Study Guide

Crime and Punishment What's Up With the Title?

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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What's Up With the Title?

Isn't this the perfect title? It's simple, elegant, and straightforward. It's a concise mini-summary of the novel, focusing on the two crucial ideas being explored on every page.

It's actually kind of hard to talk about the title without sounding silly. It's so small, so self-explanatory. Even most little kids have some idea what these three words mean, and they translate fairly smoothly from the Russian, Prestuplenie i nakazanie, into most languages.

We don't want to bore you, but we should point this out: the Third Edition of the Norton Critical Edition of the novel notes that the Russian word "prestuplenie" is more closely related to the English word "transgression" than it is to the English word "crime."

But, really, what's the difference? They both mean to do, be, say, or even think something the people in charge say is wrong. (The people in charge are political figures, teachers, the community, family members, religious leaders, our peers, etc.)

There is a small difference. "Transgression" makes us think of breaking rules because they don't work anymore or, perhaps, never did. Whereas plain old crime is senseless, crude, and doesn't do anybody any good.

But, wait. How do you know the difference? How do you know when an action is a crime versus a transgression? This is pretty close to the conversation Raskolnikov and Porfiry have about Raskolnikov's essay. What is crime? What is transgression? Is there any difference? How do you know? These questions are recycled over and over in the novel and never really answeredthat's your job!

"Crime" and "punishment" make a cute couple, like Sonia and Raskolnikov. Something about their combination enthralls us. It signifies a process that we've come to expect: we do something bad, we get in trouble. Punishment follows crime. Crime comes before punishment. If something in you is protesting, you aren't alone. As the novel shows, sometimes, maybe even often, punishment comes before crime. Especially if you are vulnerable and powerless, like many of the children in this book. Some would say it's a cycle.

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