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Religious Symbolism in Crime and Punishment

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Fyodor Dostoevsky is considered not only one of the most influential writers in Russian history but one of the most respected authors in all of contemporary literature. His most successful novel, Crime and Punishment, is heralded as a masterpiece and its literary influence is still felt to this day. Dostoevsky himself became very religious following his release from jail, and his influence from this can be seen in the many references, religious symbols and themes throughout Crime and Punishment. In this essay, I will be analyzing and presenting the allegories, motifs, and symbols presented in Crime and Punishment that are pertinent to Christianity and religious philosophy. ‘I ought to be crucified, crucified on a cross not pitied! Crucify me, oh judge…’ (Part 1. Ch.2)

The most significant theme in Crime and Punishment is that of redemption and “resurrection”, references and images are used such as New Jerusalem, Christ’s death on the cross, and the raising of Lazarus. Raskolnikov’s arc as a character easily resembles that of the story of Lazarus, a biblical story that itself is referenced within the novel. According to the Christian Gospels, Lazarus was a man that had been dead and buried for several days, and his sisters Martha and Mary seek Jesus for help, and Jesus raised him from the dead. This story is one that greatly parallels Raskolnikov’s “death and “resurrection” as a character. Burdened with intense fits of delirium, paranoia, and despair, and after being fiercely pursued by Porfiry Petrovich, Rodya goes to see Sonya, and she reads him the story “Where is the raising of Lazarus? Find it for me, Sonia.”(Part 4, Ch.4)

This pushes Raskolnikov to make the decision to face his crimes and confess, but before he goes, Sonya gives him a cross made from cypress wood, which is believed to be the same wood that was used in Christ’s crucifixion. While the cross typically symbolizes Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the sins of humanity, in Raskolnikov’s case it represents his transformation as a character. However, the cross does not symbolize that he has achieved redemption or that he has undergone some sort of religious epiphany, but that he has begun on the path toward atoning for the sins that he has committed as a man and as a citizen. Raskolnikov doesn’t see his confession as atoning for the murder of the woman, but rather as humbling himself before society, and that his “superman” ideology was foolish and hypocritical. His murder of the pawnbroker is, in part, a consequence of his belief that he is above the law and an attempt to establish the truth of his superiority, but his inability to quell his feelings of guilt proves to him that he is not a “superman.”

Porfiry even asks Raskolnikov what happens to the conscience of a man who commits a crime because he mistakenly thinks he is extraordinary, and Raskolnikov replies, rather ironically, that such a person, if he has a conscience, will suffer for it. “‘If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be his punishment—as well as the prison.’ ‘But the real geniuses,’ asked Razumikhin frowning, ‘those who have the right to murder? Oughtn’t they to suffer at all even for the blood they’ve shed?’ ‘Why the word ought? It’s not a matter of permission or prohibition. He will suffer if he is sorry for his victim. Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth,’ he added dreamily, not in the tone of the conversation.” (Part 3, Chapter 5). The fact that Sonya is the one who gives him the cross also has special significance, she is a very devout Christian, despite the fact that she is a prostitute. Her love and concern for him, like that of Jesus, is ultimately what saves and renew him.’

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She made the sign of the cross over herself and over him, and put the wooden cross on his neck.’ (Part 6. Ch.8). Raskolnikov ultimately was not stable enough to bear the weight of the crime he committed and it shows through his hectic and paranoid thoughts, causing his superhuman view of himself to be diminished, symbolizing his “death” and from confessing and serving his sentence, he hopes to begin anew, or his “resurrection” as it were. An interesting anecdote to this is the subtle ways the number three is present throughout the novel, possibly representing the Holy Trinity; God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. During the murder scene, Raskolnikov hits Alyona on the head 3 times with the axe. Afterward, “he took out the axe, washed the blade and spent a long time, about three minutes, washing the wood where there were spots of blood, rubbing them with soap.”(Part 1, Chapter 7)

He also runs down 3 flights of stairs to escape from the crime scene, possibly alluding the fact that Raskolnikov cannot escape God, or that he is unable to come clean on his own accord and needs some form of saving grace to obtain redemption, which we somewhat get through Sonya. The mainly Russian Orthodox city of St. Petersburg also serves as an important symbol to the story, not only as the setting, but it also has historical and geographical significance. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russia began reconnecting with Europe after a long period of isolation, and Russia and St. Petersburg in particular became heavily influenced by Western European culture, especially Protestantism, and a sharp divide formed between its noble classes and working peasant class. St. Petersburg in Crime and Punishment is dirty, crowded, and depressing. Drunks are passed out on the street in the middle of the afternoon, women beat their children and beg for money, and everyone is crowded into cramped, noisy apartments.

The clutter and chaos of St. Petersburg is symbolic in two aspects. It represents the state of Russian politics and society during the nineteenth century, but it also serves to represent Raskolnikov’s delirious and collapsing mental state as he spirals toward insanity. His mental state and the conditions of his environment are intertwined. From the very beginning, the city is described as having an “odor”. It is crowded and disorderly, and all of it is contributing to establishing Raskolnikov’s character. This kind of environment suits his tendency towards Nihilism towards the beginning of the story, and makes it interesting to see how he plays of most of the other characters, several of whom we know are experiencing the same feelings as him but from different backgrounds such as Svidrigailov or Katerina Ivanovna. Ironically it is only when Raskolnikov is sent to prison in the cold and desolate Siberia that he is able to regain his composure and see through the nihilistic attitudes and ideas he had developed. Lastly, water in Crime and Punishment comes to represent life and renewal and has different meanings for different characters.

In Christianity, water is used as a symbol for baptism, or “washing away” of one’s sins and transgressions. For some characters, it represents a new beginning and personal growth. In Raskolnikov’s case, as a character he is somewhere on the edge of good and evil, whichever state of Raskolnikov’s mental health is leaning towards, positive or negative, is indicative of the type of experience he will have with water. For instance, after the murders, the police call Raskolnikov into the station, and after a brief interview with Porfiry Petrovitch, he asks for a glass of water, and after drinking it, he faints, indicating that the power of the truth is too powerful for him to accept the weight of the murder on his conscious. When he wakes up, someone has brought him a glass of yellow water. The glass, being just as literally clouded and impure as his conscious is metaphorically impure, and the closer he moves to water, the closer he comes to redemption.

Raskolnikov even tries to “wash away” the blood on the ax after committing the murders. Another example of water being used to symbolize character development is Svidrigailov. He has a fear of water, to the point where he says he can’t stand water in paintings. This fear of water is symbolic of his inability to seek salvation, and it certainly is no coincidence that when Svidrigailov eventually kills himself, he does so by going into the pouring rain and in the darkness of an alley. He tells Sonya, the only options for Rodya to atone for what he’s done are: a bullet in the head, or Siberia.”(Part 6, Chapter 6). The difference between Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov in these situations is ultimately reflective of Christian teaching, in order to be forgiven, either by God or by the state, one must admit their sins and denounce his pride. Svidrigailov opts for a quick and painless death as opposed to facing the long list of horrible things he has done, including cheating on his wife and molesting a 15-year girl that killed herself out of trauma from the abuse she received at Svidrigailov’s hand. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky makes it abundantly clear, those that who think of themselves as higher than God will be humbled in one way or another. Dostoevsky Fyodor, Crime and Punishment. Tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, New York: Random House, 1993

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Religious Symbolism in Crime and Punishment. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 25, 2023, from
“Religious Symbolism in Crime and Punishment.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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Religious Symbolism in Crime and Punishment [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2023 Sept 25]. Available from:
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