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The dominant theme of Dostoevsky's classic novel is obviously stated in its title. Ostensibly, it deals with the crime of murder and the punishment that follows it. It is a profoundly psychological treatment of the murderer's criminal instincts (or lack thereof) and his dual personality. Dostoevsky focus much of his attention in Crime and Punishment on the rather obscure and contradictory motives that prompt Raskolnikov to commit the extreme action of murder. He combines this theme of criminal behavior with the allied theme of moral redemption through suffering.
As in most of Dostoevsky's fiction, one of the central concerns in this novel is the portrayal of the world of human suffering. Thematically, the structure of Crime and Punishment may be regarded as a pyramid of ideas. The broad foundation or base of this pyramid is made of intricate portrayals of human suffering: Raskolnikov's wrestling with his conscience, Sonia's humiliation as a prostitute, or the social and financial degradation of Katerina, Marmeladov and her family. Dostoevsky peoples the universe of this novel with a vast range of characters, most of whom suffer for a wide variety of complex reasons, stemming from personal or societal factors.
From this broad foundation of human suffering rises the massive problem of duality within the central character. Raskolnikov's rebellious streak alternates with moments of docility. His defiance of moral and social authority, as well as his pride in his intellect, is contrasted with his abject fear of the consequences of his crime and the weakening of his mental state after the murder. At the apex of this thematic pyramid, Dostoevsky takes up the philosophical problems of life and death and the eternal conflict between good and evil.
Undoubtedly, Dostoevsky is a master artist when it comes to depicting the vast gamut of human suffering, from the physical torture of the human being to the terrifying anguish of the human soul. The scenes of physical punishment, such as Svidrigailov's whipping of his wife, the flogging of a horse to death by its drunken owner, or the violent scene of the dual murder, affect any sensitive reader of the novel. However, such incidents of purely corporal punishment pale in comparison with the scenes of psychological degradation, such as Sonia's humiliation when she turns to prostitution at the age of seventeen to support her drunken father's family, or Luzhin's false accusations against Sonia.
Another moment of great suffering in the novel is the death of Katerina Marmeladov. First, she suffers social and economic deprivation after the death of her first husband, the army officer. Then, her second husband turns out to be a drunkard who is unable to provide for his family. At the death of Marmeladov, she and her children are forced into a life of beggary on the streets. This leads to her total physical and psychological deterioration. At the point of her death, she stoutly refuses help from doctors or priests. She feels she has suffered so much that God will accept her just as she is.
However, the greatest suffering is reserved for Raskolnikov. His eventual salvation is closely linked to his capacity to undergo great suffering. He commits his first murder under the false notion that he is helping to reduce the sufferings of humanity by getting rid of a predatory social parasite. Ironically, he winds up killing her half- sister, Lizaveta, although he had no intention of doing so. Now Raskolnikov must suffer intensely the consequences of his ignoble actions. His sufferings begin soon after the crime, in the form of intermittent bouts of illness, irrational outbursts of anger and terrifying nightmares.
More than all this, his greater sufferings spring from his total social isolation after the murders. He is unable to trust himself and his sordid secret with his friends or even his close family members. Most of all, his inability to confess his crime torments his soul and shatters his peace of mind. Until he can bring himself to reveal his guilt and thus suffer his due punishment, he cannot re-integrate himself into normal human society.
Soon after the murders, he thinks of confession but shrinks from it almost at once. Then, in the next chapter, he thinks of confessing again when he is summoned to the police station: "If they question me . . . I'll go in, fall on my knees and confess everything." Twice more, in the same chapter, he toys with the idea of confession but cannot summon up the courage to do so. At the close of Part II, when he meets Zametov, the police clerk, he almost confesses to the crime by reconstructing it hypothetically. He even taunts Zametov with the insolent statement: "And what if it was I who murdered the old woman and Lizaveta?" Later, when he observes the woman who attempts suicide in the river, he once again thinks of confessing. When he revisits the scene of the crime, he offers to go to the police with the men there and confess all he knows about the murders.
Again in Part III, he realizes with growing desperation that his crime has left him "alone, utterly alone." Instead of freeing him to become the "extraordinary man" he dreams of being, it has not raised him above the fears and guilt of any ordinary human. After defending his theory of crime before Porfiry and hearing a stranger call him a "murderer," he again feels the need to confess. Once more in Part IV, after Sonia reads to him the story of Lazarus, he leaves her with the startling revelation that he will tell her all about the murders on the next day. Here, he almost confesses the truth to Sonia but postpones the dreaded moment by a day.
Finally, at their next meeting, he reveals to Sonia the sordid truth about his crimes. Yet he cannot bring himself to confess his deed at the public crossroads, as Sonia suggests. When he goes to the police station in the final chapter of Part VI, he hesitates confessing to the clerk who is on duty and turns away. However, on seeing Sonia's crestfallen face outside, he steels himself to go back and say: "It was I who killed the old pawn broker and her sister, Lizaveta." Thus, on a dozen occasions or more, Raskolnikov is tempted to confess and relieve the pressures of his guilt, but he cannot do so until the very end. This inability to come to terms with himself and his own heinous crimes constitutes in itself his worst punishment.
It is his fear of humiliation and public disgrace that keeps him from confessing all through the novel. This weakness defines Raskolnikov as an ordinary human being with the usual human sensitivities. If he were "extraordinary," according to his own theory, he would have risen above his fears. He would have blatantly told the whole world the horrible truth about himself, just as Sonia advised him to do at the crossroads. His fear of discovery and his sense of shame over his crime also cut him off from all human contact. He tries to avoid his mother, his sister and even his best friend, Razumihin.
Finally, he is released from his fears when he finds the courage to confess, face the world, and suffer his due punishment. Thus, Raskolnikov's crime and its resulting punishments, the agonies of isolation, the pangs of a guilty conscience, and the fears about confessing the crime all form the central theme of this novel. It must be noted, however, that Raskolnikov hardly feels a sense of remorse over his crime or a twinge of regret for the two women he has killed. Only after a year of imprisonment does he begin to fraternize with his fellow prisoners and slowly awaken to the virtues of love and supreme self-sacrifice that Sonia has shown him all through the novel.