One July day in St. Petersburg, a poor young man slips out of his apartment and goes out. He is Rodion Romanych Raskolnikov, a former student, and he is preoccupied with something. He arrives at the apartment of Alyona Ivanovna, a pawnbroker, where he is attempting a trial of the unknown deed obsessing him.
He has pawned something to this woman a month before, and now pawns an old watch for much less than he had hoped to get. As the woman gets her money, he watches and listens very carefully, storing up details in his memory. He leaves after vaguely mentioning that he may come back soon with another pledge.
Tormented, he wanders down the street, mentally at war with himself. He happens upon a tavern, where he stops to eat and drink something, and feels better after doing so. There, he meets Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov, a retired official and a drunkard. Marmeladov pours out his life story to Raskolnikov, telling about his consumptive wife Katerina Ivanovna, his three small children, and his oldest daughter Sofya (Sonya), who has had to prostitute herself to earn money for the family. Marmeladov himself had recently acquired a position, but almost immediately lost it through his alcoholism. He has been away from home for five days, having stolen his salary money and spent it all on drink.
Marmeladov asks Raskolnikov to take him home. Rodion does so, and witnesses how Katerina Ivanovna falls on her husband and drags him about by his hair. She kicks Raskolnikov out, assuming him to be a drinking partner of her husband's. As he leaves, he places a handful of change on their windowsill unnoticed. Outside, he regrets this action, but knows he cannot go back to get the money.
The next day, he awakens feeling unrested. Nastasya, the landlady's servant, comes in with some tea for him, as well as leftovers from the previous day's meal (since he is behind on his rent, the landlady has stopped sending his dinner up to him). She also tells him that he has received a letter. Agitated, he sends her to get it, and orders her out of the room so he can read it.
The letter is from his mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, and mostly concerns his sister Avdotya Romanovna, or Dunya. Dunya had been working as a governess in the house of the Svidrigailov family, but the husband's unfortunate attraction to her led the wife to kick Dunya out on the assumption that the girl had initiated the attraction. Marfa Petrovna, the wife, then proceeded to sully Dunya's reputation about town, until Svidrigailov himself came forward with evidence of Dunya's purity and innocence. At that point, Marfa Petrovna had completely reversed herself, and gone about restoring Dunya's honor with comic zeal. She had also arranged for a relation of hers, one Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, to meet Dunya, and this gentleman had become engaged to Dunya. Following Luzhin, Pulcheria Alexandrovna and Dunya would be coming to Petersburg shortly, and are very much looking forward to seeing Rodion.
Rodya goes out to walk around and think. Though his mother puts a positive spin on everything, it is clear that Luzhin does not love Dunya and is not worthy of her, and that Dunya knows this but has resolved to marry him to materially benefit her family. Rodya, disgusted and angered, refuses to accept this self-sacrifice; but after resolving to stop the engagement, he immediately questions his own "right" to get involved.
Raskolnikov realizes that he had been automatically on his way to see Dmitri Prokofych Razumikhin, his only friend from university. He decides he will see Razumikhin the day after "that," i.e. the unknown deed. He wanders about and ends up falling asleep by the side of the road. He dreams about watching a group of peasants beating an old nag viciously until the poor horse collapses and dies.
He awakens in a sweat, profoundly thankful that it was only a dream. He rethinks "that," and suddenly concludes that he could never do it. Feeling better, renewed, he heads for home. However, he takes a detour through the Haymarket. There, he overhears a conversation between Lizaveta Ivanovna, the pawnbroker's half-sister, and a couple of tradespeople. It turns out that Lizaveta will be out on business the following evening. Raskolnikov is suddenly possessed with the fact that Alyona Ivanovna will definitely be alone at a time he knows ofthat this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
He goes home and falls into a long, strange, troubled sleep. He wakes up in the evening, and fears he may have missed his chance. He immediately bustles about, making his preparations: the deed that has been obsessing him is the murder and robbery of the pawnbroker. He plans to retain complete control over his reason and will, and thereby commit the perfect crime, and perhaps use the fruits of it (i.e. the stolen goods) to help others.
Raskolnikov makes his way to Alyona Ivanovna's. He enters on the pretext of having a new pledge for her. As she struggles with the deliberately difficult knots, he takes out his axe and hits her on the head with it until she dies.
Nerve-wracked, he fumbles about before finally unlocking a trunk full of goods. As he is stuffing his pockets, he hears a footstep. Frozen, he realizes in panic that someone has come in. Grabbing the axe, he rushes out into the room. There stands Lizaveta, staring at the body of her half-sister. Rodya rushes at her and kills her with the axe as well.
