THE BRIDGES OF ST. PETERSBURG:
A MOTIF IN "CRIME AND PUNISHMENT"
Richard Gill, Pace University
Read casually, the opening sentence of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" appears to be no more than a rather matter-of-fact statement, conventionally providing expository details of setting and character: "On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge. " (1) Nevertheless, as the Russian critic Vadim K. Kozhinov has observed, this initial sentence, though almost documentary in character, also has a symbolic function; and when reconsidered in the light of what follows later in the narrative, it represents indeed "the embryo of the whole huge novel, " succinctly introducing images and motifs that are "linked organically" with Dostoevsky's total design and meaning. (2) The reference to the "exceptionally hot evening, " Kozhinov goes on to specify, is more than a weather report: it establishes not only the suffocating atmosphere of St. Petersburg in midsummer but also the infernal ambience of the crime itself. (3) The garret room, later described as a cupboard and a coffin, reappears throughout the novel as an emblem of Raskolnikov's withdrawal and isolation. Even the brief account of his slow and hesitant walk, Kozhinov notes, reveals the same irresolution that Raskolnikov will display before and after the crime, (4) Curiously, however, Kozhinov's meticulous explication of this pregnant sentence completely overlooks its final detail - namely, the bridge itself. (5)
If, as the Russian critic convincingly maintains, the opening sentence is meant to serve as a kind of overture to the novel, the bridge, like the other particulars, may also be interpreted as more than a matter of documentation. In fact, its climactic position implies that the movement of Raskolnikov towards the bridge and thus to the pawnbroker's room, in a calculated "rehearsal" (p. 5) of the crime, initiates the whole complex action of the novel. As with rooms and weather, moreover, allusions to bridges recur throughout the novel, not incidentally but in connection with nodal points of the action and motivation. My purpose here therefore is to show more fully how this hitherto neglected motif of the bridge functions in Dostoevsky's dialectical orchestration.
To be sure, given the topography of St. Petersburg - with its rivers, canals, and islands - bridges would naturally be mentioned in almost any novel set there. Dostoevsky's approach to the city, however, shuns reportorial naturalism. As more than one study has shown, Dostoevsky -
like Balzac, Baudelaire, Dickens, and Gogol - was among the first to recognize the symbolic possibilities of city life and imagery drawn from the city. In "Crime and Punishment, " particularly, St. Petersburg becomes a paysage moralisé. The actual city, "rendered with a striking concreteness, " is, to use Donald Fanger's words, "also a city of the mind in the way that its atmosphere answers Raskolnikov's spiritual condition and almost symbolizes it. " (6) The crowded streets and squares, the shabby houses and taverns, the noise and stench, all are imaginatively transformed into a rich store of metaphors for states of mind. From this standpoint, the hump-backed bridges crisscrossing Czar Peter's labyrinthine city are, as found in the novel, likewise to be viewed as metaphorical and highly suitable for marking the stages of the tortuous course of Raskolnikov's internal drama.
Indeed, considered phenomenologically in terms of Gaston Bachelard's "poetics of space, " bridges are potently expressive. As Bachelard writes, "space that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor. It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. " (7) Thus, "all great simple images reveal a psychic state" ; they "speak" to us. (8) Bachelard himself concentrates on houses, without any references to bridges; nonetheless, his methodology - what he calls "topoanalysis" or "the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives" (9) - may be applied to bridges. Bridges also "speak, " and with remarkable nuance. They suggest both union and separation, distance and contact. Linking and joining what would otherwise remain separate, they also evoke the "transitional, " the state of being in-between. Crossing a bridge graphically accentuates the passage from one stage to another, just as pausing on a bridge offers a vantage point for looking backward or forward, localizing the uneasiness of indecision or the finality of commitment. Such phenomenological implications of bridges are particularly relevant to Raskolnikov's peculiar psychology, his obsession with taking a "new step, " (p. 4) his vacillation between one extreme state of mind and another. All this, Dostoevsky would instinctively recognize.
