Crime and Punishment: an introduction

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‘You seldom come across places that have so many gloomy, harsh and strange influences on the soul of man as there are in St Petersburg.’ 
Svidrigailov, Crime and Punishment, Part 6, Chapter 3.

First published in 1866 in the conservative journal Russkii vestnik (Russian Messenger), Crime and Punishment was the first of the major novels that secured Dostoevsky’s reputation. Its plot is well known: Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student, contemplates murdering an old money lender and robbing her, and then, when committing the crime, also kills her gentle sister. Falling ill, increasingly isolated, and hounded by the detective Porfiry, he searches to understand why he killed and what it means for him, and finally confesses. But like Dostoevsky’s other novels, Crime and Punishment contains layers of psychological and philosophical complexity that underpin the apparently simple central plot. The aim of this introduction is to outline briefly some of the most significant aspects of the novel and problems it presents.

‘The Drunkards’

Before the story of Raskolnikov’s crime took centre stage, Dostoevsky’s initial plan for the novel was very different; it was conceived as a work firmly grounded in contemporary social problems. Titled ‘The Drunkards’, it would deal ‘with the present question of drunkenness … [in] all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances’ (letter A. A. Kraevsky, 8 June 1865, cited in Fangar, p. 17). That original project survived in the final version of the novel in the portrait of the Marmeladov family as it is driven to penury and destruction. His daughter Sonia, barely out of childhood, who has turned to prostitution to support the family, his sick wife Katerina Ivanovna, driven out of her mind by her reduced circumstances as much as by her advanced tuberculosis, and the scrawny children who seem destined to follow Sonia onto the streets, depict all the ‘ramifications’ of Semen Zakharych’s drinking.

In this family the theme of the ‘insulted and injured’ is crystallized, but it is also apparent in the setting of the novel around the Haymarket (Sennaia) and Catherine (now Griboedov) Canal, which contained the worst slums in St Petersburg; this was the poorest and most densely populated district of the city, with the highest mortality rate, and an increasing prevalence of crime, drunkenness and prostitution in the 1860s (see Bater, pp. 166-207). The Marmeladovs, although individuals, are also typical, their fates representative of the other inhabitants of the slums around the Spasskaia district; every drunk who bumps into Raskolnikov in the street is a potential Marmeladov, every prostitute he sees a potential Sonia. In his confused thinking while he is planning the crime, he equates her with his sister (part 2, chapter 4; see Jones, pp. 79-82), and she becomes emblematic of his desire to help others through his ‘first step’.

Taking the Cross

The Marmeladovs do not only represent the tragedy of the St Petersburg underclass, but they are also the major source of the religious theme in the novel. This is already apparent when Raskolnikov first encounters Marmeladov in a drinking den (part 1, chapter 2); the latter’s drunken monologue in which he states he should be crucified, not pitied, and Sonia should be forgiven, is full of biblical allusions. While he retains some remnants of religious feeling, Sonia herself provides the core of religious faith in the novel. It is through her unshakeable faith that she finds the strength to survive, whatever happens, and however degraded she may feel.

Some people find this aspect of the novel problematic. In Dostoevsky’s other novels, in particular The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, the religious component is more fully integrated. In Crime and Punishment, it undoubtedly becomes important, as it provides the justification for Raskolnikov’s potential spiritual regeneration in the epilogue, but for many readers the ending feels tacked-on and under-motivated, with no real grounding in the body of the text beyond the famous scene in which Sonia reads the Raising of Lazarus from John’s gospel to Raskolnikov (part 4, chapter 4), which in itself can seem cliched, overblown and sentimental. Meanwhile Sonia herself is a difficult figure, more a fantastical agglomeration of necessary traits – the child-like Christian prostitute, innocence defiled but enduring – than a rounded and believable character. The question of whether either Sonia or the epilogue works is the subject for another discussion, but it is worth noting here that whatever one thinks of Sonia as a character, it is her love, her refusal to judge, and her own position as a ‘great sinner’ (part 4, chapter 4) that make Raskolnikov turn to her, when his actions have made his life untenable. Ultimately, she represents a way of making life livable, whatever the circumstances and whatever one has done, and, whether Raskolnikov wishes to acknowledge it or not, by the end of the novel she is the only option available if he wants to remain alive. It is crucial to note that in the epilogue, Raskolnikov merely picks up her bible, but does not open it. Her faith may be fervent to the point of mania, or holy-foolishness, but his, if he attains it, seems likely to be the result of a more rational (although one hesitates to use the word, so negative are its connotations in Dostoevsky’s works) decision to take a new direction.

