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It can be said that a person’s disposition is determined by the condition of their living space, and it is no secret that environment greatly influences a person’s character. This idea is taken to the extreme in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel in which cramped apartments, hot stifling air, and overpopulated streets dictate the moods and personalities of the characters. Dostoevsky puts particular emphasis on rooms, and the way characters react to different living conditions. Furthermore, Dostoevsky uses images of the rooms to give further insight into each character’s personality and motivations, intensifying the theme of isolation in the novel.
Raskolnikov’s room, a messy and oppressive place, is often linked to his madness and blamed for his isolation. The first thing he says about his apartment is that it is “more like a cupboard than a room” (1). He even confesses, “I sat in my room like a spider. You’ve been in my den, you’ve seen it: low ceilings and tiny room cramp the soul and the mind: yet I wouldn’t go out of it! I wouldn’t on purpose” (386). This tiny, cramped room relates directly to the way Raskolnikov isolates himself from other people, as he lives like a hermit both physically and mentally. Also, the fact that his room is dark, messy, and unlivable is a testament to his mental state; how could anyone live in such a room without a tendency towards a disorderly and dark psyche? This is especially brought to the reader’s attention when Sonia first visits him, and he confronts her with, “Why do you look at my room like that? My mother has just said it is like a tomb” (223). This scene not only proves the bad condition of his room, but it also shows that Raskolnikov is hostile, defensive and insecure about his situation. The same emotions hold true not only for his living conditions but also for his mental condition – he tends to be defensive and insecure about his reasoning and his theories. Raskolnikov is especially defensive about his crime, as he refuses to accept the fact that he is mentally ill, and refuses to accept even the possibility that he has sinned. Yet what is interesting is that Raskolnikov himself recognizes the connection between his room and his isolation, for when he returns, “Raskolnikov went into his little room and stood in the middle of it. Why had he come back here? He looked at the yellow and tattered, paper, at the dust – he knew it all by heart – never, never had he felt himself so fearfully alone” (393).
Dostoevsky furthers this symbolism by showing how Raskolnikov reacts to other rooms and other environments. For example, when Raskolnikov was in the midst of a mental breakdown, he began thinking of “the smell of cigars in some unkown tobacco shop, a tavern room, a back staircase quite dark, all sloppy with dirty water and strewn with eggshells – all the while there was an oppression within him” (254). Not only were these stifling situations the first things to come to his head, but they also emphasize the oppressive environment that possibly drove Raskolnikov to insanity. This insanity is evident to all those around him, and many of them accuse Raskolnikov of mental illness. For example, Razumihin says to Raskolnikov, “judging from your stupid, repulsive, and inexplicable actions, and from your recent behaviour to your mother and sister, only a madman could treat them as you have; so you must be mad” (408). This madness, his refusal to connect with everyone, is clear throughout the entire novel. His guilt and mental turmoil is even more evident when Raskolnikov is summoned to the police office and is immediately struck by the oppressive atmosphere there. He thinks, “It’s a pity there’s no air in here; it’s stifling; it makes one’s head dizzier than ever, and one’s mind too!”, and then he faints (92). This scenario shows that the isolation and oppressive atmosphere seriously affect his mental state. It also proves that his overwhelmed feeling is only partly due to the actual air; much of it has to do with the situation itself. In tense situations, Raskolnikov frequently comments on the stifling air – a direct representation of the stifling pressure of his guilt and the relationships in his life. He therefore becomes so absorbed in his own isolation and suffering that he does not even want to be around others. This is manifested through his strange behavior in relationships, particularly his relationships with Dounia and his mother. For example, when he abandons them, he says, “perhaps it will all come back, but now if you love me, give me up, else I shall begin to hate you” (291). This conscious separation from others only intensifies his mental problems.
Raskolnikov is not the only character whose room represents their behavior; many secondary characters in the novel show compelling evidence that their rooms make a statement about their personalities. For example, Porfiry’s study “was a room neither large nor small, furnished with a large writing-tableâu – a room appropriately well furnished, with a closed door, beyond it there were no doubt other rooms” (309). His average-sized, well-furnished room promotes a positive image of Porfiry as intelligent man who is affluent yet modest. His practical furnishings imply a practical man. Yet what is interesting in this description is that “there were no doubt other rooms”, which implies that there is more to Porfiry than his face value. Indeed, Porfiry proves to be a deep and clever man.
