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Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Contents

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

Study Questions

1.

Why does Raskolnikov kill the pawnbroker?

Raskolnikov gives a number of different reasons for murdering Alyona, many of which involve pride. The clearest, most powerful reason seems to be a desire to prove his superiority to the rest of humanity. But he also claims, at times, that he committed the crime for utilitarian reasons—that the death of such a despicable “louse” would increase society’s overall happiness—or that he did it solely out of a need for money. The narrator suggests in Part I that Raskolnikov’s physical hunger, the squalid environment in which he lives, and his poor health may be responsible for weakening any impulses that might have prevented him from committing the murder.

Raskolnikov’s deeper motivations for the murder are abstract, intellectual, and oddly rational. The discussion of Raskolnikov’s article “On Crime” introduces the philosophical justifications for such a murder. In the article, Raskolnikov posits a class of “superm[e]n,” who are superior, he argues, to the vast majority of humanity and thus have the right to violate moral codes. These ideas are strongly connected to nihilism, a philosophy rampant in late-nineteenth-century Russia that scorned traditional familial and societal bonds as well as emotional motivations. Central to nihilism was utilitarianism, the concept that moral decisions should be based on the rule of the greatest happiness for the largest number of people. Although the inner turmoil that Raskolnikov experiences from the moment that he commits the crime is a far cry from the superiority and righteousness with which the abstract “superman” is supposed to commit his crimes, Raskolnikov’s justifications for the pawnbroker’s murder are strongly utilitarian and nihilist.

2.

Discuss the development of the poverty motif over the course of the novel.

Almost everyone in the novel is struggling for money and the pressing need of it serves as a constant reminder of unhappiness. Most striking are the poverty of Raskolnikov and that of Marmeladov and his family. Raskolnikov’s poverty becomes part of his motivation for killing the pawnbroker, since he perceives of her death as a chance to get enough money to resume his education and make progress toward a better life. His poverty also, at least in his own mind, becomes a motivation for Dunya to marry Luzhin, though, of course, Dunya is motivated by her own poverty as well. The Marmeladovs’ situation is obviously more severe. Marmeladov’s drunkenness, Katerina Ivanovna’s illness, and Sonya’s turning to prostitution all vividly demonstrate the vicious cycle in which the economically and socially downtrodden are caught. Over the course of the novel, the causes and consequences of this kind of poverty are made increasingly clear, as various characters make sacrifices and important decisions based on their desperate need for money.

At the end of the novel, Svidrigailov’s generosity changes the tone. Suddenly, and almost miraculously, everyone has enough money to do what he or she needs to do. One can interpret this sudden change either as an unrealistic deus ex machina—an obvious contrivance on the part of the author to salvage a seemingly hopeless situation for his or her characters—or as hopeful evidence of the power of faith, or at least good luck, to make the most important things in life possible.

3.

Discuss Dostoevsky’s use of coincidence as a plot device in the novel. Does it affect the plausibility of the narrative? How does it affect the pacing?

Crime and Punishment abounds with coincidences. Two examples are Raskolnikov’s overhearing of a discussion about killing the pawnbroker, which solidifies his resolve to commit the murder, and his discovery of the injured Marmeladov in the street. The first example is crucial to Raskolnikov’s psychology. Although he is extremely reluctant to kill Alyona before he overhears the conversation, one can argue that he truly desires to kill her and is simply waiting for a sign that he is fated to do so. Support for this claim can be found in the fact that when he overhears that Alyona will be alone at home the next evening, he senses that circumstances support his decision to commit the murder. Raskolnikov’s pride is tied up with what he interprets as coincidences and, even before the murder, he is somewhat paranoid and ready to read deep meanings into ostensibly trivial incidents.

The coincidence of Raskolnikov coming across the just-injured Marmeladov, on the other hand, makes no statement on his character. Rather, it serves primarily to advance the plot and give the narrative an almost frantic feeling. In fact, seemingly at every turn, Raskolnikov runs into some unexpected person or thing that drives the plot onward. Nearly every event or encounter contributes to the forward momentum of the plot, and the virtual lack of actionless time periods in the novel gives it a rushed, delirious pacing that serves to reflect Raskolnikov’s own state of mind.

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