Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment Essay

blog image

Any student enrolled in a course in 19th century literature, will undoubtedly read works by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the most common novel for reading and discussion will be Crime and Punishment. It is an important work for two reasons:

  1. It ushered in the beginning of realism in literature, during which subjects and themes became psychological, behavioral, and with settings that were actually existent.
  2. It is one of the first works of fiction that dealt with modern psychology as a theme.

And once the novel is read, there will most certainly be at least one essay assignment. That essay assignment, moreover, will not be a simple book review – there is simply too much in this novel to relegate it to a cursory treatment. Even so, the plot is a good one. Raskolnikov is a young student who believes that he is somehow more worthy of life than those of lesser intellect and who are what he considers “vile.” He talks himself into the notion that if someone of his quality should murder someone who is vile, that the murder should go unpunished. Carrying out his notion, he murders a female pawn shop owner and her sister. Raskolnikov soon finds out that, in fact, his inner psyche is riddled with guilt, and yet he certainly doesn’t want to be caught. The remainder of the novel concerns his own guilt and anguish about what he has done, and a series of psychological games that he and Inspector Porfiry play, until he ultimately confesses and is sent to Siberia for 8 years, where he has the opportunity to atone for his sin through an appropriate punishment. This novel is also a bit biographical, in that Fyodor Dostoyevsky himself spent 10 years in Siberia.

On another level, the novel is about sin, forgiveness and redemption. He is forgiven by his romantic partner and, he believes, by his God, because of his genuine contriteness over what he has done and his new found belief that all men are children of God and thus have worth.

Potential Crime and Punishment Essay Topics

If you have a choice of your own topic, here are some possibilities:

  1. What is 19th century realism in literature? How does this novel represent this realism?
  2. Another essay on Crime and Punishment might relate to its depiction of Russian society of the time.
  3. Many parts of the novel are autobiographical. Compare Raskolnikov and Dostoyevsky.
  4. Many Crime and Punishment essays have been written that relate to the motivations of human behavior, from a standpoint of modern psychology. One good might be to compare why Dostoyevsky says about human nature to what Freud had to say.
  5. The theme of suffering is another good topic for an essay. Which caused more suffering for Raskolnikov – his own guilt or his physical punishment of being sent to Siberia?
  6. Along the lines of suffering and atonement, discuss what Dostoyevsky is telling us about sin and forgiveness.
  7. Modern psychology of the 19th century posited that all humans had a rational and pretty predictable side that allowed them to function successfully in society. Another irrational, unpredictable side, however, was always present. According to Dostoyevsky, what factors contributed to the irrational and unpredictable side driving some human behavior?
  8. Guilt is another theme. Discuss the progression of Raskolnikov’s feelings of guilt and the ultimate relief from that guilt once he had confessed to Sonya, and then to Porfiry.
  9. A recurring theme of Dostoyevsky in most of his writings is the struggle that man has between a desire for freedom and the need for security. How was this struggle portrayed in this novel and in 19th century Russia itself?

On a very literal level, Crime and Punishment is a story that holds the interest of the reader, certainly. And the themes presented are not too difficult to identify and discuss. One of the things that makes Dostoyevsky’s novels somewhat difficult, however, is keeping all of the characters straight, because there are so many of them. Focus on the major characters because that is where the themes are played out.