In selecting the bridge as a motif, Dostoevsky may also have recalled -and perhaps intended ironic allusion to - the role bridges played in two well-known contemporary Russian works, both of which advanced sociopolitical ideas antagonistic to his own. The earlier one, Alexander Herzen's "From the Other Shore, " a book Dostoevsky admired for its poetic force despite his differences with the author's politics, (10) opens with the image of a bridge as an historical metaphor for the struggles of the nineteenth century. The liberal-minded Herzen, diagnosing the abortive revolution of 1848, still held fast to his own hopes for the future, "the other shore" ; and, evidently remembering the words of his socialist friend Proudhon, who envisioned a new world where the injustices of the present would appear "comme un pont magique jeté sur un fleuve d ' o u b l i , " (11) he began his own book with a plea to his
son not to remain "on this shore":
We do not build, we destroy. . . . Modern man, that melancholy Pontifex Maximus, only builds a bridge - it will be for the unknown man of the future to pass over it. (12)
Dostoevsky, with aspirations towards a future antithetical to that of Herzen, might very well have relished exploiting the liberal's image in the portrayal of his own ideological dissenter, Raskolnikov. The other book, "What Is To Be Done? " by N. G. Chernyshevskij, a veritable s u m m a for the Nihilists of the 1860's and thus a target for Dostoevsky in both "Notes from Underground" and "Crime and Punishment, " opens with a dramatic scene on a St. Petersburg bridge. In the early hours of the morning, a flash is seen on the bridge, and a shot is heard. A man is then presumed to have killed himself, but when the bridge guard rushes to the spot, there are no traces of any one to be found. The suicide is now disputed, particularly because of the grotesque circumstances. "Does one blow his brains out on a bridge?" people ask. "Why a bridge? It would be stupid to do it on a bridge. " (13) In Chernyshevskij's novel, it turns out of course that there has been no suicide; Lopukhov, one of the main characters, has simply staged one to deceive his wife. (14) But this incident, as narrated, closely resembles the actual suicide of Svidrigajlov by Tuchkov Bridge, and may be a possible source for the absurd manner of its execution: "Svidrigajlov took out the revolver and cocked it. Achilles (the bridge guard) raised his eyebrows. 'I say, this is not the place for such jokes. ' " (p. 495)
In any case, whether Dostoevsky was mindful of these Russian works or not, a specific bridge in St. Petersburg is often the stage for a decisive moment in "Crime and Punishment. " (Indeed, as James M. Curtis points out, to appreciate the significance of Raskolnikov's whereabouts in the novel, it is helpful to keep a map of the city in mind.) (15) In the opening, to repeat briefly, Raskolnikov's crossing Kokushkin Bridge, in the first sentence, takes him from his own neighborhood into that of the pawnbroker; in fact, her house is just on the other side of the canal the bridge spans (p. 4). His actual encounter with the suspicious pawnbroker aggravates his indecision and self-loathing; and the days following are given over to tortured introspection. Then comes a moment of spiritual insight when he dreams of the mare being beaten to death. Here the topographical details correspond to his ambivalent psychological state:
... he forgot at once what he had just been thinking about and even where he was going. In this way he walked right across Vasilevskij Ostrov, came out on to the Lesser Neva, crossed the bridge and turned toward the islands. The greenness and freshness were at first restful to his weary eyes after the dust of the town and the huge houses that hemmed him and weighed him down. (p. 54)
The bridge he has crossed is Tuchkov Bridge, the same one later associated with Svidrigajlov's suicide. In this instance, its implications are positive: Raskolnikov's passage across the bridge from the stifling mainland of the city to the rather idyllic retreat of Peterburgskii Island
represents, subjectively, a transition from the calculating and inhumanly cold side of his divided self to another and superior one open to spontaneous and generous feeling. This is borne out by the imagery and incidents of the sequence. Dostoevsky's presentation of the natural imagery of the setting, as Gibian has shown, draws upon the traditional symbolism of myth: the "greenness" of the vegetation and the "freshness" of the atmosphere are manifestations of the ancient life-giving elements of earth and air. The natural surroundings, in contrast to the urban, release Raskolnikov's humane feelings, and after he falls asleep in the grass, the dream of the mare brutally slain by its master, prefiguring the murder of the pawnbroker, fills him with moral horror. Upon awakening, he abandons his criminal plan as vile and loathsome. Significantly, this decision is made on Tuchkov Bridge, the same one that brought him to the island. Now, during the moment of transformation, the bridge focuses his attention on water and light, two symbolic elements in sharp contrast with the dryness and darkness of the city:
He rose to his feet, looked round in wonder as though surprised at finding himself in this place and went towards the bridge. . . "Lord, " he prayed, "show me my path - I renounce this accursed . . . dream of mine. "
