Crime and Punishment: The Impact of Physical Environment

By John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland (Pilkington tenement) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

No, brother, you are wrong, environment accounts for a great deal in crime; I can assure you of that.

—Porfiry Petrovitch

While rereading one of my favorite books of all time, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I couldn’t help but begin tracking a theme that relates to Schools & Ecosystems: the impact of the physical environment on behavior.

The tortured, intellectual protagonist, Raskolnikov, lives in a tiny, cramped garret apartment, spending much of his unemployed time laying on his sofa (which doubles as his bed) in the dark without having eaten, surrounded by peeling, yellowing wallpapered walls, without fresh air.

I sat in my room like a spider. You’ve been in my den, you’ve seen it.… And do you know, Sonia, that low ceilings and tiny rooms cramp the soul and the mind? Ah, how I hated that garret! And yet I wouldn’t go out of it! I wouldn’t on purpose! I didn’t go out for days together, and I wouldn’t work, I wouldn’t even eat, I just lay there doing nothing.

The impact of this small room on his feverish thinking is traced throughout the story by Dostoevsky, with the call for “fresh air” as necessary for human existence echoing from two other characters, Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovitch:

Ah, Rodion Romanovitch,” he added suddenly, “what all men need is fresh air, fresh air… more than anything!”


I know that you don’t believe it, but indeed, life will bring you through. You will live it down in time. What you need now is fresh air, fresh air, fresh air!”

—Porfiry Petrovitch

Raskolnikov’s stifling room therefore takes a central place in the novel, the environment that lends shape to a crazed philosophy that leads him to murder.

He laid his head down on his threadbare dirty pillow and pondered, pondered a long time. His heart was beating violently, and his brain was in a turmoil. At last he felt cramped and stifled in the little yellow room that was like a cupboard or a box. His eyes and his mind craved for space.

How many crimes could be traced to the impact of environment? How many states of psychological or physical distress could be traced to the impact of the environment?

And similarly, how much of the outcomes of success can be traced back to where you live?




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