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Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment is one of the most memorable and substantial literary works in history. It deals with the psychological, emotional, mental, and physical struggles of several residents of nineteenth-century St. Petersburg. Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, on whom the novel is centered, commits a heinous double ax murder in order to justify a theory he has hypothesized, but he later realizes how wrong his actions were and that he must confess and seek redemption for his transgressions. Certain people are also placed into his life-people who are wrestling with different problems, but all share a need to be extricated from their lives of sin. Carefully chosen symbols interwoven throughout the novel reflect and magnify the sin and need for redemption in the lives of Raskolnikov and his acquaintances. Dostoevsky’s masterful and generous use of symbolism-most notably with the color yellow, water, and insects-emphasizes the themes of Crime and Punishment and the struggles of its characters.
Numerous references are made to the color yellow, a hue which symbolizes the moral, physical, and mental decay of those in its presence. It is introduced quite early in the work, where it is noted that “…the yellowish dusty wall-paper peeling off the walls gave it a wretchedly shabby appearance…” (Dostoevsky 23). This setting creates a tone which matches Raskolnikov’s mood that morning-“…bilious, peevish, and irritable” (23). It also hints at the decay that Raskolnikov is already experiencing. His landlady’s servant, Nastasya, notes this when she brings him some tea and then exclaims that he will waste away if he does not drink it (23). She is, of course, simply addressing a physical type of decay (at least consciously); however, Raskolnikov’s deterioration is of a much broader scope. It begins even before he decides to commit the murder of Alyona Ivanovna, the disagreeable pawnbroker, and her sister Lizaveta. The murder itself, however, causes him to fall into a delirium that intensifies his decay, exhibited by his inability to maintain composure when summoned to the police station (on the completely unrelated charge that he owes back rent). His tension builds throughout his stay in the police office, and he finally faints. When he comes to, someone offers him “a dirty tumbler filled with yellowish water” (Dostoevsky 89). The presence of the color yellow, again, signifies the presence of decay; and Raskolnikov’s fainting episode shows that he is beginning to lose his grip on sanity.
However, Raskolnikov is not the only character suffering from decay. Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov, an acquaintance whom Raskolnikov met in a bar, struggles with an alcohol addiction. He tells Raskolnikov that he drinks in order to multiply his sufferings (12), which he, like many other Russians of his day, believes will lead him to salvation. His lack of understanding in how true salvation is found demonstrates moral decay. Later, when Marmeladov lies dying after being accidentally run over by a horse and carriage, a yellow bruise-left by the horse’s hoof crushing him, forms over his heart. Here again is a blatant sign of his moral and spiritual decay. In addition, Marmeladov’s daughter Sonya suffers from the effects of her father’s spiritual decay. His drinking habit has left his family destitute, and the only manner in which Sonya can provide for her consumptive stepmother and three young stepsiblings is through prostitution. In that time, all prostitutes had to register with the state and carried a yellow card as a form of identification. Sonya’s yellow card represents her physical degradation. Decay also touches Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaylov, an acquaintance of Raskolnikov’s who engages in a lifestyle of debauchery and self-indulgence. When he checks into a hotel-the night before he commits suicide, unable to bear the reality of his hopeless life any longer-he notices that “the wall-paper was dirty and faded…although its original color (yellow) could still be guessed at, it was quite impossible to make out its pattern” (Dostoevsky 426). The yellow wallpaper surrounding Svidrigaylov mirrors his spiritual death and indeed the physical death that will soon surround him. Dostoevsky also includes numerous other, more subtle appearances of the color yellow, which show decay in the lives of more minor characters. Peter Petrovich Luzhin, for example, is attempting to marry Raskolnikov’s younger sister-simply because he knows that she will be grateful to him for sharing his money with her and her destitute family and will thus serve him hand and foot. During the funeral dinner that Marmeladov’s wife throw in her husband’s honor, Sonya notices that Luzhin is wearing a “…thick, heavy, and very beautiful gold ring with a yellow stone on the middle finger of that [left] hand…” (315). The fact that this symbol of death and decay pervades the novel shows that nearly every character is trapped in some destructive vice.
The characters in Crime and Punishment who refuse redemption also shy away from its symbol, water; however, those who desire to be redeemed are fascinated by it.
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 (Gibian 529).
Svidrigaylov’s aversion to water is severe and truly excessive, and in fact he feels cold at the mere thought of the river Neva (Gibian 529). It is thus extremely ironic that he chooses a cold, stormy evening as the night in which he will take his life. As he walks, looking for a suitable place to shoot himself (and indeed walking toward the little Neva), a “thick milky mist” covers the city (Dostoevsky 432). For Svidrigaylov, water is “…instead of being a positive force…the appropriate setting for the taking of his own life” (Gibian 530).
