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The novel Crime and Punishment is a lengthy debate on the topic of what constitutes crime and how it should be punished. Dostoevsky presents many differing opinions on the topic through the various characters. There is one central crime in the novel, the murder of Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanovna by Rodion Raskolnikov, but there are many other crimes depicted along the way to further the debate. The main questions brought up repeatedly throughout the novel have to do with scale. Is there such a thing as a justified crime? Are some crimes worse than others and where is the line drawn? Raskolnikov presents a very clear point of view on these matters and continues to defend this position in the face of many other viewpoints as presented by the other characters.
The debate initially centers on the crime of murder, as that is the first crime we witness. Raskolnikov believes that some murders are in fact justified, and elaborates on this point throughout the course of the novel. He views the murder he commits as completely justified because Alyona Ivanovna was a pawnbroker who took advantage of the poor and caused much suffering in many people’s lives. He believes that it is just to kill one when it benefits many. He repeatedly refers to her as a “louse” in order to justify her death. As the novel progresses he also begins to attempt to justify it with statements such as, “it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!” (Dostoevsky, 274).
Raskolnikov’s argument becomes known to the other characters through an article that he wrote while still a student. This article divides the population into two groups, those who are somewhat above the rules and allowed to commit justified crimes, and those who are ordinary, who are supposed to live like sheep and merely follow the laws blindly. In a key scene in the novel, Porfiry Petrovich and Razumikhin debate whether criminal behavior originates in nature or nurture, which leads Porfiry to bring up the article to provoke Raskolnikov into debate as well. Raskolnikov explains that, “the ‘extraordinary’ man has… his own right to … step over certain obstacles… in the event that the fulfillment of his idea – sometimes perhaps salutary for the whole of mankind—calls for it” (Dostoevsky, 259). He then emphasizes that the extraordinary do not possess the right to kill as they please; they may only murder when it is necessary to the achievement of their goal. This debate also sheds light on two other perspectives on crime as demonstrated by Razumikhin and Porfiry. Razumikhin vehemently denounces the view that all crime comes purely out of environmental factors and is not attributed to the criminal’s nature at all, while Porfiry argues that the environment is essential in creating criminals.
The matter of scale of a crime seems to be based on a few factors. Raskolnikov mentions that the “extraordinary” people can kill when the murders are for the benefit of the rest of mankind. However, from what we see of the other crimes that are committed, it becomes clear that the worst offense in his mind is exploitation. The people who are presented as the vilest are the ones who exploit others to further their own gain. The reason Raskolnikov feels justified in killing Alyona is because she exploits the poor and takes advantage of those in bad situations. Later in the novel, Raskolnikov also encounters Luzhin and Svidrigailov, both of whom have completely callous attitudes toward crime. Svidrigailov is said to have caused the deaths of several other people and attempts to exploit Raskolnikov in order to gain access to Dunya. Luzhin attempts to exploit Sonya, in order to get revenge on Raskolnikov for helping to break up his relationship with Dunya. Raskolnikov has low opinions of both of these men and the way they exploit the innocent.
Other characters in the book seem to be the “ordinary” people that Raskolnikov describes in his theory of crime. They follow the law and do not consider it okay to go outside the law for any reason. Many of these characters are also very religious and thus strongly believe in repenting and suffering for one’s sins. These characters include Sonya Marmeladova, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, and Mikolka. All of them firmly believe that those who commit crimes should admit to them and be sent to jail so that they may suffer for their sins.
A final viewpoint on crime is brought about by Arkady Svidrigailov and Pyotr Luzhin, who seem to be callous with regards to crime and commit crimes without having any noble ideals behind them. Both of them are depicted as more immoral than Raskolnikov and their crimes are demonstrated as worse than his. Svidrigailov takes advantage of young women and tries to force himself on Dunya and Petrovich tries to slander Sonya in order to get revenge on Dunya for rejecting him. Both of these crimes serve only selfish purposes and have no greater worth to humanity, so Raskolnikov views them as unjustified and thus, actually immoral, crimes
Along with the many views of crime that we learn about during the course of the novel, there are several views of punishment. The religious, “ordinary” people are the most outwardly concerned with punishment. When Raskolnikov first confesses his crime to Sonya her first instinct is to tell him to announce it to the world and accept his suffering so that he may repent. Their focus is on the sinful aspect of the crime, rather than the legal one. People must be punished for their sins so that they may go to heaven and that punishment involves suffering. This viewpoint even leads Mikolka to falsely confess to killing the Ivanovnas, so that he may obtain suffering to fix his own life.
The characters who have committed crimes in the novel all show a tendency to punish themselves despite having gotten away with the crime. Raskolnikov spends the entire novel alternately being terrified of getting caught and wanting to turn himself in. During this time he becomes deliriously ill as a result of the combination of guilt and fear, which is the first part of his punishment. He has the rather Lady Macbethian predicament of seeing blood everywhere and feeling as though he is covered in blood frequently. He chooses to absolve himself of this guilt by helping others, which causes his illness to lift and the end to the sightings of blood. In this manner, he repents for the crime without turning himself in and no longer feels any remorse for what he has done. Meanwhile, Svidrigailov also has gotten away with several crimes and shows no such signs of self-flagellation. In fact, he even brags about his offenses to Raskolnikov and appears to have no desire to change until his encounter with Dunya. After this encounter, he too gives all his money to those he has hurt and then publicly kills himself. This public suicide is yet another example of atonement; it is a public admission of his guilt and an expression of his wish to no longer hurt others.
The self-flagellation view of punishment is one that Porfiry Petrovich takes advantage of. As a detective, he is fascinated with the psychology of various people and uses psychology to lure criminals in. He figures out that Raskolnikov is the one who actually committed the murder early on, but has no concrete evidence that links him to the crime. Instead, he realizes that if he preys on Raskolnikov’s guilt and remorse, he will eventually drive him to confess to the crime. The combination of Porfiry’s mind games and Sonya’s request that he turn himself in, in order to atone for his sin, results in the only example of punishment by the law in the novel. During his time in prison he feels no remorse or repentance for the crime that he has committed and seems to have become firmly entrenched in the idea that his crime was completely justified and allowable. He had already repented for the crime to himself by giving the money to Sonya’s family when they needed it and is merely serving his jail time to appease the others, rather than out of his own desire to repent.
This novel presents an interesting perspective on the shades of grey that are involved in crime and morals. The majority of the novel is spent debating the ethics of when it is okay to kill someone and what kind of crimes can possibly be considered conscionable. The question quickly changes from “Is it okay to kill someone?” to “When is it okay to kill someone?” and then examines a whole other range of crimes. No one commits a crime without some sort of consequence, whether the crime is justified or not.
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