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Symbolism and Imagery in Crime and Punishment

3876 words (16 pages) Essay in Literature

08/02/20 Literature Reference this

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Research Question: How and why does Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment use symbolism and imagery to characterize the journey of Raskolnikov?


Title: “A journey from the perversion of the soul to the return of humanitarian morals and concepts.” 


“From the perversion of the soul to the return of humanitarian morals and concepts.”

Within his lifetime, Fyodor Dostoyevsky has created numerous pieces of literature, many of which revolve around specific philosophies. During the 19th century, there was a surge in the acceptance of the popular movements of atheism, nihilism, and utilitarianism (Nemeth 1). In simple words: atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of God, nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles, and utilitarianism is the doctrine that actions are right if they are useful or towards the benefit of a majority. Although initially, Dostoyevsky supported and ran rampantly with similar social groups, however, after his incarceration in Siberia, he turned to the moral foundation of Christianity and sought to tackle these opposing doctrines. Dostoyevsky wrote this novel as a response to Hegel’s notion of the Extraordinary Man, which engulfs the principles of atheism, nihilism, and utilitarianism. According to Hegel, men are either mundane individuals who are bound by mortality or are above any law (Kainzow). The latter definition is dangerous because it states that a man should not be held accountable for his actions by the law if they are utilitarian in nature, a paradox explored by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment. This novel depicts the journey of a troubled individual with an unfathomable perversion of his moral sense following his subsequent return of the soul to truly mortal feelings and concepts through the use of imagery and symbols.

In order to effectively understand the main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the readers must have a concrete understanding of the novel’s plot. Crime and Punishment is a classic example of Russian tragedy in literature. It is the grueling and haunting tale of a young man’s descent and deterioration into a life of criminality, horror, and guilt that results in eventual punishment.  Depicted as a former student, Raskolnikov perishes away in poverty and chaos. He lives in a trifling garret on the top floor of a run-down building. Although he is described as an exceptionally handsome man with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair, he is extremely sickly. Raskolnikov dresses so poorly that even a man accustomed to such shabbiness would be ashamed to be seen in such rags. Unfortunately, the horrid mixture of his hubris and intelligence is what leads Raskolnikov into an obscure state of mind. In the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov is deeply troubled as he contemplates committing a horrendous crime. It is later revealed that Raskolnikov plans to murder the old pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna, his motives yet to be fully understood and explained. Although he is successful in killing Alyona, he also commits an unplanned murder. Raskolnikov impulsively murders Alyona’s younger sister, Lizaveta, as she walked into the aftermath of the pawnbroker’s murder. Conflicted with overwhelming guilt, Raskolnikov falls into a state of fever and delirium, which attracts unwanted suspicions from the police department as well as Raskolnikov’s family and acquaintances.  His horrendous action continues to haunt and sicken his mind and body, and under the guidance and wisdom of Sonya, Raskolnikov is faced with an unwanted schism of his emotions. Inevitably Raskolnikov finally reaches a point of delirium and chooses to confess for the atrocious crime he committed. It is only through his confession Raskolnikov is given a chance of redemption and serenity.

              Throughout the novel Crime and Punishment, the imagery of the setting plays a pivotal role in the characterization of Raskolnikov. Setting is one of the vital elements of a novel seeing as it drives the plot and impacts the attitudes and behaviors of the characters, thus impacting the characterization. Through analyzing the environments in which Raskolnikov lives, we can gain insights into the different characterizations of Raskolnikov throughout the novel Dostoyevsky is conveying.

