Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Poverty is ubiquitous in the St. Petersburg of Dostoevsky’s novel. Almost every character in the novel—except Luzhin, Svidrigailov, and the police officials—is desperately poor, including the Marmeladovs, the Raskolnikovs, Razumikhin, and various lesser characters. While poverty inherently forces families to bond together, Raskolnikov often attempts to distance himself from Pulcheria Alexandrovna and Dunya. He scolds his sister when he thinks that she is marrying to help him out financially; he also rejects Razumikhin’s offer of a job. Dostoevsky’s descriptions of poverty allow him to address important social issues and to create rich, problematic situations in which the only way to survive is through self-sacrifice. As a result, poverty enables characters such as Sonya and Dunya to demonstrate their strength and compassion.


Dostoyevsky employs the use of dream sequences to highlight the psychological realities the characters face but cannot express while awake. Before committing the murders, Raskolnikov dreams of his child-self watching a mare beaten to death. The revulsion of his child-self contrasts with the peasant’s belief that he can beat the mare with impunity because she’s his property, which mirrors the warring sides of Raskolnikov’s mind. Part of him is horrified by the idea of committing murder, while another part believes he has every right to commit it. After the murder, Raskolnikov has multiple nightmares that demonstrate his tormented psyche. For example, he dreams of murdering the pawnbroker again, but instead of dying, she laughs at him. This dream highlights how instead of proving Raskolnikov’s superiority, his crime has only proven his normalcy as he feels tormented by it. Finally, in Siberia, Raskolnikov dreams of a plague that makes humanity tear itself apart. This dream precedes Raskolnikov’s redemption through Sonya’s love, hinting that he is beginning to turn away from nihilist philosophies. Other characters experience vivid, psychologically relevant dreams, in particular Svidrigailov. His sequence of dreams lays bare to him his own depravity.


Multiple characters act as foils or doubles for Raskolnikov, usually to highlight an aspect of his psychology. His friend Razumikhin acts as his truest foil. Although he is also a poor student, Razumikhin generously attempts to help his friends. He is heroic and admirable, whereas Raskolnikov, for all his claims of being a “superman,” comes off as weak, pathetic, and isolated. As Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya also serves as a point of comparison. She is her brother’s opposite: dutiful to her family, calm and collected under persecution, and unable under any circumstance to kill. Her maturity highlights Raskolnikov’s immaturity. Raskolnikov also seeks kinship in Sonya, who takes on a job as a sex worker to support her family and therefore, like Raskolnikov, has sinned according to society. However, Sonya’s true selflessness and strong moral character only emphasizes the selfishness of Raskolnikov’s motives and the lack of clarity he has in his feelings about his crime. Finally, the irredeemable Svidrigailov appears as an example of who Raskolnikov believes he wants to be: someone who commits crimes and acts according to impulse with cool detachment. Raskolnikov, however, is sickened and terrorized by his crime, incapable of such amorality.