Re-reading Crime and Punishment: characters

Re-reading Crime and Punishment hasn’t entirely resolved the perennial problem of Sonia, which I’ve mentioned previously, but I do finally seem to have found a way of accepting her as a character, which makes the novel’s denouement less contentious. Or maybe it’s just that I was focusing on the fine details rather than the big picture, so she didn’t occupy my thoughts in the way she has before.

The problem Sonia presents is that the major facets of her character do not marry with her profession. I could live with a child prostitute — which she is, effectively — who retains her innocence, or mature prostitute who has religious faith, but the religious child prostitute is too much, and this moral over-load effectively dis-embodies her — it is impossible to consider as a rounded, believable character. She has to be viewed more as a mental construct; what matters is not whether she could step out of the page and live in the real world, but the combination of character traits, emotions and beliefs that come together in her portrayal, such as the opposition of shame and innocence. Whether you take her primarily as the author’s mental construct or his hero’s is a matter of opinion — they both need her to perform particular functions, for Dostoevsky in the novel, and for Raskolnikov in his life — but what she represents for them can be the only starting point for interpretation.

This is why Nabokov is absolutely wrong (as he is in his literary criticism about pretty much everything to do with Dostoevsky, despite — or because of — his debt to Dostoevsky in his fiction) in dismissing Sonia as a stereotype. Nabokov approaches her from the perspective of the realist tradition, but she has nothing to do with that mode of representation, and nothing in common with the golden-hearted prostitutes to whom he compares her. We are not, I think, intended to take her work literally (Nabokov’s reading of Dostoevsky is strangely literal), but rather to imagine what such a life would involve and how it would affect somebody with that belief-system.

Comparing Sonia to Svidrigailov, who is Raskolnikov’s other ‘double’, but is successfully embodied, is instructive; if Svidrigailov’s embodiment is essential because of his sensual nature, Sonia’s is superfluous because she only has a spiritual side, and the qualities she represents have no (or do not require a) physical or sensual presence.

Svidrigailov’s role as a mental construct was brought out powerfully for me in this reading in the parallels between his character and Porfiry, which I don’t think have ever registered to the same degree as this time. Their first appearances in the novel are very close together, with Svidrigailov arriving out of Raskolnikov’s dream at the end of part 3, chapter 6, the chapter following Raskolnikov’s first interview with Porfiry, and subsequently they follow each other closely, chapter for chapter; Porfiry’s last appearance is in part 6, chapter 2, before the sequence that leads up to Svidrigailov’s suicide.

There are striking similarities in their modes of behaviour, especially in their commentaries on their encounters with Raskolnikov. As I mentioned in my last post, both describe the layout of the rooms they are in and the people in them, and there is a clear connection between the scenes with Porfiry and Raskolnikov, with the artisan listening in, Svidrigailov listening in on Raskolnikov’s confession to Sonia, and the later scenes with Svidrigailov which evoke a hidden listener. The fact that these are all key moments in the peripeteias of the plot suggests that this dynamic is highly significant.

Both also have a tendency to re-write the scripts during their interviews. Porfiry ascribes to Raskolnikov words he has not uttered and reactions he has not exhibited; for example, in part 4, chapter 5, Porfiry claims that Raskolnikov has just ‘so correctly and cleverly observed’ that questions often confuse the questioner most of all, but this is contradicted by the narrator in parentheses: ‘Raskolnikov had observed nothing of the kind’. Later Porfiry says that Raskolnikov is laughing when the narrator suggests ‘nothing could have been further from Raskolnikov’s mind than laughter’. Svidrigailov, meanwhile, claims to have said things himself that he has not: in part 4, chapter 1, he states, ‘didn’t I say we had something in common?’, which Raskolnikov then denies: ‘You never said that’. Both characters are therefore able to create an atmosphere in which their perceptions challenge Raskolnikov’s and the record of events — in Raskolnikov’s mind above all — is undermined. The reader too is subject to uncertainty, primarily because of these two characters rather than, as would be more normal, owing to an unreliable narrator. This form of commentary too adds a metanarrational element, as I suggested last time, which gives the characters a similar but unusual function.

The parallels between Svidrigailov and Porfiry are curious given that the latter is ostensibly in Sonia’s camp — he too wants Raskolnikov to acknowledge his wrong-doing and repent. The fact that Porfiry uses Svidrigailov’s methods for Sonia’s aims, and that the two men are presented in such similar ways, complicates the relationship between these characters and Raskolnikov, and suggests that Porfiry represents far more than the intellectual complement to Sonia’s spirituality and Svidrigailov’s sensuality. And the fact that it is these two characters who introduce a form of metanarration embeds the battle for Raskolnikov’s mind within the narrative, challenging the general assumption that Crime and Punishment has the most conventional form of all Dostoevsky’s major works.

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  1. Re-reading Crime and Punishment: the Drunkards | Sarah J. Young

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