Illustration of a person's lower extremeties wearing a pair of bloody socks

Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Start Free Trial

Humanity in Crime and Punishment

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456

In Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky created an unforgettable novel of haunting intensity. With its sustained focus on the emotions and thoughts of its young protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky's novel provides a harrowing portrait of human error and misfortune. Dostoyevsky had originally intended to write an account of murder from the perspective of the murderer himself. As he worked on the project in November 1865, however, he concluded that such a perspective might be too limited, so he chose an omniscient, third-person narrative mode instead. Yet traces of the original design remain: much of the novel offers direct insight into Raskolnikov's impressions and experiences. One of the ways in which Dostoyevsky allows the reader intimate access into his protagonist's mind is by describing Raskolnikov's dreams. Early in the novel, for example, Raskolnikov has a vivid dream in which he sees himself as a young boy accompanying his father on a visit to the grave of a younger brother who died in infancy. On the way to the grave, Raskolnikov and his father witness an enraged peasant beating an old, overburdened mare. The young boy is horrified to see how the peasant whips the horse across the eyes. Finally, the peasant kills the horse with an iron crowbar, and the shocked child runs over to kiss the horse's bloody muzzle. It is after he awakens from this dream that Raskolnikov utters aloud for the first time his plan to take an axe and smash open the old pawnbroker's skull. Clearly, Raskolnikov's vivid dream has brought to the surface his unexpressed, murderous intentions.

Dostoyevsky's treatment of this dream has additional significance, however. Some dream analysts might argue that every character in one's dream represents some aspect of the dreamer's personality or impulses. Therefore, not only does the figure of the murderous peasant evoke Raskolnikov's own murderous urges, but also, the figure of the murdered horse might represent some part of the dreamer. Indeed, Raskolnikov's crime not only has the effect of killing the pawnbroker and Lizaveta in a physical sense, it also has the effect of killing Raskolnikov himself in a spiritual sense. Long after the murder he would tell Sonya: "I killed myself, not that old creature!" Having "died" at the moment when he killed the pawnbroker and Lizaveta, Raskolnikov is faced with the challenge of being restored to "life," and much of the novel records his struggle with this problem.

Raskolnikov's interactions with Sonya play a significant role in this process. During the meeting in which he confesses his crime to her, Raskolnikov's conduct and words have the effect of creating a kind of psychological or emotional reen-actment of the original murder. Just as Raskolnikov feels that he killed himself when he murdered the pawnbroker, so too must he now have a second victim: the innocent Sonya takes the symbolic place of the innocent Lizaveta. The unconscious aim of Raskolnikov's behavior during this scene is to see how Sonya handles the dreadful experience. Will she be devastated by her recognition of Raskolnikov's crime, or, on the contrary, will she find a way to go on living and thus serve as a model for Raskolnikov himself? Her religious faith and her love for Raskolnikov serve as a potent force for the criminal's regeneration.

Dostoyevsky's treatment of the theme of death and regeneration makes distinctive use of religious imagery, from the Gospel account of the raising of Lazarus (first mentioned to Raskolnikov by Porfiry Petrovich and then read aloud by Sonya to Raskolnikov) to the final scene of the novel, which takes place soon after the Christian holiday of Easter. During...

(This entire section contains 1456 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

that final scene, Raskolnikov feels a surge of overwhelming love for Sonya, as if his soul has undergone a sudden cleansing or purification. Dostoyevsky's description of this moment emphasizes its religious dimensions. He writes that Raskolnikov and Sonya experience "a perfect resurrection into a new life" and that "Love had raised them from the dead."

In addition to its religious imagery, Crime and Punishment also incorporates other symbolic systems. Landscapes and physical settings often suggest a character's emotional or psychological conditions. Raskolnikov lives in a tiny, cramped room, an evocative emblem of how constricted his lifestyle and thinking have become. He buries the items stolen from the pawnbroker under a huge rock. This rock serves as a reminder of the crushing burden of guilt that Raskolnikov carries with him. Recognizing the cramped nature of Raskolnikov's lifestyle and thinking, Porfiry Petrovich tells him that he needs "air" and that he should learn to be a "sun." The only time that Raskolnikov feels some sense of ease is when he leaves the stifling city streets behind and walks out into the countryside. His spiritual conversion at the end of the novel takes place on the bank of a river with a wide, pastoral scene displayed in front of him.

