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“I like them to talk nonsense. That’s man’s one privilege over all creation. Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err!” (160) Dmitri Prokofitch Razumihin
The psychological realism apparent in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky does not exclusively apply to men. The women, too, are fully developed characters who go beyond being passive, archetypal recipients of male action. In Crime and Punishment especially, the female characters are not mere ornaments meant to beautify a male-driven plot; rather, they are the backbone of the storyline. Avdotya Romanovna and Sofya Semyonovna, in particular, are intransigent in bearing the banner for the most important moral-didactic themes in the novel. They are primarily responsible for reforming the guilt-ridden protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov. Through their interaction with Raskolnikov, Dounia and Sonia show that religious devotion and emotionality, as opposed to scientific reasoning, are necessary for happiness and redemption.
Dostoyevsky casts Dounia as the first character able to truly glimpse into Raskolnikov’s psyche and begin the lengthy and painful process of healing. In conversation with Razumihin, Dounia opines concerning Raskolnikov, “I think you are right that he needs a woman’s care” (171). Razumihin responds that Raskolnikov “loves no one and perhaps never will.” Both Dounia and Razumihin are essentially correct, and this brief exchange reveals much about Raskolnikov. The former law student is disastrously caught up in the highly intellectual theory of utilitarianism, which he uses to justify the murder of the old pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna. In embracing this philosophy, Raskolnikov inevitably partially divorces himself from his emotions. Sentiments like empathy and love are incompatible with making cold-blooded decisions, even for the supposed best interests of society. This attempted divorce leads to his physical and psychological sickness following the murder, for emotions are an integral part of the complex moral calculus people need to live conscientiously. Utilitarianism may find that a murder is superficially justified, but it fails to account for non-quantifiable variables; it fails to account for the toll murder takes on that which makes humans humane. Dounia subconsciously expresses these sentiments when she recommends “a woman’s care.” She does not yet know about the murder, but she recognizes that her brother has become distant. Raskolnikov’s sick love affair with his higher faculties causes his emotions to come across erratically. He often smiles strangely to the most innocent questions and finds himself hating Dounia for her kindness and charity. His first meeting with his family at their lodgings is strained: “There was a certain constraint in all this…and in the silence, and in the reconciliation, and in the forgiveness, and all were feeling it” (180). Later Raskolnikov observes, “in their absence I seemed to love them so much” (181). The emotional core of Raskolnikov, that which makes him human and not a calculating machine, is dysfunctional – and slowly dying.
Dounia realizes the plight of her brother keenly, but she does not overtly attempt to untangle his twisted thinking patterns. She is too preoccupied with her impending marriage to Luzhin, and, rather, it is her own actions concerning Luzhin that set an example impacting Raskolnikov. Initially, the latter believes that Dounia is sacrificing herself for the good of the family: “She won’t admit she wants do it out of charity… oh, how I hate them all!” (184). For Raskolnikov, this assessment appeals because it fits with his entire theory of ends justifying means. But he thinks too little of his sister; Dounia decisively rejects Luzhin after learning his despicable nature. For Raskolnikov, her sister’s decision is significant for two reasons. First, Dounia reaffirms her own identity and refuses to marry Luzhin because of her principles. Dounia does not even contemplate the prospect of the money and prestige she might gain by becoming a plaything for Luzhin. She does not see Luzhin as a vehicle to higher things; she does not let any ends justify the means. Through her example, Raskolnikov begins to see that moral certainty in an immoral cesspool of society is possible and desirable. Second, Dounia poses her choice between Luzhin and Raskolnikov if they cannot be reconciled, and she chooses Raskolnikov in the end. Her love and respect for her brother is apparent in her retort to Luzhin’s demand for more respect than that accorded to Raskolnikov: “I set your interest beside all that has hitherto been most precious in my life, what has made up the whole of my life” (239). Hearing that he has been the “whole” of his sister’s life is music to Raskolnikov’s ears. His motivation to murder the pawnbroker was his will to power, to be someone and have an effect on the world. In that sense, Raskolnikov failed utterly, because he felt impotent afterwards. Through her words, Dounia is giving Raskolnikov his own sense of worth back. She is showing her guilty but still defiantly proud brother that true power and self-actualization only come through love, the purest form of emotional expression.