Raskolnikov, in contrast, seemed to be drawn to water==as he was later drawn to confession and redemption. Even before the murder, he has a daydream in which he is in an oasis in Egypt, drinking “…water from a stream which flowed babbling beside him, clear and cool, running marvelously bright and blue over the colored stones…” (Dostoevsky 58). This shows that Raskolnikov is feeling the need for redemption even before he commits the transgression (also hinted by his emphatic renunciation of his plans after a dream in which an old mare was brutally beaten and killed). After the murder, Raskolnikov is tormented with a dream in which Ilya Petrovich (the head police clerk) is beating his landlady. This dream symbolizes his fear of being caught-and immediately after he awakens, he asks Nastasya for a drink. She returns with a white earthenware mug full of water (99). The presence of water immediately after his premonition of being caught signifies his desperate need to confess before he is found. Raskolnikov later contemplates suicide by drowning after watching a woman attempt to drown herself in the river Neva; however, he then decides that “…it’s disgusting…water…no good” (145). The fact that he spurns the water at this moment reveals that he also spurns the idea of confession and redemption at this time. The battle is not lost with Raskolnikov, however (Gibian 530). In the final scene of the novel, Raskolnikov is working at the riverbank where they calcined gypsum (Dostoevsky 462), and he gazes across the river at the nomads, longing for their freedom. In this instance water symbolizes liberation-and when Sonya later visits him, his heart holds “endless springs of life” for her (463). Water is now an unabashedly positive symbol for Raskolnikov, because he has sought and received redemption.
The impoverished flats in which many of St. Petersburg’s residents live are often infested with trapped flies, spiders, and other insects-and Dostoevsky uses these insects as tiny symbols of the moral and spiritual traps into which Raskolnikov and others have fallen. During his third dream, Raskolnikov attempts to beat Alyona; however, instead of dying, she simply grows smaller and smaller, all the while laughing at him. Meanwhile, a fly is buzzing plaintively at the window (235). The confined fly is a reflection of Raskolnikov, who is trapped in several ways. He is ensnared in his Extraordinary Man theory (which stipulates that some “extraordinary men” are born with the right to overstep legal boundaries if it is for the general good of mankind) which has failed abysmally-represented by his failure to kill Alyona-and also by his terror at being caught. Svidrigaylov is another character whose perverse actions have trapped him-so much so that he envisions the afterlife as only “…one little room, something like a bath-house in the country…with spiders in every corner, and that is the whole of eternity” (245). He sees no way to release himself except by suicide-and the morning that he kills himself, he wakes up to see “newly awakened flies clustered on the untouched veal…” (431), an obvious allusion to his own feelings of entrapment. Raskolnikov later compares himself to a spider as well, saying that he “lurked in the corner like a spider” (352) and that “…like a spider, [I] spent the rest of my life catching everybody in my web and sucking the life-blood out of them…” (Dostoevsky 354). This comparison is ironic, since Svidrigaylov has already described his “spidery eternity” (Matlaw 608). “Raskolnikov’s use of the spider image, then, indicates again, and justifies Svidrigaylov’s claim, that ‘there is something in common between us'” (608). Indeed, both these characters feel trapped in their sinful lives of moral decay. The difference between them, of course, is how they attempt to extricate themselves-Raskolnikov chooses to confess his sin, and Svidrigaylov chooses to end his life. Through the images of spiders and flies, Dostoevsky links these two characters together and shows how they have both been trapped by the choices they have made.
The many objects used as symbols in Crime and Punishment lead readers to a greater understanding of both the growth of the characters and the themes presented throughout the work. “[Dostoevsky’s] deft use of symbolism gives his novel added power and effectiveness” (Gibian 543), because it unites various characters and links them with the themes of moral decay, suffering, entrapment in one’s sins, and redemption through confession. These symbols are most important in that they connect Raskolnikov with other characters that mirror parts of his personality and parts of his psychological struggles. These images and connections reinforce the many characters and themes in the minds of readers, making Crime and Punishment among the most stimulating and unforgettable works of literature today.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Norton’s Critical Edition. Ed. George Gibian. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.
Gibian, George. “Traditional Symbolism in Crime and Punishment.” Crime and Punishment. Norton’s Critical Edition. Ed. George Gibian. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, 526-543.
Matlaw, Ralph E.. “Recurrent Imagery in Crime and Punishment.” Crime and Punishment. Norton’s Critical Edition. Ed. George Gibian. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989, 606-609.
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