The dream of the mare being whipped (Part 1, chapter V) has been suggested as the fullest single expression of the whole novel. The dream depicts a scene from Raskolnikov's childhood where an unfit mare is cruelly beaten to death by its owner. It symbolizes gratification in punishment, contemptible motives and contemptible society. Raskolnikov's disgust and horror is central to the theme of his conflicted character, his guilty conscience, his contempt for society, his view of himself as an extraordinary man above greater society and his concept of justified murder. The dream is also a warning, suggesting a comparison to his murder plot. The dream occurs after Rodion crosses a bridge leading out of the oppressive heat and dust of Petersburg and into the fresh greenness of the islands. This symbolizes a corresponding mental crossing, suggesting that Raskolnikov is returning to a state of clarity when he has the dream. In it, he returns to the innocence of his childhood and watches as peasants beat an old mare to death. After Raskolnikov awakes, he calls it “such a hideous dream,” the same term he earlier used to describe his plot to kill the old woman. The child of the dream, who watches horrified as the events unfold, represents the part of him that clings to innocence, but another part of him, represented by the peasants, is driven by hardship and isolation to become cold and unfeeling. The laughter of the peasants in the face of brutal slaughter reveals the extent to which they have been desensitized by their suffering, which is a reflection of Raskolnikov's own condition. The main peasant, Mikolka, feels that he has the right to kill the horse, linking his actions to Raskolnikov's theory of a 'right to crime' for a select group of extraordinary men. The cruel slaughter of the old mare in the dream points to the brutality of Raskolnikov's criminal idea, something that he tries to rationalize away with his dehumanizing characterization of the old woman as a "louse." While awake, Raskolnikov's view of the old woman is spiteful, shaped by his tenacious belief in his extraordinary man theory. However, when the theory loses its power in the dream state, subconscious memories and feelings reveal themselves, and the horrific nature of his idea becomes apparent. Therefore, in order for Raskolnikov to find redemption, he must ultimately renounce his theory.
In the final pages, Raskolnikov, who at this point is in the prison infirmary, has a feverish dream about a plague of nihilism that enters Russia and Europe from the east, which spreads senseless dissent and fanatical dedication to "new ideas". The ideas are assaults on ordinary thinking and disrupt society forever. Dostoevsky was envisaging the new, politically and culturally nihilistic ideas that were entering Russian literature and society in this watershed decade, ideas with which he would be in debate for the rest of his life (cp. Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done?, Dobrolyubov's abrasive journalism, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons and Dostoevsky's own The Possessed). Janko Lavrin, who took part in the revolutions of the World War I era, knew Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky and many others, and later would spend years writing about Dostoevsky's novels and other Russian classics, called this final dream "prophetic in its symbolism".
The environment of Saint Petersburg
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.— Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Constance Garnett translation), I, I
The above opening sentence of the novel has a symbolic function: Russian critic Vadim K. Kozhinov argues that the reference to the "exceptionally hot evening" establishes not only the suffocating atmosphere of Saint Petersburg in midsummer but also "the infernal ambience of the crime itself". Dostoevsky was among the first to recognize the symbolic possibilities of city life and imagery drawn from the city. I. F. I. Evnin regards Crime and Punishment as the first great Russian novel "in which the climactic moments of the action are played out in dirty taverns, on the street, in the sordid back rooms of the poor".
Dostoevsky's Petersburg is the city of unrelieved poverty; "magnificence has no place in it, because magnificence is external, formal abstract, cold". Dostoevsky connects the city's problems to Raskolnikov's thoughts and subsequent actions. The crowded streets and squares, the shabby houses and taverns, the noise and stench, all are transformed by Dostoevsky into a rich store of metaphors for states of mind. Donald Fanger asserts that "the real city ... rendered with a striking concreteness, is also a city of the mind in the way that its atmosphere answers Raskolnikov's state and almost symbolizes it. It is crowded, stifling, and parched."