Study Guide

Crime and Punishment Themes

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • Criminality

    As you might have guessed from the title, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is obsessed with crime, criminality, and vice. Like many of the best books, it asks more questions than it answers. As the novel unfolds, we are faced with a repulsive array of crimes, including murder and all kinds of child abuse. Some of the crimes are more subtlecrimes of power and privilege, crimes against the poor, crimes of meanness, pettiness, and apathy, many of which, legally speaking, might not even be considered crimes. The novel's ending suggests that maybe even murderers can free themselves from criminal impulses and learn to truly love.

    Questions About Criminality

    1. Who is the bigger criminal, Raskolnikov or Svidrigaïlov? Why do you think so?
    2. Has reading Crime and Punishment changed your definition of crime, or made you think abut it in new ways? If so, how?
    3. Do you think Raskolnikov has really changed, or will he fall back into his murderous ways? Why do you think so?
    4. Is Sonia a criminal? What about Marmeladov? Katerina? If so, what crimes do they commit? If not, why not?
    5. The police don't catch Raskolnikovhe turns himself in. Why doesn't Porfiry arrest him earlier, when he realizes that Raskolnikov is guilty? Would you feel differently about Raskolnikov if he had never confessed but was found guilty instead?
    6. Could Svidrigaïlov, a child molester, have changed in the way Raskolnikov does? Why or why not? Why does Svidrigaïlov perform good deeds before his suicide?
    7. Was Alyona Ivanovna, the pawnbroker, a criminal? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Crime and Punishment argues that child molestation is a worse crime than murder.

    In Crime and Punishment, punishment ideally leads not to suffering but to happiness and redemption.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Crime and Punishment is very interested in the idea of judgment: judgment of self and others, judgment of and by society, and judgment of and by religion. The novel asks us to judge not only the characters but also the characters' judgments of each other. The prize that we and the characters seek as we travel through this maze of judgment and judging is justice or, in plain language, fairness. Whether or not that prize is realized within or at the end of the novel is a question you might want to ask as you read.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. How does Raskolnikov judge himself at different times in the novel?
    2. How does Raskolnikov judge Svidrigaïlov? His mother? His sister? Sonia?
    3. If you were the judge, how would you sentence Raskolnikov? Svidrigaïlov? Luzhin? Any character you think is guilty of a crime?
    4. Porfiry suggests that Raskolnikov voluntarily turning himself over to the police is an important aspect of the process of justice. Do you agree with him? Why?
    5. Who is the most just or fair character? Why do you think so?
    6. Does Pulcheria judge herself when she learns of Raskolnikov's crime? How do you know? Does her knowledge of his crime change her personality?
    7. How does Sonia judge Raskolnikov? Svidrigaïlov? Herself? Her father? Katerina?

    Chew on This

    Because Raskolnikov learns how to become a nonviolent member of society while in prison, Crime and Punishment argues that prison is an important element of social justice.

    The characters who stand by Raskolnikov even after his crime is known demonstrate that love and friendship can work together with judgment to help bring justice.

  • Love

    Since violence and criminality dominate much of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, we often have to peel back layers of text to get to the love. Most of the novel's "romantic" relationships are loaded with cruelty, power plays, confusion, and miscommunications. It can seem as if love and kindness are winking shyly at us between the lines, terrified to venture into the harsh world of vice and victimization Crime and Punishment shows us. But love is worth looking for in Dostoevsky's masterpiece, where even incredibly perverse characters are capable of loving acts and moments of kindness, and redemption is never completely out of the question.

    Questions About Love

    1. How would you describe the relationships of Raskolnikov and Sonia, Razumihin and Dounia, and Marmeladov and Katerina in terms of love?
    2. Why does Raskolnikov say that Polenka, Sonia's stepsister, wouldn't care if he were a murderer?
    3. Who is the most loving character in the novel? Why do you think so?
    4. Does Raskolnikov love humanity? If so, what does he do or say that makes you think so? If not, what shows you that?
    5. In Pulcheria's letter to Raskolnikov, she uses the word "love" over and over again. What does her use of the word "love" say about her? How does Raskolnikov react to her use of the word "love"? (See Part I, Chapter Four.)
    6. Does Svidrigaïlov ever act lovingly? If so, when? If not, why are his seemingly good acts not loving?
    7. Is Razumihin loving toward Raskolnikov? If so, how and when? If not, what makes you say no?
    8. What about Porfiry? Does he love Raskolnikov?
    9. Does Svidrigaïlov love Sonia? How do you know?
    10. Raskolnikov seems to have changed due to Sonia's love. Could Svidrigaïlov have changed if Dounia had agreed to be with him? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Porfiry Petrovitch loves Raskolnikov, and that's why he doesn't arrest him.

