On a hot and sultry day in July, Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov, a young student, slips past his landlady to whom he is heavily in debt, and roams aimlessly towards an old and despicable pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna. He has cut himself off from everyone and furthermore shrinks from any type of human conduct. His little cupboard of a room, his debts, and his crushing poverty depress him to the point of rendering him incapable of attending classes or tutoring his own students.
On the way to the pawnbroker's, he simply cannot believe that he is going to perform some loathsome action. He also realizes that his thoughts are confused, partly because he had eaten practically nothing for two days. Even though he was a strikingly handsome young man, he dresses so wretchedly in rags that no one would notice his secretive behavior.
It was not far to the pawnbroker's house — "exactly seven hundred and thirty" paces. Upon arriving, he seems to be disgusted with the entire proceedings and finds his plans to be loathsome and degrading. The old pawnbroker is cautious about opening the door, and when she does, she appears dried up and very old, with sharp, malicious eyes and nasty grease in her hair. Raskolnikov tells her he has something else to pawn, and they haggle over the price, but he has to accept her offer because "he had nowhere else to turn." As he leaves, he tells her that he has something more valuable to pawn and he will bring it later. He leaves in a state of extreme agitation.
In any novel as great as Crime and Punishment, the details of the early or introductory chapters will become central to the interpretation of the entire novel. In this first chapter, Raskolnikov is seen isolated from everyone; later, he even feels uncomfortable around his mother and sister. And in the Epilogue when Raskolnikov is in prison in Siberia, he feels isolated and estranged from his fellow prisoners: ". . . he felt that terrible unbridgeable chasm which lay between him and the others. . .as if he and they belonged to different races." Both in this first chapter and the Epilogue, Raskolnikov avoided everyone. Throughout the novel he will begin a conversation with an individual and suddenly without any reason, he will leave and isolate himself further.
This first chapter also emphasizes his extreme poverty and his small, cramped apartment. Often during the novel, these physical matters will be used to explain his crimes and his sick frightened feelings that are attributed to the squalor of his room and his lack of food.
In contrast to his physical surroundings, his personal appearance is exceptional; even though he is clothed in rags, he is still exceptionally handsome, slim, "well-built with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair." Too often, even today, illustrators often depict Raskolnikov as physically depraved and/or deformed — a vicious Mr. Hyde or a horrible misfit. Unlike other great writers, such as Dickens, whose evil characters are described in frightful terms, Dostoevsky does just the opposite — he presents Raskolnikov as physically attractive so as to prevent any possible view that the ugliness of his crime is influenced by a physical deformity. In contrast, the physical beauty of the character contrasts significantly with the ugliness of the crime.
Ultimately, Raskolnikov will emerge as a dual character, fluctuating between two extremes. For example, he is making such careful preparations for the crime, even going so far as to count the number of paces from his room to Alyona Ivanovna's apartment. Yet in the very midst of his careful preparation, he is alternately disturbed by the loathsomeness and ugliness of the crime and that his entire plan is atrocious and degrading. But even with these repulsive thoughts, he continues to prepare for the murder.
Furthermore, his plans have not yet been finalized. He knows of his crime only in theory, a fact that will later become central to his redemption when he attempts to explain his reasons to Sonya at the end of the novel. Consequently, the reader must be prepared for opposite reactions occupying Raskolnikov's mind, and what would seem an inconsistency elsewhere is here used to explain his dual (or split) personality. His visit to Alyona Ivanovna's shows both his repulsion to his plan and his preparations for its execution.