In stark contrast to Porfiry’s room, the reader discovers Sonia’s room. Barely furnished and unbelievably humble, Raskolnikov describes “a small plain wooden chest of drawers looking, as it were, lost in a desert. That was all there was in the room” (293). Sonia’s meager lodgings provide the perfect image for her character – a religious girl with faith in everything although she has nothing. Another positive character, conveyed through his living conditions, is that of Razumihin. When Raskolnikov stops at Razumihin’s party, Raskolnikov notes that “Razumihin’s room was fairly large; the company consisted of fifteen people” (178). This emphasizes the connection in Razumihin’s life – a large room full of people represents an open mind and a large heart, full of friends. For example, when Raskolnikov left Dounia and Pulcheria, “from that evening Razumihin took his place with them as a son and a brother” (292). Razumihin does in fact end up being the only one who truly accepts connection with others, and therefore he is the one who ends up the happiest.
On the other end of that spectrum, however, lies Katerina Ivanovna. After her failed dinner party, “Amalia Ivanovna raged about the room, shrieking, lamenting and throwing everything she came across on the floor” (375). This represents not the character of Katerina, but rather the suffering that eventually ends her life. Because Katerina blames others instead of accepting her suffering and moving on, Katerina suffers until her last breath. The destruction of her apartment adds a final note to the destruction of her life, her character, and her sanity.
The general environment of the novel proves to be an essential factor in the personalities and behaviors of all characters, especially Raskolnikov. In fact, Porfiry, Razumihin, and Raskolnikov debate that very point, and Porfiry states that “a crime may be very well ascribed to the influence of environment” (240). This is, in fact, what Dostoevsky is trying to demonstrate. By illustrating the city as very cramped and stifling, he contributes to the tension and isolation that the characters have to deal with. Even Pulcheria comments, “If [Raskolnikov] gets out and has a breath of air – it is fearfully close in his room – But where is one to get a breath of air here? The streets here feel like shut-up rooms” (225). The streets in St. Petersburg are suffocating, just as Raskolnikov has shut himself up inside his own mind. What both Svidrigailov and Porfiry keep saying seems to ring true, that “what all men need is fresh air, fresh air, more than anything!” (406). Not only can this be taken literally, but it is another representation that Raskolnikov needs to overcome his suffering and move on with his life. Furthermore, Porfiry adds, “If only we don’t have a storm – though it would be a good thing to freshen the air”, meaning that the way to freshen the air and move past his suffering is to fully experience the suffering in the first place (426).
These themes of suffering and self-imposed isolation, intensified by the environment, are seen in two of the most symbolic passages in the novel. The first is Svidrigailov’s theory of the afterlife. He questions, “what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is?” (269). This idea again uses the symbolism of rooms to emphasize the idea of isolation and separation from others, and additionally incorporates the recurring theme of rationality versus fate. Svidrigailov takes the idea of eternity, something that has always been imagined as “something beyond our conception, something vast”, and distorts it to be another tiny, cramped room in which every man is forced to live in solitude and filth (269). Similarly, Raskolnikov’s “square yard of space” theory shows this theme of extreme isolation. Raskolnikov decides, “Someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once!” (149). In deciding to do so, Raskolnikov willingly rejects an end to his suffering (death) and instead purposefully accepts more suffering and more isolation, undeniably a product of the environment in which he is forced to live.
However, when Raskolnikov realizes this startling reality, “a special form of misery had begun to oppress him; there was a feeling of permanence, of eternity about it; it brought a foretaste of hopeless years of this cold leaden misery, a foretaste of an eternity ‘on a square yard of space'” (395). The cramped room, crowded streets, willing isolation, guilty conscience: all of it has combined to strand Raskolnikov on a “square yard of space”. This eternity that he has made for himself is one of isolation and misery, and the only way he can break through it to “fresh air” is by fully accepting it and living through it. Only by learning from his isolation can he begin to accept others into his life, and only by suffering can he learn to love.
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