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Here are summaries of the major themes of the novel. Familiarity with Dostoevsky's ideas makes it easier for you to understand what various events mean. It will also help you decide what to concentrate on as you study the novel.
1. THE CRIMINAL AS HERO
How would you feel about somebody who killed two women with an ax? Could you think of him sympathetically? Dostoevsky asks you to do just that in Crime and Punishment. But he creates a character who is part cold- blooded killer and part compassionate human being. The struggle between those two parts of Raskolnikov's character-his dual personality-is the central theme of the novel.
Dostoevsky explores his character's duality in several ways. He shows his protagonist's wildly contrasting actions and he compares Raskolnikov to vastly different people. Raskolnikov is like the self-sacrificing Dunya in his concern for people who need help, and like the decadent Svidrigailov in his extreme selfishness. He seeks the challenge of Porfiry, to test his intellectual powers, and the love of Sonia, to learn about the possibility of forgiveness. While readers may differ in their feelings about Raskolnikov, they all agree that his experiences are the central focus of the novel.
2. HUMAN LOVE AND DIVINE LOVE
Strangely enough, Crime and Punishment is a love story, or rather several love stories. When Raskolnikov is at last able to admit his love for Sonia and respect her enough to accept her beliefs, he begins his journey to salvation. In contrast, when his sister Dunya repels the advances of Svidrigailov, he commits suicide. Dostoevsky suggests that human love is an expression of divine love, with the power to save or damn.
While Raskolnikov's relationship with Sonia is not very romantic, Dostoevsky makes the attraction between Dunya and Razumikhin a more typical love story. Their marriage confirms that love provides hope and joy even when the situation is otherwise bleak. By extension, Dostoevsky suggests that Raskolnikov and Sonia will find a similar happiness.
What do you think Raskolnikov would have been like if he hadn't found Sonia? Would he have been as sympathetic a character?
3. THE POWER OF DREAMS
Dostoevsky is concerned with probing the world of dreams. Before and after the murder, Raskolnikov has dreams of such startling realism and power that he-and we, too-are not sure if they're dreams or real. Critics interpret the dreams in different ways sometimes; in the dream about the death of the horse (Part I, Chapter 5) various readers think that Raskolnikov resembles the little boy, or the murdering peasant, or the horse, or sometimes all three. But they all agree that Dostoevsky was innovative in using dreams to reveal deep psychological truths about human behavior and to examine the subconscious fears and desires that express themselves in dreams.
Notice, too, that both Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov have frightening dreams at the end of the novel. Both see themselves and their behavior as it really is. The dreams are so persuasive that each man makes a critical decision based on them.
4. CRIME AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
Dostoevsky analyzes the effect of criminal behavior, both on the perpetrator and on the people around him. The worst criminals-like Luzhin-think only of personal gain or of revenge. They are doomed to isolation and failure. Others, like Raskolnikov himself, commit more dreadful crimes. But because they can reestablish themselves with their fellow man and with God, they can be salvaged. Dostoevsky does show the effects of environment on the criminal, but he is primarily interested in the internal, not the external, causes of criminal behavior. He believes alienation is the key to both the causes and the consequences of crime.
Raskolnikov believes at first that there are crimes of principle, crimes committed to prove an intellectual point. Because some people are more brilliant or gifted than others, he thinks they have the right to commit crimes to accomplish their goals. What's more, he believes he is one of these extraordinary people.
Dostoevsky rejects the notion that crime can be justified, and he constructs the novel to persuade the reader to reject it, too. He also believes that a character is ultimately responsible for his own behavior and for the consequences of that behavior.