A young man leaves his boardinghouse room on an uncomfortably hot summer’s day in St. Petersburg. As he descends the steps, he is overcome with a dread of meeting his landlady, who lives on the floor below. He owes her several months’ rent and recoils at the thought of having to make excuses to her. The narrator states that this young man “had fallen into a state of nervous depression akin to hypochondria” and so avoids contact with other people. As he leaves the boardinghouse, the young man turns his thoughts to an extreme, though unspecified, act that he is thinking about committing. He considers himself incapable of the act—if he lacks the stomach even to face his landlady, it seems impossible that he would ever go through with the deed that he now mulls. The narrator identifies the young man as the protagonist (“our hero”) and describes him as tall and handsome, with “dark auburn hair and fine dark eyes.”
The young man wears ridiculously tattered clothes, but he is so contemptuous of the people who live in his wretched neighborhood—which is filthy and populated with drunks, prostitutes, and tradesmen—that he feels no embarrassment about his shoddy appearance. He walks along in a trancelike state, thinking over his awful plan, again considering the idea and then dismissing it. The narrator informs us that, over the last month, the young man has grown increasingly serious about taking action, even though the idea of doing so has disturbed and troubled him. At this particular moment, he is in the middle of a “rehearsal” of the act. He arrives at the apartment house of Alyona Ivanovna, a pawnbroker. As he walks up the stairs to her apartment, he carefully observes the building and its inhabitants in connection with his plan. He introduces himself to the pawnbroker, whom he had first met a month earlier, as a student, and we learn that the young man’s name is Raskolnikov. The pawnbroker is an unattractive, shabbily dressed old woman who is suspicious, crude, and has “eyes sparkling with malice.”
Though the apartment’s furnishings are old and ugly, Raskolnikov notices that they are immaculately clean, thanks to the hard work of the old woman’s younger sister, Lizaveta. The pawnbroker treats the young man rudely, reminding him of the money that he already owes her and offering him a small, inadequate sum for a watch that he now offers her. Raskolnikov grudgingly accepts the money, remembering that his purpose is twofold, as he is both pawning the watch for much-needed money and rehearsing the crime that he may commit. He observes that the old woman keeps her money and “pledges,” or pawned items, in a chest in a back room and her keys on a ring in her right pocket. Before leaving, he tells her that he will return in a few days with another pledge and asks whether Lizaveta is usually at home at that time. Once outside, Raskolnikov is physically overcome with disgust at his plan and renounces it. Filled with a sudden thirst for alcohol, he descends into a tavern for the first time in his life and sits in a dark corner. After drinking a beer, he feels much better and again scoffs at his plan.
The opening chapter of Crime and Punishment illuminates aspects of Raskolnikov’s character that prove central to the novel. He is extremely proud, contemptuous, emotionally detached from the rest of humanity, and is in a complex, semi-delirious mental state. Why he has developed this troubling mix of qualities remains an important question throughout the novel. A few clues are given at the outset: Raskolnikov is tall and handsome, which may foster his pride, while his squalid surroundings—the neighborhood in which Raskolnikov and the pawnbroker live is described in vivid terms that convey the chaos and filthiness of poor, urban neighborhoods—may have helped bring about his deteriorated mental condition. The narrator describes the heat and “the odor” coming off of the city, as well as the crowds and disorder, saying that all of these factors “contributed to irritate the young man’s already excited nerves.” Most important, though, each quality seems to reinforce the others, and Raskolnikov seems caught in an ever-deepening spiral: his pride leads him to perceive others as inferior, his lack of human contact leads him to increasingly abstract and inhuman ideas, and his crazed ideas cause him to separate himself from society.
Chapter I also explores the character of the pawnbroker. In some respects, Alyona Ivanovna is a foil to Raskolnikov—that is, her character contrasts with his and serves to emphasize his distinct characteristics. She is old and unattractive, while he is young and handsome; she is alert and concerned with practical business matters, while he is semi-delirious and deeply in debt. The only apparent similarity between the two is that they both wear worn and tattered clothes. But even this similarity, examined more closely, reveals the difference in wealth between the two, since Raskolnikov dresses in rags because of poverty whereas the pawnbroker does so out of miserliness.
The conflict in this chapter is primarily internal, as it is throughout the novel. Here, the struggle is mostly between Raskolnikov’s desire to commit the crime and his revulsion at the thought of doing so. Significantly, this inner conflict is not between his hatred of the pawnbroker and a moral objection to killing but rather between his desire to kill her and his disgust at the idea of the actual, physical performance of the deed. Morality seems to play little role in his decision and does not become a strong force in his life until the very end of the novel.
Whatever degree of innocence or harmlessness is still intact in Raskolnikov’s character disappears upon his symbolic entrance into the tavern. This descent into a tavern’s dingy darkness—the first of his life—parallels his descent into the seamy realm of discontent and malice. Though he already seems somewhat disturbed and though the beer seems to calm him, Raskolnikov has now crossed a figurative threshold into the muddled, violent mindset that alcohol induces.
In this opening chapter and throughout the novel, Dostoevsky withholds information to create suspense. He even delays informing us of the protagonist’s name until several pages into the work, when it comes up naturally in the course of the plot. Dostoevsky informs us on the first page that the young man is contemplating some sort of “desperate deed,” but he doesn’t tell us what this deed is. Instead, we are given clues as the chapter progresses—for instance, that it will involve the pawnbroker and take place in her apartment. This slow revelation of detail helps to pique the reader’s interest, creating suspense that adds momentum to the plot and increases the emotional impact of each event or revelation as it occurs.