Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky Dostoevsky’s Life

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Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky’s Life

  • October 30, 1821: Dostoevsky is born.

  • 1837: Dostoevsky is enrolled at St. Petersburg Engineering Academy; his mother dies; his father buys a small village.

  • 1843: Dostoevsky is commissioned in the Army Engineering Corps.

  • 1844: Dostoevsky resigns his commission and turns to journalism and literature.

  • 1846: Dostoevsky publishes his first novels, Poor Folk and The Double; he joins the Petrashevsky circle of reformers.

  • 1847: Serfs kill Dostoevsky’s father.

  • 1848: Karl Marx publishes The Communist Manifesto.

  • 1849: Dostoevsky is arrested for sedition (April 23); he is condemned to be shot (November 16); he receives a last-minute reprieve from the Czar Nicolas I (December 22); he is sent to a maximum security prison from 1850 to 1854; he is then sent to military exile in Siberia from 1854 to 1859.

  • 1853: Dostoevsky experiences a profound religious conversion.

  • 1855: Czar Nicolas I dies, and his son, Alexander II, becomes Czar.

  • 1857: Dostoevsky marries his first wife.

  • 1860: Dostoevsky returns to St. Petersburg.

  • 1861: Czar Alexander II frees the Serfs.

  • 1862: Dostoevsky travels in Europe; he has an affair with a young student, Apollinariya, whom he considers his intellectual equal.

  • 1864: Notes from the Underground is published; his first wife, Maria, and brother die.

  • 1865: Dostoevsky returns to Europe; the relationship with Appolinariya ends; he gambles away what little money he has; he begins writing Crime and Punishment, which he eventually burns after returning to St. Petersburg.

  • 1866: Dostoevsky rewrites Crime and Punishment in installments for a literary magazine; with the help of a young stenographer named Anna, he writes The Gambler, which he finishes on October 30—his forty-fifth birthday.

  • 1867: Dostoevsky marries his stenographer, Anna, who is twenty-two at the time.

  • 1868: Dostoevsky’s daughter, Sofia, is born and dies within three months; The Idiot is published.

  • 1869: Dostoevsky’s daughter, Lyubov, is born.

  • 1871: Dostoevsky’s son, Fyodor, is born.

  • 1875: Dostoevsky’s so, Alexei (Alyosha), is born.

  • 1878: Alexei (Alyosha) dies.

  • 1881: Brothers Karamazov is finished; Dostoevsky dies following an epileptic seizure (February 19); Alexander II is assassinated (March 13).

Historical Background

Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment during a tumultuous and transitional time period in Russia. The novel is set in 19th century czarist Russia when major social, political, and intellectual transformations were taking place. While social and political uprisings were for the most part suppressed by the czar, new philosophical ideas such as Utilitarianism, Nihilism, and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch were taking root and threatening the traditional views and values of Russian society, including those of the Russian Orthodox church.  Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, in part, as a reaction to some of these new, and possibly what he perceived as dangerous, ideas.  

Reacting to what he perceives as the mediocrity, injustice, and intellectual cowardice of the society in which he lives, Raskolnikov struggles with the new philosophical ideas outlined above. What are Raskolnikov’s views regarding each philosophy? Through his thoughts and actions, what do we discover about each philosophy? Is each philosophy fundamentally flawed, or does Raskolnikov merely pervert its intentions?

Values Exercise: Morality

Big-Picture Questions

  • Are certain individuals “great”? If so, are these “great” individuals “above the law”?

  • Does society produce criminals, or are criminals born?

  • Can murder ever be justified for the common good?

  • What is the worst possible crime? What is the worst possible sin?

  • Are all criminals redeemable? Can all sinners atone for their sins?

  • How can society best deal with criminals?

  • How can human beings effectively cope with a guilty conscience?


  • Salvation through repentance and suffering

  • Danger of alienation from society and the need for socialization

  • The duality of human nature

  • The squalor and wretchedness of urban life

  • Danger of Nihilism and disbelief

  • Danger of putting one’s faith in man and science, the Ubermensch, instead of God

  • Love involves loyalty. For example, Sonia’s love and devotion to Raskolnikov.

  • No one is above the common human experience of suffering, the effects of one’s deeds, the law, and morality. For example, Raskolnikov cannot escape the consequences (both legal and moral) of his crime.

