Crime and Punishment
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
There are quite a few references to America in the novel. Since none of the characters have ever been there, America is kind of symbol for them. When we consider that America was going through a really difficult time in the mid-1860s (namely, the Civil War – see Shmoop History for more), it's interesting to see what kind of a symbol America was for Dostoevsky (or at least his characters) during that time.
Both Razumihin and Raskolnikov have beat up "American leather" couches. This tells us that somebody in America was exporting either leather couches, or just the leather (and the couches were actually made elsewhere). If you are into the history of trade, this might be fun to research.
At any rate, the following line is rather curious: "They'll find me [Raskolnikov], Razumihin will find me. Better escape altogether... far away... to America, and let them do their worst!" (2.3.93).
For Raskolnikov, America seems like a place a person can go to disappear, a place that will let in anybody. Svidrigaïlov seems to have overheard Raskolnikov's comment to Razumihin. Much later in the novel he tells him, "But if you are convinced that one mustn't listen at doors, but one may murder old women at one's pleasure, you'd better be off to America and make haste" (6.5.19).
Hmmm. Svidrigaïlov seems to be saying that rights to privacy come before victim's rights in America. How does that meet your idea of America?
Svidrigaïlov also suggests that America is a scary place. Listen to what he tells Sonia: "Why, be starting for America, and be stopped by rain! Ha, ha! Good-bye, Sofya Semyonovna, my dear!" (6.6.15). He's probably also commenting on the journey to America more than America itself. You couldn't just hop on a plane those days.
All this talk of America reaches a climax with Svidrigaïlov. These next lines are pretty famous, and pretty uncomfortable:"When you are asked, you just say he was going, he said, to America."He put the revolver to his right temple. (6.6.60-61)
Is Svidrigaïlov comparing America to suicide? Does he see America as an ideal that can't be reached by him, and as such hold it up as the opposite of suicide? It's a confusing moment, to be sure.