               The novel begins by describing Raskolnikov’s living accommodation as more of a tiny “cupboard rather than an actual room” (Dostoyevsky 1). Within the first few lines of the novel, the audience is given a brief yet highly informative description of the current protagonist’s living situation. Raskolnikov feels “hatred towards his room” due to its “dusty peeling wallpaper, the three old rickety chairs, and the thick layer of dust over his former manuscripts and books (Dostoyevsky 23). The sofa covered in rags “serves as a bed” for Raskolnikov who sleeps without any covers or pillows, simply using his “old worn-out student overcoat” to company him throughout the night (Dostoyevsky 23). Evidently, this description of his “tiny cubby-hole of a place” suggests that he lives in poverty, which allows the readers to assume that poverty could be a recurring theme in the novel. This theme of poverty further continues with the description of Raskolnikov’s tattered attire. Although he dresses in rags that even a “man accustomed to such shabbiness” would avoid being seen in, however, Raskolnikov is unaffected by the critics in the street that judge the rags he wears (Dostoyevsky 1). This suggests that he is more troubled by an unidentified matter because he is not phased by the fact that he lives in poverty, nor does he give the slightest attention to the terribly inferior quality of his apparel, although people his age tend to be wary of outer appearance. Furthermore, the assumption that he is impoverished is supported as is it later mentioned that he is in debt to his landlady and that “each time he passes her, he is filled with a sick, frightened feeling of shame” (Dostoyevsky 1). However, Raskolnikov is so overwhelmed with his constant state of “irritability and tension” that he avoids contact with the landlady to avoid hearing “her trivial matters” rather than avoiding her due to the extensive debt he’s fallen into (Dostoyevsky 1).

               The outwardly state of his living arrangement directly correlates with Raskolnikov’s mental state. Despite himself being “crushingly poor”, he feels unbothered by the “oppression of poverty” and has ceased to care about the “everyday affairs” (Dostoyevsky 1). Instead, he is severely troubled and over consumed with his inner turmoil. Raskolnikov had once held tremendous potential as a student studying in law school; however, he had cut all ties from his former life like a turtle cowering away in its shell. He constantly spirals into endless thoughts, questions, and arguments against himself that keep his sanity chained beneath the surface. Due to Raskolnikov “verging on hypochondria”, a health anxiety disorder, his mental condition began to trouble him so much he chose to alienate himself from society by deciding to avoid any form of interaction, whether it is with his own landlady or his former peers (Dostoyevsky 1).

Furthermore, much of the action throughout the novel takes place in the bustling city of St. Petersburg, which is depicted through strong imagery as grimy, gaudy, and frenzied. St. Petersburg is the home of Raskolnikov and during this time period it was the capital of Russia and one of the largest economic centers known in Russia. However, such a congested economic center like St. Petersburg results in negligible space to move and breathe in along with minimal privacy as well.

 There is a lingering element of sadness over the city due to the grim aspects of poverty and danger throughout the city. St. Petersburg is depicted as crawling with mindless drunks, homeless people in ragged clothes, and molesters and rapists.  For instance, Razumikhin urges both Pulkheria Alexandrova and Avdotya Romanovna, mother and sister of Raskolnikov, that “I [Razumikhin] will take you both home because you can’t go through the streets alone” (Dostoyevsky 169). This exchange supports the conclusion that St. Petersburg isn’t safe for anyone, especially vulnerable women who are often targeted by the darkness of the city. Additionally, the chaotic nature of the city is further expressed when Raskolnikov sifts through the daily newspaper:

“Ah, here are the news items: Woman Falls Downstairs… Vodka Causes Workman’s Death… Fire on the Sands… Fire in Petersburgky Quarters… Another Fire in Petersburgky Quarter… Another Fire in Petersburgky Quarter… Izler… Ah, here …” (Dostoyevsky 136).

This little excerpt provides critical insight into the city of St. Petersburg and its relationship with Raskolnikov. Ironically, Raskolnikov feels no remorse or sorrow as he sifts through the different headlines describing such horrors of fire, destruction, and death. Instead, he is able to disassociate himself with these tragedies presented throughout the city. Hence, the city becomes a symbol of the Raskolnikov’s troubled state of mind. Just like Raskolnikov’s mind, the city is grim, depressing, and appalling. This is supported by of his constant crave for “air, air, air” as he suffers from both physical and mental illnesses along with depression after he murders the two women (Dostoyevsky 371). The air represents not only a cure for his physical and psychological ailments, but also the freedom from the torment and agony of guilt that follows him after he commits his atrocious crime. Ironically, although being sent to Siberia is a punishment for his heinous crimes, this isolation proves to be beneficial for Raskolnikov. Siberia is represented in the novel as more pure, natural, and free from the violence and darkness that suffocates St. Petersburg. Instead of maintaining the stereotypical definition of federal prisons, extremely harsh and merciless, this prison is epitomized as a place to heal. It is only through the frozen wasteland of Russia that Raskolnikov finally finds the “air”, resulting in internal peace and redemption (Dostoyevsky 371).

