Question: Discuss imagery and symbols of the novel Crime and Punishment.
“Crime and Punishment” is a novel about the murder of a pawnbroker and the path towards redemption that the murderer takes. In this novel, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1818-1881) uses symbols to represent deep concepts and a variety of images to tell the story of murder and redemption. The function of symbols and imagery in this novel is to depict the character’s emotions and events.
The key concept of imagery
Authors use imagery to describe people, events, and emotions that are beyond words. Imagery is the use of descriptive language that appeals to the senses and symbolizes something deeper than the literal meaning of words. Let’s examine a few examples of religious, blood, and water imagery from this novel.
The protagonist of the novel Raskolnikov meets Marmeladov, the unemployed alcoholic, in a tavern. Marmeladov presents himself as a despicable character from the moment they meet. As a result of the drinking, he is on the fifth day of binge drinking while his wife and children are starving at home. His eldest daughter Sonia has been forced into prostitution to support them. Marmeladov says:
‘I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross, not pitied! Crucify me, oh judge, crucify me but pity me! And then I will go of myself to be crucified, for it’s not merry-making I seek but tears and tribulation!’
This is an example of religious imagery because Marmeladov makes a visual representation of the outcome of life which he deserves.
For some reason, however, Raskolnikov has a soft spot for Marmeladov. This soft spot does not extend to Alyona, a pawnbroker that cheats the poor. In Raskolnikov’s opinion, Alyona deserves to die as he determines that the world will be a better place without her. He chooses an ax as his murder weapon, which adds to the bloodiness and horror of the scene. After hitting Alyona on the head with the ax, the narrator describes, ‘The blood gushed as from an overturned glass, the body fell back.’ This vivid description of blood gives the reader not only visual but also some religious symbolism because the blood from an overturned glass is reminiscent of Jesus’ blood.
After brutally killing Alyona, Raskolnikov wishes to be clean both literally and spiritually. The narrator writes:
“Glancing, however, into the kitchen and seeing a bucket half full of water on a bench, he bethought him of washing his hands and the axe.”
Symbolically, Raskolnikov will have to face even more tests in order to be truly pure.
The symbols in Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky discovers the psychology of a murderer from the moment when the protagonist Rasklanikov decides to kill a greedy pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna. As the story unfolds, the author uses symbols to convey a deeper meaning of the novel. Let’s examine some of the symbols of Crime and Punishment.
St. Petersburg is one of the symbols. It has been described as noisy, dirty, and crime-ridden. The chaos in the city mirrors the chaos that Raskolnikov feels throughout the novel. Interestingly, the balance doesn’t come until Raskolnikov is sent to Siberia.
The choice of weapon for the murders also reflects the unbearable internal chaos of Raskolnikov. He considers using a knife but decides that he does not want to rely on strength or precision to complete the act. The narrator notes that with each of Raskolnikov’s decisions,
“The more final they were, the more hideous and the more absurd they at once became in his eyes.”
Even Raskolnikov believes that being an ax murderer is ridiculous. It is bulky, messy, and incredibly risky, yet there is a part of Raskolnikov that believes this is the only option.
Several characters have meaningful dreams that symbolize different things. Typically, they represent the surfacing of subconscious feelings that are too terrible for the characters to face consciously. However, they are also used as foreshadowing or to teach the character about somethings.
The cross is a symbol of redemption for sins in the Christian faith. After killing Alyona, Raskolnikov retrieves the ax. When he sees the string around her neck, he tugs at it. He releases it and sees that it is attached to a filled purse. At this point in the story, Raskolnikov is denying religion and his need for redemption as he believes he is above such things and making the right decision for society. Later, as guilt creeps in, Raskolnikov realizes that he does need redemption and accepts a cross from Sonia before making his confession.
In fact, without applying imagery and symbols no author can express his ideas deeply, emotionally, and perfectly.