Yet it is not only the physical landscape that amplifies and reflects Raskolnikov's inner condition. Dostoyevsky's handling of other characters also plays a key role in the development and exposition of the central figure. As Raskolnikov moves through the city, he seems to move through a charged atmosphere in which every encounter triggers a resonant response in his soul. Thus, his chance meeting with Marmeladov introduces the concepts of suffering and self-sacrifice, concepts that will become so important to Raskolnikov later in the novel. More importantly, the characters who surround Raskolnikov often seem to serve as potential doubles or alter egos. That is, the traits that these characters embody represent potential directions for Raskolnikov himself. On one side stands the humble Sonya. She is willing to sacrifice herself for her family, and she puts the ideals of love and service to one's fellow humans above any notion of self-glorification. On the other side stands the corrupt Svidrigailov. He indulges in extreme forms of debauchery simply to relieve his boredom. Svidngailov tells Raskolnikov that he considers the young man to be something of a kindred spirit. Although Raskolnikov does not wish to admit it, he senses that there may be some validity to Svidrigailov's assertions. When Svidrigailov informs Sonya that Raskolnikov only has two paths to choose from, either "a bullet in the brain" or "Siberia," he has effectively identified the choices that lie in front of the wretched young man. Only Sonya's appearance outside the police station at the end of the main section of the novel prevents Raskolnikov from emulating Svidrigailov's example and committing suicide. Instead, he follows her advice, confesses his crime, and with her love and support he ultimately finds redemption in Siberia.

In addition to the main characters who reflect and amplify Raskolnikov's conflicting impulses, several secondary characters appear in the novel to convey Dostoyevsky's scorn for certain ideological trends in contemporary Russian society. The pompous Luzhin, for example, has come to St. Petersburg to curry favor with the new "progressive" elements among the intelligentsia. Dostoyevsky uses Luzhin's simplistic praise for scientific thought and the virtues of self-interest to mock the popular ideas of the progressive writer N. G. Chernyshevsky. Even more satirical in this regard is the character of Lebezyatnikov, who has been so impressed with scenes from Chernyshevsky's novel, What Is to Be Done, that he tries to outdo the behavior of characters from that novel. He tells Luzhin that if he had a wife, he would encourage her to take a lover simply so he could show his magnanimity and understanding in refusing to condemn her.

Dostoyevsky's disdain for the radical movement was perhaps fueled by his own early exposure to progressive social movements. As a young man in the 1840s he had belonged to a small circle devoted to the discussion and dissemination of Utopian socialist thought. His participation in this group had led to his arrest and imprisonment in 1849. He was subsequently sentenced to prison camp and exile in Siberia, and a decade would pass before he could return to St. Petersburg. Through his portrait of the young Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky wished to show the dangers of errant thought in contemporary Russia. Those who believed that society's ills could be cured through rationalistic schemes, without regard for the inner spiritual and emotional complexity of the human subject, were not only doomed to fail, but from Dostoyevsky's perspective, they represented a serious threat to society itself. Raskolnikov's crime, then, serves to illustrate the pernicious nature of the radicals' self-centered and self-elevating intellectual schemes. Yet Dostoyevsky's novel offers much more than a partisan ideological tract. His haunting description of Raskolnikov's desperate struggles and aspirations has resulted in one of the most memorable and thought-provoking works in all of world literature.

Source: Julian Connolly, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Connolly is a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia.

The Principles of Uncertainty in Crime and Punishment

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2465

As the novel [Crime and Punishment] grew under Dostoevski's pen, his notebooks and drafts show that he went from uncertainty to uncertainty in depicting Raskolnikov and his crime, even jotting down reminders to himself to elucidate the murderer's motives more clearly. It would be easy enough to conclude from this that Dostoevsky ... had simply not suspected the full richness and potential of his character and his theme, but this would be too simple a conclusion. Uncertainty is an important artistic principle in much of Dostoevsky's work, and it is at the very heart of Crime and Punishment....

In Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky sacrifices to the principle of uncertainty many of the conventional prerogatives of the novelist: his most far-reaching sacrifice was that of omniscience .... In Crime and Punishment the narrator enjoys no consistent perceptual advantage over the participants: he sees the world through the same haze of subjective uncertainty as Raskolnikov does. It is this above all else that gives the novel its permanently nightmarish quality.

