Sonia: another thought

William Burnham’s article, ‘The Legal Context and Contributions of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment,’ Michigan Law Review, 100.6 (2002), 1227-1248, suggests another dimension to Sonia’s role as a registered prostitute. Burnham states that while confession and eye-witness testimony were considered the most reliable forms of proof in Russia at the time, ‘the law disqualified several classes of people from serving as witnesses’ (p. 1234), including not only all sorts of criminals, but also, for example, people who were deaf and dumb, and foreigners who were only staying in Russia for a short time. The status of prostitutes under this law seems to be a little uncertain (p. 1237 n.), but it does seem to be clear that even if Sonia was competent to testify, she would not have been considered a reliable witness. This, I think, puts a rather different complexion on Raskolnikov’s decision to confess to her — a decision he seems to make before he has even committed the murders. It’s as though he designs it as a consequence-free act, a means of unburdening his conscience without any legal implications, which makes him look far more calculating than I am accustomed to assuming. Dostoevsky’s narrative makes it very easy for us to sympathize with Raskolnikov, but moments like this make you realize what a disturbing process that is.

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