One of the most striking and haunting symbols abundant throughout Crime and Punishment is blood. Blood is a powerful and evocative symbol because it can conjure up a multitude of human emotions ranging from fear and anger to sadness and confusion. This symbol delves deep into the human psyche and has a universal clutch on power.

For instance, in the scene of the planned murder of Alyona Ivanovna and the impulsive murder of Lizaveta, the blood represents the merciless violence and inhumane cruelty of Raskolnikov’s atrocious deed. Additionally, the blood also serves as evidence of the unexpected endless guilt and torment felt by Raskolnikov. At the scene of the murder with not a moment to lose, Raskolnikov “pulled the ax out” and “let the butt-end fall on” Alyona Ivanovna, and continued to “strike her again and yet again” until “she was dead” (Dostoyevsky 66). Whereas with the murder of Lizaveta, the younger and innocent sister of Alyona, all it takes from Raskolnikov is one single blow that “split her skull from the top of her forehead almost to the crown of her head”, killing her instantly (Dostoyevsky 68). Despite the different methods of murder, there is a large amount of blood and gore present throughout this scene. “The blood had formed a pool on the floor” surrounding the fallen body of Alyona (Dostoyevsky 66). While struggling to remove a cord “slippery with blood” from the “old woman’s neck”, Raskolnikov accidentally “smears his hands with blood” and quickly realizes that he must wipe away the traces before “impulsively wiping away his bloody hands” on his surrounding. Although physically, Raskolnikov washes the blood from the axe, his hands, and his clothes, however, mentally, he believes that “all his clothes were soaked and stained with blood and he could not see it because his mental powers were failing and crumbling away” (Dostoyevsky 76). Unbeknownst to himself, the torment from his victim’s blood is the first symbol of his punishment.

Symbolically, Raskolnikov has no choice but to live with the haunting imprints of his heinous crime. Once Raskolnikov reaches the safety of his home, he realizes that his “socks, trouser-ends, and pocket” are all “soaked in blood” (Dostoyevsky 77). However, instead of immediately destroying any evidence linking him to the crime, in his mindless state of disorientation, Raskolnikov clutches the items almost obsessively even while he’s unconscious. This scene clearly supports the notion that symbolically, the guilt from the crime Raskolnikov committed, have severely manifested within him. The blood on his hands is the first and foremost initiation into a whirlwind of unspeakable evil.

However, when Marmeladov, a disgraced clerk, dies in an unfortunate street accident and his blood splatters on Raskolnikov, ironically, there is a shift in Raskolnikov’s perception of blood. Marmeladov’s death is horrifically bloody. He is completely crushed by a carriage in St. Petersburg and as a result, “his head was terribly battered and mutilated” (Dostoyevsky 150). Seeing that Raskolnikov has already once encountered Marmeladov in the past, he is the only one in the crowd that is able to “recognize him” (Dostoyevsky 150). With the help of the police, Raskolnikov “carries the unconscious Marmeladov to his own room”. There, under the loving embrace of his daughter Sonya, “he died in her arms” (Dostoyevsky 159). Although the scene leaves Raskolnikov “soaked with blood”, however, he since he feels no great sense of disgust or suffrage at the sight of blood (Dostoevsky 159). Instead, “a strange new feeling of… powerful life” welled in him, completely contradicting his previous mental deliriums with blood.

