Study Guide

Crime and Punishment Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


We are constantly being told what time is – when Raskolnikov wakes up, when he plans to murder the pawnbroker, what time it is when Svidrigaïlov plans to kill himself, and much more. This gives us the feeling that things are progressing in some kind of order, but it's still a little hard to follow. That might be because there are lots of different times going on in Crime and Punishment, perhaps more so than in many novels. This is why we have chose "Versions of Reality" as a major theme.

The different times operating in the novel intertwine and confuse us. What with all the dreams, flashbacks, moments of unconsciousness, and hallucinations, the novel seems to be deliberately trying to confuse us. Since much of this is from Raskolnikov's perspective, this shouldn't surprise us. He is obsessed with time, but can't get a grip on it. He loses time when he's acting "mechanically," or when he's dreaming, hallucinating, delirious, or gets too excited.

A good example is at the beginning of Part Two, Chapter Three, when he wakes up after being sick: "Sometimes he fancied he had been lying there a month; at other times it all seemed part of the same day. But of that – of that he had no recollection, and yet every minute he felt that he had forgotten something he ought to remember."

Look at all the references of time in those sentences! (We bolded them for you.) We admit this is an extreme example, and shows just how ill Raskolnikov really was. (You can't fake a fever, can you?) Nonetheless, it actually doesn't differ much from his usual perception of time. Though he might know what time it is at a given moment, when a clock strikes or somebody tells him, it doesn't last. He'll be wandering around, talking too himself, and not remembering where he's been or how he got to wherever he is when he comes out of his head again.

This temporal (having to do with time) confusion both calls our attention to the fact that this is a work of fiction, and comments on the confusion we all face, every day, regarding time.

The Prison Hospital

Prison is represented as a positive part of Raskolnikov's process. Even before he turns himself in to the police, he doesn't seem afraid of prison and looks at going as a kind of relief. Sonia seems actually eager to follow him there. (Though she was probably just happy to get out of St. Petersburg.)

When Raskolnikov gets sick in Siberia, it's made clear that it's not because of "the horrors" of prison life, it's because the other prisoners want to kill him and because he's not sure that there's any real purpose to his punishment. In short, he's still ultra-isolated from the community in which he lives.

So he gets sick and is admitted to the prison hospital. This is the first time he's been in a place that's only purpose is to heal the sick. When he gets sick before, he has a doctor, but the place of healing is the same awful room that made him sick in the first place.

The prison hospital becomes, for Raskolnikov, a place to begin to recover. It is there that he has the dream about a virus that invades all of humankind, which causes them to cling madly and fanatically to whatever ideas they were attached to when they came in contact with the virus.

This is the first dream which actually releases his tension, his anxiety over what he had done. In the world of the dream he sees his own fanatical clinging to an idea reflected gruesomely and, thereby, made clear.

When he is "almost well," he sees Sonia at the prison gate, from the window, and, "Something stab[s] him to the heart at that minute" (Epilogue.2.19). This is something new. He is discovering that he really does love Sonia. When he gets out of the hospital, this immediately intensifies, and suddenly even the prisoners seem friendlier. After healing in the hospital, Raskolnikov is no longer an alien in his community.


Raskolnikov is associated with blunt and sharp instruments, blood, nightmares, and to some degree horses (see his horse dream). These might make our skin crawl, but they aren't real creepy-crawly symbols. Unlike Svidrigaïlov, he doesn't have any spider or rat issues.

Speaking of Svidrigaïlov, what did you think of his idea of the afterlife?

We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, 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? I sometimes fancy it like that. (4.1.84)

This even gives old Raskolnikov "a cold chill."

Svidrigaïlov doesn't think this is a bad thing. He puts this forth as his ideal. Perhaps he's bluffing to freak out Raskolnikov, or perhaps he really believes something like that is in store for him. Would he kill himself if he knew he was going there? How does that compare with some other ideas of the afterlife, or hell (since many people would say that's where Svidrigaïlov is going)?

Doesn't the hideous hotel room he stays in his last night seem a little like his idea of the afterlife? It's tiny and dark. Only, instead of spiders, he gets….mice and rats crawling on him and trying to eat his cold (disgusting) veal. Throw in some nightmares and the room with the spiders isn't looking so bad anymore, even to us.