The most obvious manifestation of this kind of uncertainty is in the presentation of motive. Raskolnikov becomes a "criminal in search of his own motive"; he does not in the end know why he committed his crime, and neither does the reader. The narrator offers us no definite explanation, only a share in Raskolnikov's confusion.... Dostoevsky originally conceived Raskolnikov's crime as a means of exposing the absurdity of the moral utilitarianism characteristic of many leading intellectuals in the 1860s....

The utilitarian principle undoubtedly remains a major aspect of Raskolnikov's crime in the finished novel. Indeed, he does not finally renounce it until his conversion in the Epilogue. In a conversation with Dunya late in the novel he vigorously defends the morality of his crime in utilitarian terms: " 'Crime? What crime!' he cried in a sort of sudden frenzy. 'That I killed a vile, harmful louse, an old hag of a moneylender of no use to anybody, for whose murder one should be forgiven forty sins, and who bled poor people dry. Can that be called a crime? I don't think about it, and I have no desire to wipe it out.'" But the utilitarian ethic alone can satisfy the demands of neither the reader nor Raskolnikov himself for a comprehensive explanation of his act. In a sense, this affirms Dostoevsky's point that the complex and often contradictory impulses behind human action cannot in the end be reduced to simple causal chains or primary motives. But Raskolnikov, as a "man of the sixties," cannot countenance the possibility that he has committed an irrational or irreducible act. He craves a comprehensive motive to restore his belief in the lucidity of human values and behavior. Yet rational utilitarianism is not adequate to the task, and he loses himself in the maze of his own personality. He embarks upon his crime ostensibly with the aim of robbery to further the fortunes of himself and other socially worthy people at the expense of a worthless parasite—a simple and logical adjustment of society's faulty arithmetic. Yet he fails to ascertain in advance the extent and whereabouts of his victim's wealth; he leaves with only a few cheap trinkets which he soon abandons under a stone and never reclaims. At no stage does he consider the possibility of appropriating the old woman's wealth without resorting to murder. It quickly becomes obvious that Raskolnikov has not murdered in order to steal; he has fabricated a shabby robbery in order to murder. He has only murder on his mind, not the appropriation and redistribution of wealth.

After the murder the utilitarian motive slips farther and farther into the background as Raskolnikov's probing intellect discerns the shapes of other and more disturbing implications of his act. It is worth remembering that he is rarely troubled by the murder of Lizaveta, the innocent victim of an unanticipated turn of events. This second killing does not engage his concern, for it was an unpremeditated, simple, even "innocent" slaying with a clear motive: Raskolnikov killed Lizaveta in order to escape. It is the "rationally justified" murder of the old hag that gnaws at his soul and that in the end he cannot account for.

Porfiry Petrovich, the examining magistrate, is the first to associate the murder with the ideas expounded in an article of Raskolnikov's on crime, and thus to open the way to an explanation of the crime, not in terms of Raskolnikov's professed utilitarian altruism, but in the light of his insane pride, egoism, and craving for power. Raskolnikov's article, published without his knowledge, is a product of the narrow, cloistered intellectualism which characterizes the young ex-student and makes it so difficult for him to enter the mainstream of life. It is composed of the cramped and arid thoughts engendered by the coffinlike room in which he leads only the ghost of a life. The article divides humanity into two distinct categories: the Supermen, such as Newton and Napoleon, who by virtue of their originality, strength of will, or daring, write their names boldly in the history of human achievement; and the Lice, the ordinary men and women who are the bricks and not the architects of history and who contribute nothing new. The former, according to Raskolnikov, have an inherent right to moral and intellectual freedom; they create their own laws and may overstep the bounds of conventional law and morality. The latter are condemned by their ordinariness to a life of submission to common law and common morality; their sole function is to breed in the hope of one day giving birth to a Superman.