The second scenario that further highlights the shift in Raskolnikov’s perception of blood is the death of Katerina Ivanovna, the former “partner” of Marmeladov (Dostoyevsky 11). Katerina dies an extremely slow and unforgiving death, a foil to the quick and ruthless deaths of both Alyona Ivanovna and Lizaveta. During Katerina’s display of insanity on the streets of St. Petersburg, she starts to bleed. Raskolnikov witnesses her “blood staining the roadway crimson” as it “gushed out of her throat” (Dostoyevsky 365). However, instead of falling to illness at the sight of blood, ironically, Raskolnikov radiates a sense of authority. This is supported through the interactions between “the official” and Raskolnikov (Dostoyevsky 368). The official is immediately drawn to Raskolnikov as the “authoritative figure” as he constantly shares the unfortunate details of Katerina’s impending death. Although there is a very prominent amount of blood throughout this scene, like blood gushing from the throat similarly to blood gushing from an ax, Raskolnikov is able to keep his wits in check. These encounters indefinitely support the conclusion that only the bloods of his victims, even when dried, have the power to haunt and overwhelm his conscience.

Furthermore, like blood, the smell of fresh paint is another symbolic reminder of Raskolnikov’s guilt and torment from his crime. After Raskolnikov murders the two women, he is almost caught at the scene of the crime when an “unknown visitor” begins to impatiently shake the “bolted door” (Dostoyevsky 70). Desperate to escape, Raskolnikov sneaks from the flat and retreats into the freshly “painted” apartment (Dostoyevsky 73). However, when Raskolnikov goes to the police station as the result of a summons, unrelated to the murders, he suffers from a fainting spell that leaves him “as white as a handkerchief” (Dostoyevsky 89). Raskolnikov’s guilt was triggered by the “sickly odor of new paint”, which brought his mind back to the cold and ruthless murders he committed. This pattern is repeated again when Raskolnikov re-visits the scene of the crime. The abandoned flat of Alyona Ivanovna has been freshly repainted, and despite the lack of blood that previously had caused Raskolnikov illness spells, it was the fresh paint that caused agonizing guilt. By smelling the fresh paint, “the old tormenting frightening sensation began to bring back ever clearer and more vivid memories”, placing him back to the moment of the murder (Dostoyevsky 147). The encounters with fresh paint that triggers Raskolnikov’s guilt are symbolic because they represent that he is still human and can be affected by such horror, despite what he believes about being an “Extraordinary Man”.

Although Raskolnikov gradually overcomes these debilitating attacks, unfortunately, he still continues to endure hardship. The constant state of delirium and illness that Raskolnikov suffers from, especially after committing the atrocious the murders, evidently symbolizes aspects of the guilt, suffering, and punishment he deserves. One of the reasons for his constant state of illness arises from the violent and fearful dreams that plague his mind. These dreams are symbolic of the extremely disturbed and troubled psyche of Raskolnikov. For instance, the sickening and gruesome dream about the poor mare being flogged, tortured, and “beaten to death” by its drunken owner easily reflects Raskolnikov’s disturbed state of mind.The beating of the horse foreshadows the torment and guilt that he will suffer from is he goes along with his plan of murdering the “old loust” (Dostoyevsky 353). Similarly, an unfortunate summons to the police station that Raskolnikov to faint leaves him in a state of paranoia. This is supported when later that night, he dreams that the police official, Ilya Petrovitch, is torturing his landlady to death. Once again, these violent and gruesome dreams of torment and murder symbolize the overbearing grief that Raskolnikov feels.

Additionally, as the novel progresses, Raskolnikov has another frightful dream. He dreams that he is killing Alyona Ivanovna, the pawnbroker, all over again. In his dream, Raskolnikov finds himself in the pawnbroker’s apartment, the room where the murders occurred in real life. When he sees the Alyona Ivanovna hiding in the corner, with all the must and courage he can gather, he strikes her with his ax. However, in this terrifying nightmare, no matter how brutishly or savagely he strikes or beats her, she refuses to die. Raskolnikov’s endless attempts of murdering her are pitiful and torturous. The Alyona within Raskolnikov’s psyche can’t be murdered because she serves as a constant reminder of the crime he committed. Although she has already been killed in reality, she is still alive in Raskolnikov’s psyche and continues to torment him.By committing such a horrendous crime, Raskolnikov has become guilty of an evil he has no way of escaping and suffers both physically and mentally. This is apparent because not only has he murdered two women, but also any sense of morality that once existed in him. In a state of inescapable delirium, he exclaims to  “I know myself that it was the devil dragging me along” he confesses to Sonya. “I murdered myself, not her!” (Dostoyevsky 354). Raskolnikov knows he has committed a great atrocity that needs expiation.