The Sensualist

Sonia and Svidrigailov are frequently seen as ‘doubles’ of Raskolnikov, each emanating from him and expressing a contradictory aspect of his soul (his name comes from the Russian word for ‘schismatic’); in his notebooks for the novel, Dostoevsky wrote: ‘Svidrigaylov is despair, the most cynical. Sonia is hope, the most unrealizable. [Raskolnikov himself should express this]’ (p. 244) There is both a stark contrast between Sonia and Svidrigailov, and an interplay between the characteristics they represent. Sonia, representing the spirit, is ethereal and barely embodied, but sells her body; Svidrigailov, in contrast, belongs in the sensual, physical realm, but sees ghosts. But if Sonia represents the ‘way of the cross’ to Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov’s position vis-a-vis the hero is somewhat more complicated. To be sure, Svidrigailov, initially at least, offers another possibility for Raskolnikov: escape, to America, or through suicide. It is also true that Svidrigailov is the novel’s only real embodiment of Raskolnikov’s conception of the ‘great man’; he, unlike Raskolnikov himself, appears capable of ‘stepping over all the obstacles’ (part 3, chapter 5), and is unconcerned about the law, moral or otherwise. But Svidrigailov’s sensuality is a complicating factor which does not fit into the doubling schema; in this respect he has nothing in common with Raskolnikov, who seems detached from the physical world and has no conception of sensual pleasure (see Apollonio, pp. 72-5), and he cares nothing for the theories that captivate the hero. This may indicate that Raskolnikov’s ideas are ultimately so much window dressing – he eventually admits as much – but it is impossible to deny their importance for the novel as a whole.

‘Ideas in the Air’

Raskolnikov’s ‘great man’ theory emerges in a discussion of an article he has written on crime, in which he claims that certain ‘extraordinary’ people are not bound by the law if they are acting in the service of a great idea (part 3, chapter 5). This is one version of the ‘anthill’ theory of social reorganization, which leads to the slavery of the nine tenths of ‘ordinary’ people who are denied their individuality and reduced to the status of ‘cogs in a wheel’ in the name of equality and freedom; it has different incarnations in Notes from Underground, Demons, and, most powerfully, in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. It provides one possible motive for Raskolnikov’s crime: he wants to discover whether he is a ‘Napoleon’ who is capable of taking the ‘first step’; however, he later acknowledges that even testing the idea is already an admission that he does not have that capacity (part 5, chapter 4).

At the same time, Raskolnikov contemplates a utilitarian motive for the crime: perpetrating one bad deed in order to accomplish many good deeds, ridding society of an evil louse and, through the robbery, having the funds to do help others and his family (again, this is refuted: he botches the robbery, makes no use of the proceeds, and admits that he did not really wish to help anyone through his crime). When he recalls overhearing a student and an officer discussing murdering and robbing Alena Ivanovna for the greater benefit of society, just after he has first visited the pawnbroker and had the same idea (part 1, chapter 6), it becomes apparent that such ideas are ‘in the air’ (letter to M. N. Katkov, September 1865; Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 28.2, p. 136), so ubiquitous as to normalize even their most extreme form.

The role of utilitarian philosophy and ideas of social reorganization in Raskolnikov’s thinking is emphasized by reference to the ‘Crystal Palace’ tavern, where the hero discusses the crime with the police clerk Zametov (part 2, chapter 6). Published only three years after Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done?, in which the Crystal Palace in Sydenham acts as a symbol of the utopian reorganization of society in Vera Pavlovna’s fourth dream (pp. 359-79), and following the rejection of the Crystal Palace in Notes from Underground as destroying individuality, the reference in Crime and Punishment is an unmistakeable indication that Raskolnikov’s theories are related to the contemporary radical agenda popularized by Chernyshevsky and his colleagues Dmitry Pisarev and Nikolai Dobroliubov. This sense is reinforced by the comical figure of Lebeziatnikov, an inarticulate young radical, and his cynical mentor Luzhin, who is engaged to Raskolnikov’s sister; when Luzhin begins to spout the ‘latest ideas’ of acting according to one’s own self interest (a reference to Chernyshevsky’s concept of rational egoism), Raskolnikov comments, ‘if you take what you were just advocating to its conclusion, the result would be that you can go round killing people’ (part 2, chapter 5).

If the Crystal Palace tavern suggests that radical ideas are grounded in the city environment, a further reference reinforces this notion. On his way to commit the murders, Raskolnikov daydreams about rebuilding the city for the benefit of its citizens (part 1, chapter 7). Echoing Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris for Napoleon III (Lindenmeyr, p. 43; Grossman, pp. 359-60), this idea demonstrates how different aspects of Raskolnikov’s thinking – the utilitarian impulse and the desire to be a ‘great man’ – are related to the city in which they have developed. In more general term as well, the role of the Peterburg environment in generating his ideas is fully apparent; the filth, stench and poverty that surrounds him in the Haymarket, more than anything, contribute to his sense of alienation and helplessness, and impel him towards the ideas of social improvement that plant the idea of murder in his mind.


