• New Post Alerts By Email

  • Syndication

  • Tags

  • Archives

Crime and Punishment: Sonia and prostitution

I’ve been thinking a lot about Crime and Punishment recently, partly because I’m teaching it on our MA course on the nineteenth-century Russian novel, partly because of the recent adaptation I saw, and partly because I’m starting to plan a new digital project on the novel (more on that anon).

What has really piqued my interest this time (it’s always something different — this is what I love about Dostoevsky) is the character of Sonia, and in particular her role as a a prostitute. I don’t think it’s contentious to say that she is a problematic character, not least because the denouement of Crime and Punishment stands or falls on whether she is believable (for me this tends to change from reading to reading). However, viewing her primarily in relation to her profession, rather than her faith, as one normally tends to, has given me a different perspective. This is nothing like a fully worked out idea, but it may have possibilities…

I’ve just finished reading Laurie Bernstein’s Sonia’s Daughters: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1995). The title tells you how important the image of Sonia is in discussions of the topic of prostitution in Russia, which makes it slightly curious that Dostoevsky scholarship has not really given much attention to the question. The book itself is somewhat over-long and repetitious (which Chairman Mao might dig — sorry, private joke — but I don’t), but it is interesting and informative and, I think, has given me a fairly clear view of the situation vis-à-vis prostitution at the time when Crime and Punishment was written and set.

Sonia is, as her father Marmeladov informs Raskolnikov in chapter 2 of the novel, a registered prostitute — she carries the ‘yellow ticket.’ The registration system began in Russia in 1843 as a public health measure, to combat venereal disease, in particular syphilis, which was (and indeed continued to be) at epidemic levels (I speak here as a non-medic so forgive me if my definitions are a bit loose). The picture Laurie Bernstein paints is of a battle between prostitutes and police-medical authorities. While the authorities’ aim was to register as many prostitutes as possible, and were apparently prepared to do so against the women’s will, prostitutes, particularly odinochki (those working alone on the streets, as opposed to those working from brothels) struggled to resist the stigma and restrictions of registration for as long as possible. This can hardly be seen as a surprise, given the horrifying-sounding regime of health examinations prostitutes were subjected to. More to the point, the yellow ticket replaced all other identity documents, which not only created difficulties in practical matters such as obtaining accommodation, but effectively made it impossible for women to take up any other occupation — in other words, if you were working part-time as a prostitute to supplement your income but got caught and were forced to register, it became your full-time career. Bernstein suggests that the average time between ‘defloration’ and registration was several years (pp. 104-5), and that there were huge numbers of clandestine prostitutes (in 1900, perhaps 9 out of 10; pp. 46-7).

This, then, is the background to Sonia’s situation — not just a prostitute, but a registered one, and it seems to me that the fact she carries the yellow ticket must be significant, not least because this is the first thing we discover about her, as Marmeladov mentions it not once but twice in his first reference to Sonia when talking to Raskolnikov:

– Когда единородна дочь моя в первый раз по желтому билету пошла, и я тоже тогда пошел… (ибо дочь моя по желтому билету живет-с…) (Преступление и наказание, часть первая, глава вторая)

‘When my only daughter went on the yellow card for the first time, I went then too… (for my daughter lives by the yellow card, sir…)’ (Crime and Punishment, trans. David McDuff, Penguin, 1991, p. 45)

The story of how she first came to ‘sell herself’ is perfectly clear, but Marmeladov’s subsequent explanation of why she is registered is much less so:

– С тех пор, государь мой, – продолжал он после некоторого молчания, – с тех пор, по одному неблагоприятному случаю и по донесению неблагонамеренных лиц, – чему особенно способствовала Дарья Францевна, за то будто бы, что ей в надлежащем почтении манкировали, – с тех пор дочь моя, Софья Семеновна, желтый билет принуждена была получить, и уже вместе с нами по случаю сему не могла оставаться. (ibid.)

‘Ever since then, my dear sir,’ he continued after a period of silence, ‘ever since then, because of a certain inauspicious happening and the fact that some ill-intentioned persons reported the matter to the authorities — something in which Darya Frantsovna played a leading role, apparently in order to get her own back for not having been treated with due respect — ever since then my daughter, Sofya Semyonovna, has been compelled to take the yellow card, and on that account has been unable to remain with us.’ (p. 50).

So we have ‘a certain inauspicious happening’, ‘ill-intentioned persons’, and a procuress (Frantsovna) hanging round. Assumedly on one of her early ventures out onto the street, she was seen or caught by, or tried to, solicit someone in or connected to the house. Marmeladov’s next sentence seems to imply that Lebeziatnikov, another lodger, is somehow involved. In any case, it appears to be fairly involuntary, and this would tally with the experience of the real prostitutes I’ve been reading about. But having read Sonia’s Daughters, I’m not so sure, because she is so different from the average prostitute: her essential innocence and unshakeable faith mark her out; she doesn’t appear to drink, at a time when alcoholism was rife amongst prostitutes; she is registered very quickly after her first sexual experience; she is not motivated by a desire for a better life (although one might attribute this motive to her step-mother, Katerina Ivanovna). One might simply assume, as indeed Bernstein does (p. 142), that Sonia’s nobility in ‘selling herself’ to save her family is just a novelistic fantasy that bears no relation to real life, but the fact that she is so remarkably incongruous as a prostitute suggests to me that something else is going on (disregarding Nabokov’s stupid dismissal of Dostoevsky as a bad writer, of course!).

Bearing this in mind, it seems to me that although Marmeladov depicts the process of registration as involuntary, his vagueness rather implies the opposite. Bernstein points out that the yellow ticket was tantamount to civil death (p. 274), and I would suggest that Sonia’s yellow ticket is not so much a sign that she has been caught as an indication that having ‘sold herself’, even if only once, she wishes to brand herself (permanently) as a sinner, to condemn herself so that others will condemn her too. Being registered means that she cannot turn back or just use prostitution as a temporary remedy, resuming a ‘normal’ life when life improves — it removes all element of choice from her situation and forces her to continue down this path.

And it seems to me that if we view Sonia as someone who, having being forced into this situation, can see no alternative other than to heap shame upon herself, and put herself in a position from which she cannot return, because she feels she has done something irrevocable, she makes a lot more sense as a character with faith in God than the rather fantastical holy sinner we are accustomed to thinking about. There’s a great deal of masochism there, to be sure, but that fits in much better with her relationship with Raskolnikov than the pathological innocence that is usually attributed to her. Time for a reinterpretation, I think. Except I don’t have time at the moment.

Leave a comment


  1. Naomi

     /  July 29, 2010

    Thanks for the essay.
    I googled out Sonya and yellow card to understand what it was, and found your interesting interpretation.

  2. loved it… sonyaa as a character appealed to me too, and your essay has propelled me into reading my favorite novel again!

  3. Sam

     /  April 8, 2013

    Very, very interesting read and I must admit that I found the interpretation to be rather inspiring. In truth, I had never looked at it from the perspective that you had put it and had kept to the conventional argument that she was doing things purely to help her family… It’s forcing me to reread the novel and I would love to hear of any other potential perspectives that can be shed on this.

  4. Ken R.

     /  August 5, 2021

    Also rereading my favorite novel and the significance of the yellow passport struck me. I searched and immediately found your thought provoking post. Thank you for taking the time to share your research and reflections. You very succinctly bought clarity to the historical context.

  1. Re-reading Crime and Punishment: characters | Sarah J. Young
  2. The yellow card: a footnote | Sarah J. Young

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *