What is the significance of the setting in Crime and Punishment?
Crime and Punishment is set in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1860s, which Dostoevsky describes as a dirty, vice-ridden place. As Raskolnikov wanders around the streets, "that special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get out of town in summer--all worked painfully upon the young man's overwrought nerves" (page 2). He is surrounded all the time by filth, and the people in the streets are often drunk. In this type of environment, Raskolnikov's reasoning also becomes tainted. The dark, dirty setting of the novel in St. Petersburg affects Raskolnikov's already weakened mind so that he begins to rationalize that killing the old pawn broker is forgivable. Dostoevsky paints the city as a powerful force that has a degrading effect on Raskolnikov's mind. It is only in Siberia, where he is serving a long prison sentence, that Raskolnikov begins his slow process of redemption far away from the vice of urban life.
By setting the novel in St. Petersburg which was then the capitol of Russia, Dostoevsky is draws attention to the miserable social conditions that existed in Russia at the time the book was published. St. Petersburg is usually thought of as a beautiful city full of fabulous buildings and art. However, there was a much more impoverished side of the city that was rarely discussed. Almost all of the characters, including the protagonist, Raskolnikov, are poor. One of the most noble characters, Sonya, has had to become prostitute in order to help support her family. By involving the reader in this social environment, the author is able to call attention to problems associated with poverty and the consequences of those problems.