Hearing people outside, Raskolnikov hooks the door-latch and crouches behind it, listening. The visitors, suspecting something wrong, run to get help. Quietly Rodya slips out of the apartment and manages to leave the building and return home unnoticed, though he is practically collapsing.
After a fitful sleep punctuated by moments of frenzied activity, Rodya is awakened by Nastasya coming in with the caretaker, who hands him a summons to go to the police station. Panicked, he wonders why he has been summoned, and despite his clear illness, he gets up to go.
His nerves are frayed, but when he gets to the station he finds that he has been called to make a payment on a promissory note he had written long ago for his landlady. Relieved, he writes a statement of his promise to pay, directed by the clerk. However, the chief of police Nikodim Fomich and his assistant Ilya Petrovich are talking about the murders, and Raskolnikov faints.
He recovers to find them all looking at him strangely. Ilya Petrovich starts to ask him where he was the previous night. Nikodim Fomich reproaches Ilya Petrovich and Raskolnikov is dismissed.
Rodya returns home, where he makes sure his apartment has not been searched, and gathers up all the stolen goods from where he had hidden them. He goes out and ends up hiding them beneath a stone in a deserted courtyard.
He drops in on Razumikhin, who is utterly astonished to see him. However, Raskolnikov leaves almost as soon as he has arrived, throwing Razumikhin into indignant frustration.
Rodya returns home and goes to bed. The next morning he falls unconscious, at last succumbing to an illness that had been coming on for quite some time.
When he at last comes to, Razumikhin is there, having tended him through his illness, and Rodya receives 35 roubles from his mother, who has borrowed it on the security of her pension. Razumikhin, who has befriended practically everyone in Rodya's life by this point, has recovered Rodya's promissory note and takes some of the money to buy him new (actually second-hand) clothes.
Dr. Zossimov checks on Rodya, and while he is there he and Razumikhin start talking about the murders. Razumikhin has gotten to know Zamyotov, the clerk at the police station, and they are hoping to absolve the current suspect, Nikolai Dementiev, who had been working as a painter in the house at the time of the crime. Raskolnikov is tortured by all this.
Amidst the discussion, Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, Dunya's fiancé, enters. He has come to call on Rodion, but the visit ends disastrously in a quarrel, with Rodya kicking him out.
Rodya orders everyone else to leave, and after he is alone he gets up and goes out. After wandering aimlessly, he enters the Crystal Palace tavern, where he encounters Zamyotov. He engages in a mind-game with the clerk, taunting him and leading him to believe that he was the murdererbefore pulling him up short and accusing him of believing it. He exits, leaving Zamyotov convinced that Rodya cannot possibly be the murderer.
On his way out, Rodya runs into Razumikhin, who is enraged at his irresponsible disappearance, especially as he is ill. They argue, but in the end Razumikhin invites him to a party he is having that evening. Rodya walks off. Razumikhin, frustrated, goes in to talk to Zamyotov.
Rodya wanders about, considers jumping into the river, then turns to go to the police station. On his way, however, he passes Alyona Ivanovna's house. Inexplicably impelled, he goes in to the apartment, where workmen are renovating the place. He scares them by asking about the blood and ringing the doorbell incessantly just to hear the sound. They all go downstairs, and there is much discussion about taking this madman to the police, which he agrees with. But in the end he is ordered off the premises.
In doubt as to whether he should go, he hesitates in the street. He spots a commotion and approaches it. It turns out that Marmeladov, drunk, has been run over by a carriage. Rodya takes charge and conveys Marmeladov to his apartment. They send for a doctor and a priest. Sonya is also sent for, and Marmeladov, after begging forgiveness, dies in her arms. Rodya gives Katerina Ivanovna all of his money, everything he has left from what his mother had sent him, for the funeral, and leaves.
He feels renewed. On his way home, he stops at Razumikhin's. Razumikhin, who has had a lot to drink, walks him home. They open the door to find Rodya's sister and mother there. Overcome, Rodya passes out. He recovers to demand that Dunya break off her engagement with Luzhin, and is generally rude and sullen. Razumikhin is indignant, and takes the ladies under his wing. He escorts them home and, having been immediately smitten with the beautiful Dunya, promises to return twice to report on Rodya's state. Despite the ladies' doubts about his abilities, he carries out his promises to the full.
The next day he is embarrassed as he recalls his drunken behavior, but when he goes to see the women they are not only kind but grateful. They ask him all sorts of questions about Rodya. They also show him a letter they had received from Luzhin that morning, requesting a meeting at 8:00 pm, and demanding that Rodya not be present. They go to see Rodya and find him with Zossimov. Rodya is strange and somehow distant, and the meeting is tense. Rodya tells Dunya that she must choose between him and Luzhin. She asks him and Razumikhin to be present at the meeting at 8:00.
