You don’t need to read that much into the book to learn what its plot is: it’s a story about a Russian axe-murderer who kills an old lady who runs a pawnshop seemingly for money and afterwards tries to hide what he did from the authorities. It’s a shocking premise, and yet the depth and complexity of this book has made it a lasting member in the list of the classics, as well as being perhaps one of the greatest Christian novels of all time.
Since the murder of the old woman happens within the first sixth of the book, the whole rest of the book is focused on the mind of the murderer, Raskolnikov, and this is where the full genius and depth of the book really comes in. When Doestoevsky initially wrote this book, he told his publisher that he intended it to be the psychological account of a crime that was committed by a young man who “had submitted to strange ‘incomplete’ ideas which float on the wind,” and that certainly comes out. Crime and Punishment explores the complexities of human psychology within the mind of a murderer like few other books do and portrays rather keenly how destructive a vice pride really is.
What is perhaps most interesting about the book from a literary perspective is its use of foil characters. Foil characters are minor characters who are similar to the main character in many ways—but who also have major differences that end up having a lot of relevance in the overall scope of the book. In Crime and Punishment, Doestoevsky uses a plethora of foil characters to show the readers different examples of who Raskolnikov could turn out to be depending on the choices he makes. Is he going to become like one of his noble friends, or one of his less savory acquaintances? The book makes for an interesting study of foil characters, so if you’re a fiction writer looking to make more use of them in your story, this is a good book to study.
But looking back at the overall thematic points of the book, perhaps one of the biggest struggles of the book is the struggle between darkness and light in its war for a man’s soul. The book is centered around the psychology of a murderer; Doestoevsky handles it tactfully as he explores the destructive ideas that lead a man to commit murder, but it does mean that a lot of the book is handling rather difficult subjects. Doestoevsky was a Realist author, which meant that he believed in portraying reality the way that it actually is, which can make certain sections of the book seemingly-without hope.
However, Doestoevsky was also a Christian, which means that even in the times of hopelessness, he still believed in hope and the real power of the Gospel. While I don’t want to spoil the end of the book, I do also want to note that the Gospel does break through in the end of the book in a very real way. The darkness of the book is real; but it exists to portray the astounding power of the Gospel to change lives and impart hope when there was none. As fallen as man can be, God’s grace far exceeds it. And that’s why Crime and Punishment is more than a worthy addition to the ranks of the classics.
1. Crime and Punishment is populated by a lot of foil characters to Raskolnikov.
Examine these foil characters and discuss how they end up influencing his character arc.
2. Discuss Raskolnikov’s relationship with Razhumin.
In what ways do they parallel and differ from each other?
3. Assess the morality of how Sonia decides to provide for her family.
How favorably or unfavorably do you view her actions? What do the Scriptures have to say about this?
4. Discuss the epilogue and what leads Raskolnikov to change.
Why is it that Raskolnikov takes so much time to finally turn?
Content Advisory: The book contains some language and can delve into some dark themes as it explores what leads the main character to murder the pawnbroker.