Raskolnikov, an impoverished student, conceives of himself as being an extraordinary young man and then formulates a theory whereby the extraordinary men of the world have a right to commit any crime if they have something of worth to offer humanity. To prove his theory, he murders an old, despicable pawnbroker and her half-sister who happened to come upon him suddenly. Immediately after the crime, he becomes ill and lies in his room semi-conscious for several days. When he recovers, he finds that a friend, Razumihkin, had looked for him. While he is recovering, he receives a visit from Luzhin, who is engaged to Raskolnikov's sister, Dunya. Raskolnikov insults Luzhin and sends him away because he resents Luzhin's domineering attitude toward Dunya.
As soon as he can be about again, Raskolnikov goes out and reads about the crime in all the newspapers of the last few days. He meets an official from the police station and almost confesses the crime. He does go far enough in his ranting that the official becomes suspicious. Later, he witnesses the death of Marmeladov, a minor government official, who is struck by a carriage as he staggers across the street in a drunken stupor. Raskolnikov assists the man and leaves all his money to the destitute widow. When he returns to his room, he finds his mother and sister who have just arrived to prepare for the wedding with Luzhin. He denounces Luzhin and refuses to allow his sister to marry such a mean and nasty man. About the same time, Svidrigailov, Dunya's former employer, arrives in town and looks up Raskolnikov and asks for a meeting with Dunya. Previously Svidrigailov had attempted to seduce Dunya and when Raskolnikov had heard of it, he naturally formed a violent dislike for the man.
Raskolnikov hears that the police inspector, Porfiry, is interviewing all people who had ever had any business with the old pawnbroker. Therefore, he goes for an interview and leaves thinking that the police suspect him. Since he had met Sonya Marmeladov, the daughter of the dead man that he had helped, he goes to her and asks her to read to him from the Bible the story of Lazarus. He feels great sympathy with Sonya who had been forced into prostitution in order to support her family while her father drank constantly. In her suffering, she becomes a universal symbol for Raskolnikov. He promises to tell her who murdered the old pawnbroker and her sister who was a friend of Sonya's.
After another interview with Porfiry, Raskolnikov determines to confess to Sonya. He returns to her and during the confession, Svidrigailov is listening through the adjoining door. He uses this information to try to force Dunya to sleep with him. She refuses and he kills himself later in the night.
Porfiry informs Raskolnikov that he knows who murdered the pawnbroker. After talking with Sonya, Raskolnikov fully confesses to the murder and is sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison. Sonya follows him, and with her help, Raskolnikov begins his regeneration.