Prior to this novel, Dostoevsky had used characters whose personalities were dual ones. However, it is not until this novel that he exposes the reader to a full study of the split personality. Raskolnikov's dual personality is the controlling idea behind the murder and behind his punishment. Raskolnikov is used as a representative of the modern young Russian intellectual whose fate is intricately bound up in the fate of Russia herself. Therefore, the story is a parable of the fate of a nihilistic and skeptical youth in nineteenth century Russia, a position once held by Dostoevsky himself, but he later rejected the revolutionary opinions and came to hate and fear them. Crime and Punishment was to be a vision of the ultimate error and moral sufferings of those who had so cut themselves off from established authority and morality that they lost all respect for human life. Therefore, the life and aims of Raskolnikov became in some ways the fate of the young Russian intellectuals.
But Dostoevsky loved Raskolnikov. Dostoevsky presents most of the story from Raskolnikov's viewpoint, and most of the actions and most of our views are seen through his eyes. Dostoevsky, as author, seldom leaves Raskolnikov except when, in some short scenes, his thesis demanded attention elsewhere.
The plot of the novel presents a double conflict, one external and one internal: the one conflict between the estranged individual and his hostile universe, the other a clash between an isolated soul and his ethical or aesthetic consciousness. Since the plot is a double conflict, the first general problem is to understand Raskolnikov's dual personality. There are several ways of seeing this. In its broadest view, Raskolnikov fluctuates between the ideas of complete self-will and power, and extreme meekness and self-submissiveness.
Actions in the novel that seem to be contradictory are a result of Raskolnikov's fluctuation between these two extremes of his personality; therefore, the first part of the novel deals with a crime committed by this young intellectual. The crime was a result of a theory he conceived about the nature of man's abilities; that is, some have abilities which make them extraordinary while other possess no abilities. It was this intellectual aspect of his character that causes him to conceive and execute his crime. He wants to see if he had the daring to transcend conscience. His punishment comes about as a result of the transcendence of conscience. Therefore, one aspect of his character is a cold, inhumane, detached intellectuality which emphasizes the individual power and self-will. The other aspect is the warm, compassionate side, revealed in his charitable acts and his reluctance to accept praise or credit.
The problem in the novel, therefore, is to bring these two opposing parts of Raskolnikov's personality into a single functioning person. To do this, Dostoevsky opens with the crime, which is handled rather quickly so as to get to the punishment. The murder is symbolic of Raskolnikov's thinking. It is the result of having cut himself off from authority, from love, and from mankind.