Alcohol as a Symbol

Naomi Philips & Michelle Karumathy/1st Period

The Big Bang Theory - Sheldon drunk!

Questions to Consider

How is Sheldon affects by the alcohol?

How does he feel how about it after?

Real Life Examples?

Background Information

St. Petersburg, Russia, mid-1860s

  • 1861: Reforms by Tsar Alexander II of Russia
  • Responsible for numerous reforms (reorganizing judicial system, setting up elected local judges, etc.)
  • 23 million serfs emancipated
  • Restructuring of Russian Society
  • Cause of Chaos & Turmoil

The City

  • St. Petersburg was a major economic center
  • Crime and Punishment focuses on the more grim aspects of the city
  • Drunkards, vagabonds, & molesters
  • Poverty
  • Not a safe place for children

Smaller Settings

  • Raskolnikov's room = small, grimy, and depressing
  • Most people lived in cramped places
  • Homes are places of violence, abuse, and chaos (Katerina Ivanovna's house)
  • Novel set during the summer

Dostoyevksy Writes Crime and Punishment

  • Recognized the terrible conditions in St. Petersburg
  • Wrote to editor Andrei Krayevsky
  • His letter reads, "My novel is called 'The Drunkards' and it will be connected with the current problem of drunkenness. Not only is the problem examined, but all of its ramifications are represented, most of all depictions of families, the bringing up of children under these circumstances, and so on."
  • 'The Drunkards' idea is still very central to the plot


What is Our Topic?

In this novel, alcohol is a symbol for a multitude of things. However, an important thing to note is that none of these things are positive; alcohol is nearly always a symbol or symptom of weakness, affliction, addiction, vice, abuse, or even vulnerability. Basically, alcohol is depicted as the root cause of all suffering.

Why is this Important to the Understanding of the Novel?

  • alcoholism as a genuine illness
  • opposition to characters abusing power
  • brings out the dual nature of the charcaters

Important Terms to Keep in Mind

  • Alcoholism: An addiction to the consumption of alcoholic liquor or the mental illness and compulsive behavior resulting from dependency
  • Symbol: Literary device that contains several layers of meaning, often concealed at first sight, and is representative of several other aspects, concepts, or traits than those that are visible in the literal translation alone

Drunk Girl on the Street

“Looking at her closely, he saw at once that she was completely drunk. It was

a strange and shocking sight...The girl seemed hardly to know what she was doing; she

crossed one leg over the other, lifting it indecorously, and showed every sign of

being unconscious that she was in the street," (Dostoyevsky 38).


  • Representation of weakness & vulnerability
  • Demonstrates how Raskolnikov pities those who are drunk


  • Duality of Raskolnikov
  • Raskolnikov demonstrates a willingness to help women in need
  • Contrasts with his ability, later, to kill an old woman and her harmless, terrified sister

Drunkards in Raskolnikov's Dream

“A few paces beyond the last market garden stood a tavern, a big tavern, which had always aroused in him a feeling of aversion, even of fear, when he walked by it with his father. There was always a crowd there, always shouting, laughter and abuse, hideous hoarse singing and often fighting. Drunken and horrible-looking figures were hanging about the tavern,” (Dostoyevsky 45).


  • Extreme examples of the negative effects of drunkenness
  • Drunkenness results in major abusive nature on Mikolka’s part
  • Considering this is a dream, Raskolnikov’s mind & psychology seems to be the most in danger here.
  • Raskolnikov dreamt this right before he found out about Lizaveta’s eventual absence from the house of her sister, Alyona Ivanovna the pawnbroker, and right after he got drunk at the tavern.


This quote and entire situation seems to foreshadow what will happen later on when Raskolnikov murders Alyona. Alcoholism in the dream seems to be the root cause of the mare’s suffering considering her owner was inebriated. Raskolnikov was not drunk when he committed the murder, but experienced drunkenness (which is a rarity for him) before doing so.


“‘Ah, I see you think I am in such a condition!’” Razumihin broke in upon her thoughts, guessing them, as he strolled along the pavement with huge steps, so that the two ladies could hardly keep up with him, a fact he did not observe, however. “‘Nonsense! That is… I am drunk like a fool, but that’s not it; I am not drunk from wine. It’s seeing you has turned my head…” (Dostoyevsky 159-160).


  • One of the more minor cases of drunkenness
  • Razumihin is in a drunken stupor
  • Though he isn’t a victim to his drunkenness nearly as badly as others, he is still very vulnerable
  • Nearly professes his love for Dounia.
  • Duality: Intelligent man vs. Bumbling idiot


  • Sharp contrast to the level of drunkenness other characters experience
  • It allows us to see the full range of negativity that alcohol can symbolize and evoke


“Me- afraid? Afraid of you? You have rather to be afraid of me, cher ami. But

what nonsense.... I’ve drunk too much though, I see that. I was almost saying too

much again. Damn the wine! Hi, there, water!" (Dostoyevsky 376).


  • Example of Vice
  • Svidrigaïlov had alcohol issues (according to Pulcheria)
  • Blaming alcohol for behavior
  • Duality: Self-absorption vs. Kindness


  • Another instance of negative effects of alcohol
  • Alcohol acts as an excuse for worst side of Svridrigailov
  • Violent and sneaky individual.


“And the more I drink the more I feel it. That’s why I drink too. I try to find sympathy and feeling in drink… I drink so that I may suffer twice as much!" (Dostoyevsky 12).