Clearly belief in any such division of humanity must tempt the man of pride into a harrowing dilemma of self-definition; and Raskolnikov is a man of immense pride. Does he therefore murder in the conviction that, as a superior man, he has the right to brush aside conventional morality in order to expedite the contribution he must make to history? This is unlikely, for, although Raskolnikov is seduced by his pride into longing for the status of Superman, his persistent doubts as he plans and rehearses the murder reveal all too clearly his uncertainty and fear of the Superman's freedom. Is the crime therefore conceived as a grotesque act of self-definition, whereby by assessing his reaction to moral transgression Raskolnikov seeks to choose his true self from the differing options offered by his pride and his uncertainty? This affords a tantalizingly plausible explanation of the murder; after all, we would expect the abstract Raskolnikov to respond most readily to abstract motives. Somehow it is impossible to imagine this unphysical intellectual murdering in response to such physical needs as hunger or want; but we can imagine him chasing the specter of self-knowledge. Moreover, Raskolnikov's need of self-definition is acute; in the novel's early chapters he oscillates wildly between satanic pride and abject humility, between unbounded admiration for the strong and limitless pity for the weak....

But the crime could be an authentic attempt at the resolution of this duality only if Raskolnikov were genuinely uncertain to which category of humanity he belonged, and this is not the case. In his pride he might long to be a Napoleon, but he knows that he is a louse, knows it even before he commits the crime, as he later acknowledges: "and the reason why I am finally a louse is because I am perhaps even nastier and viler than the louse I killed, and I felt beforehand that I would say that to myself after I had killed her." The implications of this admission are startling: Raskolnikov embarked upon the murder of the old woman knowing in advance that he had no right to kill and no clear motive, and, moreover, clearly anticipating the destructive effect such an act would have upon the rest of his life. Perhaps it is this he has in mind when he later asserts: "Did I really kill the old hag? I killed myself, not the old hag! At that moment in one blow I did away with myself for good!" This feature of Raskolnikov's behavior illustrates the incompatibility of knowledge and pride. Raskolnikov's knowledge that he is ordinary and has no special right to overstep conventional moral limits cannot contain his proud and essentially irrational need to assert himself. In the end his crime is an act of terrifying inconsequence: a proud, petulant, and meaningless protest against the certain knowledge that he is not superior; a moment when the demands of frustrated pride are so insistent that he is prepared to sacrifice the whole of his future to them. "I simply killed; I killed for myself, for myself alone, and at that moment it was all the same to me whether I became some sort of benefactor of humanity or spent the rest of my life catching people in my web and sucking the life forces out of them like a spider."

In Crime and Punishment the principle of uncertainty encompasses more than the question of motivation. Even the spatial and temporal coordinates of the novel are blurred and at times distorted by a narrator whose precise nature and point of view are neither clearly defined nor absolutely fixed. The notebooks reveal that the adoption of a narrative point of view presented Dostoevsky with his greatest difficulty in writing the novel. He onginally planned to use the first-person confession form, which would have allowed direct and easy access to the thought processes of the hero, but which would have created real difficulties when it came to filling in the objective details of the world in which the murderer moves. Dostoevsky wrestled with this form until the third and final draft, when a new approach occurred to him: "Narration from point of view of author, a sort of invisible but omniscient being who doesn't leave his hero for a moment." The third-person narrator anticipated in this comment is retained for the novel itself, but his omniscience is open to doubt. Complete omniscience would have robbed the novel of its haunting uncertainty and provided the reader too clear an insight into Raskolnikov's behavior and motivation. The first chapter illustrates this particularly well, as the alleys of St. Petersburg, with their stifling heat, dust, stuffiness, and smells, are conveyed to the reader in terms of the impression they make upon Raskolnikov. These details of the physical world, in passing through Raskolnikov' s awareness, lose their tactile and sensual authenticity and are transformed into psychological stimuli....

In much the same way our sense of real space is distorted by this subjective third-person narrative. Many years after the appearance of Crime and Punishment Einstein argued that we cannot experience space in the abstract, independent of the matter that fills it; and it is Raskolnikov's consciousness that fills this novel. Like a gravitational field, it warps the space around it. For example, the description of Raskolnikov's room as seen through Raskolnikov's eyes at the start of the novel is uncomfortably inconsistent with objectively narrated events which occur in this same room later. The room appears to shift its size with the narrative point of view. The early description is clearly conditioned by Raskolnikov's own sensations of claustrophobia; he is oppressed and haunted by ideas, theories, pride, poverty, and illness, and the room he describes with hatred upon waking from a restless sleep resembles a tomb. A mere six feet long, not high enough for a man to stand, littered with dusty books, its yellow wallpaper peeling from the walls, it is dominated by a huge, clumsy sofa. The description accords so perfectly with what we know of Raskolnikov's state of mind that we hardly distinguish where his consciousness ends and the outside world begins. Yet a few chapters later, as Raskolnikov lies in bed semidelirious after the crime and the narrative adopts a more objective course in order to permit the introduction of several new characters, our sense of the room's size is quite different. As the sick Raskolnikov is visited by his maid Nastasya, his friend Razumikhin, the doctor Zosimov, and his sister's suitor Luzhin, the "tomb" seems to open out in order to accommodate each new arrival.

