Dostoevsky originally planned this novel as a confession written in the first person. The third person narrator he actually uses, however, gets the reader as close, if not closer, to Raskolnikov. As you read, notice the clarity that this narrative voice lends to Raskolnikov, even during his hysteria, without removing the reader's sympathy for him.

  5. Each character in the novel, while a unique individual, is also a reflection of an aspect of Raskolnikov. When new characters are introduced, pay attention to the aspect of Raskolnikov that they portray.

    For example:

    • Razumikhin reflects Raskolnikov's intellectual side.

    • Sonya represents his spiritual side.

    • Svidrigaylov portrays Raskolnikov's basest desires.

  6. The most important symbol in this novel is the Cross. Notice how Raskolnikov reacts to the Cross when it is presented to him. Note the different materials that the crosses in the novel are made of. Also, pay attention to when he begins to carry it. Bear in mind the significance of the psychological weight inherent in the Cross as a religious symbol.

  7. The most important motif of this book is salvation through suffering. Notice as you read how different characters react to suffering.

  8. One of the most difficult scenes in the book is Raskolnikov's dream of the peasants beating the horse. While reading this section, note that the symbols of the horse and the peasants in his dream actually have a number of different interpretations.

    Possible examples:

    • The horse suggests the drunken young lady being stalked by the man.

    • The man stands for the cruel peasants, mentioned a few pages earlier.

    • The horse can represent the pawnbroker, who is beaten to death.

    • The horse could also represent Raskolnikov's sister, who is controlled by Svidrigaylov.

    • In addition, the horse might stand for Raskolnikov's own conscience, which has been beaten down by his crime.