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Re-reading Crime and Punishment: the Drunkards

When Dostoevsky first conceived of the work that ultimately became Crime and Punishment, he titled it ‘The Drunkards’, and said that it would deal with ‘the present question of drunkenness … [in] all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances’ (letter to A. A. Kraevsky, June 1865, cited in Fangar, p. 17). This sounds more like a work from the Natural School of the 1840s, and it’s probably no surprise it was transformed in the planning stages to participate in the very different ideological debates of the 1860s. But while Raskolnikov’s crime took over as the central plot, it’s clear that the Marmeladov family, in which the theme of drunkenness is crystallized, remains very important. Marmeladov’s speech in the tavern where Raskolnikov first encounters him is a recurrent feature of the surviving plans for the novel, not least as the subject of two lengthy fragments of continuous prose (a rare thing in Dostoevsky’s working notebooks). And in the final text, drunkenness cannot be described simply as a subplot, because the dynamics of the Marmeladov family present so many parallels to Raskolnikov’s own family situation, and also because of the central role played by Sonia – it’s certainly no accident that she emerges from this appalling family background.

And the problem is that Marmeladov and his wife Katerina Ivanovna, the major representatives of the broader theme of drunkenness and the poverty it leads to, are really quite dreadful. A friend who is finally reading Crime and Punishment (after months of badgering) described Marmeladov to me the other day as ‘a complete bastard’, and it’s hard to contradict that assessment. It may have been the alcohol that got him into this mess, but you can’t deny his responsibility for ruining his family and putting his daughter on the streets. And Katerina Ivanovna is just as bad. She forces Sonia to turn to prostitution, lives in a fantasy world, is capable of the most violent abuse – which make her claims to noble birth seem somewhat questionable, even if she does have a certificate to prove it – and appears to cause as much distress to her children as their stepfather did.

In other words, it’s hard to sympathize with either of them. You can understand them, accepting that alcoholism is an illness, and that many of Katerina Ivanovna’s worst excesses are caused by the later stages of tuberculosis (she is said to be based on Dostoevsky’s first wife; see Tikhomirov, pp. 69-70), but it’s difficult to forgive their faults altogether. In the scene of Marmeladov’s funeral, as Katerina Ivanovna becomes more and more frenzied, we lose rather than gain sympathy for her. At the beginning of the scene the narrator explains her characteristic of praising people to the skies and then suddenly becoming disillusioned with them to the point of violence, blaming it on her ‘constant misfortunes and bad luck’ (pt 5, ch 2), but by the end of the chapter, we feel only embarrassment or, like Raskolnikov, ‘disgust’. Her pride and vanity, which lead her to attack the landlady Amalia Ivanovna, have the remarkable effect of making her seem worse than a morally questionable character who is German to boot (the only thing worse than being German in Dostoevsky’s eyes was being Polish).

This scene is a classic Dostoevskian scandal, in terms of its heightened emotion and inappropriate behaviour, but the way Katerina Ivanovna is victimized by the narrative, made to appear both ridiculous and unsympathetic, is problematic (and probably misogynistic; Marmeladov, in comparison, is only made ridiculous by the scene in the tavern). This is the moment when we ought to feel the most compassion for her, but the possibility of a positive response is severely undermined. Why is this the case?

In part I think this is to do with both changes in Dostoevsky’s thinking and literary and philosophical developments between the 1840s and 1860s. We’re in an entirely different realm here from the ‘pure’ poverty of, say, Makar Devushkin in Poor Folk. There’s no question of Devushkin having any real responsibility for his situation (beyond buying Varvara presents he can’t afford), so there’s no conflict for the reader, who is just able to bask in a sympathetic glow that is entirely apt for the sentimental origins of such works.

Post-Siberia, Dostoevsky’s view is more complex. I don’t want to suggest that he now condemns society’s victims as responsible for their own misfortune, or is advocating some sort of social Darwinism – far from it. Rather, in the light of his encounters with criminals in the prison camp, as described in Notes from the House of the Dead, he now sees the complexity of motivation and drives that underlie human behaviour at its worst. It is this that impels Dostoevsky to oppose the nihilists’ conception of rational egoism with his portraits of characters who consummately fail to act in their own best interests. The most famous of these is, of course, the underground man, but in many ways ‘ordinary’ characters like the Marmeladovs provide a more powerful illustration of the idea, because their failings are so common.

By presenting us with literary characters who exacerbate their own downfall, and aren’t dignified in their poverty, Dostoevsky challenges the notion of a deserving poor. Instead, we’re asked to sympathize with all the poor, deserving or not, aesthetically pleasing or not. And as the Marmeladovs show, it’s quite hard to do. Uncomplicated victimhood and noble, silent suffering are easier to handle than pride, irresponsibility and noisy resentment. Of course, Dostoevsky gives us a dose of the former as well, in the character of Sonia, but as I suggested in an earlier post, she is constructed as a spiritual entity rather than an embodied character, and I think those positive responses to poverty are appropriate to her precisely because she isn’t embodied. The older Marmeladovs – embodied in the form of his drinking and her illness – are quite a different matter.

Raskolnikov’s sympathy for the Marmeladov family is evident from his initial encounter with Semyon Zakharych. I think it goes beyond his fascination with Sonia and perception of parallels between her family and his own; there is also a genuine impulse to help them, even if it does exist alongside feelings of revulsion. This is quite striking, given his lack of sympathy for Alena Ivanovna and, for much of the novel, Lizaveta as well. Like the plan for regenerating the city he contemplates on his way to commit the murder (see Lindenmeyer, p. 46), his relationship with the Marmeladovs undermines his supposedly rational and noble motives for the crime – helping his family and society as a whole – by showing his own irrationality and and that of others. In his notebooks, Dostoevsky considers ascribing to Raskolnikov many more positive actions than appear in the published version of the novel, where we only really see this side of him in relation to the Marmeladovs. The fact that it is in these scenes that both Raskolnikov’s integrity, and the weakness of his ideology, are revealed, indicates that ‘The Drunkards’ remained central to Dostoevsky’s plan and were not simply relegated to the margins of the novel.


Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for ‘Crime and Punishment’, ed. and trans. Edward Wasiolek (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1967)

Donald Fangar, ‘Apogee: Crime and Punishment, in Richard Peace, ed., Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’: A Casebook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 17-35

Adele Lindenmeyer, ‘Raskolnikov’s City and the Napoleonic Plan’, Slavic Review, 35.1 (1976), 37-47 (a revised version of this essay is also available in Peace, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’: A Casebook, 36-49)

B. N. Tikhomirov, ‘Lazar! Griadi von’. Roman F. M. Dostoevskogo ‘Prestuplenie i nakazanie’ v sovremennom prochtenii. Kniga-komenarii (St Petersburg: Serebriannyi vek, 2005)

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