Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Societal Schisms and Divisions

Created January 12, 2015


The Lesson


Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1972, Vasily Perov

Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Credit: 1872, Vasily Perov

If students have completed the first two lessons in this unit on Crime and Punishment, they have analyzed psychological divisions within characters, the theoretical split between ordinary and extraordinary people, and polarization of intellect/reason and emotion/instinct in the novel.

Students’ attention will now be directed to 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.

In this lesson, students concentrate on four important schisms Dostoyevsky sets up within society:

  • Men and Women
  • Wealth and Poverty
  • Religion and Skepticism
  • Connection and Alienation

Dostoevsky originally intended the novel to be entitled The Drunkards, but he came to understand that Raskolnikov's story is in fact much more complex than that title would suggest.

The novel is replete with the author's broad and provocative thematic statements that emerge from a careful analysis of these societal divisions.

This lesson is one part of a three-lesson unit about Crime and Punishment. The three lessons may be taught in sequence or each lesson may stand on its own. Teachers may link to the full unit with Guiding Questions, College and Career Readiness standards and Background. Lesson 3 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6.

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze elements of schism in Crime and Punishment's societal framework and discuss their thematic implications

Preparation and Resources

Students need to have read the entire novel. They need to have comprehended both plot and characterization before undertaking this lesson.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Societal Schisms and Divisions

If students have studied the unit in sequence, they have learned that Crime and Punishment is both a psychological study and an exploration of an intellectual theory. They will now see how it is also a vehicle for Dostoyevsky to present his views of societal divisions.

Ask the class to brainstorm ways the society as depicted in the novel demonstrates schisms and splits. Allow students to briefly explain their ideas providing evidence from the text.

(Suggested example: There is a split between Raskolnikov’s social class and the peasantry or working class. He is educated and highly intellectual, while the working class exists on an earthy and instinctual level. Nikolay’s confession elicits neither compassion nor guilt from Raskolnikov, who barely views the painter as human.)

Explain that one of the great societal divides in the novel involves the gender separation of male from female characters. While Dounia and Raskolnikov are alike in so many ways, they inhabit completely different worlds.

Raise other social divisions that operate within nineteenth-century Russian society depicted by Dostoyevsky:

  • Economic status and class divisions: having an abundance of worldly goods and experiencing impoverishment;
  • Belief system divisions: adhering to a faith tradition and expressing skepticism/disbelief
  • Attachment divisions: being self-absorbed/alienated from others and bonding/maintaining connections with others. (For example, Raskolnikov is himself, a capable and intelligent person who has become alienated from, not connected with others. He exemplifies the divide between self and others until his redemption in the epilogue.)

As students discuss these divisions, ask them to consider what the thematic implications are—what is the author trying to say to his readers through these societal divisions?

Distribute Worksheet 7. Societal Schisms and Divisions and have students complete the activity. Require both specific textual evidence and inferences based on those references. Follow with class discussion of the activity using Worksheet 7. (teacher version). (Note that the teacher version suggests only a few of the many thematic possibilities. Encourage students to explore a variety of ideas stated in and implied by the novel.)

Lesson 3 follow-up discussion questions:

  • What do the experiences of Dounia, Sonia, Pulcheria, and Katerina Ivanovna reveal about the roles of men and women in the novel’s societal setting? Why was Marfa Petrovna’s situation so different? How do characters like Nastasya connect with this topic?
  • Why do so many of the novel’s characters live in poverty? Is poverty a motivational factor in Raskolnikov’s crime? Are poverty and crime often closely linked?
  • Religion comes up a lot in Dostoevsky’s works. To what extent is Raskolnikov a religious person? What does this novel seem to say about belief in God? To what extent is belief connected with peace and happiness?
  • The epilogue points out that, in the community surrounding the labor camp in Siberia, Sonia, unlike Raskolnikov, is highly regarded and loved. Why?
  • Do you think that all of Raskolnikov’s problems are caused by alienation? Why or why not?
  • What did Albert Einstein mean when he said, “Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist”?


Select one thematic statement arrived at in Worksheet 7. Write a paragraph describing how the author was using a societal split in the novel to underpin that theme. Write a second paragraph arguing the extent to which that split, as Dostoevsky presents it, functions or does not function in today’s world. Include both textual evidence from the novel and specific references to recent events; document sources. (Encourage students to go beyond the content of class discussion.)

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Auditory analysis
  • Compare and contrast
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Essay writing
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • Mary Anne Kovacs