Have you ever noticed that the color of your wallpaper influences your mood? Do you work better indoors or outdoors? Would you feel stressed in a small dark stuffy room? If you start pondering over these questions you will surely agree that the place we live and work in influences us in a very profound way. Orange curtains raise our spirits, the sound of birds chirping makes us more relaxed, while the smell of new stationary boosts our creativity. Everything is important. But most of the time we do not notice these subtle forces until the very moment they become too obvious to ignore the way it happens in Dostoevskys Crime and Punishment. Are you surprised? We all know that this classical novel is about moral choice and repentance, certainly not about curtains, birds and stationary. But it also tells us how the city we live in can become our enemy, and how nature can heal wounds, foster love and caring. This is the way great literature works every book unveils dozens of secrets: some of them openly claim our attention, others are well-hidden from the eyes of the reader just like the one I am going to share with you.
When we hear of Saint-Petersburg, we instantly think of magnificent architecture, enfilades full of mirrors and crystal chandeliers, the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace. But Dostoevsky shows us the other side of the monarchical capital crowded, stuffy, noisy and dirty. This is Petersburg as Raskolnikov knows it. If in line with modern fashion for quizzes we asked Rodion to describe this city in only three adjectives he would probably pick stifling, cramped and, surprisingly enough, yellow. For the modern reader yellow might be associated with sunny mornings, upbeat smileys and orange juice for breakfast. But in Crime and Punishment yellow is a sign of spoilage or decay (Flath 104). We first see it in the old womans dwelling with yellow paper on the walls (Dostoevsky 13), the furniture, all very old and of yellow wood (Dostoevsky 13) and two or three half-penny prints in yellow frames (Dostoevsky 13). Here it symbolizes old age and thrift. Yellow light of the setting sun highlights Rodions persistent anxiety and restlessness of a man planning and committing a murder (Dostoevsky 13). People in the streets and Raskolnikovs drinking companions have yellow, even greenish (Dostoevsky 20) faces. Yellow is also the color of wallpaper in the poor students room: It had a poverty-stricken appearance with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls, and it was so low-pitched that a man of more than average height was ill at ease in it and felt every moment that he would knock his head against the ceiling (Dostoevsky 44). This room, a tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length (Dostoevsky 44), which makes Raskolnikov bilious, irritable, ill-tempered (Dostoevsky 44), is a symbolic representation of Petersburg as Rodion knows it with crowded, stuffy, dirty streets, tiny inner yards looking more like dark wells and houses with yellow paint peeling off the walls because of the eternal dampness. Here yellow becomes the color of sickness, depression and even madness. Stifling heat (Dostoevsky 72) of the city boulevards symbolizes increasing pressure and anxiety to which Raskolnikov finally succumbs. Streets and alleys in the heart of Petersburg crowded with trading and working class population (Dostoevsky 9) create a sharp contrast with Raskolnikovs loneliness and isolation. Dostoevsky conjures up a world so realistic and tangible that while reading Crime and Punishment it is hard to resist its powers. And once you fall under stifling, cramped, yellow spell of Petersburg it becomes much easier to imagine how miserable a man could be without friends, living from hand to mouth, and how he may be tempted by the yellow heartless labyrinth to sink into despair, commit a crime and even kill a human being.
But there is one more reality in Dostoevskys novel an unlikely haven of spiritual regeneration. In the exile Raskolnokov learns to accept and appreciate Sonias love. He fosters and cherishes his own feeling which can finally grow free in the vastness of the steppes. One day sitting down on a heap of logs by the shed Rodion gazes at the wide deserted river:
from the high bank a broad landscape opened before him, the sound of singing floated faintly audible from the other bank. In the vast steppe, bathed in sunshine, he could just see, like black specks, the nomads tents. There there was freedom, there other men were living, utterly unlike those here (Dostoevsky 764).
This new world is an entire opposite to what Raskolnikov is used to. The blue of the river and the sky is a sharp contrast to the yellow of Petersburg. Painting with words, Dostoevsky explores the famous palette introduced by the other genius, Van Gogh. In one of his letters the painter wrote: There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn't you? (Van Gogh). On Dostoevskys canvas the magnitude of the steppe symbolizes the life of spirit to which the young man rises from the ashes of his previous life. Now that he has found love and faith he will be healed in nature's lap, away from the petty hustle and bustle of Petersburg.
Dostoevsky offers us a chance to see how people create urban landscapes and ultimately urban landscapes start creating people. It works both ways: you can change the place you live in and it can also change you in return. And this is what we have to remember when building kindergartens and schools, hospitals and prisons, but also our own homes. This may sound strange, but doesnt this incredible novel make you want to bring some more kindness into the world by planting flowers or painting an old bench?
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Planet EBook. 2012. Web. 25 May 2016. <http://www.planetebook.com/Crime-and-Punishment.asp>.
Flath, C. A., & Fitzpatrick, J. (2010). The new Russian Dostoevsky: Readings for the twenty-first century. Bloomington, IN: Slavica.
Van Gogh, Vincent. "Vincent Van Gogh to Emile Bernard: 6-11 June 1888." Van Gogh's Letters: Unabridged and Annotated. WebExhibits. Web. 25 May 2016. <http://www.webexhibits.org/vangogh/letter/18/B06.htm>.
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