  • Drinks because he suffers, drinking pushes his family further into poverty, feels guilty, drinks more & wallows
  • Caught in a vicious cycle of suffering and alcoholism
  • Duality: Desire vs. Shame


  • Whereas Raskolnikov is almost drinking to his advantage, Marmeladov drinks to punish himself
  • An addiction and a definite vice for Marmeladov
  • Chooses to be caught in a downward spiral
  • Ultimately dies while drunk

For his family, alcohol serves to be an affliction that ultimately brings them down with him. As I mentioned before, Dostoyevsky had originally intended to title the novel ‘The Drunkards’ and focus on Marmeladov’s story. We see what he intended to convey through the state of affairs of Marmeladov’s addiction and family life.


“[Raskolnikov] walked along the pavement like a drunken man, regardless of the passers-by, and jostling against them, and only came to his senses when he was in the next street… Till that moment he had never been into a tavern, but now he felt giddy and was tormented by a burning thirst… He sat down at a sticky little table…ordered some beer, and eagerly drank off the first glassful. At once he felt easier; and his thoughts became clear,” (Dostoyevsky 7).


  • Raskolnikov goes to taverns twice before he committed the murder (the first time which is depicted in the above quote)
  • Significant considering he is said to be a man who never really drank much & found the idea of drunkards disgusting
  • Faking a drunken stupor
  • Allows him to justify his uncouth actions (conscience turned off)
  • Releasing of inhibitions and conscience, which can be very dangerous
  • Duality: Ability to kill vs. ability to care


The reader can conclude that this man who abhors the idea of drunkenness must have ventured into the tavern those two times for a purpose, and that was to find a baser self who would have no inhibitions over killing someone.

Raskolnikov Cont'd

“He recalled it on passing an eating-house or tavern, and felt that he was hungry… Going into the tavern he drank a glass of vodka and ate a pie of some sort. He finished eating it as he walked away. It was a long while since he had taken vodka and it had an effect upon him at once, though he only drank a wine-glassful. His legs felt suddenly heavy and a great drowsiness came upon him. He turned homewards, but reaching Petrovsky Ostrov he stopped completely exhausted, turned off the road into the bushes, sank down upon the grass and instantly fell asleep,” (Dostoyevsky 44).


  • Symbolic entrance into the tavern
  • Parallels his descent into discontent and malice
  • somewhat disturbed and though the beer seems to calm him
  • crossed a figurative threshold


  • Parallel between drinking and murder
  • Anxiety, then relief, then regret

Literary Criticism

Novel: Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State


  • Author: Mark Lawrence Schrad
  • According to Schrad, critics have noted that alcoholism “runs like a thread throughout the novel”.
  • Even though Raskolnikov is not truly a drunkard, he drinks like a pig whenever he goes to a tavern. Arguably the most good-natured man in the novel, Razumihin “(whose name in Russian connotes level-headed reason), is a heavy drinker: stumbling drunk when he meets his friend’s family” (Schrad 136).


  • Dostoyevsky himself privately confided: “The consumption of alcoholic beverages brutalizes and makes a man savage, hardens him, distracts him from bright thoughts, blunts all good propaganda, and above all weakens the will, and in general uproots any kind of humanity”.
  • Dostoyevsky considered alcohol “an impediment to the blossoming of Russian society” (Schrad 137).


  • Tolstoy demanded that it was alcohol that clouded Raskolnikov’s judgement and led to the axe murders he committed.
  • Tolstoy states, “the greatest possible lucidity of thought is particularly important for the correct solution of the question which arises and it is then that one glass of beer, one smoked cigarette can impair the solution of the problem, hinder its solution, deafen the voice of the conscience, and cause the question to be decided in favor of one’s lower animal nature, as it was with Raskolnikov”.
  • In Tolstoy’s essay, “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”, he argued, using Raskolnikov, that “humans have both a physical and a spiritual existence and that they turn to alcohol and drugs to suffocate their higher spirituality, concluding that the entire purpose of drinking was to blind one’s own conscience and put oneself in the state of mind to rape, murder, and rob” (Schrad 137).

Concluding Thoughts

  • Symbol for many negative traits such as weakness, addiction, vulnerability, etc.

  • Symbol for troubles that mainly the serfs or lower Russian classes face

  • Advocates temperance

  • Emphasizes the duality of each charcter


  1. What motives did the characters have for their drinking? Specifically, what was Raskolnikov's, a man who was never considered a drunkard, motivation?
  2. To what extent is alcoholism the root cause of most of the suffering in the novel?
  3. Do you think representations of alcohol and alcohol abuse are realistic in the novel? Why or why not?
  4. What are other instances of alcoholism in literature and what was its effect on the characters or plot?
  5. To what extent does alcohol emphasize the duality of characters in other novels?
  6. To what extent does alcoholism symbolize similar traits in today's society? Does the same apply to the usage of drugs?


K, Shannon. "The Grinnell College Russian Literature Blog." : Alcohol Use in Crime and

Punishment. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Sept. 2014.<>.

Schrad, Mark Lawrence. Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the

Russian State. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Shmoop Editorial Team. "Crime and Punishment." Shmoop University, Inc., 11

Nov. 2008. Web. 01 Sept. 2014. <>.

Young, Sarah. "Re-reading Crime and Punishment: The Drunkards." Sarah J Young. N.p., n.d.

Web. 01 Sept. 2014.