When Raskolnikov outlines the argument from his article, he refers to Kepler and Newton, Lycurgus, Muhammad and Napoleon as examples of those who had the right to overstep moral boundaries for the sake of a great idea (part 3, chapter 5). As this conversation takes place in a city founded by a monarch who certainly assumed this right for himself – not least in the construction of Petersburg – it may seem curious that Peter the Great is omitted from Raskolnikov’s list. This is not the only time Peter the Great is notable for his absence; when Raskolnikov stands on Nikolaevsky (now Blagoveshchensky) Bridge and looks at the panorama, sensing the ‘deaf and dumb spirit’ of the city, he sees the ‘dome of the cathedral’ (part 2, chapter 2) – St Isaac’s – but the famous monument to Peter that stands in Senate Square front of the cathedral, the Bronze Horseman, is excluded from his vision (Vetlovskaia, pp. 30-1). The city’s presence in the novel in other respects is so overpowering that one could suggest that Peter the Great, through his creation, is so firmly embedded in Raskolnikov’s consciousness that he no longer exists as a separate entity; and that it is Peter, rather than Napoleon, who is the unspoken model for Raskolnikov’s ‘great man’ theory.

Whether he is lying in his coffin-like room on Stolyarnyi pereulok (Carpenters’ Lane) or being jostled by drunks emerging from the stinking taverns around the Haymarket, the impact of Petersburg on Raskolnikov’s consciousness is never far from the reader’s – of the hero’s – attention. Petersburg’s dual role in the novel as an idea and a concrete social environment means that the city is an actor in the text, rather than simply being a setting for the action. As Leonid Grossman wrote:

The squalid and repulsive pictures of Haymarket Square and Meshchanskiye Streets are offset by the contrasting views of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the embankments, of the palaces and boulevards. The streets and squares, alleyways and canals not only serve as a backdrop to the action, but enter with their outlines into the thoughts and actions of the heroes. The city constantly dominates the people and hangs over their fates.
In Crime and Punishment the internal drama is in a peculiar manner carried out into the crowded streets and squares of Petersburg. The action is constantly transferred out of narrow and low room into the noise of the capital’s streets. It is in the street that Sonia sacrifices herself, it is here that Marmeladov falls dead, Katerina Ivanovna bleeds to death on the pavement, Svidrigaylov shoots himself on the avenue before a watch-tower, Raskolnikov attempts to confess publicly on Haymarket Square. Many-storied houses, narrow alleyways, dusty squares and hump-back bridges – the entire structure of a big city of the mid-century looms as a heavy and merciless hulk above the dreamer of limitless rights and possibilities of the lone intellect. Petersburg is inseparable from the personal drama of Raskolnikov: it is the fabric on which his cruel dialectic draws its designs (p. 368)

In writing Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky mostly used real and recognizable locations in the city (see Antsiferov, Tkhomirov). Grounding the novel in physical reality reifies its ideas, but also makes it important as a document in historical as well as literary geography. Exploring the specifics of space and place in Crime and Punishment, and the nature of the novel’s relationship to the real city of Petersburg, on the geographic rather than the symbolic level, through the different experiments to map the text we are testing in this pilot, will enhance our understanding of the novel as a spatial genre, and of how the dynamics of the city’s geography impacts upon its inhabitants and writers, as well as its readers.


Antsiferov, Nikolai, Peterburg Dostoevskogo, in ‘Nepostizhimyi gorod…’ (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1991)

Apollonio, Carol, Dostoevsky’s Secrets: Reading Against the Grain (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009)

Bater, James H., St. Petersburg: Industrialization and Change (London: Edward Arnold, 1976)

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai, What is to be Done?, trans. Michael Katz (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989)

Dostoevskii, F. M., Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90)

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment, trans. David McDuff (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991)

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Notebooks for ‘Crime and Punishment’, ed. and trans. Edward Wasiolek (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1967)

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Notes from Underground, trans. and ed. Michael Katz (New York: Norton, 2000)

Fangar, Donald, ‘Apogee: Crime and Punishment‘, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’: A Casebook, ed. Richard Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 17-35

Grossman, Leonid, Dostoevsky: A Biography, trans. Mary Mackler (London: Allen Lane, 1974)

Jones, Malcolm V., Dostoevsky After Bakhtin: Readings in Dostoevsky’s Fantastic Realism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)

Lindenmeyr, Adele, ‘Raskolnikov’s City and the Napoleonic Plan’, in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’: A Casebook, ed. Richard Peace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 37-49

Tikhomirov, Boris, ‘Lazar! Griadi von’. Roman F. M. Dostoevskogo ‘Prestuplenie i nakazanie’ v sovremennom prochtenii: Kniga-kommentarii (St Petersburg: Serebriannyi vek, 2005) [Extracts from this book are available in translation as ‘Commentary on Crime and Punishment: Space, Time, Material Details, Echoes’, in The New Russian Dostoevsky: Readings for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Carol Apollonio (Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2010), pp. 95-122]

Vetlovskaia, Valentina, ‘Dostoevsky and Pushkin: Petersburg Motifs in Crime and Punishment‘, in Dostoevsky on the Threshold of Other Worlds, ed. Sarah Young and Lesley Milne (Ilkeston: Bramcote Press, 2006), pp. 21-39

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