Crime and Punishment opens in 1860s St. Petersburg, where Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished former student, has come psychologically unhinged. He wanders about the city, barely eats, and hatches a vague plan he wishes to “test” one afternoon. He goes to the apartment of an old pawnbroker, who lives with her sister Lizaveta, and pawns his father’s watch. Upon leaving, he repeats to himself his intentions: he will murder the old crone and rob her.
Raskolnikov meets a drunk named Marmeladov, who tells of his troubles and his daughter Sonya, a prostitute. Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother Pulcheria, who reports that his sister Dunya, once a governess working for the Svidrigailov family, has been courted by Mr. Svidrigailov, fired by Mrs. Marfa Svidrigailov, exonerated publically by the same woman, and then proposed to by a government official named Luzhin. Pulcheria notes that Raskolnikov will soon have a chance to meet Luzhin in Petersburg. After walking through the Haymarket, he overhears Lizaveta in conversation, and it is revealed she will leave the apartment for a brief time the following day. He decides that fate has intervened: he must go through with his plan.
He kills the pawnbroker, attempts to rob her, and kills Lizaveta when she walks unexpectedly into the room. Two men come upstairs hoping to do business with the old woman; they see the door is locked from the inside and go to fetch the caretaker. Raskolnikov runs out and ducks into an apartment being painted by two workers, Mikolai (or Nikolai) and Mitka, who have just had a fight and run outside themselves.
The rest of the novel charts Raskolnikov’s reaction to his crime, and his relationship with friends, family, and a police investigator named Porfiry, who is put on the case. Raskolnikov hurries to conceal evidence, buries some of the old woman’s items under a rock in an abandoned yard, and finds he has been summoned to the police headquarters because of an unrelated dispute with his landlord. He faints in the station when the police begin discussing the murders. His friend Razumikhin appears later, vowing to help Raskolnikov, whom he fears is sick. Later, when Luzhin visits Raskolnikov, Raskolnikov says that he will not permit Luzhin to marry his sister. Raskolnikov has a strange conversation with Zamyotov, the police-station clerk, describing how he would have murdered the two women. He later finds Marmeladov crushed under the wheels of a wagon, and gives a significant amount of money to Katerina, his widow, for the funeral and a feast.
Pulcheria and Dunya arrive in Petersburg and are terrified at Raskolnikov’s appearance—they fear he might be going insane. Raskolnikov meets with Porfiry, who tricks him into confessing that he visited the pawnbroker’s apartment on the day of the murders. Svidrigailov arrives and speaks with Raskolnikov, claiming that his love for Dunya was genuine, and that he now lives in the same apartment building as Sonya. Luzhin meets with Raskolnikov, Pulcheria, and Dunya, attempting to settle his marriage to Dunya, but in doing so Luzhin so insults Dunya that the engagement is broken off.
Raskolnikov meets with Sonya and asks her to read him the story of Lazarus, a man Jesus raised from the dead. Raskolnikov goes to Porfiry’s office alone, and the investigator uses a series of circuitous techniques to enrage Raskolnikov, who begs either to be charged with a crime or set free. Porfiry says he has a surprise for Raskolnikov—a witness who claims to know the true murderer. Porfiry opens the door and Mikolai the painter stumbles in, confessing to the crimes and confusing Porfiry and Raskolnikov. The latter is permitted to leave, with Porfiry’s promise that the two will speak again soon.
Luzhin attends Marmeladov’s funeral banquet and announces that Sonya has stolen 100 roubles from him; his roommate Lebezyatnikov reveals that Luzhin has planted the money on Sonya in order to appear gracious when he “forgives” her. Luzhin is run out of the house. The uproar causes Amalia, Katerina’s landlady, to kick her out of the apartment, and Katerina goes outside with the children, begs in the street, falls ill with delirium, and later dies.
Meanwhile Raskolnikov visits Sonya again and confesses to her that he has murdered Lizaveta and the old crone. Sonya is shocked but vows to protect him. Raskolnikov runs into Svidrigailov, who lets on that he has heard Raskolnikov’s confession through the wall adjoining his and Sonya’s apartment. He intends to use this information to blackmail Raskolnikov into enabling his marriage to Dunya.
Raskolnikov passes several days in a fog and is visited by Porfiry, who says he knows that Raskolnikov is the killer. Porfiry gives Raskolnikov two days to mull over his options, but he encourages Raskolnikov to confess in order to receive a lighter sentence. Raskolnikov meets with Svidrigailov, who announces his intentions with Dunya; Raskolnikov wishes to protect his sister, but she meets secretly with Svidrigailov, who attempts to rape her. Dunya has brought a gun and shoots Svidrigailov, narrowly missing. She says she will never run away with him, and he lets her go. Svidrigailov later kills himself out of despair.
Raskolnikov confesses his guilt to this sister but not to his mother, to whom he bids an ambiguous farewell. Dunya encourages Raskolnikov to repent for his crime. Raskolnikov goes to the police station and confesses to Gunpowder, the assistant to Nikodim the police chief.
In the Epilogue, it is revealed that Raskolnikov has been sentenced to eight years’ hard labor. Sonya goes to Siberia with him and writes to Petersburg of his activities. Razumikhin marries Dunya and Pulcheria dies in a fit of delirium.
In the prison camp Raskolnikov slowly comes to terms with his guilt and recognizes that Sonya’s love for him is absolute. After opening Sonya’s copy of the Gospels, he vows to rehabilitate himself. The narrator implies that Raskolnikov eventually succeeds in this, though the process is a difficult one and saved for another story.