Conversation 4 ‘A Dinner Party’. Episode 5.

            Laura began. “So. Obviously I’m not a literary critic or academic reader like some of you here, but this is how I feel about it. Crime and Punishment. Sonia. It’s pretty obvious we’re meant to see her as some sort of saint, but, basically, she’s a cliché—the good-hearted prostitute, an innocent who sacrifices herself to save the family from her father’s drunkenness and her mother’s madness, degrading herself to help others. Everyone comments on her name being Sophia and how that’s meant to connect her to divine wisdom and I didn’t miss the clue about the thirty silver pieces she brings back after her first night on the streets. What Tamsin was saying about her being associated with the colour green was new to me, but I can easily accept that maybe that was deliberate on Dostoevsky’s part …”

            “I’m sure it was,” I interrupted, though quietly. Laura carried on regardless.

            “And, of course, she reads the raising of Lazarus story … she actually speaks Christ’s words … but that whole scene … what can I say? It’s too much, too intense, too melodramatic, almost a kind of peep-show: prostitute reads Bible to murderer—Oooh! Shock! Thrill! He confesses: she understands (of course) and accepts (of course) and even has to follow him to Siberia (of course). Well, that’s a great outcome for her, especially when she she flips from being sacrificial victim into the Virgin Mary, a ‘little mother’ to all the prisoners. She is perfect, of course—a perfect embodiment of male fantasy, sexual and pure, both at the same time, asking no questions, just waiting and serving.”

            “Quite a charge sheet!” declared Martin.

            “Seems about right,” added Carl drily.

            “Who’s going to defend Dostoevsky?” asked Martin, looking from me to Tamsin.

            “Surely you are, Martin” Laura answered. “You seem very keen on self-sacrifice?”

            “I am, I don’t deny it. And I suppose I’d be happy to see her as some kind of Saviour figure, a co-redemptrix, if you like—OK, you probably don’t” he said quickly, seeing the expression on Laura’s face. “But without getting too Catholic about it” (a nod towards Carl), “isn’t it important … isn’t it necessary sometimes to surrender our own goals, our own good for the sake of others, for our families, for the people we’re in love with …”

            “Of course. Every parent knows that.” said Laura. “The problem—my problem—is that it’s one-way traffic. She gives everything up for him. What does he do for her? Apart from having killed her friend, he torments her and drags her off to Siberia … And she’s only able to get back on her feet because of the money left by Svidrigailov, nothing to do with Raskolnikov. Without that money—guilt-money—she and her family would just have gone to the wall.”

            “Yes, but …” I started. Laura looked at me warningly. I carried on. “Yes, but he did one thing, one very important thing: leaving out the fact that he gave money for her father’s funeral, he saw her as a person, as his equal, and defended her against being set up as a thief. Surely that counts for something.”

            Laura gave a kind of sideways nod as if thinking about it.

            “Maybe. That’s all true. But leaving Raskolnikov out of it, the best Dostoevsky could let her do was to give everything up and follow him so that, through her, he could be saved.”

            “But that is Christ!” interjected Martin.

            “I don’t doubt it—but how is it that since him, it’s only ever been women who’ve had to do the sacrificing?”

            Tamsin had been listening closely.

            “Laura,” she said, very deliberately, “two things. Firstly, she loves him. And,” she smiled, “remember he’s described as being exceptionally good-looking, even if he’s completely dirty (rather like Martin was when I first met him).”

            “Love seeks not its own.”

            “Thank you, Martin, don’t distract us with your pious quotations” (Martin pretended to look offended: this was clearly an ongoing theme). “And, second, going to Siberia isn’t all loss to her, because she becomes someone there. Instead of being on the streets and despised by everyone, she becomes someone who’s looked up to and respected. And, finally, she gets him to love her. She gets what she wants!”

             “I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” said Laura drily. “But what about the other women in the novel, Sonia’s mother or Raskolnikov’s mother, not to mention the grisly old pawnbroker? Katerina Ivanovna is completely crazy, totally obsessed with fantasies about how she once belonged to high society, shrieking and losing her rag, and generally behaving in all the ways that so-called ‘hysterical’ women were meant to behave.”

            “Yes, but” (me again) “isn’t Dostoevsky asking us to pity her, isn’t he saying this is how it is for people in this society, that someone like Katerina Ivanovna gets dragged down by poverty (and I mean real poverty), by her husband’s alcoholism, by consumption; she’s crazy, yes, but Dostoevsky shows us why she’s crazy and confronts us with the question as to how anyone could endure a life like that?” Turning to Carl, I added that even the Soviet critics approved Dostoevsky’s social realism. “So he’s not attacking her as an individual, he’s attacking the system that made her like that.”

            “What about Raskolnikov’s mother?” asked Martin, “She seems fairly harmless.”

            “I’m not saying she’s an evil person, but she behaves pretty unfairly to both her children. She pushes Dounia into getting engaged to Luzhin, who’s a complete jerk, and puts Raskolnikov in an unendurable double-bind. ‘We all look up to you, Rodion, we’ll sacrifice everything for you, Rodion, we don’t expect you to do anything for us, Rodion, and, by the way, if you don’t do anything your sister is going to have to marry a complete jerk just for the money’. Bad motherhood or what? But my point isn’t that she’s a bad mother. It’s that Dostoevsky doesn’t seem capable of portraying a good, strong, self-assured woman with her own agenda, holding her own in the world.”

            “Dounia, though,” I said, “doesn’t she do that? OK, she goes along with the plan to marry Luzhin for a while—but she takes the first opportunity to ditch him and she stands up to Svidrigailov: she’s even ready to shoot him when he tries to blackmail her into sex.”

            Laura smiled, holding up her hands.

            “Very well, I give you Dounia. But she’s the exception who proves the rule.”

            “But even if Laura’s right, I don’t see that it’s Dostoevsky’s fault,” said Tamsin, “it’s just how it was for women in the nineteenth century. Either get married for money or … poverty, prostitution, becoming an old maid … pretty bad whether you’re rich or poor. I think he’s just telling it like it is. True love really was the only way out—if you could find it.”

            “I’m not sure of that,” said Carl, who’d been following the exchange quite closely. “Maybe that’s how novelists portrayed it, but the woman who interested me most was Raskolnikov’s sister, the one you were talking about just now—what’s her name?”

            “Dounia.”

            “Right, Dounia. Dounia and his friend, you remember …”

            “Razumihin.”

            “Right, Razumihin … isn’t what brings then together the idea of a shared project, the work they’re going to do together. Why their relationship works is because it’s not just about looking into each other’s eyes but doing something for the good of society.  You get that same idea in Chekhov too, and the characters who fail are the ones who can’t find work. That’s where the women’s problem is too. Especially the idle rich and the very poor. Then, that is.”

            “But work needs self-sacrifice too,” added Martin. “You can’t work without giving up your immediate self-interest.”

            “Enough,” said Tamsin, perhaps sensing (as I did) that Martin was in danger of getting on his high horse. Or perhaps she was just watching the time. It suddenly struck me that it was quite a relief that none of them had read The Possessed, since this contained even more extreme images of women’s abjection than anything that even the most critical reader could find in Crime and Punishment.

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