In the 60s of the XIX century, a poor former student Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov rents a small room in the attic and desperately tries to find some more finances for living. We see him as sickly and untidy young man in old clothes but his thoughts (and sometimes talks to himself) are quite intelligent and even philosophical, though full of vanity. Rodion thinks about the different castes of people, the lower one - the slaves, who need moral guidance as the cattle needs a shepherd dog, and the higher caste that has the right to do what they please without fear or moral sufferings. It is the first time when we see Rodion thinking if he can kill a man without feeling any remorse to prove his superiority.
But despite the fact Rodion considers himself belonging to the higher caste, he shall return to the more earthly things like paying for rent. He takes his pocket watch - the last valuable thing he has - and goes to his landlady, an old and quite grumpy woman named Alyona Ivanovna to pay for his room. On his way back Rodion decides to spend the rest of money in the tavern, where he accidentally meets a drunk man named Marmeladov. Marmeladov is a former official who propelled to the very bottom of society because of his abuse of alcohol. He tells Rodion his story adding that due to their poverty his wife, Katerina Ivanovna, sacrificed her daughter from first marriage named Sonya. Katerina made her work as a prostitute to feed the family, especially her younger sisters (the daughters of Katerina and Marmeladov).
The next morning Raskolnikov receives a letter from his mother who lives in the province. She describes the misfortune of Rodion’s younger sister Dunya. Dunya went to work to some rich house, but the house owner abused and humiliated her. Now his mother and Dunya are going to come to St. Petersburg to arrange a proper marriage for the girl. The husband-to-be is a businessman named Luzhin who sees his marriage not as something romantic, but as a good deal: Dunya is poor, so she will be an obedient wife ready to do anything just for him keeping her fed. Rodion’s mother also asks Luzhin to meet Rodion and, maybe, help him financially, so he will be able to return to the university and graduate. Rodion thinks about the similarity of Sonya’s and Dunya’s fates and the sacrifices they are willing to make for their families, and yet again assures himself that it doesn’t bother him. He is a member of the higher caste, not a guilt-ridden pathetic sheep.
He goes to the tavern again and hears there that another student of his age tells to his friend that Alyona Ivanovna took the last money from him and the world would be much better without her in it. Now Raskolnikov is sure who should become his first victim and the proof that he indeed can kill a person. He tries to assure himself that he will do a good deed, thanks to him she won’t take the last money from the students and maybe someone less greedy will replace her. However, the aversion of violence is so strong within Rodion that he has a nightmare about the case from his childhood this night. He sees himself as a little boy, crying and pitying the innocent little foal beaten to death.
Yet Raskolnikov manages to gather all his mental strength. He takes an axe and goes to Alyona Ivanovna. It appears that she is not alone, her sister Lizaveta came to visit her. But it’s too late for him to stop, he kills both old women at once. Miraculously unnoticed, he steals all their possessions and hides the money in the random place without even looking how much he stole.
But soon his conscience enters the play. Horrified, Raskolnikov discovers that he alienated himself from other people. He behaves suspicious, he faints before the policemen who try to interrogate him and even falls ill because of nervous break. His old friend from the university, Razumikhin, lets him live in his place for several days and cares for Rodion while he has fever and nightmares.
Rodion returns to his room just in time to meet Luzhin. Luzhin is shocked by the mess and poverty in his room and the untidy look of Raskolnikov himself. Their conversation turns into a quarrel and finally angry Luzhin leaves. Rodion feels a sharp contrast between Luzhin’s pragmatic egoism and his own caste theory. Luzhin seems a vulgar and stupid person to him.
Wandering around the city, he tries to defeat his loneliness and illness. He is almost ready to go to the court and confess, when he sees a man crushed by a cab. It is Marmeladov. In a sudden burst of compassion, Rodion pays for him and Marmeladov is transferred to the nearest house. The doctor comes to see him but there is nothing that can be done. The medical assistance helps Marmeladov to live long enough to see his wife Katerina Ivanovna and Sonya, in her ridiculously bright prostitute dress, who come to say their farewells. Seeing that Rodion feels a brief contempt and unity with the people and the world. However, that feeling doesn’t last long.
He returns to his room to meet his mother and sister Dunya who are very glad to see him and are worried about him and his sickly look. But Rodion feels that he is “dead” for their love, the care of his family disturbs him too much and the young man rudely drives them away. He is alone again but he still can’t stop thinking of Sonya and her purity despite the girl being a prostitute.
Raskolnikov decides to care for his relatives, at least a bit. He arranges their meeting with Razumikhin and his friend almost immediately falls in love with beautiful and kind Dunya. In the meantime Luzhin, seeing Razumikhin genuinely caring for Dunya, demands her to cease speaking to the young man.
To clean himself of suspicions Rodion asks for a meeting with Porfiriy Petrovich, an investigator in the case pretending to be worried about Alyona Ivanovna’s murder. Porfiriy recalls Raskolnikov’s articles printed in newspapers that touched the nature of the crime and starts a discussion about it. Rodion tells him his theory about the two castes of people: that the ordinary majority is needed only for reproduction of their own kind, they are “trembling creatures”, just a soil for “real people” to grow on it. The higher caste, according to Raskolnikov, has a different nature. They are born to build a new world, to destroy the present in the name of the perfection even if they have to step over the moral standards, established to threaten to obedience the inferior majority. They aren’t criminals, they are new legislators who grew out of Ten Commandments and they have the right to spill blood because it’s their decisions.
Rodion is reckless enough (and Porfiriy is clever enough) to present himself to the investigator as an ideological murderer, pretending to be a new Napoleon. However, Porfiriy doesn’t have any real evidences against him and lets the young man go hoping that his good nature will prevail and lead him to the confession.