Crossing the bridge, he gazed quietly and calmly at the Neva, at the glowing red sun setting in the glowing sky. (p. 61)
This decision - this healing of the split between intellect and feeling - is of course only temporary; the crime is actually committed just a short while later. But the sources of possible regeneration have been introduced, and like the course of the crime's preparation, key phases of its aftermath involve bridges. Raskolnikov's sense of isolation and his hostility toward everyone following the crime become painfully intensified during another bridge scene. On Nikolaevskij Bridge (p. 113), Raskolnikov walks absentmindedly in the middle of the traffic, and a coachman lashes him with a whip for nearly falling under the horses' hoofs. As Raskolnikov recovers himself by the railing, a woman crossing the bridge charitably hands him a coin of twenty copecks - "in Christ's name. " (p. 114) Her gesture is a reminder of Christian love and salvation, but at this point Raskolnikov is in too negative a mood to respond with gratitude. Indeed, the setting only accentuates his despair, for it poignantly reveals to him that his crime has divided him from his earlier self and what was best in his own past:
He closed his hand on the twenty copecks, walked for ten paces, and turned facing the Neva. . . The cupola of the cathedral, which is seen at its best from the bridge about twenty paces from the chapel, glittered in the sunlight. . . He stood still, and gazed long and intently into the distance; this spot was especially familiar to him. When he was attending the university, he had hundreds of times - generally on his way home - stood still on this spot, gazed at this truly magnificent spectacle and always marvelled at a vague and mysterious
emotion it roused in him. . . Deep down, hidden far away out of sight all that seemed to him now - all his old past, his old thoughts, his old problems and theories, his old impressions and that picture and himself and all, all. (p. 114)
The images Raskolnikov sees from the bridge are rich with traditional associations: the cathedral represents orthodox religion and redemption; the waters of the Neva, the bright sunlight, the majestic beauty of the panorama - all are positive and life-giving. (17) His lingering receptivity to such images will be the source of regeneration later on; at this juncture, however, Raskolnikov gives in to despair and misanthropy: "He opened his hand, stared at the coin, and with a sweep of his arm flung it into the water; then he turned and went home. It seemed to him, he had cut himself off from every one and everything at that moment. " (pp. 114-115) In contrast to the bridge scene before the crime, this one is a spiral turning in what now seems Raskolnikov's irreversible downward course.
Despair now leads Raskolnikov to consider suicide, and another bridge is pointedly made the setting for his morbid self-searching. Quarrelling with Razumikhin, he takes off on one of his solitary rambles through the city:
Raskolnikov walked straight to X Bridge, stood in the middle, and
leaning both elbows on the rail stared into the distance. . . Bending over the water, he gazed mechanically at the last pink flush of the sunset, at the row of houses, growing dark in the gathering twilight, at one distant attic window on the left bank, flashing as though on fire in the last rays of the setting sun, at the darkening water in the canal, and the water seemed to attract his attention, (p. 167)
This X-Bridge is actually Voznesenskij Bridge, which takes Voznesenskij Prospect across the canal near the house where Sonja lives. (18) Raskolnikov, standing Hamlet-like in the middle of the bridge, now faces the choice between life and suicide. These alternatives are symbolized, respectively, by "the one distant attic window on the left bank, flashing as though on fire" and "the darkening water of the canal. " As James M. Curtis has pointed out, since Sonja's room is described later on in the novel as "looking out on to the canal, " (p. 309) it is evident that it is Sonja's window that Raskolnikov looks at from the bridge; and "the fact that the ray of sunlight from her window catches his eye means that he will ultimately go to her apartment, confess his crime, and take upon himself the suffering which . . . leads to regeneration. " (19) At this moment on the bridge, however, "the darkening water" - in contrast to the way water elsewhere in the novel implies salvation - suggests death. Indeed, as he gazes from the bridge, a woman suddenly appears and leaps over the railing into the canal. The woman, who has obviously been drinking, is soon rescued, but her attempt to drown herself objectifies the possibility of suicide that Raskolnikov has been pondering as an alternative to giving himself up. But the ignobility of death by drowning repels him, and he decides to go to the police, though his departure from the bridge reveals apathy rather than determination:
He, felt disgusted. "No, that's loathsome. . . water. . . it's not good enough, " he muttered to himself. "Nothing will come of it, " he added, "no use to wait. What about the police office?" ... He turned his back to the railing and looked about him.
