Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a novel focusing on the cause and effect of a criminal act. The reader is introduced to Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a Russian down and out who is struggling to survive his own poverty. To get money quickly, Raskolnikov chooses to rob and murder a local pawnbroker. These initial actions happen very early in the book’s progress and it quickly devolves into a series of self-involved, guilt-driven inner monologues of a murderer. The colour red appears repeatedly throughout the novel. Traditionally, red is associated with anger, passion and an impulsive surge of emotion. In Crime and Punishment, the colour signifies the feeling of guilt: Raskolnikov decision to commit murder was premeditated and therefore wasn’t impulsive of passionate – it was driven by the need for money; not because of a deep seated hatred. Therefore, the colour red must signify the resulting guilt.
In Chapter 19, the colour ‘red’ is immediately used in connection with the idea of guilt: “gawky and awkward, shamefaced and red as a peony.” (Dostoyevsky 299) Whilst this description is not attached to Raskolnikov, it is an immediate association between guilt (or ‘shamefacedness’) and the colour red. This quote directly describes the appearance of Razumikhin who is the character that represents Raskolnikov’s intellectual side. Each character in the novel represents a different side of Raskolnikov. The fact that Razhmikhin represents his intellectual side, but is presented as being red, demonstrates that Raskolnikov is well aware of the criminal act he has committed. It is his intelligence and his ability to rationalise that would induce a feeling of guilt and this is emphasised by the description of Razhmikhin as being “red.”
Red is also the colour of blood, a motif which shows up frequently throughout the book. The first mention of blood is on page 114: “The blood gushed out as from an upturned glass, and her body collapsed backwards.” (Dostoyevsky 114) The blood is symbolic of his committing murder and the ensuing guilt. During the course of Dostoyevsky’s description of the murder of the pawnbroker, Alyona and her sister, Lizaveta, blood is mentioned a number of times: “In the meantime, a whole puddle of blood had come welling out.” (Dostoyvesky 115) In the midst of the murders, the scene is coloured red by the overwhelmingly large amount of blood that is spilling out: the scene is characterised by guilt. The reader is presented with the image of a man in the middle of his own, physical representation of guilt. The description also draws reference to Raskolnikov as have blood on his hands a number of times: “he got blood both on his hands” (Dostoyevsky 115) which demonstrates his guilt as being personal to him: the blood is on his hands and he is the perpetrator of the crime; it is, therefore, his guilt alone. Raskolnikov seems un-reconciled to his guilt as he begins to try and remove the blood (and therefore, his guilt) from his hands: “The first thing he did was to start to rub his hands on the red-silk packing material. ‘It’s red, so it won’t show the blood so much’ he found himself thinking…” (Dostoyevsky 116) He seems keen to remove his guilt but in practice, he appears to just try to hide it.
Dostoyevsky utilises the red motif throughout the book to represent the guilt of his character, Raskolnikov. He does this primarily through the presentation of blood. During the murder scene, in particular, the blood is copious and Raskolnikov is hugely keen to remove it from his hands, and in turn to remove the guilt. The primary function of the book is to explore the consequences of crime: the murder itself, nor the murderer, are the focus of the book, but rather, the reasons for committing such a murder and the punishment one receives from such a crime are. We are repeatedly presented with a man who is plagued by his own guilt, as represented by the frequent red imagery throughout the novel: this guilt doubles up as his punishment.