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Free Study Guide-Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky-Free Booknotes
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SYMBOLISM AND IMAGERY

Dostoevsky makes skillful use of powerful symbols in his novel. These are subtly woven into the texture of the narrative to give it a finely wrought artistic unity. Some of the recurrent symbols are closely related to the thoughts and feelings of Raskolnikov. These serve to highlight some significant aspect of his character or underscore other thematic concerns.

One of the most striking symbols in Crime and Punishment is that of blood. In the scene of the double murder, it represents the violence and cruelty of Raskolnikov's deed, as well as the evidence of his guilt. He kills Alena Ivanovna with the blunt side of the axe, while Lizaveta is struck with the sharp blade. In either case, a good deal of blood and gore is displayed in this scene. Raskolnikov begins to clean the blood from the axe, his person, and his clothes soon after the deed. However, some of the blood cannot be wiped away, at least not from his memory. His socks are soaked in blood, and he continues to wear them even later. His horror of the blood of his victims clings to him and is the first symbol of his punishment, or guilt.

Symbolically, he is forced to live on with the indelible imprints of his crime, as he still has to wear the blood-stained socks. In his illness, he clutches the socks almost neurotically even while unconscious. This is clearly a symbolic indication of how his guilt and his crime remain with him. Ironically, when Marmeladov dies in the street accident and his blood splatters on Raskolnikov, he feels no great sense of disgust at the sight and feel of the poor man's blood. It is obvious then that only the blood of his victims, even when dried, haunts his conscience.


The illness and spells of delirium that Raskolnikov suffers after the murders clearly symbolize aspects of his suffering, guilt and punishment for his crimes. He gradually overcomes these debilitating attacks but continues to be plagued by horrid dreams. After his first visit to the police station, he dreams that the police official, Ilya Petrovitch, is torturing his landlady. Later, he has the terrifying dream that he is killing the pawnbroker again. However, in his nightmare, she refuses to die, no matter how viciously he bludgeons her. These dreams are symbolic of his extremely disturbed psyche after the crime. Even the dream about the horse being flogged to death by its drunken owner recalls, in a subtly symbolic way, Raskolnikov's own cruelty. Some even see the horse as a symbol of the innocent who suffer at the hands of others.

The smell of fresh paint is another symbolic reminder of Raskolnikov's guilt. Soon after he murders the two women, he takes refuge in a freshly painted apartment below the scene of the crime. Later, when he answers the police summons, he suffers a fainting spell when he is overcome by the smell of the freshly painted police station. Again, when he re-visits the scene of the crime, Alena Ivanovna's apartment has been recently re-painted, and his sense of guilt is triggered once again. Dostoevsky then describes how Raskolnikov remembers "the hideous and agonizingly fearful sensation he had felt when he was trapped after the crime."

Another recurring symbol used in the novel is the whip. In the dream Raskolnikov has in Chapter 5 of Part I, the whip that Mikolka uses to flog his horse clearly signifies mindless cruelty and the exercise of unrestrained power. In Chapter 2 of Part II, the dazed Raskolnikov, returning from the police station, is lashed by a coach driver as he stumbles in the street. Here, the whip is a symbol of his humiliation or chastisement for his recent crimes.

Later in the novel, when Svidrigailov reveals how he used to whip his wife, the whip symbolizes a weapon as deadly as the axe, for his wife dies later. It also represents an instrument of sadistic pleasure and vile depravity.

The small cubicle of Raskolnikov's attic room is another important symbol. It shows how cramped he is both in terms of physical and mental space. Hence, he often tries to escape the confines of his room and wander out in the open street. The room also symbolizes his solitude or isolation from human society. Raskolnikov's thoughts about the "square yard of space" are closely associated with this idea of his being confined in his room. Related to this symbol is the idea of his need for "fresh air" and his bouts of illness and depression after the murder. The fresh air could represent not just a cure of physical or psychological ailments, but also freedom from the agony of guilt that follows him after his heinous crime. Ironically, Raskolnikov finds this "free air" only in the confines of his Siberian prison camp.

Religious symbols, like the cross and the story of Lazarus raised from the dead, also have great significance in the novel. The cross of cypress wood that Sonia gives Raskolnikov to wear when at last he confesses his crime is, ironically, the murdered Lizaveta's cross. He had seen it at the scene of the crime. It now becomes a symbol of his gradual but inevitable salvation. The story of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, which Raskolnikov makes Sonia to read to him before he confesses, bears obvious symbolic relevance to the murderer whose 'dead' soul has to be slowly revived. Thus, all through the novel, Dostoevsky makes subtle use of recurrent symbols. These add to the deeper significance and artistic unity in Crime and Punishment.

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