Crime and Punishment Book Summary - Crime and Punishment Book explained in key points
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Crime and Punishment summary

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A Philosophical Masterpiece on the Boundaries Between Good and Evil

4.6 (433 ratings)
30 mins

Brief summary

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a psychological novel exploring the motives and consequences of a young man's decision to commit murder, and his eventual redemption through love and suffering.

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    Crime and Punishment
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    Before the crime

    A young man with dark hair and dark eyes walks out his door in anguish – he doesn’t know what to do about the “thing” he’s been contemplating. His name is Rodion Raskolnikov, and he lives in a tiny, stiflingly hot apartment the size of a closet. Outside, it’s no less oppressive: the St. Petersburg air is smelly and scorching.

    As Raskolnikov wanders around the city, he mutters to himself incessantly. He tells himself that mankind would be capable of anything if it weren’t for cowardice. What people are most afraid of, he says, is “taking a new step” and “uttering a new word.”

    We don’t at first learn exactly what Raskolnikov is planning, but we do discover that he’s on his way to a “rehearsal” of it. He walks exactly 730 steps from his apartment to a huge house that’s divided into tiny, working-class tenements.

    He rings the bell of one of the apartments – that of an old woman called Alyona Ivanovna. She’s diminutive and withered, about 60 years old, with a sharp nose and sharp eyes. This is the pawnbroker Raskolnikov has been dealing with for the past several months in his ill-advised attempts to make some money. 

    As they talk, Raskolnikov studies the room, noting every object and its placement, as well as exactly how the sun will be peeking through the windows when “it” happens. They haggle over the price of a watch that Raskolnikov has brought; Alyona gives him a bad deal. Then he bids her goodbye and tells her he may be back in a day or two. 

    After leaving, Raskolnikov becomes erratic. He can’t keep up a consistent walking pace and stops several times. “Oh, God, how loathsome it all is! and can I, can I possibly…” he cries. An intense sense of repulsion overcomes him.

    As he walks around in this state of agitation, Raskolnikov finds himself at a tavern. He has never actually been inside a tavern before, but after a month of isolated wretchedness, he suddenly feels a desire for company. 

    There, he meets Marmeladov, a retired clerk. Marmeladov engages Raskolnikov, philosophizing and telling him the story of the last few months of his life. He’s squandered all his money and become an alcoholic; he even sold his own wife’s stockings in exchange for a drink. His eldest daughter, Sonia, has had to become a prostitute to support the family.

    Marmeladov is too drunk to make his way home alone, so Raskolnikov accompanies him. Before he leaves, he puts some money on the Marmeladovs’ windowsill. 

    There’s a lot going on in this part of the story, even though we’ve just begun. For starters, we’re getting a sense of Raskolnikov’s character. In Russian, the word raskolnik means “schism.” This is a hint that Raskolnikov will constantly be torn between two different aspects of his nature. We’ve already seen these in action. On one hand, Raskolnikov clearly has a ruthlessness, coldness, and pride about him. We also know he’s planning to commit some yet-unnamed but terrible deed. 

    On the other hand, Raskolnikov has also shown himself to possess great kindness and empathy. We saw this when he gave Marmeladov money despite his own deep poverty. Clearly, Raskolnikov is no psychopath –⁠ he’s capable of remorse. 

    At this juncture, we also see the different forces that have been influencing Raskolnikov’s behavior. A major one is his isolation. Being alone in his room has plunged Raskolnikov deep into thoughts, abstractions, and theories instead of the real, physical world. On top of that, his poverty, tiny apartment, and the St. Petersburg heat have increased the sense of psychological oppression and hypochondria he feels. Dostoevsky believed that city environments had a noxious effect on the soul –⁠ despite, or perhaps because of, being a St. Petersburg resident himself for almost 30 years.

    Finally, we also get a first taste of Raskolnikov’s philosophy surrounding the “thing” he’s planning to do. He says humanity’s greatest obstacle is cowardice, and that people must be bold enough to take new steps and utter new words. Maybe he believes himself to be one of these people?

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    What is Crime and Punishment about?

    Crime and Punishment (1866) is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Russian literature. It follows a young man called Rodion Raskolnikov – first as he plots to kill an elderly pawnbroker, then as he commits the deed, and finally as he confronts the many consequences of his actions. Emotionally poignant as well as philosophically and psychologically complex, the novel has left a visible mark on generations of writers, thinkers, and artists ever since its publication.

    Crime and Punishment Review

    Who should read Crime and Punishment?

    • Fans of Russian literature
    • Lovers of melodrama, mental anguish, and moral quandaries
    • Philosophy buffs

    About the Author

    Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881) was one of the giants of Russian literature. His major works include the novels The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Demons – as well as the novella Notes from Underground and the short stories The Gambler and Dream of a Ridiculous Man. These works majorly influenced countless writers, including Anton Chekhov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Ernest Hemingway, as well as philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus.

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