"Very well then!" he said resolutely; he moved from the bridge and walked in the direction of the police office. His heart felt hollow and empty, (p. 168)
Almost symphonically, this despair is soon counterpointed with hope. Shortly after witnessing the woman's attempted suicide, Raskolnikov enters the street where Marmeladov has been accidentally run over by a coach. Taking the dying man home, Raskolnikov meets Sonja for the first time, along with her small sister, Polenka. As he leaves, the child's grateful and affectionate embrace prompts Raskolnikov to ask for her prayers. Despair now begins to give way to hope, and it is more than a coincidence that Raskolnikov finds himself back at the same place where he considered suicide:
The child went away enchanted with him. It was past ten when he came out into the street. In five minutes he was standing on the bridge at the spot where the woman had jumped in.
"Enough, " he pronounced resolutely and triumphantly. "I've done with fancies, imaginary terrors and phantoms! Life is real! Haven't I lived just now? My life has not yet died with that old woman"! (p. 186)
But his hopeful realization is simply the beginning of his transformation, not its conclusion, as he here rather complacently assumes. The pride and self-confidence expressed by his words are belied by his bodily movements, for Dostoevsky immediately adds that "he walked with flagging footsteps from the bridge. " (p. 186) Actually, Raskolnikov does not yet perceive that the true source of this new hope is, not his own presumed strength of will, but Sonja, whom he has just met and who will show him how regeneration must be earned through humility.
Even after his confession to Sonja, Raskolnikov still hesitates about giving himself up to the police. Till the last part of the novel he continues to oscillate between the extremes of hope and despair, now personified, respectively, by Sonja and the cynical, corrupt Svidrigajlov. (20) Toward the close of the novel, a bridge once more serves as a setting for a moment of near-paralyzing indecision. Rejecting Svidrigajlov's invitation to go for a carriage ride, Raskolnikov departs from him in disgust: " 'To think that I could for one instant have looked for help from that coarse brute, that depraved sensualist and blackguard, ' he cried. " (p. 471) What follows is another moment of melancholy soul-searching that brings to mind similar bridge scenes earlier in the novel:
When he was alone, he had not gone twenty paces before he sank, as usual, into deep thought. On the bridge he stood by the railing and began gazing at the water, (p. 471)
The bridge and the water are clearly reminders that, for Raskolnikov, suicide still remains " a way out, " a serious temptation.
