For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.
One of the fascinating questions Dostoevsky examines in Crime and Punishment is what holds society together as nineteenth-century Russia transitions from an agricultural economy to an industrial one. What would be the new social contract of its people? What would replace the traditions and values of Russian Orthodoxy? And what would be the consequences of this transformation?
For Dostoevsky, money – and with it, the promise of unlimited freedom – was the currency of this new age. In Crime and Punishment we see the theme of money constantly reoccurring from Raskolnikov’s wretched poverty to Sonya’s prostitution to Duanya’s engagement to Luzhin. At the beginning of the novel, Raskolnikov is described as so poorly dressed due to his poverty that one “would be ashamed to appear on the street during the day wearing such ragged clothes.” He visits Alyona Ivanova to pawn his silver watch only to be disappointed about its price. Later when he murders her, he looks unsuccessfully for her wealth to steal. While he is not only motivated by money, Raskolnikov does import an emotional and even existential meaning to money that may strike one as strange.
For example, when confronted with the horrors of Marmeladov family, Raskolnikov reacts in pity by giving them the money he had stolen. Although he regrets doing so immediately afterwards, Raskolnikov’s relationship with money is ambiguous where, on the one hand, he attributes it significant value in acts of mercy, while, on the other hand, he cares not for it, when he thinks of himself as one of the “extraordinary” persons in his rationalization of murdering Alyona. Money means both everything and nothing for Raskolnikov.
His sister, Duanya, also have an ambivalent relationship with money. Duanya consents to her engagement with Luzhin not because she loves him but because Luzhin will be able to support her family and allow her to escape her former employer, Svidrigaylov. However, Svidrigaylov monetize Duanya in his offer of 10,000 rubles to Raskolnikov to prevent the marriage between Duanya and Luzhin. In both instances, her worth is described in economic terms with money as the gauge of her value. Unlike her brother, Duanya recognizes the need to be perceived monetarily but, like her brother, dislikes it.
Sonya’s relationship to money is similar to Duanya’s when she becomes a prostitute in order to support the Marmeladov family. Like Duanya, Sonya accepts that her body is monetized. However, unlike Duanya, rather than resenting her condition, Sonya transcends it and transforms the meaning of her monetization into Christian self-sacrifice. Clearly she dislikes being a prostitute but Sonya perceives it as a type of nobility for the good of her family.
Thus we are left with three responses to the world of money in Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov’s bipolar relationship, Duanya’s realistic but resentful attitude, and Sonya’s sacrificial approach. With money as the social contract of nineteenth-century Russia, Dostoevsky depicts the consequences of this transformation. It is a world of crime and punishment where souls are doomed at the start. While we will never get away from money, it need not perversely dominate our lives as we see in Raskolnikov and Duanya and it can be, as we see with Sonya, provide a path towards redemption and forgiveness.
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