The Role of Setting in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

December 6, 2021 by Essay Writer

Setting traditionally provides a base for a writer to create a storyline and the characters that populate it. In Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky paints the picture of a dirty, polluted city filled with drunks and prostitutes. This setting he paints for us not only helps the reader understand better where everything is taking place, but also allows us to create connections between characters and the spaces in which they live. This meticulous detail, although at some times seeming ridiculous and pointless, is necessary for the creation of the intense psychological drama. Many characters in this book are very similar to the homes in which they live, and these settings profoundly affect the personalities of these individuals.

For example, Dostoevsky writes, “It was terribly hot out, and moreover it was close, crowded; lime, scaffolding, bricks, dust everywhere, and that special summer stench known so well to every Petersburger who cannot afford to rent a summer house — all at once these things unpleasantly shook the young man’s already overwrought nerves” (Page 4). The vivid imagery in the description of the city has, as the author stated, an effect on our main character. The heat acts as an irritant, but also as a segue into introducing the character himself, Raskolnikov. Since the character’s mood is put in the same sentence as the description of the not-so-lovely city, it signifies that Raskolnikov’s mood is directly affected by the environment. This use of the setting not only creates an image for the reader, but also allows the writer to get his necessary points across.

Dostoevsky first describes Raksolnikov’s relationship to his room by saying, “[…], he looked with hatred at his little room.” (Page 27). “It was a tiny closet, about six paces long, of a most pathetic appearance, […]” (Page 27-28). This cramped room is a possible metaphor for Raskolnikov’s cramped and paranoid mind, which led to his murdering of Alyona and Lizaveta. This cramped room, often described as a “[prison] cell” by various characters, also could be the reason why Raskolzinikov eventually turned himself in. This tiny space, the place where he came immediately after the murders and hid the things he stole from Alyona and Lizaveta, is where the murders live on in Raskolnikov’s mind — a place that neither he nor his troubled memories can escape.

The way in which Dostoevsky describes Lizaveta and Alyona’s room, although possibly not meant to dominate the narrative, is in-line with exactly what Raskolnikov says about them. The author writes, “[…] and with a quick glance he took in everything in the room, in order to study and remember the layout as well as possible. But there was nothing special in this room” (Page 7). Raskolnikov discusses the role of the extraordinary and the ordinary in this world, and calls Alyona a louse, indicating that he did not see her as an extraordinary person at all (although he did see himself as one for quite a bit of time, so it is unwise to trust his judgement). It fits that this ordinary room that is filled with ordinary things belongs to an ordinary woman. This ordinary woman suffered a death from a man who was ordinary in many ways, despite his elevated perception of himself.

This use of location to establish personality traits extends to other characters. Sonya’s apartment is described thus: “The whole big room had almost no furniture in it.” (Page 315). This room is a reflection of Sonya, a young woman who feels as if a large part of her is empty. Her father has recently passed away and she had to prostitute herself in order to support her family. She is suffering greatly, and her room appears to capture this moral void. Dostoevsky also writes, “The poverty was evident; there were not even any curtains over the bed.” (Page 315). This sentence demonstrates to the reader that although her job brings in enough money to support her, Sonya gives her money to her family and keeps only enough to feed and clothe herself, sacrificing even simple items of luxury and pleasantry.

St. Petersburg was a site of rapid industrialization at the time of this book’s creation: despite its benefits for some consumers, indistrialization commonly has negative effects, especially on the poorer people in a city. Dostoevsky brings to light the social issues of Russia at the time, such as this extreme poverty and the desperate actions many people were forced to undertake because of this poverty. Sonya, for example, was forced into prostitution by Katerina Ivanovna in order to support her family. Dostoevsky creates a character that has an unlikable profession and depicts her as a selfless, generally good person, and by doing so creates a moral conflict within the reader.

Throughout Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky uses setting as a tool to get his points across, points that the reader will surely pick up on even on an educated first read. Raskolnikov’s murders could have been motivated by the stuffy atmosphere that was in St. Petersburg at the time, although the author does not give us this information for certain. Instead, Dostoevsky uses setting to give hints at upcoming events — as in the case of the cracked, yellow wallpaper starting to fall off the walls in Raskolnikov’s room, which heralds Raskolnikov’s mind cracking and starting to fall apart.

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