May 1, 2013
Feminism in Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment, written in 1864 by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is about a man who formerly attended a University in St. Petersburg, Russia. At the time Dostoevsky wrote this novel, St. Petersburg was viewed as Russia’s most up- to- date “European” city. Therefore, Dostoevsky’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, must have had ample knowledge of the ground- breaking ideas and movements occurring in England, America, and Europe throughout the 1800’s. This knowledge most definitely influenced the portrayal of Dostoevsky’s characters and story line. One of the great movements of this time was the introduction of Feminism through the work and word of feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Feminism revolves around the strength and independence of women, therefore, the women in Crime and Punishment such as Sonya and Dunya, have personality traits and take certain actions that make them stronger, smarter, and more capable than the men in the novel. Dostoevsky’s female characters, or heroines, in Crime and Punishment find independence from the men in the novel, not through economic empowerment, but moral conviction.
One of the most influential feminists of not only the 1800’s, but in all of history, is Mary Wollstonecraft. Her most popular work is entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In this text, she expresses a list of major ideas that set the foundation for the many feminist movements to come in the following centuries. She expressed the idea of unwilling submission to any person, custom, or institution that is degrading to women. She also stated that reason should be the basis for all human action and thought (Wollstonecraft). These two ideals alone are reflected strongly in the female characters in the novel.
For instance, Dunya refuses to be submissive to Luhzin, her fiancée, and defies his wishes by inviting her brother to an event he specifically asked her not to. Dunya does this to test her soon-to-be husband and his reaction to her defiance. When Luhzin is caught off guard, he reacts badly and resorts to degrading the women in the room in an attempt to regain his sense of pride. Seeing this undesirable facet in Luhzin’s personality brings Dunya to the decision that she will not condone his degrading behavior towards women or the institution of marriage and decides that he is unfit to wed. This decision is a clear representation of Wollstonecraft’s ideals for feminism.
Although Sonya’s actions do not seem to be supportive of Wollstonecraft’s work, she is still a female character that is strong in moral conviction, continuing the theme of strong female characters in the novel. Sonya prostitutes herself to support her family because her father is incapable of providing for them. Although this strays from the idea that women should not degrade themselves for any person, institution, or custom, there is one key word in Mary Wollstonecraft’s statement that makes Sonya’s actions pro-feminist. She said that women should not unwillingly submit to any person, institution, or custom that is destructive towards women. Sonya made this decision on her own, not unwillingly, because she knew she ultimately needed to take on the male role in her family dynamic or her family would fall apart entirely. This makes Sonya just as much of a feminist character as Dunya.
Not only should women not be submissive, Mary Wollstonecraft also believes that reason should be the basis for all human action and thought (Wollstonecraft). The women in the novel clearly exemplify a greater understanding of reason by their actions than the men. For example, Rodia, the protagonist was not remotely close to reasonable thought when he decided to murder Alonya and his sister. Also, Luhzin is very childish in his actions when he is threatened and acts out like a child, while Dunya remains placid and simply informs him that their relationship will no longer continue. Dunya does not allow herself to become over emotional in regard to anything in her life. I believe she understands, along with Sonya, that undesirable situations are better solved by complacent thinking rather than letting one’s emotions make the decisions for them like Rodia or Luhzin.
I believe that the most reasonable person in this novel is Sonya. She approached the issue of her father’s inability to support their family with an undeniably level -headed attitude. She understood that there was no other possible way for her family to survive unless she became their primary source of income, and she could only do so by prostituting herself. This was understandably a difficult decision for Sonya to make because she was sacrificing her own pride and happiness, but through only the most reasonable thought, she was able to do what she knew was right. I believe that these two characters are perfect representations of the feminist ideals that Mary Wollstonecraft spoke of in her legendary work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Another feminist of this time period, similar to Mary Wollstonecraft, that influenced the portrayal of the female characters in Crime and Punishment is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton served as the primary author of the Declaration of Sentiments, which is a document based off of the structure of the Declaration of Independence that was signed by sixty- eight women and thirty- two men in 1848. Frederick Douglass has said that this document was the “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.” Though it was first criticized for possibly hindering the women’s movement and attempting to change traditional mindsets of separate spheres for men and women, the document eventually became famous for its honest criticism regarding the dominant position of a man over a woman in the conventional household setting.
It’s opening paragraph stated that not only were women and men created equal, but if the government ruling over these people should create laws that suggest otherwise, women should refuse their allegiance to said laws. The list of sentiments proceeding this opening paragraph are complaints regarding the destructively dominant position of man over women, especially in marriage (Stanton). While not all of the sentiments relate directly to Crime and Punishment, they most definitely altered the views of Fyodor Dostoevsky regarding the role of women, therefore, the portrayal of female characters in his novel strayed from traditional values. The list of sixteen sentiments relates to the same characters as the ideals of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Sonya and Dunya.
The sentiments listed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton that I believe most relate to Dunya’s situation are: “He has made her morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master – the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement,” and “He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life” (Stanton). I believe that the first sentiment I listed most relates to Dunya in the sense that she is expected to be obedient to her fiancée Luhzin, and therefore, when she defies his wishes, he acts out like a child and forces Dunya to take the position of ending their eminent marriage. She refuses to allow Luhzin to act as “her master”, which is what Stanton wishes for all women to pursue. Luhzin, being an undeniably insecure and overly sensitive male presence in the novel, serves as the connection between Dunya and Stanton’s other complaint. Luhzin attempts to degrade Dunya and make her submissive and subservient, not only to make himself feel validated as a man, but to ensure that Dunya will feel dependent upon him. Once again, Dunya defies him by doing whatever she pleases despite his wishes, and ends their engagement.
Sonya relates to Elizabath Cady Stanton’s list of sentiments as well, but I believe there are two sentiments in particular that describe her situation, which is much different than that of Dunya. These sentiments are “He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty renumeration,” and “He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education- all colleges being closed against her” (Stanton). Sonya is forced to become a prostitute because the men in her family are incapable of providing for her financially, therefore, they take all the money she makes each night, while she gets near to nothing for her abuse, pain, and loss of pride. This relates to the second sentiment because she has no choice but to be a prostitute because she is not allowed entrance to a school to be educated. If women were allowed to be schooled, Sonya could have made money through more honorable means.
The ideals of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft in their renowned works, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Declaration of Sentiments, lead to the feminism that is present throughout Crime and Punishment in the characters of Dunya and Sonya. These female characters are notably stronger in morals and character than the men, which was likely influenced by the movements of the feminists of this time period.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Modern Library, 1950.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Alfred A.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Declaration of Sentiments: Seneca Falls Convention, July
1848. Tucson: Kore Press, 2004.