    Sonia's love for Katerina and Marmeladov is actually destructive for her.

  • Violence

    You could say that Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is a book about an ex-student turned murderer who wanders around St. Petersburg, Russia, trying to save children and young women from bad men and poverty and who eventually finds love. There are lots of beatings going on in the novel, plus sexual violence, plenty of psychological violence, and a couple of gunshot wounds. Blood, guts, and aggression abound in this tale of bad ideas turned, well, bad. So, prepare yourself because Dostoevsky doesn't shy away from graphic violence. This, in turn, intensifies our appreciation of the novel's kind and loving moments.

    Questions About Violence

    1. The murder scene is really bloody. How did it make you feel? Was it hard to read?
    2. Aside from the scene where Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker and her sister, where do we see blood in the novel, and how is it used?
    3. Do any of the characters use "psychological" violence on each other? If so, who uses it against whom, and for what purpose (if any)?
    4. Are there examples of justifiable violence in the novel? If so, what and why?
    5. If Raskolnikov had only killed Alyona and not Lizaveta, would this change the way you feel about his crime? Why or why not?
    6. Katerina is a pretty violent person. She beats her kids, pulls her husband around by his hair, and probably attacked Andrey Semyonovitch Lebeziatnikov. Is she still a sympathetic character?
    7. What are some of the violent acts (physical, sexual, psychological) that Svidrigaïlov commits? Though Marfa is his victim, is she also his accomplice? Why or why not?
    8. Is there a connection between physical illness and violence in the novel? Is so, where do we see it?

    Chew on This

    The worst violence we see in Crime and Punishment is against children.

    Through its comparison of Napoleon to an axe murderer, the novel presents an anti-war message.

    Svidrigaïlov commits an act of violence against himself (suicide) to save others from his sexual and physical violence.

  • Versions of Reality

    Dreams and hallucinations, as well as questions of madness, sanity, and existence, are huge parts of Crime and Punishment. The novel is deeply psychological and most of us can relate to at least something in the book. In this age of talk shows and self-help books, everybody's a pop psychologist. Crime and Punishment is chock full of characters waiting for you to try out your skills on them.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Did this book make you feel a little like you were going insane? If so, what parts, and why?
    2. Do dreams and nightmares play a role in driving the novel's action? Give us some examples.
    3. After Raskolnikov dreams of the beaten horse, he decides he can't commit murder. What makes him change his mind? What does this tell us about his state of mind?
    4. Raskolnikov gets a lighter sentence because he was believed to be (though he denies it) under the influence of "temporary mental derangement." What do you think about temporary insanity as a defense for a crime? What about in Raskolnikov's specific case?
    5. Analyze Raskolnikov's dream in the Epilogue, Part Two, paragraph 17. Does this have anything to do with his change at the very end of the epilogue? Why or why not?
    6. At the very end of the novel, we are told that Raskolnikov will "pass […] from one world into another" (Epilogue.2.30). We don't think the narrator is talking about literal death, but it sure sounds like it if taken out of context. What effect does this phrasing have? What does it suggest about different perceptions of reality and how such perceptions drive our actions and thoughts?

    Chew on This

    The beauty of the Siberian countryside allows Raskolnikov to focus on the beauty of life instead of the ugliness, thereby allowing him to "see" Sonia for the first time.

  • Suffering

    We dare you to find a chapter in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment without some form of the word "suffer" in it or without some person (or animal) suffering terrible physical and/or psychological pain. Suffering, often closely associated with poverty in this novel, is definitely a condition from which to escape. However, it's also possible proof of a person's goodness, and even a way to become "good." In Crime and Punishment, if a character isn't suffering, they're probably making somebody else suffer. Sound depressing? It is. Luckily, this classic isn't all gloom and doomoccasional patches of brightness and hope are there to be found, though you might have to look hard to see them.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How are poverty and suffering related in the novel?
    2. Does the novel ever represent suffering as a positive condition? If so, give some examples. In your examples, explain the "benefits" of suffering.
    3. Are there any examples of children in the novel who aren't suffering? If not, how does this comment on the novel as a whole?
    4. Do any characters bring on their own suffering? If so, who, why, and how?

    Chew on This

    Most of the suffering in Crime and Punishment is directly related to poverty.