During the lunch in the cheapest room possible that Luzhin rented for his fiancée and her mother, he accuses Rodion of buying Sonya for the money his mother have sent to Rodion to pay for his study. But both Dunya and her mother are convinced in Rodion’s purity and nobility, moreover, they deeply sympathize Sonya (especially Dunya who clearly understands her sacrifice). Luzhin leaves in anger, now he looks for the way to discredit Raskolnikov in his family’s eyes.
Raskolnikov in the meantime still suffers from the excruciating alienations. In despair, he comes to Sonya. He sees her as his fellow “upper caste person” who stepped over the commandment about adultery. Rodion hopes that she will understand him in his sufferings, but he is shocked to learn that Sonya doesn’t feels the way he feels. She knows why she did what she had to - for the sake of others, to feed her hungry family. Love, compassion and faith never left her. She reads to Rodion the verses from Bible telling about Christ resurrecting Lazarus and tells that she hopes for a similar miracle in her life too. Rodion tries to fascinate her with his caste theory, but she isn’t interested in ruling the world.
Tortured by the fear and desire to confess at the same time, Raskolnikov again invents a cause to come to Porfiriy. They have a conversation that seems to be just an abstract one, about the psychology of criminals, but Rodion almost snaps and is an inch close to confession. Nevertheless, suddenly Porfiriy tells him that a poor painter named Mikolka was arrested for murdering Alyona Ivanovna.
In the tavern Rodion meets another man named Svidrigailov - a mysterious man who appears to be Dunya’s former employer who is obsessed with her and secretly followed her to St. Petersburg. Svidrigailov says that they have a lot in common. Despite Rodion thinks that Svidrigailov is just slightly less disgusting than Luzhin, he likes his ability to indulge in current moment and do what he pleases just because he can (yes, he isn’t bothered by the fact that that man molested his sister just exactly because he could).
Rodion returns to his mother and sister and they have an angry conversation. Rodion tries to order his sister to break the engagement with Luzhin and Dunya asks him to come with her to the meeting Luzhin appointed that evening to support her. Rodion agrees. Suddenly Sonya enters. She is embarrassed to see Rodion again and to interrupt a family talk but she wants to invite him to her father’s funeral, because Raskolnikov was so kind to him in his last moment.
Meanwhile, Katerina Ivanovna in mourning has a quarrel with her landlady and insults her. The landlady orders her to move out immediately with the children. Suddenly Luzhin, who rents an apartment in the same house, comes and accuses Sonya of stealing his money. For some unknown reasons money is indeed in the pocket of her apron, so poor Sonya is completely disgraced: now she is not only a prostitute but a thief. But suddenly, Raskolnikov, who has come to mourn Marmeladov and support Dunya, steps forward and says that he saw when Luzhin put the money into Sonya’s apron by himself. He explains that Luzhin wants to humiliate both Rodion and Sonya (who Dunya almost befriended) in the eyes of his fiancée to return control over her to himself, because Rodion and Sonya supported her too much. Embarrassed Luzhin leaves.
Rodion and Sonya go to her room and the young man confesses of double murder he committed. Sonya pities him for the moral torment and proposes to atone himself by voluntary confession, arrest and hard labor. Raskolnikov laments only about the fact that he appears to be a “trembling creature” with a conscience and the need for love and approval. He disagrees with Sonya and says he will still fight against his nature.
Katerina Ivanovna is thrown into the streets with her children. She soon becomes sick and dies, leaving her children without any income. Svidrigailov agrees to take care about children and Sonya and pay for the funeral.
Returning home Raskolnikov finds Porfiriy there. The investigator convinces the young man to confess. He doesn’t believe in guilt of Mikolka who just passively accepted the injustice of the world because he is barely educated but kind and religious, so he compared himself with Christ. Using both logic and religion Porfiriy tries to disrupt Rodion’s theory and prove him wrong. But Raskolnikov still hopes to overcome his human nature. He sees the example of Svidrigailov before him - but suddenly he realizes that Svidrigailov seeks the same thing, Dunya’s love. This desire caused him to, probably, murder his wife, to follow Dunya to the city and now to take care about Sonya to impress her. Rodion understands that Svidrigailov’s life of insignificant villain was a burden to himself. Svidrigailov had his final conversation with Dunya and, understanding that she feels only fear and disgust, shot himself in a few hours. Thinking over Svidrigailov’s fate is the last thing that convinces Raskolnikov to confess.
He says goodbye to his family and Sonya. He still is full of pride, but Sonia convinces him to publicly apologize for his sin before making the official confession. Now he will be sent to Siberia as a convicted prisoner.
His mother soon dies of grief and shame, Dunya and Razumikhin are happily married. Sonya also moved to Siberia and settled next to the prison colony. Now she often visits Rodion, patient to his gloom and indifference. The nightmare of alienation continues for Rodion, the other prisoners don’t want to talk to the atheist. On the contrary, they treat Sonya with tenderness and love.
While laying sick in the prison hospital Rodion sees a dream that looks like a vision of Apocalypse: mysterious spirits possess people making them incredibly self-righteous, rigid and intolerant to the other worldviews. People kill each other in senseless malice until all the human race is exterminated. The few survivors are the purest of all and they are chosen to rebuild the world.
This dream leads Rodion to a thought that pride leads to hatred and destruction and humility leads to love, fullness of life and unity with people and God. He suddenly feels an infinite, almost divine love to Sonya. On the edge of his “rebirth” Raskolnikov takes the Bible into his hands.