Distance is equally intangible. When, in Chapter 1, Raskolnikov visits his victim's flat, we have no real sensation of his physically moving from one environment to another. Dostoevsky tells us that "exactly seven hundred and thirty" paces separate the pawnbroker's flat from Raskolnikov's hovel, but the precision of this figure is entirely numerical. Locked inside Raskolnikov's consciousness as he rehearses a multitude of doubts and hesitations, we measure the physical distance only in terms of the number of thoughts which flash through his mind.

But the most uncertain quantity of all is time. Nearly all readers of Crime and Punishment experience the loss of a sense of duration in the course of the novel. It seems hardly possible, but the entire action requires only two weeks, and Part I a mere three days. Directed by the narrative mode into the inner world of Raskolnikov's turbulent imagination, we lose our temporal reference points.

Absolute time ceases to be; we know time only as Raskolnikov experiences it. At moments it is severely retarded—indeed, in Part I, as Raskolnikov prepares for the kill, its flow is all but arrested; later the sense of time is violently accelerated as Raskolnikov undergoes the vertiginous fall from his crime to his confession. In this way time becomes a function of consciousness. We might go further and suggest an analogy with Einsteinian time, which, like Dostoevsky's, depends fundamentally upon point of view. For Einstein there could be no absolute time, the time experienced by separate observers differed according to their relative motion. Dostoevsky seems to be suggesting something very similar in a cryptic remark in the drafts for Crime and Punishment: "What is time? Time does not exist; time is only numbers. Time is the relation of what exists to what does not exist." This remark might perhaps be interpreted as meaning that there is no abstract, absolute time. Time exists only when actualized in an event or series of events. The importance of this for Crime and Punishment is that events and their duration are experienced differently by different observers. Through Raskolnikov's consciousness the reader of the novel observes only the hero's experiences of intervals between events. There are no events narrated with consistent objectivity which form reference points against which to judge Raskolnikov's sense of time....

Despite all the uncertainties upon which Crime and Punishment rests, one overriding certainty is sustained throughout the novel: the conviction, shared by author, reader, and hero, that the crime is in the final analysis wrong.

Source: William J. Leatherbairow, "The Principles of Uncertainty: Crime and Punishment," in his Fedor Dostoevsky, Twayne, 1981, pp. 69-95.

Traditional Symbolism in Crime and Punishment

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2871

It may seem paradoxical to claim that critics have not sufficiently concerned themselves with Dostoevsky's attack against rationalism in Crime and Punishment; yet this aspect of the novel has frequently failed to receive adequate attention, not because it has been overlooked, but because often it has been immediately noticed, perfunctorily mentioned, and then put out of mind as something obvious. Few writers have examined the consequence of the anti-rationalistic tenor of the novel: the extent to which it is paralleled by the structural devices incorporated in the work.

Dostoevsky held that dialectics, self-seeking, and exclusive reliance on reason ("reason and will" in Raskolnikov's theories and again in his dream of the plague) lead to death-in-life. In Crime and Punishment he set himself the task of exposing the evils of rationalism by presenting a laboratory case of an individual who followed its precepts and pushed them to their logical conclusion. By working out what would happen to that man, Dostoevsky intended to show how destructive the idea was for individuals, nations, and mankind; for to him the fates of the individual and the nation were inseparably interlocked....

The underlying antithesis of Crime and Punishment, the conflict between the side of reason, selfishness, and pride, and that of acceptance of suffering, closeness to life-sustaining Earth, and love, sounds insipid and platitudinous when stated in such general fashion as we have done here. Dostoevsky, however, does not present it in the form of abstract statement alone. He conveys it with superb dialectical skill, and when we do find direct statements in the novel, they are intentionally made so inadequate as to make us realize all the more clearly their disappointing irrelevancy and to lead us to seek a richer representation in other modes of discourse....

