The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Crime and Punishment

  • Paul FungEmail author
Living reference work entry



The novel is one of the most famous literary representations of Saint Petersburg. Six parts and an epilogue in total, the novel tells the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished law student, committing, reflecting on, and confessing the murder of two women, which takes place in a slum during a boiling summer. The murder, carried out somewhat irresolutely by the young man, occupies Part One. Parts Two to Six narrate Raskolnikov and other characters’ reflections on the crime. Most of them are done in liminal spaces such as taverns, stairs, bridges, and market squares. He likes to wander in the city, reflecting on the extents to which he can bear the weight of guilt arising from his criminal act. He considers himself as the great criminal, but at the same time, he thinks he is a louse, failing to speak the “new word” and carrying out transgression. After the killing, he returns to the crime scene to reexperience the event of murder and virtually confesses his crime to the police. He has three interrogation meetings with the examining magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich, who points out that Raskolnikov will not flee the city to escape from the police: “If you ran away, you would come back yourself. You can’t get on without us” (Dostoevsky 1998: 442). Raskolnikov eventually confesses to the police at the end of Part Six. The epilogue narrates Raskolnikov’s life in the Siberian prison, where he continues to reflect on the motives of his crime.

Originally entitled The Drunkards, the novel, published in 1866, was intended to be an exploration of alcoholism and the social problems it triggered in nineteenth-century Russia (Peace 2006). Marmeladov’s excessive drinking is inseparable from his family’s misfortunes: prostitution (his daughter Sonya works as a “streetwalker” for the family), tuberculosis (Marmeladov’s wife Katerina Ivanovna, consumptive and agitated, dies from the illness after his death in a road accident), unemployment (he is a dismissed government clerk), poverty (ironized by Katerina’s lavish funeral dinner after Marmeladov’s death), and deserted children (Svidrigailov claims he will send Katerina’s children to “some good institution for orphans”). Dostoevsky, however, decided to put Marmeladov’s drunkenness into a subplot, as he wanted to explore the question of “the new man,” a topic that had troubled the Russian literature of his time. The new man, however, is not entirely separated from the social problems refracted through Marmeladov. In the novel, Raskolnikov claims that he wants to kill like a Napoleon, who committed bloodshed remorselessly for the purpose of establishing a new and better nation. Alcoholism and its related social problems become phenomena refracted through Raskolnikov’s troubled mind. He is deeply impacted by this subversive and exceptional idea of the “extraordinary man” (as opposed to the ordinary ones), which was originally proposed in the preface of Napoleon III’s 1865 widely discussed The History of Julius Caesar. The young man is a representative of a new generation in Russia, who was driven by certain western ideologies to improve the current society. Raskolnikov wants to justify his criminal act according to this Napoleonic theory. Another example of the “new man” is Ivan Turgenev’s Bazarov in his 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons, in which he believes that the existing system of government should be abolished and science is the only solution for a better Russia. The irony of Bazarov is that, as a medical doctor, he dies from a viral infection contracted while performing an autopsy. In the case of Raskolnikov, his irony lies in his forceful aspiration to see himself as an extraordinary person who can kill like a remorseless Napoleon. The murder turns out to happen in the most accidental instances. Porfiry, the magistrate, points out that the murder is motivated by “bookish dreams,” “a heart troubled by theories”; it is a fantastic and modern case which “could only happen in our day” (437). Raskolnikov cannot continue to live his life peacefully without confessing to the police. He says to himself: “I killed not a human being but a principle. Yes, I killed a principle, but as for surmounting the barriers, I did not do that; I remained on this side…The only thing I know how to do was kill!” (264).

