“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons” (Dostoyevsky). This statement by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment reflects the paradox of human civilization, whereby the settings of St. Petersburg and the Siberian prison reflect this political view. The Siberian prison, where Raskolnikov is imprisoned, is based on Dostoevsky’s own experience of being exiled and locked up in prison. This prison is also where Dostoyevsky writes through a religious call for redemption through suffering. By setting the novel in St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky draws attention to the miserable social conditions that existed in Russia during the time of intense loss, humiliation, and rage. Dostoyevsky uses a satirical analysis of liberal politics to reinforce his socialist values and criticizes the separation of the “ordinary” class and the “superman” class.
St. Petersburg is usually thought of as a beautiful city with fabulous buildings and art; however, there is a much more impoverished side of the city. Almost all of the characters, including Raskolnikov, are alienated from society; thus, this renders him sympathetic to a degree. Although Dostoyevsky depicts the crime and the environment it takes place with great realism, he is more interested in the psychology of the murderer than in the external specifics of the crime. How does Dostoyevsky present the settings of St. Petersburg and the Siberian prison as a reflection of Raskolnikov’s character in Russian society? In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky presents the setting of St. Petersburg as a microcosm of Raskolnikov’s character and Russian society in general and ironically presents the Siberian prison as a hospital for criminals rather than a continuation of suffering.
First and foremost, St. Petersburg serves as a microcosm of Raskolnikov’s character while his character is ironically a microcosm of St. Petersburg as well. Starting with Raskolnikov’s room, it symbolizes violence, abuse, and chaos as do the other homes in the novel, and is also metaphor for psychological confinement. It is small, grimy, and depressing, and is even blamed for his awful psychological state. It serves as a microcosm of St. Petersburg “It’s like a room without windows” (Dostoyevesky). This room takes on a character of its own. It illustrates Raskolnikov’s mental turmoil, becomes an image of him to others, and reinforces his degenerate state. “It was a tiny little cubby-hole of a place, no more than six paces long and so low that anybody of even a little more than average height felt uncomfortable in it” (25). Raskolnikov’s first thought is loathing revulsion at his miserable existence.
His disgust at his room mirrors readers’ revulsion at life in general in Petersburg. The description of the room itself creates a feeling of claustrophobia, for it is a mare “six paces long” with a ceiling too low to stand. From its first appearance, Raskolnikov’s room is quite horrible and oppressive, yet by the end of the passage, he seems to find it agreeable. Although “a more slovenly and degraded manner of life could hardly have been imagined, it suited Raskolnikov’s present mood” (Dostoyevsky). Just as Raskolnikov shifts between confidence and doubt, he ironically changes his feelings about his living conditions, which renders ambivalence for the reader. As he alters between loathings for his room and ironically feeling comfortable and depressed, his shifting relation with the room reveals the dual nature of his character. However, the room demands more attention as a tragic/comic setting and as a manifestation of inner psychological turmoil. It is likely that the room also creates the turmoil within Raskolnikov; the desire to break free. He acknowledges his own room’s deeper function as motivator “At last it began to seem close and
stuffy in the shabby little room, so like a box or cupboard. His eyes and his thoughts both craved more space” (33). This oppressive physical environment of the room constrains him, depresses him and darkens his thoughts, but later, his surroundings embolden him. The room embodies St. Petersburg, and Petersburg is a symbol of the cruelties of the modernizing world. Beyond symbolism, the room is also a direct cause of Raskonikov’s condition and actions. His mother Pulkcheria claims “it is responsible for at least half of his depression” (Dostoyevsky). The physical conditions Raskolnikov experiences affect him greatly. His miserable existence of his room must have led him to value his own life less. With a view of how brutal his own life is, Rodya eventually questions the value of life in general. When he says “Yes, the room made a big contribution, I’ve thought of that too” (222), he is well aware of the corrupting influence that his room inflicts, but realizes that it is too late to escape. It is through this intertwinement of settings that Dostoyevsky is able to reveal the paradox of nature and challenge the readers’ views by illustrating the settings as both tragic and comic.