Religious symbols also have great significance throughout the novel. Raskolnikov first encounters Marmeladov, “a retired clerk”, at the “public house” seated across from the bar (Dostoyevsky 8).  From the moment the two men meet, Marmeladov presents himself to Raskolnikov as a “filthy drunkard” (Dostoyevsky 19). Due to Marmeladov’s unwavering addiction to alcohol, his family has been subjected to endless suffrage and pain. While he drinks away at the public house, hiswife, Katerina Ivanovna, and his children are starving at home Marmeladov exclaims to Raskolnikov in a drunken manner,

“I ought to be crucified, crucified, not pitied! Crucify, oh judge, crucify me, but pity your victim! Then I will come to you to be crucified, for I thirst for affliction and weeping, not for the merriment” (Dostoyevsky 19).

The confession to Raskolnikov symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus to convey the treatment and eternal punishment Marmeladov believeshe deserves for all of the hardships and struggles he’s forced his family to endure on his behalf. Furthermore, at the scene of Marmeladov’s deathbed, he endlessly begs to see a priest and so the priest is called in to hear Marmeladov’s ultimate confession before dying. Not only does calling a priest make the room seem like the sanctuary of a church, the priest signifies the importance of the belief of redemption.

When Raskolnikov finally confesses his crime to Sonya in secrecy, despite himself being a firm disbeliever of God, she “gives” him a cross of  “cypress-wood” (Dostoyevsky 356). Ironically, the cross had once belonged to Lizaveta, the unfortunate victim of a murder gone wrong.Although the cross should have symbolized a reminder of guilt, when Sonya gives it to Raskolnikov, it becomes a symbol of his plodding but inevitable salvation. “When you accept your suffering, you shall put it [the cross] on”, said Sonya to Raskolnikov, further symbolizing that once he confesses, his path towards redemption can begin.

  Furthermore, the story of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead bears obvious symbolic relevance to the murderer whose “lifeless” soul has to be slowly revived. Raskolnikov begs Sonya to recite to him the Story of Lazarus because it offers him hope about his own return from the “dead”. Not only does Sonya instill this sense of hope within Raskolnikov, but she also urges him towards both to repentance and resurrection. It is Sonya who urges Raskolnikov into confessing to the murders at his symbolic crossroad. Although the path towards redemption is one of great suffrage and difficulty, Raskolnikov understands that he must suffer for his crimes in order to seek salvation. With this thought in mind, Raskolnikov accepts that he is not an “Extraordinary Man” and confesses publically for his crimes. Ultimately, the sacramental symbolism in the novel supports the conclusion that wrongdoing deserves punishment, however, it is only through punishment that redemption can be earned.

Through the use of imagery and symbols throughout the novel, Dostoyevsky is able to contradict Hegel’s notion of the Extraordinary Man. Raskolnikov initially believes he is the Übermensch, German for “beyond-man”, a concept that originated from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Just like Hegel, Nietzsche engulfs the principles of both nihilism and utilitarianism. As the novel progresses, Raskolnikov realizes he is not above any law, evident through the guilt and paranoia he faces after committing the two murders, and is unable to risk everything for what he believes will enhance all of humanity. Through the journey of Raskolnikov’s characterization throughout the novel, Dostoyevsky proves that not only is the “Extraordinary Man” impossible to achieve, but even through the worst of crimes, redemption is achievable through submission.

Works Cited

  • Cregan-Reid, Vybarr. “Crime and Punishment.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Feb. 2017,
  • Dostoievski, Fedor Mikhailovich, et al. Crime and Punishment: the Coulson Translation, Backgrounds and Sources, Essays in Criticism. W.W. Norton, 1989.
  • Nemeth, Thomas. “Russian Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  • Kainzow. “Dostoevsky’s Motives behind ‘Crime and Punishment’.” Eye of Lynx, Eye of Lynx, 11 Mar. 2014,
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