By Ed Marks and Dan Cummings, revised by Joe Phelan
In the spring of 1849, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) faced a Russian firing squad. He had been accused of the political crime of promoting utopian socialism, a popular ideology that threatened the deeply conservative government of Czar Nicholas I. Just as the order was being given to the firing squad to shoot, a messenger appeared with an edict from the Czar commuting the sentence to four years of hard labor in Siberia.
Students examine the theory Man vs. Superman as it is revealed in several scenes within the novel and tackle the larger questions it bring up: Are humans really divided into two distinct categories, the ordinary and the extraordinary? Is this division a figment created by an overactive intellect? What did Dostoevsky think? Then they learn the theory differs radically from Dostoyevsky’s fictional reality—and reader’s—uncover yet another split in the world of the novel, one between intellect and emotion/instinct.
Students examine the novel’s societal setting, which is also fraught with division. Crime and Punishment is more than just a demonstration of the idea that crime does not pay, it is a vivid depiction of societal injustice. For example, Dostoyevsky’s mid-nineteenth century Russia offered women narrowly circumscribed roles, most often resulting in their dependence on men and/or a life of poverty. The negative effects of several other societal divisions raise additional questions.
Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Credit: 1872, Vasily Perov
In Dostoevsky there were things unbelievable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev. ― Ernest Hemingway
Today Fyodor Dostoevsky is universally viewed as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest and most influential writers. Dostoevsky’s experiences were broad—including brushes with death, the loss of loved ones, political oppression, and years spent in a hard labor camp. His observations of those around him, as well as his own reactions and emotions, are reflected in his fiction, giving it great psychological depth.
Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866 in serial form, is a complex text with a riveting and troubling story line about a young man who steps outside the boundaries of legality and decency and pays a great price for it. It is not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is a superb choice for college-bound juniors and seniors, especially those in Advanced Placement, honors, and International Baccalaureate programs. Several translations are available, including the long-favored one by Constance Garnett, a popular one by David McDuff, and the highly acclaimed one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhansky. Translations vary slightly with some characters' names (for example, Dounia, Dunia, Dunechka). The worksheets included in this unit use Garnett’s interpretations but can be altered, if necessary.
The first lesson focuses on Dostoevsky’s view of human nature and delves into the character Raskolnikov, whose name derives from the Russian word for "schism" or "split." Throughout the text he, as well as other characters, displays a dualistic nature that draws in conflicting directions. The second lesson deals with the theoretical division of human beings into those who are ordinary and the other few who are not bound by limits that affect everyone else. This motif, a split between logic/reason and emotion/instinct, is analyzed to determine the difference between theory and Rakskolnikov's actual experience. The third lesson demonstrates that the societal setting in the novel is also characterized by splits and divisions. Students are challenged to learn from Dostoevsky, as thinkers as diverse as Hemingway and Einstein did, and to articulate what they learn in both classroom discussion and assessment essays.
Each lesson requires students to go beyond character analysis to comprehend Dostoyevsky's underlying themes. What does the novel imply about human nature? Dostoevsky shows his readers that people are neither simple nor easily classified; they are often torn in opposite directions by forces both inside of and outside of themselves, sometimes with catastrophic results.
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize key supporting details and ideas.
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).
Summative Assessment: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Crime and Punishment demonstrates Dostoevsky's keen awareness of the society in which he lived. He knew well the chasm between the many have-nots and the few wealthy, as well as the tensions between the Westernizers (who wanted Russia to become more European) and the Slavophiles (who thought the best path for Russia was a return to its Slavic roots.). He had firsthand knowledge of what his character, Raskolnikov, would have experienced being sentenced to a labor camp in Siberia. Dostoevsky also discovered increasing radicalism among young people, including the rise of a political movement popularly called "nihilism," which was based on utilitarian thinking and rejection of religious faith. In its most radical form, Russian nihilism rejected all institutions and laws—it was a complete abrogation of everything that Russian people had believed and practiced for centuries. The novel reflects both the appeal and the limitations of this way of thinking. It shows us the tremendous injustice in 19th-century Russian society, while also suggesting that the rejection of every aspect of this social structure is not the way to create justice.
This is a complex and lengthy literary work about a young man torn in conflicting directions. On one hand instinctively compassionate and kind, Raskolnikov is also coldly intellectual and aloof. The crime he seems to have been contemplating for a long time occurs at the end of Part 1. Punishment fills the rest of the novel; although his mind insists that the old woman he killed was barely human and the world was better off without her, he is wretchedly unhappy and caught in what he sees as a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. His confession, conviction, and deportation to Siberia comes as a relief, and the novel’s conclusion implies but does not fully explain his redemption as a human being.
The three lessons in this unit stress the polarizations that dominate the novel: characters torn by opposing tendencies; theories that separate ordinary people from the extraordinary; disconnects between intellect and emotion; societal divides that formed the fermenting mixture that led to revolution half a century later.
For information on the life of Dostoyevsky as contextual background to teaching the novel see PDF #1.
For tips on how to handle Russian names and notes on Russian culture in the 19th-century see PDF #2.
Choose a topic about which Dostoevsky demonstrates polarization or division in Crime and Punishment. Write an essay to demonstrate how the author's treatment of the topic underpins a theme or central idea of his novel. Provide specific textual evidence, including carefully chosen quotations from the text, to support your analysis.
Worksheet 8. Final Assessment Rubric provides a tool for both student writing and teacher evaluation.
Translations for Crime and Punishment
(Random House), has been a classroom staple. It is also available online;
Film adaptations of Crime and Punishment
Several recent film adaptations of the novel are available, some more useful than others. Selected clips from one or more versions can be more useful than showing an entire film.
Students examine the divided nature of Raskolnikov’s character and personality. Then they uncover the divided natures of other characters—a fact that becomes increasingly evident as the novel progresses to go beyond character analysis to comprehend Dostoyevsky’s underlying themes. What does the novel imply about human nature? Dostoevsky clearly perceived that people are neither simple nor easily classified; they are often torn in opposite directions by forces both inside of and outside of themselves, sometimes with catastrophic results.