Setting, Symbolism, and Motifs

  • Setting, Symbols, and Motifs

    • Consider the physical setting, the temporal setting, the social setting, and the psychological setting
    • Consider the mircoculture and the macroculture
    • Homes and Apartments
    • City vs. Country
    • Poverty vs. Wealth
    • Water
    • Vegetation
    • Sun
    • Air
    • Earth
    • Dreams
    • Resurrection
    • The Cross
  • Characters

    • Positive characters
    • The former Raskolnikov who believed in traditional religious and emotional forces
    • Negative characters
    • The new Raskolnikov who believes in rational egoism

The Four Humors

The Four Humors

Setting and Symbolism: Analyze how Dostoevsky uses setting and symbolism to express conflict and gauge the inner state of characters.

Character Names

Raskolnikov vs. Raskolnikov

Cold, premeditated, insensitive

Important Philosophies (The –isms)

  • Utilitarianism

  • Egoism

  • Nihilism and Nietzsche’s Ubermensch

  • Existentialism

Utilitarianism “The History of Utilitarianism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, @

  • Utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good. There are many ways to spell out this general claim. One thing to note is that the theory is a form of consequentialism: the right action is understood entirely in terms of consequences produced. What distinguishes utilitarianism from egoism has to do with the scope of the relevant consequences. On the utilitarian view one ought to maximize the overall good — that is, consider the good of others as well as one's own good.

  • The Classical Utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, identified the good with pleasure, so, like Epicurus, were hedonists about value. They also held that we ought to maximize the good, that is, bring about “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.”

  • Utilitarianism is also distinguished by impartiality and agent-neutrality. Everyone's happiness counts the same. When one maximizes the good, it is the good impartially considered. My good counts for no more than anyone else's good. Further, the reason I have to promote the overall good is the same reason anyone else has to so promote the good. It is not peculiar to me.

  • All of these features of this approach to moral evaluation and/or moral decision-making have proven to be somewhat controversial and subsequent controversies have led to changes in the Classical version of the theory.

Egoism vs. Egotism

  • The words egoism and egotism are frequently confused, as though interchangeable, but there are distinctions worth noting. Both words derive from Latin ego (‘I’), the first-person singular pronoun. Egotism, the more commonly used term , denotes an excessive sense of self-importance, too-frequent use of the word ‘I,’ and general arrogance and boastfulness. Egoism, a more subtle term , is perhaps best left to ethicists, for whom it denotes a view or theory of moral behavior in which self-interest is the root of moral conduct. An egoist, then , might devote considerable attention to introspection, but could be modest about it, whereas an egotist would have an exaggerated sense of the importance of his or her self-analysis, and would have to tell everyone.

“Egoism.” Oxford Dictionaries. 2012. Oxford University Press. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.


Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy. While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes–epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness–have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with antifoundationalism.

Nihilism (cont.)

“Nihilism” comes from the Latin nihil, or nothing, which means not anything, that which does not exist. It appears in the verb “annihilate,” meaning to bring to nothing, to destroy completely. Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Jacobi used the word to negatively characterize transcendental idealism. It only became popularized, however, after its appearance in Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862) where he used “nihilism” to describe the crude scientism espoused by his character Bazarov who preaches a creed of total negation.

In Russia, nihilism became identified with a loosely organized revolutionary movement (1860-1917) that rejected the authority of the state, church, and family. In his early writing, anarchist leader Mikhael Bakunin (1814-1876) composed the notorious entreaty still identified with nihilism: “Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life–the passion for destruction is also a creative passion!” (Reaction in Germany, 1842). The movement advocated a social arrangement based on rationalism and materialism as the sole source of knowledge and individual freedom as the highest goal. By rejecting man’s spiritual essence in favor of a solely materialistic one, nihilists denounced God and religious authority as antithetical to freedom. The movement eventually deteriorated into an ethos of subversion, destruction, and anarchy, and by the late 1870s, a nihilist was anyone associated with clandestine political groups advocating terrorism and assassination.

Pratt, Alan. (3 May 2005). Nihilism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on 19 Nov. 2012 from


  • Neither the universe nor human life has any inherent or essential meaning; and absolute truth, absolute right, and absolute wrong do not exist; therefore, human beings must create their own realities and truths, their own meaning.

  • Despite the apparent absurdity, uncertainty, and meaninglessness of the universe, the world, and human life, human beings do have the capacity as well as the need to create meaningful lives for themselves, which can be done through philosophical inquiry and a quest for moral purpose.

  • Human beings can rise above the absurd, uncertain, and meaningless world and provide meaning in their lives by taking personal responsibility for their actions; by affirming the importance of human effort, honesty, and compassion; by saying, “Yes!”

  • The universe is unfathomable—enigmatic, immeasurable, and incomprehensible.

  • Human beings must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of freewill without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong, good or bad.

