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PLOT ANALYSIS (Structure)
Dostoevsky's great dramatic narrative has six separate parts, with an epilogue divided into two smaller sections. Central to the whole story are the dual murders committed by Raskolnikov. He plans and executes them within the space of a chapter in Part I. The remaining five parts of the novel are devoted to the gradual unfolding of his suppressed guilt. They trace in detail the slow evolution of his punishment and sufferings, both physical and psychological. The Epilogue tells of his trial and imprisonment in Siberia where, at last, he begins the slow process of his moral regeneration and emotional re-integration into ordinary human society.
Central to the structure of Crime and Punishment is the character of Raskolnikov. The plot of the novel unfolds around him; for the most part, the reader lives in his consciousness and experiences the occurrences in the book through the perceptions of the protagonist. Dostoevsky portrays Raskolnikov as a complex and puzzling character who seems to be a sort of split personality. On the one hand, he is cold and calculating, as seen in the manner he plans and executes the murder, as well as in his skill in evading detection. On the other hand, the reader often sees him as a kind and helpful soul, always willing to offer assistance and sympathy to those in distress. Despite the conflicts in his character that seem to tear him apart, the character of Raskolnikov gives the novel a sense of cohesion and artistic unity.
Apparently, Dostoevsky's aim is to depict the essential conflicts in mid-19th-century Russian national life through his brilliant study of the contradictions in the personality of this young law student. Raskolnikov represents, in part, the fate of young Russian intellectuals who faced social injustice and moral degeneration under the tsarist autocracy, but found they could do very little to reform society. Hence, they turned to revolutionary ideas, often derived from Western Europe, represented by Raskolnikov's radical views on crime and the 'extraordinary' man. These disgruntled Russians often turned quite cynical, if not utterly nihilistic, in their attitudes.
Gradually, such radical opinions led their defenders to believe they could commit any crime if their goal was to benefit suffering humanity. They were thus alienated from the established codes of social authority and common morality, often even defying the existing laws. This led them to be no less evil or degenerate than those whom they sought to eliminate from society for society's own good, as they claimed. Thus, Raskolnikov, whose action and thinking holds the entire narrative together, is essentially dualistic in his inner nature and becomes a difficult character to understand. From this point of view, Crime and Punishment can be regarded as a novel whose plot focuses both on the character of its protagonist as well as on the character of Russian society in general.
The two murders that Raskolnikov commits ironically represent a crime against common humanity (two helpless women) and also a crime for humanity. Raskolnikov considers Alena Ivanovna a parasite because she preys upon the misery of the poor by lending money at exorbitant interest rates. Hence, she must be eradicated from society. This crime, with its dual implications, sets off dual reactions in its perpetrator. On the one hand, he is an isolated individual pitted against an unfeeling and hostile world. On the other hand, he endures a soul-wrenching inner conflict between his ethical awareness of evil and his desire to reform society through drastic means. The latter trait makes him cynical and doubtful of any goodness in this world. So he refuses to redeem himself by confessing.
These contradictory impulses in Raskolnikov's character lie at the very core of the novel. This dichotomy makes him vacillate between extremes of willful behavior, wherein he sees himself as a superior person, and moments of low self-esteem, during which he appears meek and submissive to the forces around him. Against his cold, inhumane and detached intellect, Dostoevsky juxtaposes the sympathetic, humane aspect of Raskolnikov's character. In this respect, his opposing traits can be seen as extensions of what appears separately in Sonia, who is meek and submissive, and Svidrigailov, who is violently willful.
Obviously, through this contrast between Raskolnikov's views on the Hegelian and Nietzschean concepts of a superman, and Porfiry's indigenous or Slavophillic view point, Dostoevsky is able to structure his novel into a sociological commentary on the need for reform in 19th century Russian society. The problem of Raskolnikov's duality is symptomatic of both the individual psyche and the soul of a nation caught in the turmoil of social change. Besides, elements of this duality are also distributed among various other characters such as Sonia, Porfiry and Svidrigailov.
By probing deeply into this dichotomy in the character of Raskolnikov and those around him, Dostoevsky gives to his novel an essential unity of plot and makes it an artistic whole. The two extremes of individual self-centeredness, and self-denial or sacrifice, are the novelist's primary concern in his construction of the plot for Crime and Punishment. A closely linked purpose is to study the psychology of the murderer and to analyze the effects of his horrible deed. Thus, by the end of novel, Dostoevsky is able to restore the moral balance of social laws by returning Raskolnikov to human society and re-establishing his ability to discern the differences between good and evil, hope and despair, love and hatred, cynicism and faith.
Thus, the structure of this great novel is designed to expose the dangers of excessive individualism that may begin in a seemingly humanist quest. Dostoevsky shows clearly that the ends, however noble, never justify the means used to secure them. Raskolnikov's crime must meet with its inevitable punishment.