Setting is one of the vital elements of a novel as it drives the plot and impacts the attitudes and behaviors of the characters. The mood, atmosphere, time of day and time period are all elements which encompass setting. In The Metamorphosis and Crime and Punishment, both Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky manipulate the settings of the two novels to create a specific mood, which mirrors the miserable state of the main characters. By analyzing the environment in which the characters live, we can gain insights into the ideas the authors are trying to convey. This paper will compare how the settings in both novels reflect the states of the protagonists, Gregor and Raskolnikov.
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Similarly, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov suffers because of his foul surroundings and detaches himself from society, just as Gregor feels alienated both in his room and out while at work. The novel is set in Haymarket Square, a dirty, crowded, poverty stricken slum area of St. Petersburg, Russia. At that time, St. Petersburg was a major economic center and the capital of Russia. The novel focuses on the filthier areas of the city in the 1860’s and we see the setting through Raskolnikov’s eyes. Dostoyevsky describes the intolerable living conditions in the town; drunken crowds fill the streets and the stench of the hot summer air makes the area an unbearable place to live. The homes are places of violence and abuse, and dangerous criminals and vagabonds roam the streets; “types so queer were to be seen in the streets that no figure, however queer, would have caused surprise” (Dostoyevsky 3). The kind of setting portrayed creates an atmosphere which is susceptible to heinous crimes; this sets the tone for the imminent events in the novel. As Dostoyevsky knew the city well and had even lived in the kind of dilapidated apartment rooms he describes, he illustrates in detail what his characters experience in the town. Raskolnikov’s room “was a tiny cupboard of a room about six paces in length. It had a poverty-stricken appearance with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the wallsâ€¦” (Dostoyevsky 27) Evidently, the destitute condition of his room reflects his severe poverty.
Dostoyevsky vividly depicts the atmosphere in which Raskolnikov lives and the sights and smells he experiences, all of which “worked painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves” (Dostoyevsky 2). Raskolnikov aimlessly wanders the filthy streets, as “the thought of going home suddenly filled him with intense loathing” (Dostoyevsky 55). Sometimes, he prefers to go out and walk around, rather than staying in his tiny, cramped room, but still chooses not to interact with people around him. Raskolnikov alienates himself from society, and like Gregor, he sees his room as a place where he can be “completely away from everyone, like a tortoise in its shell” (Dostoyevsky 28). Conversely, Gregor despises going out and traveling all day for his job. He prefers to stay in his room, with minimal interaction with his demanding family members. In a way, Gregor’s wish of escaping from his grueling job is fulfilled after his transformation into a vermin. His family locks him up in his room and considers him to be a useless burden as he can no longer work and earn money.
Gradually, the setting in The Metamorphosis changes; Kafka uses a contrast between light and dark to represent Gregor’s growing isolation- “The light of the electric street-lamps lay in pallid streaks on the ceiling and on the upper parts of the furniture, but underneath, where Gregor was, it was dark” (Kafka 20). The fact that light from the outside does not fall on him foreshadows his dark fate. Gregor feels intimidated by the “empty high-ceilinged room in which he was forced to lie flat on the floor” (Kafka 21), even though he had lived there for years. To pass time, he crawls around the bare walls; this represents his meaningless existence. Gregor likes to hide under furniture in his room and considers it to be a type of shelter. When his mother and sister eventually decide to move the furniture out of the room, he is left without comfort. Gregor leans against the window, “evidently in some sort of remembrance of the feeling of freedom he used to have” (Kafka 28). As his vision deteriorates, he cannot see things outside that are even at a short distance, such as the hospital next to his building. Gregor’s failing eyesight and inability to see even close objects around him represents his diminishing freedom and ever increasing seclusion.
Likewise, the setting in Crime and Punishment changes after Raskolnikov commits the murder. Initially after his crime, he is so overwhelmed by guilt and the fear of being caught, that he slips into oblivion. Raskolnikov spends hours, unconscious on his tattered sofa, in a feverish sleep, only being awakened by his housekeeper, Nastasya, or the “fearful, despairing cries [that] rose shrilly from the streetsâ€¦under his window after two o’clock” (Dostoyevsky 91). Through most of the novel, “he was ill; he was in a feverish state, sometimes hallucinating sometimes half conscious” (Dostoyevsky 130). Furthermore, the putrid surroundings and awful living conditions that Raskolnikov is exposed to make his insanity and depression all too believable. Although both Raskolnikov and Gregor experience feelings of intense suffering, a disparity between the two characters is that Gregor is confined to his room, while Raskolnikov has the freedom to go out, but chooses to stay in his room and sleep.
Kafka and Dostoyevsky change the setting towards the end of their novels. In The Metamorphosis, as Gregor’s family members and the maid completely stop coming into his room, “streaks of dirt ran along the walls, fluffs of dust lay here and there on the floor” (Kafka 41). Useless junk is dumped into his room, leaving him no place to even move around. Gregor begins to feel even more neglected, as his room is turned into a junk yard and his family members totally disregard him. Just before Gregor dies, he “saw that outside the window everything was beginning to grow light” (Kafka 51). The light imagery Kafka uses around the time of Gregor’s death a truly makes his fate tragic. Ironically, his death signifies happiness in the lives of his family members as a burden is lifted off their shoulders. In contrast, the setting at the end of Crime and Punishment concludes the novel in a happy way. After Raskolnikov is sent to Siberia, he finally finds a meaning in life and his character transforms from egotistical to penitent, in the brutal atmosphere of the prison camp. He realizes the mistakes he has made in his past and this leads him to salvation. The irony is that this happens only after he is physically constrained in a repressive environment; not when he was free to do what he wanted.
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The ways in which settings of novels can epitomize the condition of the characters is manifest in The Metamorphosis and Crime and Punishment. Both Kafka and Dostoyevsky subtly depict setting as an extension of the protagonists’ wretched states. The milieu the characters live in is picturesquely described by the two authors, to set a particular mood and give the reader an idea about the forthcoming events in the novels. The harsh and unhealthy surroundings in which Gregor and Raskolnikov live imitate their degenerated psychological and physical conditions. Although the two works have contrasting storylines, both authors have cleverly utilized the element of setting to enhance the meaning of their novels and make them literary masterpieces.
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