What Raskolnikov says about “surmounting the barriers” echoes the meaning of “crime” (prestuplenie) in Russian, which shares the semantic root with the verb “to step over” (perestupit). Central to the novel is the question to what extent the troubled young man can transgress the law. He ponders in the opening: “I wonder what men are most afraid of…Any new departure, and especially a new word – that is what they fear most of all” (2). Raskolnikov’s project of stepping over can hardly be called successful: virtually every step of transgression is displaced by chance, contingency, and accident, which are the essence of the experience of Dostoevsky’s Petersburg. The murder could hardly have happened had he not received the relevant information that motivated the event. For many times he irresolutely detours on his way back home so that he can immerse himself in the market square: “Raskolnikov preferred these places [cookshops, courtyards and public houses] and all the neighbouring backstreets and alleys when he went wandering aimlessly about” (8). He unintentionally eavesdrops on a conversation between the pawnbroker’s sister and two dealers, discovering when the pawnbroker will be alone in her flat, so that he can carry out the killing. In a “miserable little” tavern, he eavesdrops on another conversation between two young men, who heatedly argue that the pawnbroker should be killed for the common good (62). These urban encounters are mostly accidental and unknown to Raskolnikov’s meticulously planned murder. Thus questions the narrator: “But why must he listen at this particular moment to that particular talk and those particular ideas when there had just been born in his own brain exactly the same ideas?” (63).

It is true that the murder has been planned: Raskolnikov has counted the steps he needs to walk from his room to the pawnbroker’s flat; he has crafted a loop inside his jacket for hiding his axe; he has prepared a heavily bundled box in order to distract the pawnbroker during the murder. But at the same time, the murder would not have taken place without the urban coincidences described above. How could it be possible that Raskolnikov is thinking of murdering the pawnbroker when he witnesses the random conversations which approve the same idea? This is emblematic of Petersburg’s fantastic quality from which the mind and the world uncannily converge. In Dostoevsky’s 1864 novel, Notes from Underground, the underground man, also the writer of the notes, moans about the “misfortune” of residing in Petersburg, “the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe (Cities can be intentional or unintentional.) (Dostoevsky 2004: 8).” Putting this into the context of Raskolnikov, we can say that a modern city can be understood in its two contrasting dimensions: the intentional city that is meticulously planned is also the unintentional city that engenders the most unexpected and random experience. Imagining himself playing the role of a governor, Raskolnikov fancies to set up fountains in all the public squares and expand the gardens to improve the communal life of Petersburgers (70). These thoughts constitute the intentional part of the city. But then he is immediately troubled by the strange phenomenon in which people opt to live in areas with filth and stench rather than gardens and fountains (70). Similarly, we have Raskolnikov meticulously planning for his murder. But at the same time, it is accidental encounters which produce the murder. Hence the deliberately paradoxical statement by the underground man, Dostoevsky’s Petersburg is marked by this interfusion of intentions and non-intentions. It is a city where plans and contingency, the premeditated and unpremeditated and truth and non-truth, are deliberately placed hand in hand. Even the name of Raskolnikov suggests this paradox: raskol in Russian means “split” and “schism.” The name anticipates a representative quotation in The Idiot, where the consumptive young man Ippolit describes his encounter with the fiery merchant Rogozhin as the meeting of the extremes (Les extrémés se touchent) (Dostoevsky 2001: 406). It is this polyphonic contact of opposites that the novel presents when depicting the hero’s disturbed mind and his urban experience.

But in what ways does the city’s duality cause a “misfortune” to the underground man and other Petersburg’s heroes? “To be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness. For man’s everyday use, ordinary human consciousness would be more than enough” (8). Virtually every hero in Dostoevsky’s novels is feverish and engages in multiple and contradictory thoughts. The hero’s own ideas are not self-sufficient in sustaining his own existence. He must think in relation to the other voices and images coming from the outside. The continually sprawling activity of consciousness explains Raskolnikov’s fantastical coincidence of his mind and experience. His action can no longer be solely explained by his “inner” thoughts and intentions. Or, any single thought or intention is not contained within the hero’s mind but must be put in dialogue with the outside. There is virtually nothing that he would not reflect on. As Mikhail Bakhtin puts it: “Everything that he sees and observes – both Petersburg slums and monumental Petersburg, all his chance encounters and trivial happenings – everything is drawn into dialogue, responds to his questions and put new questions to him, provokes him, argues with him, or reinforces his own thoughts” (Bakhtin 1984: 75). Most of the time, the reader imagines Petersburg through Raskolnikov’s eyes. At times he unintentionally examines every object that passes him, but failing to come up with any result, he falls into reverie again (50). In his roaming in the city, we see Raskolnikov walk from one island to another. When he arrives at the island where the summer houses are built, the “greenery and freshness” please him in contrast with the “dust and lime of the town, and its tall buildings crowding oppressively together.” But before long “these pleasant new sensations turned painful and irritating” (51). His mind is irresolute and so are his actions. It is no wonder Svidrigailov, the protagonist’s double, has this observation when meeting Raskolnikov in a tavern: “You turned down here automatically and unconsciously came the right way to this address…I am sure lots of people in St. Petersburg talk to themselves as they walk about. It’s a town of half-crazy people” (448).

