What is the significance of the setting in Crime and Punishment?
Most of the action in Crime and Punishment takes place in St. Petersburg, at that time the capital city of Russia. The city had been founded by Tsar Peter the Great with the express intention of emulating the Europeans. He brought in some of Europe's finest artists, engineers and architects to construct a whole new city from scratch, one that would show to the world that Russia was a civilized country that could now take its rightful place among the international community of nations.
As with all cities, however, St. Petersburg had its dark underbelly of crime, poverty and disease. And it's this seamy underside of the gilded capital that Dostoyevsky explores in minute, unerring detail. St. Petersburg stands almost as a metaphor for humanity. On the surface, all appears calm and civilized. But not far beneath lies a different world, a world in which darkness prevails. Raskolnikov's tortured psychological state mirrors the grim reality of the poor and underprivileged and their daily struggle for existence. The drama of life played out in the filthy, narrow streets of St. Petersburg's slums is inseparable from the inner conflict raging within Raskolnikov's soul.
St. Petersburg doesn't just provide the backdrop to the story; it enters into the very thoughts and actions of each character. St. Petersburg and its environs dominate and control their lives, almost oppressing them along with the coruscating heat of July. This isn't simply just a city; it's an idea, a conscious attempt by a Tsar to drag Russia into the modern world. Yet this idea and its representations in the physical urban landscape—the churches, the palaces, the cathedrals, museums and boulevards—contrast sharply with the foul, stinking underbelly inhabited by the characters in the story.
So, for example, the gilded splendor of the dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral is offset by Dostoyevsky's detailed descriptions of the sheer unadulterated squalor of Haymarket Square, sordid epicenter of the novel and its main action. Poverty was widespread in Russia at that time, but there's something especially striking about poverty in such an outwardly elegant and beautiful city as St. Petersburg. Just as the psychological makeup of each individual is bewilderingly complex, so too is the real life of the city.
Dostoevsky's St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia, is the main setting of the novel. St. Petersburg in the summer is hot, crowded, ugly, and most of all, teeming with poor people. Raskolnikov, a poor law student, lives in a small, miserable room. He is behind on the rent to his landlady, a woman he avoids. Everyone around him seems to be in a mad scramble for what bits of money they can find. The term "starving student" is hardly an exaggeration in this setting, where a few vastly wealthy people seem to have sucked up all the money.
The setting is realistic in terms of street names and place names. Its significance, however, lies in its subjectivity: its almost unrelenting grimness, dirt, and poverty reflect the overwrought sensibility of Raskolnikov. The setting is a manifestation of Raskolnikov's fevered, unhappy mindset. His focus on the city's ugliness shows his cramped, tormented experience of the city. It becomes easier to understand, though not to condone, his becoming a murderer, given the context of his experience of meanness, want, and cruelty in St. Petersburg.
The prison camp at the end of the novel is in Siberia. Although it is a place of suffering, it is also a place of purity and redemption for Raskolnikov and therefore a contrast to St. Petersburg.
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.