In fact, as his notebooks reveal, Dostoevsky originally intended to have Raskolnikov kill himself in despair. (21) In the novel itself, it is Svidrigajlov, his double, who commits suicide, vicariously acting out Raskolnikov's negativity. Svidrigajlov's last movements mirror earlier ones of Raskolnikov, as the precise topographical details help to emphasize. After leaving the apartment of his child-fiancée, which is on Vasilevskij Island, Svidrigajlov follows the identical route that Raskolnikov took before the crime:
. . . just at midnight, Svidrigajlov crossed the Tuchkov Bridge towards Peterburgskij Island. . . For a minute he gazed with a peculiar interest, and even with a questioning look, at the black water of the Little Neva, but he soon found it very cold standing near the water, and he turned and walked along Bolshoj Prospect. (22)
Tuchkov Bridge is of course the same one Raskolnikov crossed before the crime, and Peterburgskij Island is the place where he fell asleep on the grass and dreamed of the mare being beaten. The parallels to be found here accentuate the contrasts. Unlike Raskolnikov in the earlier scene, Svidrigajlov is incapable of appreciating nature. The storm, finally bringing relief from the summer heat and also symbolizing spiritual waters, only annoys him:
He remembered how he disliked it when he passed Petrovskij Park just now. This reminded him of the bridge over the Little Neva and he felt cold again as he had when standing there. "I have never liked water, " he thought, "even in a landscape. " (p. 489)
Shunning the elements, he takes a room in a shabby hotel, where he has nightmares. Unlike Raskolnikov's dream outdoors, which revealed compassion for the victimized horse, these nightmares - particularly one about a small girl with the face of a harlot - only expose the depths of Svidrigajlov's depravity. Now, deciding to commit suicide without delay, he goes, not to Petrovskij Park as he intended, but back towards Tuchkov Bridge and, to the consternation of the guard, shoots himself. Thus he takes his own life, the reader is prompted to recall, near the bridge where Raskolnikov at least momentarily renounced his criminal intentions.
In contrast, Raskolnikov chooses to live. Later the same day, rain-soaked by the storm Svidrigajlov found so disagreeable, he revisits Sonja and, in spite of his pride, is psychologically compelled to surrender to the police, Significantly, this decision to give himself up means crossing one more bridge. Sonja has told him that he must not only go to the authorities, but also bow down at the crossroads of the Hay Market and humbly kiss the earth, confessing his crime publicly to all. Even after he leaves her, Raskolnikov still harbors doubts about such repentance. Nevertheless, he is unconsciously forced to come to a decision: "But still he went. He felt suddenly once for all that he mustn't ask himself questions. " (p. 508) And what he finally decides is concretely dramatized in another bridge scene:
He walked along the canal bank, and he had not much further to go. But on reaching the bridge he stopped and turning out of his way along it went to the Hay Market.
He looked eagerly to right and left, gazed intently at every object. . . "In another week, another month I shall be driven in a prison van over this bridge, how shall I look at the canal then? I should like to remember this. " (p. 508)
What immediately follows is Raskolnikov's kissing the crossroads at the Hay Market and, then, his confession in the police station.
Brief as this scene may be, it is analagous in its consequences to Raskolnikov's heading toward the bridge in the first sentence of the novel. Indeed, if a map of St. Petersburg is consulted, it appears that walking along the canal away from Sonja's room would bring Raskolnikov to none other than Kokushkin Bridge, the one he crossed to go to the pawnbroker's. By crossing this same bridge twice, Raskolnikov turns, literally and metaphorically, from his crime to his punishment. (23) In his beginning is his end, just as in this end there will be a new beginning.
This bridge scene is the last one in the novel. As such, it has a structural as well as symbolic function. Applying Joseph Frank's concept of "spatial form" (24) to "Crime and Punishment, " James M. Curtis has pointed out that, while each one of Dostoevsky's references to any given element has meaning within the particular context where it occurs, the juxtaposition of all the separate references in a single instant of time reveals their organizational function as a system of "linkages" and reminds the reader of how "one must understand each reference in terms of all the others. " (25) This illuminating observation is certainly relevant to the motif of the bridge. With the terminal bridge bringing to the mind the one in the opening along with the others in between, consideration of all of them together enhances the sense of the novel's formal coherence and provides a final cumulative impression transfixing Raskolnikov's phenomenal trajectory.
Upon the surrender of Raskolnikov to the police, the novel proper ends, and the epilogue shifts the setting to Siberia. Nonetheless, as Leonid P. Grossman emphasizes, "Petersburg is an inalienable part of Raskolnikov's private drama. It is the canvas upon which his ruthless dialectics draws its patterns. The Czarist capital sucks him into its drinking houses, police stations, taverns and hotels. " (26) And to these portentous settings may be added the evocative bridges of St. Petersburg.