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The central conflict in Crime and Punishment stems from Raskolnikov's crime of murder and his struggles with his conscience over whether or not he should confess to the police. At one level, therefore, it is a kind of detective story where the police seek the criminal, and he evades arrest until the last pages of the novel.
On a deeper level, the conflict springs from Raskolnikov's exaggerated theories of "the extraordinary man" and how such western ideas are opposed to the Slavophile concepts indigenous to Russia. The novel also highlights the eternal conflict between the forces of good and those of evil.
Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky's novel, is a handsome and brilliant law student who holds firm but unusual views. He believes that certain superior people in a society stand above the ordinary human and moral laws. To test his thesis, he murders an old woman that is a greedy moneylender. He feels her death is no great loss to society because she preys upon the misery and poverty of her fellow humans.
After the dastardly deed, he is seized by alternate moods of great cunning with which he tries to outwit the police and moments of nagging guilt when he resolves to confess his crime. However, he does not confess until the last chapter of the novel. Through this fascinating study of a criminal's conscience, Dostoevsky also examines complex intellectual theories about human reason and the 'will to power.' Such theories were made popular in mid- nineteenth century Europe by German philosophers like Hegel and Nietzsche.
On the surface level, the antagonist is apparently the police force of St. Petersburg, especially Porfiry Petrovitch, who investigates the murders that Raskolnikov has committed. All through the novel, the murderer attempts to evade arrest and to mislead the police. However, on a deeper level, the very order of autocratic society in Tsarist Russia seems to be the antagonist against whom Raskolnikov is pitted. He theorizes that vicious, predatory humans like the pawnbroker are evil and deserve to be eliminated in a society that permits such vile people to prosper.
Raskolnikov also believes that some "extraordinary" humans like himself have the right to transgress and oppose ordinary social laws in order to create a new and more just social order. At another level, ironically, Raskolnikov himself may also be looked upon as the antagonist of conventional society and its unjust system.
Throughout the novel, Raskolnikov toys with the idea of confessing his guilt. However, he never manages to do so. At last, in the concluding chapters of Part V, he finally brings himself to reveal to Sonia that it was he who murdered the moneylender and her half-sister, Lizaveta. Although she is deeply shocked by his terrible revelation, Sonia promises to share in Raskolnikov's future sufferings and punishment in a Siberian prison camp. Raskolnikov's redemption begins here, after having established a connection with Sonia, but his actual confession to the police occurs at the close of Part VI.
Part VI of Crime and Punishment focuses on Raskolnikov's final moments of hesitation before he confesses to the police. It deals with unresolved issues, like Dounia's escape from Svidrigailov, and the latter's suicide. Freed from his repulsive attentions, she is able to marry Razumihin with Raskolnikov's full approval.
In the Epilogue that rounds off the story, the reader hears details of Raskolnikov's trial, where friends gave testimony about his generosity and his noble character. This perhaps helps him to obtain a rather light sentence of eight years in a Siberian prison camp. His mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, falls ill during the trial and dies soon afterward. She is never told of her son's terrible crime or his sentence.
Sonia follows Raskolnikov to Siberia using the money left to her by Svidrigailov and his wife. In prison, Raskolnikov is at first quite distant and cold to his fellow prisoners and even a bit antagonistic towards Sonia. Her devotion to him impresses the other prisoners and they consider her to be an angel of mercy. After a long period of illness and alienation in the first year of his imprisonment, Raskolnikov finally realizes how good and kind Sonia is to him. Thus, he slowly rehabilitates himself into the world of human understanding and compassion. After taking the reader to the depths of human suffering, this novel ends happily.