The yellow card: a footnote

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the regulation of prostitution in Russia as part of my consideration of the representation of Sonia in Crime and Punishment. The subject has now come back to my attention as the result of some completely unrelated reading: the very fine East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914, by William J. Fishman (London: Duckworth, 1975). Examining the conditions and regulations of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement in the nineteenth century, Fishman states:

It appeared that the only right to residence [for Jews outside the Pale] was limited to Jewish prostitutes, who had to carry a yellow card. This was often employed by widows or others wishing to visit relatives or live in a forbidden area. There is the traditional story of a poor girl eager to become a secretary, who procured a yellow card to settle outside her stetl. The police caught up with her ensconced  in a respectable occupation and she was summarily expelled for not plying her ‘legal’ trade. (p. 19)

Whether the story is true or not, it shows how Jewishness was criminalized by the tsarist regime. But it also suggests an  interesting paradigm of criminalizing non-criminal behaviour that belies the yellow card registration scheme’s supposed de-criminalizing objective. This seems to me to support my contention that Sonia registers as a prostitute as a form of self-punishment and degradation rather than out of necessity. Possession of the yellow card makes a respectable existence impossible.

But this does further call into question Sonia’s position at the end of the novel, which I have in any case been pondering. The yellow card replaced all other documents, which limited where holders could live – hence Sonia renting a room away from her family – and made it difficult for them to take on other occupations (this may undermine Fishman’s story; how did such girls manage to get respectable jobs?).  But when Sonia is seen in Siberia, she is apparently no longer a prostitute:

Про себя Соня уведомляла, что ей удалось приобресть в городе даже некоторые знакомства и покровительства; что она занимается шитьем, и так как в городе почти нет модистки, то стала во многих домах даже необходимою (Преступление и наказание, зпилог, 1).

For herself, Sonia informed them [Dunya and Razumikhin] that she had actually managed to acquire a few contacts and patrons in the town; that she worked as a seamstress, and since the town was practically deficient in milliners, she had in many households become a positive necessity (Crime and Punishment, trans. David McDuff, Penguin, 1991, p. 621).

In fact, two things are curious here: first, she’s suddenly respectable; second, she miraculously seems to have learnt to sew efficiently. Remember when Marmeladov describes how she became a prostitute, her skills as a seamstress are in question:

много ли может, повашему, бедная, но честная девица честным трудом заработать?.. Пятнадцать копеек в день, сударь, не заработает, если честна и не имеет особых талантов, да и то рук не покладая работавши! Да и то статский советник Клопшток, Иван Иванович, – изволили слышать? – не только денег за шитье полдюжины голландских рубах до сих пор не отдал, но даже с обидой погнал ее, затопав ногами и обозвав неприлично, под видом будто бы рубашечный ворот сшит не по мерке и косяком. (ч. 1, гл. 2)

Can a poor but honest girl expect to earn a great deal by honest work? .. She’ll be lucky to earn fifteen kopecks a day, sir, if she’s honest and has no particular talents, and even that’s only if she never takes a moment off! And what’s more, State Councillor Klopstock, Ivan Ivanovich – perhaps you’ve heard of him? – has not only to this day refused to give her the money he owes her for a half-dozen shirts she made him, but actually turned her out of his house, stamping his foot and calling her indecent names, on the pretext that the shirt collars were the wrong size and not cut straight. (p. 49)

There are, I think, two possible explanations for this change. The first is that Dostoevsky forgot Sonia’s situation and her unsuccessful attempt to learn a trade. This is the sort of practical, dead-end explanation of which some students seem inexplicably fond. It reduces everything to the most banal level and is predicated on the idea that nothing in a literary text is significant. I, on the other hand, assume that everything is significant. I would say in this case that even if Dostoevsky might have forgotten about the sewing question, Sonia’s role as a prostitute is so central that there is no way its sudden erasure can be accidental.

The second, much more likely, explanation is that Sonia has been transformed and released from her punishment. The references to her working as a seamstress before and after her period as a prostitute are significant; the return to sewing indicates her restoration to ordinary life. This might be because of the distance from the malign influence of Petersburg, or her release from the burden of responsibility for her family, or reward for her compassion for Raskolnikov. But it does also add weight to my contention that her acceptance of the yellow card is more voluntary than it appears to be. If there is any forgetting going on here, it seems that Sonia temporarily forgets how to sew so that she has no other choice but to turn to prostitution. Amy D. Ronner, in her book Law, Literature, and Theraputic Jusrisprudence (Carolina Academic Press, 2010), suggests that Raskolnikov commits murder in order to confess. That makes me consider the bond between him and Sonia in a different light, as I’m increasingly persuaded that she becomes a prostitute in order to suffer.

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