    Svidrigaïlov's suicide shows that he, too, was suffering terribly in the novel.

  • The Home

    We get some grim visions of "home" in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Often, the home is a site of violence, abuse, and extreme poverty, a trap that seems impossible to escape. Eviction and homelessness seem an ever-present threat for many of the characters. Landlords and landladies are often corrupt. Positive definitions of home are found in the novel, though these usually exist outside, or in spite of, the living spaces of the characters. Fyodor Dostoevsky shows us extremes of negative home life and challenges us to look for a positive idea of home.

    Questions About The Home

    1. If you had to live in one of the "homes" in Crime and Punishment, which one would you choose and why?
    2. We don't hear much about Raskolnikov's home life before he moved to St. Petersburg. But based on what we know about Pulcheria and Dounia, how might we imagine it?
    3. Katerina and her three young children become homeless after Marmeladov's funeral dinner. How does that section comment on the idea of home in the novel?
    4. Do you think Raskolnikov and Sonia will have a happy home? Why or why not? What about Dounia and Razumihin?
    5. Are there any positive representations of home in the novel?
    6. Does the novel change or influence your idea or definition of home? If so, how?
    7. How do the "nomads" Raskolnikov sees in Siberia comment on the novel's ideas about home?

    Chew on This

    Representations of home in Crime and Punishment are all negative.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    There's plenty of alcohol in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, and it isn't romanticized or celebrated in any way. In this novel, alcohol is nearly always a symbol or symptom of weakness, affliction, addiction, vice, abuse, or even vulnerability. Possible positive aspects of alcohol and drinking are not to be found. Though scenes featuring alcohol might have slight comic effects, they ultimately result in regret at the very least and terror at worst.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. How does Raskolnikov feel about drinking? How do you know?
    2. Why does Marmeladov say he drinks?
    3. What role does alcohol play in the funeral dinner scene?
    4. Why does Razumihin stop drinking? He's drunk when he first meets Dounia—how does he feel about his behavior the next day?
    5. Do you think representations of alcohol and alcohol abuse are realistic in the novel? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Alcoholism is the root cause of most of the suffering in the novel.

  • Education

    We never see the outside of a school, much less the inside of one, in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Yet, we would argue that this is a "college book" because two of its main characters are very bright young men, intellectuals who have dropped out of college for a variety of reasons. Some other main characters are bright young women whoin large part because they aren't allowed to go to college in their home country (not unusual in Russia in the 1860s) and are candidates for less than a handful of jobshave very limited options. By showing us its absence, Dostoevsky puts education up on a pedestal.

    Questions About Education

    1. Why did Raskolnikov drop out of college? Why did Razumihin? Are the answers clearly given in the novel? If not, what are your general impressions and on what are they based?
    2. Is it significant that Raskolnikov saved the little kids from the burning building while he was still in college? Why or why not?
    3. What do we know about Sonia's education? Dounia's? Polenka's?

    Chew on This

    Crime and Punishment helps us realize that education is a precious resource that we shouldn't take for granted.

    Crime and Punishment argues that formal education isn't necessarily the best way to learn about life.

  • Religion

    As novelist and critic A. N. Wilson says, "[Fyodor Dostoevsky's] views on religion are notoriously hard to pin down with confidence." (Source) Hearing this is a bit of a relief, isn't it? Some version of Russian Orthodoxy is practiced by many of the characters we meet in Crime and Punishment, and like many novels and films in the Gothic tradition (think The Exorcist), Christian imagery, ideas, and symbols are deployed for a variety of purposes, some of them scary. All in all, religion and religious ideas are often contradictory and paradoxical in Crime and Punishment. We think that's part of the point Dostoevsky is trying to makereligion is an elusive force, which means something different to every person.

    Questions About Religion

    1. When asked, Raskolnikov tells Porfiry he "literally" believes in God and in the story of Lazarus, yet he thinks Sonia is a religious fanatic. What's up with that? Does Porfiry's question reveal anything about his religious beliefs? If so, what? Do we get any other information about Porfiry's religious beliefs?
    2. How does the idea of being a martyr factor into the novel's explorations of religion?
    3. Does Raskolnikov "get religion" in the novel? When he falls to his knees, twice, on his way to turn himself in, is he having a religious experience?
    4. What is Marmeladov's religious viewpoint?
    5. Are Katerina's comments to the minister when Marmeladov dies sacrilegious? Do they ring true?

    Chew on This

    By not pressuring Raskolnikov to share her religious beliefs when he's in prison, Sonia acknowledges that religion is a personal choice.