Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The City

The city of St. Petersburg as represented in Dostoevsky’s novel is dirty and crowded. Drunks are sprawled on the street in broad daylight, consumptive women beat their children and beg for money, and everyone is crowded into tiny, noisy apartments. The clutter and chaos of St. Petersburg is a twofold symbol. It represents the state of society, with all of its inequalities, prejudices, and deficits. But it also represents Raskolnikov’s delirious, agitated state as he spirals through the novel toward the point of his confession and redemption. He can escape neither the city nor his warped mind. From the very beginning, the narrator describes the heat and “the odor” coming off the city, the crowds, and the disorder, and says they “all contributed to irritate the young man’s already excited nerves.” Indeed, it is only when Raskolnikov is forcefully removed from the city to a prison in a small town in Siberia that he is able to regain compassion and balance.

The Cross

The cross that Sonya gives to Raskolnikov before he goes to the police station to confess is an important symbol of redemption for him. Throughout Christendom, of course, the cross symbolizes Jesus’ self-sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Raskolnikov denies any feeling of sin or devoutness even after he receives the cross; the cross symbolizes not that he has achieved redemption or even understood what Sonya believes religion can offer him, but that he has begun on the path toward recognition of the sins that he has committed. That Sonya is the one who gives him the cross has special significance: she gives of herself to bring him back to humanity, and her love and concern for him, like that of Jesus, according to Christianity, will ultimately save and renew him.


Water appears frequently throughout the novel, usually carrying with it the traditional Christian significance of life, healing, and redemption. Raskolnikov considers throwing the evidence of his crime into the canal but cannot because of the sheer amount of people around and the possibility the evidence might float instead of sink. The water, essentially, is too full of life to be complicit with his crime or hide his secrets. Whenever characters are weak or ill in the novel, those helping them bring water to drink or to help tend their wounds. This pattern emphasizes water as healing and reviving. By the banks of the Neva, a woman mistakes Raskolnikov for a beggar and gives him a coin. Here, Raskolnikov is momentarily struck by how beautiful the water is, reflecting the cathedral. However, he tosses the coin into the water, and feels cut off from humanity. This scene explicitly ties water to Christianity. By throwing the coin given to him with kindness into the water as he walks away, Raskolnikov walks away from redemption and Christian society.

In pointed contrast to water’s use as a healing and lifegiving symbol throughout most of the book, the villainous Svidrigailov actively hates water, even stating that he doesn’t even like it as scenery in a landscape painting. This disgust may highlight the impossibility of redemption of a man like Svidrigailov and his total rejection of Christian morality. After the murder, Raskolnikov also often feels despair and pain when looking at the river, signaling moments when he is attempting to reject traditional morality, essentially behaving more like Svidrigailov. Water saturates Svidrigailov’s suicide preparations, as he gets soaked to the skin by rain. He imagines the rain will drown the rats in basements. Fittingly, Svidrigailov eventually commits suicide out in the rain. While Svidrigailov sees the water as only chilling and uncomfortable, fitting for his death, there is a grim undertone of cleansing here as well.  Rats frequently bring disease, and Svidrigailov, as he himself has observed, brings pain to others. In this sense, the rain that marks Svidrigailov’s death is also purifying.