Crosses and Crossing

There are several aspects of this symbol in the novel. We will hit two big ones here. First, the most obvious: the cross is a symbol of Christianity, of the crucifixion of Christ. We first see the symbol evoked directly by Marmeladov, who speaks these famous words:

"I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross […]! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me […]." (1.2.36)

Essentially, this is a desire to bring meaning to his suffering. In Christian theology, Christ's suffering on the cross is meaningful because it serves the greater good – that is, it absorbs sin. Yet, it is only because Christ himself is not subject to sin that he can be a container for the sins of regular sinning people.

Marmeladov would be considered a sinner in terms of Christian theology. So, he can't take on the sins of the world, like Christ can. Yet, his suffering is proof that he is not completely lost, that he is not beyond redemption.

See, if he was enjoying the fact that his daughter was a prostitute, or the fact that his wife and children are living in abject poverty, or any other aspect of his horrific life, that would mean that he was lost. So long as he knows he's a sinner, and wants to suffer as much as possible (as much as Christ, the ultimate sufferer) then there is hope that his soul can be freed from sin in the afterlife, thus bring meaning to his suffering.

Raskolnikov, in his mind, accuses Dounia of a similar (but different) sentiment after he reads of her plans to marry Luzhin. That's what he means when he says, "Bitter is the ascent to Golgotha" (1.4.1). Golgotha is believed to be the city where Christ was crucified. Raskolnikov accuses Dounia of taking the martyr's path, of sacrificing herself for his own sins. Ironically, Raskolnikov kills the pawnbroker, in part, to free Dounia from the need to crucify herself for him.

Sonia's position adds much complexity to this discussion. She tells Raskolnikov, "We will go to suffer together, and together we will bear our cross!" (5.4.163). Whoa. Check out that exclamation point. Sonia is excited about this idea. Like her father, she considers herself a sinner. She sees the suffering of life in Siberia as a way to stop sinning (i.e., stop being a prostitute). Even though Andrey Semyonovitch has tried to convince her that prostitution is not a sin, she doesn't believe it.

In fact, Sonia is right about her decision to join with Raskolnikov. It does allow her to start a new life, where she is accepted by the community, and where she doesn't have to resort to prostitution. For Sonia (in contrast to her father) the cross is a symbol of redemption not only after life, but also during life. As such, it also functions for Sonia as a symbol of engagement, as we see in this passage.

"Without a word Sonia took out of the drawer two crosses, one of cypress wood and one of copper. She made the sign of the cross over herself and over him, and put the wooden cross on his neck." (6.8.10)

Some people use rings to get engaged, Sonia use crosses.

This brings us to the other aspect of crosses we want to look at. If you search the online text of Crime and Punishment for the word "cross" you are going to learn that Raskolnikov is constantly described as crossing the street, or the bridge, or the market. Furthermore, a driving force behind everything he does is his desire to cross over into new realities.

We get lots of these kinds of crossings in the novel. That's why we used Sonia and Raskolnikov's engagement to transition to this aspect of the discussion. Birth, death, engagement, marriage, conversion to a new religion, committing murder – these are all examples of crossing over from one kind of reality to another. The tension between the Christian idea of the cross, and the idea of crossing over into new experiences, sometimes by breaking through societal boundaries helps maximize the complexity factor in this novel.


[Raskolnikov:] "Yes, that's what it was! I wanted to become a Napoleon, that is why I killed her.... Do you understand now?"

Sonia: "N-no. […] Only speak, speak, I shall understand, I shall understand
in myself!" (5.4.113-114)

Remember when Raskolnikov called the sketchy man in the park a "Svidrigaïlov"? Svidrigaïlov, for him, is a symbol of all men who want to abuse young girls. He speaks of Napoleon in the same way, as a symbol, the name not of a man, but of a type of person.

Interestingly, in battle with Napoleon's army, thousands of Russian troops were killed, but Napoleon was eventually forced into retreat. But, before that, he had all of Europe in a state of terror. Imagine that power. Raskolnikov does.

What gets him is that Napoleon had an inexhaustible supply of blood on his hands when he died. Yet, he's celebrated, worshiped, revered. So if Raskolnikov can kill somebody and then be revered (after his death?), he'll be a Napoleon, or something like that.

Even though Raskolnikov explains over and over again how his Napoleon fixation gave him the idea to murder Alyona, the explanations always break down, and he admits it. Like here, after he explained it to Porfiry: "How can they digest it! It's too inartistic. 'A Napoleon creep under an old woman's bed! Ugh, how loathsome!'" (3.6.58).


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.

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