In the world of Dostoevsky, the rhizome does not grow without a space that attracts disparate thoughts. Most of the settings in the novel are predominated by liminal space where people from different strata intersect. Some of the examples of this liminal space include the threshold, the foyer, the corridor, the landing, the stairway, doors opening onto the stairway, gates to front and backyards, and beyond these, the city: squares, streets, facades, taverns, dens, bridges, and gutters (Bakhtin 1984: 170). Raskolnikov undertakes his unfinalized thinking in these liminal spaces of Petersburg, where different walks of people and thoughts clash and interact with each other. The mansion in the market square where the murder takes place is congested with tenants who live in partitions: “tailors, locksmiths, cooks, various German craftsmen, prostitutes, clerks and so on” (3). The murder, almost miraculously, is not seen by anyone (chance effect in the city). Another significant liminal space is Raskolnikov’s dreams – they capture uncanny moments of beating and destruction. They are important moments where Raskolnikov witnesses the reenactment of his crime in various forms.

In outdoor space, Raskolnikov has the habit of stopping in the middle of the Nikolaevsky Bridge on his way back to University, contemplating Petersburg’s “splendid panorama,” which includes the view of the landmark architecture of St Isaac’s Cathedral (Kaganov 1997). In Part Two of the novel, the hero stands in the middle of the bridge. He is then lashed by the carriage driver for blocking the road and later pitied by an old lady who gives him alms. He stands still and is absorbed by the Petersburg’s panorama. Just as he cannot live comfortably with the open city’s spaciousness, Raskolnikov is confounded by the view, which is described as haunted by a “mute and deaf spirit” (a reference to the possessive devil in Matthew 17:18). In this panorama he sees his old ideas, problems, and thoughts, a call to make a resolution to all problems (108). Walking in the open city suggests the possibility of communication, resolution, and confession. But in the next moment, symptomatic of his troubled mind, Raskolnikov decides to hide himself from the crowd, feeling that “he had in that moment cut himself from everybody and everything, as if with a knife” (109).


Just before his eventual confession to the police, Raskolnikov once again returns to the market square. Again, “he would have given the whole world to be alone; but he himself felt that he would not have remained alone for a single minute” (504). He kneels in the middle of the square, half-guilty of his crime, and is just about to utter “I am the murderer.” He kisses the ground with joy, but his supposedly solemn bow only wins laughter and mockery from the crowd. While Raskolnikov seems to be investing his remorse in his kissing the ground, the passerby reacts with laughter, thinking that he simply has drunk too much. The city plays an important role in creating a polyphonic world where solemnity is scrutinized or even mocked by anonymous others. Hence the inability of Raskolnikov to fully utter the words “I am a murderer”: “All these exclamation and observations acted as a check on [him]” (505). The Dostoevsky hero always stops short at the moment when he is committed to his actions or develops his ideas into conviction (Fung 2015).

At the end of Part Six, Raskolnikov makes himself confess to the police. But there is no definite conclusion whether he is remorseful of the murder or not. In the prison, he is about to open his Bible, which can be interpreted as a moment of redemption. But the novel ends precisely at this point, sustaining an unfinalized reading of the young man’s schismatic state of being.


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  2. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 1998. Crime and punishment. Trans. Jessie Coulson. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 2001 The idiot. Trans. Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Vintage.Google Scholar
  4. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 2004. Notes from underground. Trans. Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Vintage.Google Scholar
  5. Fung, Paul. 2015. Dostoevsky and the epileptic mode of being. Oxford: Legenda.Google Scholar
  6. Kaganov, Grigory. 1997. Images of space: St. Petersburg in the visual and verbal arts. Trans. Sidney Monas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Peace, Richard, ed. 2006. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s crime and punishment: A casebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hang Seng Management CollegeHong KongChina