St. Petersburg is viewed as a microcosm of the grimmer aspects of Russian society’s past as well as the present. Nearly every character becomes subordinated by the same oppressive force, which slowly deteriorates the social structure in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky uses a description of the city to portray the ills of Russian society while writing Crime and Punishment. Through Raskolnikov’s eyes, readers see streets crawling with drunkards, vagabonds, and molesters. Poverty is everywhere and no child is safe. The desolate landscape of the setting further emphasizes the theme of desolation, isolation, and alienation. The first indication of the
destruction poverty inflicts is made apparent with the introduction of St. Petersburg. These characteristics are revealed through Raskolnikov when he questions “Why is it that in all the great cities, and not merely or exclusively because of necessity. But rather because of some special inclination, people settle and live in those parts of the city where there are neither parks nor fountains, but dirt and stench and slime of all kinds” (80). Dostoyevsky describes the city as dirty and crowded and emphasizes poor living conditions. In the city, young women prostitute themselves to make money for their destitute families, like Sonia “a small, thin girl of eighteen with fair hair, and rather pretty, with wonderful blue eyes” (168). Consequently, Dostoyevsky uses prostitution as a metaphor for capitalism by subordinating women and children in Russian society. Additionally, random drunks can be seen sprawled out all over the city, during broad daylight “and the drunken men, whom he met continually, completed the revolting misery of the picture” (5). Drugs and alcohol are seen as symbols of symptoms of weakness, affliction, addiction, or vice. The city also shows characters like Katerina Ivanovna, who beat their children in the street just so they will go and beg for money. Every man lives in unhealthy conditions, like Raskolnikov in his tiny attic room and like all the other Russian lower class members because that is all they can afford. Dostoevsky ironically juxtaposes innocence and degradation of society and conveys the connection between the past, present, and future through flashback, reflection and foreshadowing.
Crime and Punishment views the Siberian prison not as a continuation of suffering, but rather as a hospital for criminals; a place to heal and seek redemption. The shift from Raskolnikov’s room to the Siberian prison presents an interesting contrast. Siberia is represented as pure and natural, untouched by the pollution and vice in which St. Petersburg is drowning.
Siberia is described “on the banks of solitary river stands a town, one of the administrative centres of Russia; in the town there is a fortress, in the fortress there is a prison” (418). Throughout his time of torment, Raskolnikov avoids confession through suffering in prison. He dwells in his physical sickness, keeping silent in hallucination. Finally, Raskolnikov confesses to Sonia, and begins the healing process. “They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love. The heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other” (429). To be truly renewed, he has to forget about his superman theories and submit to the law. In the epilogue, Dostoyevsky shows how prison life affects the mind of the intellectual hero. Instead of describing the outer prison conditions, he deals with the tortured mind of the prisoner. At first, Raskolnikov is gloomy and in low spirits, as he sees no hope for the future and is frustrated by his present condition.
However, Dostoyevsky seems to contend that religion and belief in god is essential for Raskolnikov’s regeneration as a human being. In this sense, Raskolnikov is dependent on Sonia who possesses true Christian values of love and charity. Through Christian ethics and beliefs, it is only through love, patience, and kindness that human survive downfalls. This is experienced at the end when Raskolnikov accepts Sonia’s love and her views on god and religion. “Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come.” (429). This newfound love injects Raskolnikov’s life with fresh meaning and also releases him from the bond of destructive nihilism. The powerful value of love with its infinite possibilities seems to be Raskolnikov’s path to redemption as he is able to come to terms with his fellow prisoners, Sonia, and himself. Dostoyevsky ironically conveys his message, judging the degree of civilization in a society by portraying the prison as a paradox; a source of healing in a sacred/profane manner. “Beginning of a new story; the story of the gradual renewal of a man, gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.” (430). In this sense, the prologue is really the epilogue or “fall” whereas the epilogue is the prologue for a new dream.
In conclusion, Dostoyevsky reveals his socialist values that criminals are influenced by their environments as depicted in Petersburgian society. This is revealed in Raskolnikov’s Napoleonic complex that extraordinary people possess the ability to decide their own conscience; which leads to his misconceptions about himself and society and murderous delusions. Dostoyevsky’s view of redemption through suffering is quite astounding because he presents murder/crime and the prison hospital with great rationalization and morality. The primary conflict between the two ideologies of the Christian characteristic of time and modernist humanism gaining prevalence clearly illustrates why the ideal of humanism represses our essential emotions and deducts all humanity. The changes in Raskolnikov’s mental state provide an example of modernism’s effect on man, placing emphasis on his quest for forgiveness and the effect of a repressed emotion. Presumably, this conflict leads to Raskolnikov having a greater
capacity for sympathy because of his contradicting personalities. There are also many ethical issues that are relevant to modern society as well. Theories like utilitarianism, egoism, altruism, existentialism, moral absolutism/relativism, and deontology. Raskolnikov embodies every single one of these theories to an extent. But does end justify means? Dostoyevsky demonstrates the duality of human nature in the settings of a society where even the most flawed human beings have the capacity for compassion, goodness, and redemption.