Existentialism: Camus and Shakespeare, Sisyphus and the Fool

In “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus tells the story of the mythical Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain and then have to let it fall back again of its own weight. “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn” (Camus 2000:109). One must imagine then Sisyphus victorious: fate and absurdity have been overcome by a joyful contempt. Scorn is the appropriate response in the face of the absurd; another name for this ‘scorn’ though would be artistic creation. When Camus says: “One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness” (Camus 2000:110) he writes about a moment of exhilarated madness, which is the moment of the genesis of the artistic work. Madness, but nevertheless profound – think of the function of the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear as the one who reveals to the king the most profound truths through play, mimicry and songs. Such madness can overcome the absurd without cancelling it altogether.

“Invictus” (1875) by William Ernest Henley, British Poet (1849-1903)

Out of the night that covers me, Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.

Part One: Discussion Points

  • Describe Raskolnikov’s relationship with Marmeladov (pp. 10-27). What does it reveal about his personality? Explain your answer.

  • Describe Raskolnikov’s reaction to his mother’s letter regarding Dounia’s engagement (pp. 41-47). What does it reveal about his personality? Explain your answer.

  • Describe Raskolnikov’s dream (pp. 57-62). What might it symbolize? Explain your answer.

  • Summarize the conversation Raskolnikov overhears in the tavern (pp. 66-69). What does his reaction to it reveal about his personality? Explain your answer.

  • Compare Raskolnikov’s actions and reactions on pages 26-27 and pages 51-52. How do these actions and reactions reveal his split personality? Explain your answer.

  • What is Raskolnikov’s motive for murder? Defend your answer with specific evidence from the text. Cite page numbers.

Part Two: Discussion Points

  • What does Raskolnikov do with the stolen purse that is in his pocket? What question does he ask himself about the purse? What does this suggest about his motive? (ch. 2, pp. 111-112)

  • What type of person is Razumihin? (ch. 2, pp. 114-115; ch. 3, p.124, 127)

  • What is the significance of the new clothes Razumihin purchases for Razkolnikov? (ch. 3, pp. 131-133)

  • Who is accused of committing the murder? (ch. 4, pp. 136-140)

  • What does Zossimov think about the murder? (ch. 4, pp. 141-144)

  • What is the nature of the debate between Luzhin, Razumihin, and Raskolnikov? What is significant about it? How does the this scene compare with the scene from Good Will Hunting? (ch. 5, pp. 149-151, 152-154)

  • What is the nature of the debate between Raskolnikov and Zametov? What is significant about it? (ch. 6, pp. 162-167)

  • What happens to Marmeladov, how does Rasolnikov react, and what does Raskolnikov’s reaction suggest about Raskolnikov? (ch. 7, pp. 176-195)

Harvard Bar Scene in Good Will Hunting and the debate between Luzhin and Razumihin in Crime and Punishment (pp. 150 and 203)

Which character is similar to Luzhin? Which character is similar to Razumihin? Which character is similar to Raskolnikov?

Part Three: Discussion Points

  • How is Razumihin’s “fate sealed”? (206)

  • What does Luzhin request in his letter? What is the tone of his letter? (219-220)

  • What does Raskolnikov admit to doing with the money that his mother sent to him? What tone does he take? (227-228)

  • What is the nature and tone of the discussion between Dounia and Raskolnikov? What is ironic about it? (231-234)

  • Describe the person who follows Sonia. (245)

  • In chapter five, Razumihin, Porfiry, and Raskolnikov debate the nature of crime. Summarize each character’s philosophy regarding crime. Which one do you agree with most? Which one do you agree with least? Explain. (256-265)

  • What is troubling Raskolnikov about his crime, the murder? (274-275)

  • Who inquires about Raskolnikov, and what does he tell Raskolnikov when Raskolnikov confronts him? (271-273)

  • What does Raskolnikov dream about? (276-278)

  • Who arrives at Raskolniov’s apartment? (278)

Part Four: Discussion Points

  • Why has Svidrigailov come to visit Raskolnikov? (279, 290)

  • Summarize Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov’s conversation about ghosts. Does Raskolinkov believe in ghosts and the afterlife? Why or why not? What are your thoughts on the subject? (287-288)

  • During their conversation, Svidrigailov continuously hints that he and Raskolvikov are alike. How are they alike?

  • What is the gossip that Luzhin shares regarding Svidrigailov? What is his motive for sharing it? (296-298)

  • How does Luzhin try to slander Raskolnikov? (302)

  • How does Luzhin try to control Dounia? What are the results? (304)

  • How does Luzhin feel about Raskolnikov at the end of section four, chapter three? Why does he feel this way? What does this feeling foreshadow? (305)

  • What makes Dounia “essential” to Luzhin? (306)

  • After reading pages 305-307, do you feel any sympathy toward Luzhin?

