Theme is a general idea, belief or point of view presented in a literary piece. Themes in Crime and Punishment, a masterpiece of Fyodor Dostoevsky, are aplenty. Not only does the novel present the dilemma of greatness, but also shows the ways to achieve it through personal reflection, demonstrate alienation of an individual and depict social complications. Some of the major themes in Crime and Punishment have been discussed below.
Themes in Crime and Punishment
Alienation of an individual in a society is one of the major themes of the novel. Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the novel, takes pride in what he sees as his act of achieving greatness, even if that act is equivalent to a crime. This self-reflection over the act separates him from the rest of the people around him, including his mother and sister, Dunya. Also, he thinks that other people are tools of the big scheme imagined by his intellectual capability. As the guilt grows deeper, he faces extreme delirious mood swings. He pushes away his well-wishers including his best friend, Razumikhin and kind police officer, Porfiry Petrovic. He also avoids his mother, sister, and Sonya, his loyal beloved. He finds himself alienated throughout the story until he accepts Sonya’s love.
Psychology of Crime
Raskolnikov commits a crime in the early part of the novel because he needs money to achieve greatness. He keeps dodging the law until the very end of the story. However, the novel focuses on the middle points that a criminal is not always a bad person or a mentally ill. However, they are also genius and intellectual who first generalize things and then apply to a specific situation. Despite his justifications, he comes across wavering, doubt, delirium, despair and extreme mental conflict when he sees his world falling around him. The author focuses on the post-effects of the murder and its impacts on the mind of the criminal. It doesn’t apply to all the criminals. However, a few crimes are committed only out of dire need. Porfiry Petrovic’s argument that Raskolnikov’s crime demonstrates his motives seems to be true. It shows that he understands his psychological condition and its force that could force him into taking that action. His conclusion about Raskolnikov also proves true by the end when he is punished.
Raskolnikov assumes he is a superman at the beginning of the novel. He believes that he possesses an exceptional ethical framework than others. He also thinks if greatness comes with a murder, then every great person does it. This idea sets him apart from the rest of the people. Hence, he thinks that he is above the law. However, when he comes to face the ensuing mental conflict, he comes to know that it is all a hollow thinking. There is no superman or supermind. He is a common person, who committed a moral, ethical and legal crime by killing a person. This admission leads to his confession, though, he delays it until the end when the law enforces dispatches him to Siberia as a punishment. Moreover, the final confession of love to Sonya, too, makes him realize that he is a common person and not a superman.
Crimes and Morality
Crimes, morality and the ensuing sense of guilt are some other thematic strands in the book. There is no doubt that Raskolnikov has committed a grave crime and deserves punishment. However, at first, he assures himself that such crimes are often committed by great people – a bizarre justification for his crime. As he becomes aware of his crime, he becomes mentally unstable. He initially claims that a pawnbroker has no morals and that her death does not matter. Later, his transformed behavior alters in the story. Moreover, as an intellectual, Raskolnikov has already voiced his opinion to give legitimacy to his action when he wrote a magazine article to claim that great people always commit a crime, giving examples from history. When he comes to know about Sonya’s prostitution and Marmeladov’s alcoholic addiction, he is redeemed.
Free Will and Coincidence
Raskolnikov’s act of murdering two old ladies poses a serious question to the readers whether he has free will, or it is just a chance he had taken. If there were no painters, Raskolnikov might not have escaped. His meeting with Marmeladov is also a chance. When Marmeladov is run over, he assists his family. Coincidently, he later meets Sonya who becomes his close friend and love. Dunya’s meeting and seduction by Svidrigailov is also a coincidence. However, because of free will, she does not fall prey to his plotting.
Raskolnikov seems to touch the brink of madness after murdering two people. His lifestyle demonstrates his mental collapse. He talks to himself in public and continues staying in the bed without eating for days. His aimless roaming in Petersburg and mindless actions show that his friends and relatives have sensed his madness or near-madness situation. Marmeladov’s alcoholic addiction is also a type of madness. However, he does not face the same mental conflict as Raskolnikov. Marmeladov’s wife faces madness after his death. Dunya rejects Svidrigailov and almost kills him. Later, as he could not bear the rejection, he commits suicide.
Sufferings redeem as well as destroy an individual. Raskolnikov suffers from mental torture after killing two women. Even Sonya suffers materially because of her father’s alcoholic addiction. The sufferings destroy Raskolnikov’s mental capability. On the contrary, it redeems Sonya when she helps him. Sonya is a source of redemption for Raskolnikov. Moreover, suffering also means to suffer from financial and physical hardships. Marmeladov’s addiction leads his family to suffer from poverty. Sonya is forced into prostitution for the same reason.
Nihilism means nothingness or the rejection of humanitarian bonds or any other relations for materialism. Raskolnikov’s murder of Alyona and her sister is based on purely practical grounds. The valuables or money stolen was not to achieve high status or greatness. His comments about her that she was a louse and has been better off the social radar points to this thematic idea. At first, Raskolnikov is a nihilist. However, later when he discovers his love for Sonya, he leaves it.
Every society has a moral framework used by people to justify their actions. Abandoning this framework is dangerous to society. However, there are also exceptions. Raskolnikov justifies his murders on the logical grounds that he wants to achieve greatness. Later, he becomes a victim of an ethical dilemma. The morality of that time of Russia does not allow him to murder merely for his desire of achieving greatness. That is why Razumikhin argues that living souls should be given preference over close abstract concepts.
Utilitarianism is associated with nihilism. It means the happiness of the greater number of people. Raskolnikov gives justification to his crime of killing the old woman on the basis of utilitarianism arguing that the old lady deserves death as she was not practically useful for society.