By closely examining the internal conflicts of its protagonist, Raskolnikov, the novel Crime and Punishment explores themes of guilt and redemption. Using a third-person omniscient narrator, Dostoyevsky is able to delve deeply into Raskolnikov’s troubled psychology, presenting Raskolnikov’s thoughts, emotions, and reactions as he plans, executes, and then confesses to the murder of the pawnbroker and her sister. This examination of Raskolnikov emphasizes Dostoyevsky’s idea that even the thought of harming others will subvert the human spirit, damaging the minds of perpetrators. Redemption, events suggest, is possible only through confession of guilt and an acceptance of personal responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions alike.
Raskolnikov’s internal conflict surfaces in the tension between his feelings of superiority over others and his sense of guilt over his own thinking and actions. As the novel begins, he contemplates committing the heinous act as he walks around his squalid neighborhood, feeling physically disgusted at the notion of killing someone. He renounces the thought, yet it has occurred, and that thought alone is harmful. He heads to a dark and dingy bar and stumbles into an alcohol-induced stupor, signaling a figurative descent into depravity.
Raskolnikov, in the novel’s inciting incident, reveals that his thoughts, his imagination alone, are enough to subvert the spirit: he determines that he will murder the pawnbroker. It is, he thinks, his destiny. He believes, as a matter of overcoming his own sense of inferiority, that he is a “superman,” someone who transcends the laws and rules that govern others. He wants to murder Alyona Ivanovna because he considers her inferior, someone crude, shabby, and with “eyes sparkling with malice.”
At the novel’s rising action begins, Raskolnikov’s thinking leads to the murder. However, out of necessity he finds himself killing Alyona’s sister Lizaveta as well. She is a simple woman who keeps her sister’s home clean. Raskolnikov, despite his twisted reasoning, cannot justify her murder to himself. No matter how morally justified he once might have considered his actions, they have devastating collateral effects, harming acknowledged innocents.
As the rising action continues, Raskolnikov descends into mental and physical degradation; guilt over the murders increasingly occupies his thinking. Almost immediately, he starts to feel paranoid, nervous, and restless, driven by a desire to get away with his crime. His mental and spiritual anguish, a conflict between his desire to confess and desire to escape, mark the start of his punishment. He has fainting spells whenever someone mentions the murders, and Porfiry Petrovich, a character with which Dostoevsky presents a psychological study of criminal behavior, begins to suspect him of the killings.
As the novel progresses, events reveal Raskolnikov’s increasing level of mental degradation. He becomes increasingly emotional, erratic, and reckless, as his compulsion to confess is at odds with his instinct for self-preservation. On multiple occasions, such as at the scene of the crime and at the Crystal Palace, he almost blurts out a confession, which further arouses Porfiry’s suspicions.
At the novel’s climax, Raskolnikov can no longer avoid the compulsion to find redemption, a fact foreshadowed through Dostoevsky’s use of the allegory of Lazarus, which signals a desire to return to life. He starts caring for others, wants to save his mother and sister from the pain of knowing what he has done, and finally confesses to Sonya. Like Lazarus’s return to the living, Raskolnikov starts slowly recovering his mental composure, resolving his inner conflict by recognizing himself to be human, not “superhuman.” He begins a return from self-imposed isolation from human society, forming a meaningful relationship with Sonya.
In the novel’s falling action, Raskolnikov continues on his redemptive journey by confessing to the police. He falters and even turns back once from the police station, but he sees Sonya and decides to follow through. Sonya’s righteous, selfless, and morally sound character serves as a foil to Raskolnikov, and it is through her that his redemption becomes complete. After his confession, Raskolnikov is tried and sent to a prison in Siberia.
The novel’s resolution finds Raskolnikov discovering love for Sonya while in prison. Ironically, it is in the forced isolation of his punishment that he forges a meaningful human connection for the first time in his life. Though Raskolnikov remains conceited and thinks of his actions more as mistakes than morally repugnant behaviors, Dostoevsky ends the story on a positive note, suggesting that the protagonist is on his way to a final redemption through his love for Sonya.