  • Why is Razumihin “delighted”? (307)

  • Explain what “passed between” Raskolnikov and Razumihin at the conclusion of section four, chapter three. (312-313)

  • Raskolnikov goes to visit Sonia in section four, chapter four. Summarize their conversation and discuss its significance.

  • Raskolnikov goes to see Porfiry in section four, chapter five. Summarize their conversation and discuss its significance.

  • What two ironic “twists of fate” occur in part four, chapter six?

Atonement and Redemption

NPR Staff. “A Mother Tries To Atone For A Deadly Hate Crime.” NPR Morning Edition. 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.

Part Five: Discussion Points

  • How does Luzhin slander Sonia? What is his motive? (386-392; 396-398)

  • When Raskolnikov confesses to Sonia, what reason does he give for committing the murders? (403-418)

  • What is Sonia’s reply to Raskolnikov’s confession? (403-418)

  • What does Svidrigailov promise to do? What is his motive? (431-432)

Are all criminals redeemable? Can all sinners atone for their sins?

Roy, Sandip. “From a Calcutta Prison to the Classical Stage.” National Public Radio. 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

Part Six: Discussion Points

  • What is the motive for Nikolay’s confession? (449) Does one need to “suffer”?

  • What is Porfiry’s analysis of the motive behind the murder? (450-451)

  • What is Porfiry’s advice to Raskolnikov? Should Raskolnikov follow it? (454-455)

  • How is Raskolnikov’s situation similar to Dimmesdale’s? (455-456)

  • What does Raskolnikov vow to do to Svidrigailov? Why? (458-459)

  • To whom is Svidrigailov engaged? Explain the circumstances surrounding the engagement. (474-475)

  • What happens between Svidrigailov and Dounia? Why does she lay down the pistol? Why does he stop his pursuit of her? (481-492)

  • What does Svidrigailov do to redeem himself? (476-477, 494-495, 496-497)

  • What are the two dreams Svidrigailov has before he shoots himself? What do they suggest about him? (499-506)

  • When Raskolnikov confesses to Dounia, what is his attitude regarding his crime? What does this suggest about him? What might Dostoyevsky be suggesting about the cause of crime/sin? (511-512)

  • What does Raskolnikov do before going to the police station to confess his crime? How do people react? Who follows him? What might Dostoyevsky be suggesting about the cause of crime/sin and how one can redeem oneself? (520-521)

Speigel, Alex. “Would Judge Give Psychopath With Genetic Defect Lighter Sentence?” NPR Morning Edition. 17. Aug. 2012. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.

Speigel, Alex. “Would Judge Give Psychopath With Genetic Defect Lighter Sentence?” NPR Morning Edition. 17. Aug. 2012. Web. 17 Aug. 2012.

Epilogue: Discussion Points

  • What is Raskolnikov’s sentence? Why was he given it? Do you agree with it? (529)

  • How does Raskolnikov’s situation compare with the philosophy of the transcendentalists, especially Thoreau’s experience on Walden Pond? (530, 534, 535-536)

  • Prior to his hospitalization, what evidence suggests that Raskolnikov is unrepentant? (536)

  • What causes Raskolnikov to have a change of spirit? (538)

  • How long does Rasolnikov remain in the hospital? Why is this significant? (538)

  • How is Raskolnikov ultimately saved? (540-542)

Extension and Enrichment

  • Read “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Camus and compare to Raskolniov’s views expressed on pages 533 and 535.

  • Read your the excerpt from Dante’s Inferno. How does Dante’s Inferno compare with Crime and Punishment?

  • Create a map of Dante’s Hell and place characters from Crime and Punishment in their respective Circles of Hell. For example, if Raskolnikov were similar to Dante making the journey through Hell, who would be Virgil? Who would be Beatrice?

    • “You're born from nothing.  You go back to nothing.  What do you lose?  Nothing!  So always look on the bright side of life!”—Monty Python (A truly existential argument!)

Assignment Options

  • Based on the chapter you were assigned for each section:

    • Write one multiple-choice question based on your reading.
    • Research something of interest from the reading. Bookmark the passage with a sticky note, make a copy of the material you researched, and write a paragraph summary of the passage and what the research suggests about it.
  • Find three passages that support one of the big-picture questions; bookmark them with sticky notes; and then write a paragraph identifying the big-picture question, citing each direct reference, and explaining how each direct reference supports the big-picture question.

  • Research a philosophy (an –ism) and discuss how that philosophy is illustrated in the novel.

  • Be prepared to discuss the reading guide questions.

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