Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment explores the dangerous effects of St. Petersburg, a malignant city, on the psyche of the impoverished student Raskolnikov. In this novel, Petersburg is more than just a backdrop. The city plays a central role in the development of the characters and the actions that they take. Raskolnikov survives in one of the cramped, dark spaces that are characteristic of Petersburg. These spaces are like coffins; they suffocate Raskolnikov's mind. St. Petersburg creates a grotesque environment in which Raskolnikov can not only create the "Overman Theory," but he can also carry it out by murdering a pawnbroker in cold blood, then justify his actions with the belief that society will be better off without her. Raskolnikov finds no relief outside of his cramped room; the Petersburg climate is just as oppressive to the psyche as the cramped space of Raskolnikov’s room. Not only is the outside air dangerous; it forces him to find relief in the devil’s tavern. While wandering the infernal streets of St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov enters the devil’s realm in the form of Petersburg taverns. These are evil places, where treacherous ideas of robbery and murder circulate. Raskolnikov overhears the twisted idea to kill the pawnbroker inside one of these infested taverns.
The malignant nature of the spaces in Petersburg allows Raskolnikov to embrace the Overman Theory and the Arithmetic of Morality. Raskolnikov justifies killing the pawnbroker because he concludes that it is rational, just, and pure arithmetic. One person must die so that the lives of numerous others may be saved. The Arithmetic of Morality appears logical to Raskolniko...
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...turmoil. For Marmeladov, this leads to his self-destruction as an alcoholic, throwing his life and the life of his family away in taverns; for Raskolnikov it causes him to murder two defenseless women, hoping to steal money that can be used to help others. Both these men mean no harm by their actions, but their cramped, isolated environment molds them into grotesque characters who seem to act not of their own will, but as though pulled through life by the forces of St. Petersburg.
Bely, Andrei. Petersburg. Trans. Robert A. Maguire and John E. Malmstad. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Penguin Signet Classic, 1968.
Gogol, Nikolai. "The Overcoat." The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. 394-435.
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