Symbolism is the method of expression with which we are primarily concerned here, but it is far from being the only indirect, non-intellectual manner of expression on which Dostoevsky depends. Oblique presentation is another means which he uses; one example is the introduction of the subject of need for suffering. The idea is first presented in a debased and grotesque form by Marmeladov. His confession of how he had mistreated his family, of his drinking, and of the theft of money—to Raskolnikov, a stranger whom he has met in the tavern—is almost a burlesque foreshadowing of Raskolnikov's later penance, the kissing of the earth and his confession at the police station. Marmeladov is drunk, irresponsible, and still submerged in his selfish course of action; he welcomes suffering but continues to spurn his responsibilities; he is making a fool of himself in the tavern. His discourse throughout calls for an ambiguous response. Raskolnikov's reaction may be pity, agreement, laughter, or disgust; the reader's is a mixture and succession of all those emotions.

Thus the important ideas summed up in Marmeladov's "it's not joy I thirst for, but sorrow and tears" are introduced in a derogatory context and in an ambivalent manner, on the lowest, least impressive level. Yet the concept is now present with us, the readers, as it is with Raskolnikov—even though it first appears in the guise of something questionable, disreputable, and laughable—and we are forced to ponder it and to measure against it Sonya's, Raskolnikov's, Porfiry's and others' approaches to the same subject of "taking one's suffering."

A simple, unequivocal statement, a respectable entrance of the theme on the stage of the book, would amount to a reduction of life to "a matter of arithmetic" and would release the reader from the salutary, in fact indispensable task of smelting down the ore for himself....

In Crime and Punishment the reader, as well as Raskolnikov, must struggle to draw his own conclusions from a work which mirrors the refractory and contradictory materials of life itself, with their admixture of the absurd, repulsive, and grotesque....

Traditional symbolism, that is, symbolism which draws on images established by the Christian tradition and on those common in Russian non-Christian, possibly pre-Christian and pagan, folk thought and expression, is an important element in the structure of Crime and Punishment. The outstanding strands of symbolic imagery in the novel are those of water, vegetation, sun and air, the resurrection of Lazarus and Christ, and the earth.

Water is to Dostoevsky a symbol of rebirth and regeneration. It is regarded as such by the positive characters, for whom it is an accompaniment and an indication of the life-giving forces in the world. By the same token, the significance of water may be the opposite to negative characters. Water holds the terror of death for the corrupt Svidrigaylov, who confirms his depravity by thinking: "Never in my life could I stand water, not even on a landscape painting." Water, instead of being an instrument of life, becomes for him a hateful, avenging menace during the last hours of his life....

Indeed it will be in the cold and in the rain that he will put a bullet in his head. Instead of being a positive force, water is for him the appropriate setting for the taking of his own life.

When Raskolnikov is under the sway of rationalism and corrupting ways of thinking, this also is indicated by Dostoevsky by attributing to him negative reactions to water similar to those of Svidrigaylov. In Raskolnikov, however, the battle is not definitely lost. A conflict still rages between his former self—which did have contact with other people and understood the beauty of the river, the cathedral (representing the traditional, religious, and emotional forces), and water—and the new, rationalistic self, which is responsible for the murder and for his inner desiccation.... There is still left in Raskolnikov an instinctive reaction to water (and to beauty) as an instrument of life, although this receptivity, which had been full-blown and characteristic of him in his childhood, is now in his student days overlaid by the utilitarian and rationalistic theories....

But Raskolnikov also realizes that his trends of thought have banished him, like Cain, from the brotherhood of men and clouded his right and ability to enjoy beauty and the beneficent influences of life symbolized by water; hence his perplexity and conflict....

Related to the many references to the river and rain, and often closely associated with them, are two other groups of symbolic imagery: that of vegetation (shrubbery, leaves, bushes, flowers, and greenness in general) and that of the sun (and the related images of light and air).

In contrast to the dusty, hot, stifling, and crowded city, a fitting setting for Raskolnikov's oppressive and murderous thoughts, we find, for example, "the greenness and the freshness" of the Petersburg islands.... The natural surroundings reawakened in him the feelings of his youth, through which he came close to avoiding his crime and to finding regeneration without having to pass through the cycle of Crime and Punishment.....

