Every society and culture has some sort of guidelines by which their people are judged. People that do not fall into the right standards are then alienated from society and perceived as outcasts or “sinners” by their fellow peers. In the novel, Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, there are no exceptions to this rule. Sofia Semionovna Marmeladov (Sonia) is the beloved of the protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, and she helps convince him to confess to his crimes. From the reader’s standpoint, she seems to be a moral light guiding Raskolnikov to redemption, but from her society’s perspective, she is a lowly woman who has involved herself in a horrible and disgusting crime — prostitution. Because of this, Sonia is alienated from her society and looked down upon, even though she is one of the most moral and devout characters in the novel. Sonia’s profession causes her society to judge her for her outward actions rather than her inward intentions.
As is made apparent throughout the novel, Sonia did not choose this life of prostitution, but rather, was forced into it. Her family was poor and struggling, and she needed to help support them if she wanted to continue to be a part of their lives. While Raskolnikov is listening to Semion Zaharovich Marmeladov, Sonia’s father, complain about his hardships, Marmeladov mentions that Sonia “has had no education” (Dostoevsky 19). Many women of that time period, especially those who were poor, were unable to obtain the same education as men. Because of this, Sonia was “forced into a life of prostitution [as well as] by her family’s poverty” (“Crime and Punishment” Nineteenth-Century 2). Sonia is merely a product of her society, but she is alienated because of it. There really were no other ways by which a person of her social standing could make money, and so she could not have survived any other way. As Marmeladov asserted, a respectable poor girl could not earn 15 kopecks a day, even if she worked nonstop (Dostoevsky 19). Sonia was torn between the necessity of money for survival and her own dignity, so she gave up the latter in order to help herself, and her family, live.
While Sonia did choose this life of prostitution out of necessity, she also did it out of love for her family. She obviously did not want to be a prostitute, but she had a strong sense of self-sacrifice and so she was willing to belittle herself for the needs of those she cared about. Sonia “puts ideals of love and service…above any notion of self-glorification” (“Crime and Punishment” Novels 17). Being in this profession truly tortured Sonia, but she knew it was the only way by which she could help her family and, as stated before, her society was not okay with this. Even Raskolnikov, who was a murderer, wondered how she could still live while being in such a humiliating profession (“Crime and Punishment” Novels 4). Nobody approved of her profession, even those who had used it to take advantage of her. Sonia was seen as the lowest of the low, despite the fact that she was only doing this to help others.
Sonia’s sacrifice is made even more apparent by the fact that it wouldn’t have even been necessary if her father had straightened out his own life. He was “drunk, irresponsible, and still submerged in his selfish course of action…[continuing] to spurn his responsibility” even in his family’s suffering (Gibian 2). Her father’s shortcomings were a huge part in her taking up this lifestyle, but her society only blamed her. Rather than look at the heart of a character, society only looks at what they do and then judges them based on that. Sonia was basically supporting her whole family on her own and the best her father could do was “beg [her] for drink” (Dostoevsky 304). Yet, still, her society viewed her as one who was in the wrong.
Raskolnikov, when talking with Sonia, “saw how monstrously the thought of her disgraceful, shameful position was torturing her and had long tortured her…Only then he realized what those poor little orphan children and that pitiful half-crazy Katerina Ivanovna [Sonia’s stepmother] …meant for Sonia” (Dostoevsky 308). At this point in the novel, Raskolnikov finally realizes the extent of Sonia’s sacrifice. She cannot stand to think of her profession, and still, she never leaves it. Sonia knows that her family cannot survive without her contributions, and so she gives up her own values and accepts society’s judgment out of love for them. Sonia is a very noble and compassionate character, but society can only see the bad in her because of her difficult situation.
Despite her predicament, Sonia has a great faith in God and has strong morals by which she leads her life. Sonia is separate from her “sin” and is a spiritual leader for Raskolnikov. Although this seems contradictory, it actually emphasizes what Dostoevsky was trying to convey with Sonia’s character. Her character is almost paradoxical because she is both a prostitute and the embodiment of innocence in this novel (“Crime and Punishment” Novels 9). Her society judges her because of her job, but her faith is still stronger than that of the other characters represented in the novel. When Raskolnikov challenges her beliefs, she has the audacity to reply with, “[w]hat would I be without God?” (Dostoevsky 309). She lives in a tragic situation, but she still relies completely on her faith without being bitter. Sonia has no sense of self-pity, but instead, she constantly looks to help others. Because of Sonia’s faith and love, Raskolnikov is eventually moved “to embrace God and the future” (Wells 7). Even though Sonia’s character is, according to her society’s standards, a disgusting sinner, she is the one who persuades Raskolnikov to confess and pick up his cross by taking responsibility for his actions (Gibian 3). Even with all of this, her society is unable to separate her from her sin, and they continue to look down upon her.
Through all of her suffering, Sonia was still a moral light to those who looked past her profession. She was compassionate and always saw the best in people, even when they had wronged her. Her society, in contrast, only saw people through the biased lens of their social standing, and so Sonia was alienated and cast out by them. Raskolnikov, when he first met Sonia, believed that they were one and the same. They were both accursed and so they should leave together (Dostoevsky 314). However, he, unlike their society, soon realized that Sonia was above her sin. When he confessed his crime to her, “she [embraced] him and [showed] that she [understood] how much he suffered” (“Crime and Punishment” Novels 4). Sonia was the one of the only characters in the novel that could truly sympathize with him because she knew what it felt like to be alienated from society by an action. While she may not have approved of what he did, she demonstrated that she had the capacity to look beyond that.
Unlike her society, Sonia was able to look beyond a person’s actions. Despite all of Katerina’s horrible choices, Sonia believed that she was “seeking righteousness [and that she was] like a child” in her goodness (Dostoevsky 304). Society saw Katerina as mentally unstable and cruel, but Sonia still managed to see the best in her. Raskolnikov realized that Sonia was essentially a sinner, so he was greatly perplexed as to how she could also be so holy (Dostoevsky 308). Their society had the same confusion, so instead of trying to understand her, they alienated her. They simply could not believe that a person could be separated from their crimes. They could not separate the sin from the sinner. Sonia had this inherent innocence in her that was tainted by the fact that she was a prostitute. The true nature of her heart could not be understood by her society because they were so stuck on the outer appearance of her actions.
Sonia represented everything her society could not understand or display, and so she was alienated. Through Sonia, Dostoevsky criticized how shallowly society judges people. They only look at the surface level, and thus, many people suffer because of it. Good people, like Sonia, are alienated because of a lack of understanding or a stereotype that they are represented by. Sonia’s society has nothing but judgment and criticism for her because they never attempt to look deeper into her character or her motives. On the other hand, readers get to see the “full picture” and so they never once question Sonia’s true innate goodness. With all of this, Dostoevsky shows that people need to look further before judging a person, but Sonia’s character reveals that his society fails at doing this. He wants people to try and separate people from their actions and, instead, judge people based on their character. Through the character of Sonia, Dostoevsky emphasizes that people should “hate the sin, not the sinner.”
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