Schisms and Divisions in “Crime and Punishment”

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.

Guiding Questions

How does Dostoyevsky develop the character of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment to reflect his views of the schisms inherent in human nature?

In what way does Dostoevsky set up a dichotomy between Man and Superman, as well as between reason and emotion?


How does Dostoyevsky use a variety of individual and societal divisions to underpin the central themes of Crime and Punishment?