Sonya, who has been mentioned disparagingly in Luzhin's letter, enters the room. She and Rodya are both somehow embarrassed, but he seats her next to his mother and sister, introducing them. His family leaves shortly thereafter. Rodya bids Sonya wait, takes Razumikhin aside to ask him about going to see Porfiry Petrovich (a relation of Razumikhin's and the investigator assigned to the murder case), and they all walk out together. Rodya promises to call on Sonya later, and asks her address. They part on the street. A stranger who has heard Sonya address Rodya by name follows her home, and is surprised to find that he lives next door to her.
Rodya enters Porfiry Petrovich's apartment in high humor, but is startled to see Zamyotov there as well. The conversation does not go very well; Rodya quickly loses his grip on his composure in the face of Porfiry's inscrutability. Porfiry, who is very interested in psychology, mentions an article Rodya had written entitled "On Crime," in which he explores the criminal psychology and introduces his own theory. This theory states that humanity is divided into the masses and the leaders, the "extraordinary" men who have great ideas and something new to say. Rodya argues that if such men find it necessary to commit crimes in the pursuit of their ideas, they have the right to do so in their own consciences.
Porfiry invites him to his office the next day. Rodya and Razumikhin leave to go meet with Dunya and her mother. As they approach, Rodya suddenly tells Razumikhin that he has something to do, but will catch up with them later. He hastens back to his flat, checks to see if he has left any evidence in his room, then wanders out. Outside, the caretaker points out a tradesman who had been asking after Rodya. The tradesman, still there, looks at Rodya and walks away without a word. Rodya catches up with him and asks his business. The man calls him a murderer, and disappears without explanation.
Weak, Rodya returns to his room and lies down. His thoughts swirl around this unknown man who seems to know everything. He reflects on his failure in committing the crimehe has proved not to be an "extraordinary" man but a "louse." He falls asleep and has tormented dreams. He awakens to find a stranger in his room. The man introduces himself as Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov.
After some strange conversation, Rodya demands to know the man's business. He replies that he has come to offer Dunya 10,000 roubles to break off her engagement with Luzhin. Indignant at first, Rodya at last consents to pass on the message to her. On his way out, Svidrigailov informs Rodya that Marfa Petrovna, who had died recently, has left Dunya 3,000 roubles in her will.
Razumikhin comes to get Rodya, and they head for their meeting. On the way Rodya entrusts his family to Razumikhin's care. At the meeting, Dunya announces that she wishes Luzhin and Rodya to reconcile. Luzhin, however, refuses, and it is not long before another quarrel erupts and Dunya, angered and insulted, breaks off the engagement and kicks him out. Luzhin departs, seething with hatred for Rodya and nourishing the hope that he may be able to reconcile yet with Dunya and her mother.
Everyone is joyful, especially at Marfa Petrovna's bequest to Dunya, and they start planning for the future. Rodya, however, abruptly leaves, requesting to be left alone. Razumikhin chases after him. Rodya once more entrusts his family to Razumikhin's care, and they exchange a long look in the hallway, through which Rodya seems to transmit his horrible secret to Razumikhin.
Rodya immediately goes to Sonya. He torments her, yet also kisses her foot. He wonders how she has managed to keep her soul untainted, and learns that her unshakeable faith in God has preserved her. Suspecting that she is a "holy fool," he asks her to read him the story of Lazarus from the Bible. After she does so, he promises to tell her who killed Lizaveta if he comes back the next day, and departs. On the other side of the door sits Svidrigailov, who has been listening with great interest to the entire conversation.
The next morning, Rodya goes to Porfiry Petrovich's office. Again, the conversation goes badly, as Rodya is unable to read Porfiry. It is a game of psychological cat and mouse, and Porfiry uses thinly-veiled references to Rodya's own behavior to point out that human nature is on the investigator's side, because it will eventually lead the criminal to break down. Frustrated by Porfiry's repeated attempts to catch him up with lies, Rodya erupts in fear and indignation. As he is leaving, Nikolai Dementiev, the house-painter who has been under suspicion in the murder case, bursts in, falls on his knees, and intones a confession, throwing Porfiry off in a way that cheers Raskolnikov.
Rodya goes home for a little while, then gets up to go to Marmeladov's memorial meal. At his door, he encounters the tradesman who had accused him of being a murderer. The man asks forgiveness for his suspicion. He leaves Rodya a new man, refreshed by the fact that Porfiry now has not a single thing to make his suspicions stick.
Luzhin, upset at losing Dunya, concocts a plan to discredit Raskolnikov to his family by framing and slandering Sonya, and thereby return into Dunya's good graces. Before Marmeladov's memorial meal, Luzhin calls Sonya in, and gives her 10 roubles out of a large stack of money he has been counting, in the presence of his roommate, Andrei Semyonovich Lebezyatnikov.
