What is the significance of yellow in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was clearly no fan of the color yellow. Throughout Crime and Punishment, the late Russian author associates this particular color with negative imagery. In the novel’s early chapters, the color yellow is used to emphasize the aged, often-dilapidated nature of an item, such as “a mangy fur cape, yellow with age,” and “the furniture, all very old and of yellow wood,” and the tackiness of décor, evident in his description of “two or three halfpenny prints in yellow frames,” and the yellow paper that adorned the walls of the "spiteful, old widow" Dostoyevsky’s protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, conspires to murder. Yellow is also associated with the more deceitful and despicable of the novel’s characters, as is the case with the clerk Raskolnikov encounters in the tavern early in Part I, Chapter II, described as having a “face, bloated from continual drinking, [that] was of a yellow, even greenish, tinge, with swollen eyelids out of which keen reddish eyes gleamed like little chinks.” Clearly, Dostoyevsky intended to the color yellow to be associated with his novel’s more pernicious personalities, perhaps none more so than Pyotr Petrovitch Luzhin, the counsellor who will assume a prominent place in the author’s dreary tale of a murder for robbery and its aftermath. In Part V, Chapter I, the endearing prostitute Sonia stares “at the gold eye-glass which Pyotr Petrovitch held in his left hand and at the massive and extremely handsome ring with a yellow stone on his middle finger.” Here, yellow denotes not age and decrepitude, but corruption and venality—the very characteristics that best define Luzhin. Yellow tickets, a yellow passport, yellow lumps of sugar, yellow notes, all are used to convey negative imagery that Dostoyevsky used to emphasize the dreariness and moral corruption at the core of the society he depicts—a society that, in real life, was every bit as corrupt as one could imagine, with the Romanov Dynasty still very much in power despite the growing and increasingly violent opposition to czarist rule that was a defining feature of Russian politics during the 19th century.
Near the end of Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky associates the color yellow one last time with the dilapidated culture he presents. Noting the “bright yellow, wooden, little houses [that] looked dirty and dejected with their closed shutters,” the author brings his exceedingly dreary depiction of a society on the brink of destruction—a destruction caused by internal rot--to a close. That Raskolnikov is depicted in the novel’s final pages as nearing redemption, due in no small part to his relationship to the proverbial ‘prostitute with a heart of gold,’ does not obscure the fact of his imprisonment in the desolate Siberian expanse and his mother’s death due to her grief over her son’s fate. The prominence given to the color yellow in Crime and Punishment is a sign of the author’s jaundiced view of his own protagonist and of the environment in which this story takes place.