If it is Dounia who plants the seed of a new life in Raskolnikov, it is Sonia who cares for it until it buds and flowers. What draws Raskolnikov to the gold-hearted harlot is her ability to cope with her miserable means of existence. He wonders why Sonia does not commit suicide: “How can she sit on the edge of the abyss of loathsomeness into which she is slipping and refuse to listen when she is told of danger?” (256). He discovers that Sonia is untouched by corruption because she is devoutly spiritual, a “religious maniac”; she has a haven, a private garden, to escape to from the horrors of her yellow passport world. When Sonia agrees to read from the New Testament, she is essentially inviting Raskolnikov to her private garden. She wishes for him to be able to find his own “secret treasure” – in other words, to establish a personal relationship with God. Her choice of the story of Lazarus is significant. The symbolism suggests that women will help resurrect Raskolnikov’s soul. Sonia has made a prophecy she will strive to fulfill.
At first, Raskolnikov refuses to obey Sonia’s plea for him to subject himself to the benevolent will of God. He tells her, “You must look things straight in the face at last, and not weep like a child and cry that God won’t allow it” (261). He prides himself in keeping a stoic, emotionless stance and facing his harsh reality. Nevertheless, Sonia has a noticeable effect on him, for Raskolnikov asks her to escape elsewhere with him, telling her that they are both accursed and must walk the same road. This empathy, coming from a man who had abandoned his best friend and family, shows that Raskolnikov is softening, becoming more emotionally open. His slow recovery reaches a turning point when he decides to confess to Sonia. Instead of drawing back in repulsion, as Raskolnikov expected, Sonia flings herself around Raskolnikov and cries, “There is no one – no one in the whole world now so unhappy as you!” (323). Raskolnikov has known deep down that his theorizing is destroying his happiness, but Sonia confirms it, and in the process also shows Raskolnikov her love – that not all is lost because of his terrible blunder. At this point, Raskolnikov breaks down: “A feeling long unfamiliar to him flooded his heart and softened it at once. He did not struggle against it. Two tears started into his eyes and hung on his eyelashes” (323). These two tears symbolize his newfound ability to succumb to emotion and reciprocate love. But he is still unable to cry freely, to find complete catharsis. He still finds it necessary to somehow justify his murder, or even just the philosophy underlying it. But he was able to temporarily embrace his sentimental side because of Sonia’s tenderness; the prescription of a woman’s care is starting to kick in.
The next stage of therapy is spiritual. Raskolnikov visits Sonia to obtain her cross and then leaves abruptly without even saying good-bye. But at the crossroads, his guilt overcomes him and he falls prostrate upon the ground, “kiss[ing] that filthy earth with bliss and rapture” (413). Raskolnikov opens himself up to God, and finds himself rewarded with a new sense of power and happiness. It is only with this submission that he finds the courage to confess at the police station and seek redemption. However, he is still plagued by the thought that he had been morally wrong only because he had failed. Reflecting on great men, he concludes that they “succeeded and so they were right” (425). It is not until his sickness in prison that he finds peace of mind. Raskolnikov dreams about a world of people created in his own image – people who could not agree on what was evil and good, feeling their own moral convictions infallible. These people eventually destroy each other, leaving only “a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth” (428). The dream signifies that Raskolnikov’s subconscious has organized a coup; Raskolnikov now realizes the error of his ways and is a new man. He grasps that theory is ultimately of no great value because life cannot be reduced to numbers and abstractions. Raskolnikov has replaced his scientific pretensions with spiritual intuition, his logic with love, and his calculations with human feelings.
The female characters Avdotya Romanovna and Sofya Semyonovna ultimately cure Raskolnikov of his obsession with flawed intellectual analysis with a liberal prescription of love and religion, showing that these aspects of life provide for happiness and self-actualization. The moral message is clear, and is enhanced by biographical details of Dostoyevsky’s own life. The Russian novelist was also sent to Siberia, for his participation in treasonous activities; he came back a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church. When he wrote Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky was under the care of nineteen-year-old Anna Snitkina, who nursed him through epilepsy and debt. Given these autobiographical elements, this great piece of world literature was probably not primarily meant to be dissected in academic essays; it was meant, more likely, as advice to would-be intellectuals that life is not to be analyzed, but experienced and felt.
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