The Way Dostoevsky Uses Setting in Developing Crime and Punishment

The setting of any piece of literary work usually forms the base on which a story is told by the author and subsequently conceptualized by the reader or audience. In this sense, the elements that comprise a setting may involve place, weather, historical context, space and even the environmental surroundings, among other things. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment uses different settings for different purposes to develop certain themes and meanings in the novel. In this regard, the application of setting by Dostoevsky allows the reader to understand where, when and why events took place, the characters involved and the contextual background within which the author tells his story. In short, setting is synonymous to a time machine that allows the reader to travel back in time and experience events as if one is currently present especially considering the fact that Crime and Punishment was published in the mid-19th Century.

In general, the setting of the novel is the city of St. Petersburg, a city that was burgeoning in the wake of Industrial revolution synonymous with the 19th Century Europe. The focus of the novel is the Haymarket Square located in the slum section of the city that was plagued with poverty and deplorable human living conditions. The slum section of the market is rife with unemployment, drunkards, crime, pollution, disease and death. In the beginning of the novel, Dostoevsky describes “the insufferable stench from the pot-houses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town, and the drunken men whom he met continually, although it was a working day, completed the revolting misery of the picture”. As such, Dostoevsky predominantly focusses on this aspects and themes that somehow communicates the author’s stance on a number of social economic issues facing Russia at the time. It is important to note that the author lived during an era when divergent ideas such as those held by Karl Marx had begun spreading through Europe. Dostoevsky, a dissident himself, appears to use the general setting of the novel to demonstrate with a touch of realism, the evils of industrialization and the social stratification that results from it.

Social stratification remains a strong theme in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and the setting plays a very crucial role in differentiating the poor from the wealthy. In the novel, the very fact that that a person is poor automatically already includes them in pool of suspect of any crime. The association of class and crime is deeply cultivated by the contrast between a filthy smelling and diseased setting for the poor and the lavish descriptions of the lifestyles of the wealthy.

Even so, the author has applied setting in the novel largely through vivid descriptions that attempt to create a realistic picture accompanied with the deep emotions involved in the trenches of poverty, disease, crime and death. Realism is an aspect of a literary work whether the reader or the audience feels as if they were actually there when the real events happened. From the novel, it is apparent that the level of realism is quite high. From the novel, Raskolnikov, who is the main character “knew indeed how many steps it was from the gate of his lodging house: exactly seven hundred and thirty. He had counted them once when he had been lost in dreams”. The vivid description of that setting allows the reader to almost feel like they could count the steps seven hundred and thirty steps from Raskolnikov’s dilapidated room and the pawn broker’s house, thus attaining some sense of realism.

In addition to cultivating realism and the theme of social stratification, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment uses setting in the novel to develop symbols. Symbolism is a literary tool applied in abundance throughout the entire novel, an aspect that forces the reader to infer different meanings to different situations and events. For instance, Raskolnikov’s room, which is described in the novel as “a tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length. It had a poverty-stricken appearance with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and it was so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling”. From the excerpt above, it is apparent that Raskolnikov’s room doesn’t not only reek of poverty, but it almost feels cluster-phobic due its limited space. The author uses the setting of the room to symbolize the state of mind Raskolnikov was in. The room symbolizes his mind which was in complete disarray especially after murdering the two women. The author writers that “It would have been difficult to sink to a lower ebb of disorder, but to Raskolnikov in his present state of mind this was positively agreeable. He had got completely away from everyone, like a tortoise in its shell, and even the sight of a servant girl who had to wait upon him and looked sometimes into his room made him writhe with nervous irritation”. The room symbolizes Raskolnikov’s mind while the dilapidation evident symbolizes the mental deterioration, especially from guilt.

While the Raskolnikov’s house symbolizes his troubled mind, a period in his lifetime that was rife with arrogance and self-aggrandizement, the prison has been used by the author to provide another different aspect of Raskolnikov’s life. To Raskolnikov, the prison and the public humiliation provide him with a much-needed relief from the trouble he faced in his dilapidated home. In the prison, Raskolnikov appears to be much more in peace and certainly subdued. Therefore, the incarceration symbolizes rebirth or resurrection of Raskolnikov into a new man.

Additionally, Dostoevsky use setting to communicate the deep emotions and probably the state of mind of a character. The author writes that “The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks, and dust all about him, and that special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get out of town in summer—all worked painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves,”. In this excerpt from the novel, it is apparent that the author intends to communicated a deeply disturbed or depressed individual on an edge. One can almost feel the anger and irritability of Dostoevsky as he walked down the street. In this case, the author provides a perfect setting to communicate both the psychological state of mind of the main character.

In conclusion, Dostoevsky uses setting in the novel to develop a number of themes, literary tools and contextualize his story. Other than providing the historical context within which the events occurred, setting has been used to cultivate a sense of realism that deepens the connection between an author and reader. Setting allows both of them to coexist in the space and time even though they are separated by centuries.

Works Cited

  • Dostoevsky, F. 'Crime and Punishment.' Planet EBook — 100% Free Literature for Win, Mac, IOS, Android and Kindle,
07 July 2022
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