Sonya then goes to the meal, where Rodya sits with Katerina Ivanovna and a host of other rather unpleasant guests. The meal goes badly, and is on the point of breaking out into a fight when Luzhin enters. He accuses Sonya of having stolen 100 roubles from him. She denies it, but a search turns up the money in her pocket. Before the police can be called, however, Lebezyatnikov, who has been watching, announces that Luzhin had planted the money on Sonya without her knowing. Rodya steps forward to explain Luzhin's probable motivation. Luzhin escapes before he suffers at the hands of the company. Chaos ensues: Sonya runs home hysterically, the landlady kicks the Marmeladovs out, and Katerina Ivanovna goes out to seek justice.
Rodya goes to Sonya's place and confesses his crime to her. She is horrified, incredulous at first, but in the end she hears his explanations and sees his torment. She tells him that he must confess his crime to the world. He resists this idea, though he knows he will eventually be imprisoned.
Lebezyatnikov comes in to tell them that Katerina Ivanovna has gone mad and is making her children sing in the streets for money. Sonya runs out. Rodya goes home. Unexpectedly, Dunya comes in. She tells him that Razumikhin had told her that Rodya is under suspicion for murder, and that she is there for him if he needs her. After she leaves, he goes out again, and encounters Lebezyatnikov, who takes him to where Katerina Ivanovna and her children are.
Katerina Ivanovna is nearly raving, and her children are terrified. She refuses to go back to the apartment. The children try to run away, and in chasing them she collapses. In the final stages of her consumption, she is taken to Sonya's apartment, where she dies.
Svidrigailov tells Rodya that he will provide for her children, and then drops a few quotes to show Rodya that he had been eavesdropping on Rodya's confession to Sonya. Terrified, Rodya plunges into a time of vagueness, wandering about aimlessly. One day Razumikhin comes into his room to vent his indignation at Rodya's treatment of his family. As he leaves, Rodya commends the ladies to Razumikhin's care, and even mentions that Dunya may love him already. Razumikhin leaves, elated, but pokes his head back in to tell Rodya that the painter Nikolai confessed to the murders; Porfiry himself told Razumikhin all about it.
Rodya, unburdened by this unexpected news, is about to go out and find Svidrigailov when Porfiry comes in. They sit down. Porfiry tells Rodya that he knows he is guilty, and that he should turn himself in. He exhorts Rodya not to give up on life, because he has his whole life before him. After telling him that he will probably arrest him within two days, Porfiry takes his leave of Rodion, wishing him well.
Rodya leaves in search of Svidrigailov. He finds him in a tavern. He tells Svidrigailov point-blank that if he plans to blackmail Dunya with his knowledge of Rodya's secret, Rodya will kill him.
Svidrigailov, rather drunk, talks about Marfa Petrovna and his attempted seduction of Dunya. He also tells Rodion about his new 16-year-old fiancée. Rodya, disgusted by him, gets up to go. They both leave at about the same time. Rodya follows Svidrigailov for a little while before he is convinced that Svidrigailov has no plans to meet Dunya that day. He leaves him.
Almost immediately, Dunya enters the picture, indeed to meet with Svidrigailov, who has sent her a letter mentioning Rodya's secret and promising to provide proof. He takes her to his apartment, ostensibly to provide proof but really to blackmail her. Too late, she finds herself locked in the room with him. She has brought a gun, however, and threatens to shoot him if he comes near her. In the end, she drops the gun and he, touched by this, drops his threatening demeanor. When he establishes that she can never love him, he tells her to leave quickly. He leaves his apartment, spends the remainder of the day wandering about and settling his affairs, and shoots himself the next morning.
Later that day, Rodya goes to see his mother for the last time before turning himself in. He then hurries home, where he finds Dunya waiting for him. He takes leave of her and goes to Sonya. She gives him a cross. He rushes out rudely, not even saying goodbye to her, impatient to get it over with, even though he can't understand why he should go, because he still does not see his act as a crime.
He goes to the station, with Sonya following him. He finds out that Svidrigailov is dead, and, stunned, leaves without confessing; but Sonya is waiting for him, and he goes back upstairs and confesses.
Rodya is exiled to Siberia, where Sonya follows him. Dunya marries Razumikhin. Pulcheria Alexandrovna dies. Sonya writes to the Razumikhins about Rodya. He is unsociable and hated by his fellow prisoners. He falls ill. At the end of his illness, Sonya herself is ill, and he misses her. When she recovers, she goes to him, and he at last repents truly, falling at her feet and weeping. Having finally recognized his sin, he is resurrectedable to love Sonya and look forward to his life with her.