What role does St. Petersburg play in Crime and Punishment?
The setting of Dostoevsky's novel is the capital city of Russia in the 1860s. After the serfs were freed, many came to the city in search of work. They lived in squalid, confining conditions in an area near Hay Market Square; here in this cheapest of markets, farmers, merchants, and residents of the surrounding slums traded. (Interestingly, Dostoevsky himself lived in the area in which Raskolnikov resides in Crime and Punishment.) This sordid environment filled with people of dubious character has a profound affect upon Raskolnikov who dwells in "an awful little cupboard." In Chapter Four, for instance, Raskolnikov witnesses a young girl, drunken from being forced to imbibe, with a gentleman whose obvious motives are to take advantage of her.
"Ah, the shameful things that are done in the world nowadays...She has been deceived, that a sure thing. See how her dress has been torn, too....Ah, the vice one sees.....
Then, in Chapter Five, Raskolnikov recalls his boyhood as his father took him by a large tavern where "drunken and horrible-looking figures were hanging about. Near the entrance of this tavern stood a poor cart-horse under a heavy load with a cruel master. Other men come along and help beat the pitiful beast. Raskolnikov runs to try to help it, until his father pulls him away.
Clearly, the experiences of Raskolnikov as he witness the brutality and insignificance of life in the slums lead him to the belief that God does not exist, nor is there any arbiter of good and evil. Further, his slaying of the pawnbroker mimics the death of the poor cart-horse; Raskolnikov kills her to see if he can overstep the limits of evil. But, sadly, he learns what he should have witness at Hay Market: free will is limited, and one's life cannot be directly solely by reason and intellect. For, his emotions and soul effect his later confession.