By the same token, vegetation exercised the opposite effect on Svidrigaylov: it repelled him. In the inn on the night of his suicide, when he heard the leaves in the garden under his window, he thought, "How I hate the noise of trees at night in a storm and in darkness." Whereas Raskolnikov received a healthy warning during his short sleep "under a bush," Svidrigaylov uses the sordid setting of an amusement park which "had one spindly three-year-old Christmas tree and three small bushes" merely for vain distraction on the eve of his suicide, and contemplates killing himself under "a large bush drenched with rain." In him all positive elements had been rubbed out or transformed into evil.

Similar to water and vegetation, sunshine, light in general, and air are positive values, whereas darkness and lack of air are dangerous and deadening. The beauty of the cathedral flooded by sunlight ought to be felt and admired.... Before the murder, he looks up from the bridge at the "bright, red sunset" and is able to face the sun as well as the river with calm, but after the murder, "in the street it was again unbearably hot—not a drop of rain all during those days .... The sun flashed brightly in his eyes, so that it hurt him to look and his head was spinning round in good earnest—the usual sensation of a man in a fever who comes out into the street on a bright, sunny day." The sun is pleasant for a man in good spiritual health, but unbearable for a feverish creature of the dark, such as Raskolnikov had become....

Absence of air reinforces the lack of light suggestive of inner heaviness. Raskolnikov, whom Svidrigaylov tells that people need air, feels physically and mentally suffocated when he is summoned to the police-station: "There's so little fresh air here. Stifling. Makes my head reel more and more every minute, and my brain too." Later he tells his friend Razumikhin: "Things have become too airless, too stifling." Airiness, on the contrary, is an indication of an advantageous relation between outward circumstances and Raskolnikov's inner state. The warning dream of the mare comes to Raskolnikov in a setting not only of greenness but also of abundance of fresh air: "The green vegetation and the fresh air at first pleased his tired eyes, used to the dust of the city, to the lime and mortar and the huge houses that enclosed and confined him on all sides. The air was fresh and sweet here: no evil smells."

When we turn to specifically Christian symbolism in Crime and Punishment, we find the outstanding images to be those of New Jerusalem, Christ's passion, and Lazarus. New Jerusalem is an important concept throughout Dostoevsky's work.... Porfiry asks Raskolmkov, "Do you believe in New Jerusalem?" The significance of Raskolnikov' s positive answer lies in the fact that the New Jerusalem which he means is the Utopian perversion of it, to be built upon foundations of crime and individual self-assertion and transgression (prestuplenie). It is the "Golden Age," as Raskolnikov called it in the draft version in Dostoevsky's notebook: "Oh why are not all people happy? The picture of the Age of Gold—it is already present in minds and hearts. Why should it not come about? ... But what right have I, a mean murderer, to wish happiness to people and to dream of the Age of Gold?"

The confession of Raskolnikov is described in terms reminiscent of Christ's passion on the road to Golgotha: he goes on "his sorrowful way." When Raskolnikov reads in his mother's letter of Dunya' s having walked up and down in her room and prayed before the Kazan Virgin, he associates her planned self-sacrifice in marrying Luzhin with the biblical prototype of self-assumed suffering for the sake of others: "Ascent to Golgotha is certainly pretty difficult," he says to himself. When Raskolnikov accepts Lizaveta's cypress cross from Sonya, he shows his recognition of the significance of his taking it—the implied resolve to seek a new life though accepting suffering and punishment—by saying to Sonya, "This is the symbol of my taking up the cross."

One of the central Christian myths alluded to in the novel is the story of Lazarus. It is the biblical passage dealing with Lazarus that Raskolnikov asks Sonya to read to him. The raising of Lazarus from the dead is to Dostoevsky the best exemplum of a human being resurrected to a new life, the road to Golgotha the best expression of the dark road of sorrow, and Christ himself the grand type of voluntary suffering....

The traditional emphasis of the Eastern Church is on Resurrection—of the Western, on the Passion. In Crime and Punishment both sides are represented: the Eastern in its promise of Raskolnikov's rebirth, the Western in the stress on his suffering. Perhaps at least part of the universality of the appeal of the novel and of its success in the West may be due to the fact that it combines the two religious tendencies....

The Christian symbolism is underlined by the pagan and universal symbolism of the earth. Sonya persuades Raskolnikov not only to confess and wear the cross, but also to kiss the earth at the crossroads—a distinctly Russian and pre-Christian acknowledgment of the earth as the common mother of all men.... In bowing to the earth and kissing it, Raskolnikov is performing a symbolic and non-rational act; the rationalist is marking the beginning of his change into a complete, organic, living human being, rejoining all other men in the community. By his crime and ideas, he had separated himself from his friends, family, and nation; in one word, he had cut himself off from Mother Earth. By the gesture of kissing the earth, he is reestablishing all his ties....

Now that we have examined selected examples of symbolism in the novel, let us take a look at the epilogue as a test of insights we may have gained into the structure and unity of the novel, for the epilogue is the culmination and juncture of the various strands of images which we have encountered earlier....

If we approach the epilogue with the various preparatory strands of images clearly in our minds, what do we find?... [We] see the state of the soul of the unregenerate Raskolnikov, the Lazarus before the rebirth, expressed by Dostoevsky through the symbolic imagery to which the novel has made us accustomed—water and vegetation. The love for life (which Raskolnikov does not yet comprehend) is represented by a spring with green grass and bushes around it.

When the regeneration of Raskolnikov begins, it is expressed in a manner still more closely linked to previously introduced imagery. His dream of the plague condemns Raskolnikov's own rationalism. It shows people obsessed by reason and will losing contact with the soil.... This dream of the plague, coming immediately before the start of the hero's regeneration, may also be another reminiscence of the Book of Revelation with its last seven plagues coming just before the millennium and the establishment of the New Jerusalem.

The epilogue then goes on to emphasize that it is the second week after Easter—the feast of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection; and that it is warm, bright spring—the season of the revival of dead nature, again a coupling of Christian and non-Christian symbolism of rebirth such as we have encountered earlier in the novel.

The crucial final scene which follows takes place on "a bright and warm day," and "on the bank of the river." The river which Raskolnikov sees now is no longer a possible means for committing suicide nor a sight inducing melancholy; it is the river of life.

Then appears Sonya, and with her arrival comes the moment when Raskolnikov is suffused with love for his guide and savior.... Vivid response to all that lives is a joining with the creator in creating and preserving the world; Sophia is a blissful meeting of god and nature, the creator and creature. In Orthodox thought Sophia has come close to being regarded as something similar to the fourth divine person. Love for Sophia is a generalized ecstatic love for all creation, so that the images of flowers, greenness, landscape, the river, air, the sun, and water throughout Crime and Punishment can be regarded as being subsumed in the concept of Sophia and figuratively in the person of Sonya, the embodiment of the concept. Sonya sees that all exists in God; she knows, and helps Raskolnikov to recognize, what it means to anticipate the millennium by living in rapt love for all creation here, in this world.

It was Sonya who had brought Raskolnikov the message of Lazarus and his resurrection; she had given him the cypress cross and urged him to kiss the earth at the crossroads. On the evening of the day when, by the bank of the river and in the presence of Sonya, Raskolnikov's regeneration had begun, the New Testament lies under his pillow as a reminder of the Christian prototype of resurrection which had been stressed earlier in the novel. Against the background of all the important symbols of the book, Easter, spring, Abraham's flocks, the earth of Siberia, the river, the dream, and Sonya, the drama within Raskolnikov's mind assumes its expressive outward form.

There follow several explicit statements of what happened. We read that "the dawn of a full resurrection to a new life" was already shining "in their faces, that love brought them back to life, that the heart of one held inexhaustible sources of life for the heart of the other," and that "the gradual rebirth" of Raskolnikov would follow. But the power of the general, overt statements depends on the indirect, oblique, dramatic, and symbolic statements which preceded them and prepared the ground for our acceptance of them. If we sense the full significance of the statement that now "Raskolnikov could solve nothing consciously. He only felt. Life had taken the place of dialectics," for example, it is because we have seen dialectics and apathy dramatized in Luzhin, Lebezyatnikov, Raskolnikov, and Svidrigaylov, and resurrection in Sonya and various symbols throughout the novel of which the epilogue is a climax and a recapitulation.

Source: George Gibian, "Traditional Symbolism in Crime and Punishment," in PMLA, Vol. LXX, No. 5, December, 1955, pp. 970-96.


Critical Overview