Women as Images of Christian Virtue and Sacrifice

During the 19th century, author and philosopher Fyodor Dostoyevsky used his novels as a means to explore human psychology and perception in the troubled political, social, and spiritual context of Imperial Russian society. While in prison serving a sentence for his membership in the liberal intellectual group the Petrashevsky Circle, Dostoevsky underwent a powerful conversion experience, which greatly strengthened his Christian Orthodox faith and encouraged him to extol the virtues of humility, submission, and suffering.

The incredible impact of Dostoevsky’s conversion experience and the subsequent strengthening of his faith are evident throughout his novels, in which characters, most often women, fully embody these Christian values. As is characteristic of his writings, Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment communicates his admiration of Christ-like virtues and his great respect for “proud women,” using remarkable but tortured female characters, such as Pulcheria, Katerina, Sonya, and Dunya, to illustrate spiritual and social truths.

This is especially true of the novel’s two most prominent female characters, Dunya and Sonya. In Crime and Punishment, both Sonya and Dunya are the embodiments of Christian virtue, which they demonstrate in their self-sacrifice, abasement, and suffering. The idea of sacrifice is foundational to the Christian faith, as the most essential message and defining truth of Christianity is based on Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself for the salvation of humanity.

Both Sonya and Dunya are images of Christ in their willingness to surrender themselves and their most valuable personal possessions for the sake of those they love. In particular, Sonya, the eldest daughter of the drunken Marmeladov, is remarkable for her denial of her own interests and sense of spiritual morality in order to improve the circumstances of her family. In the novel, Sonya is described as being childlike of character, naturally embodying qualities of purity, innocence, meekness, and modesty. Dostoevsky writes of Sonya:

There was, besides, a special characteristic feature of her face and of her whole figure: despite her eighteen years, she looked almost like a little girl, much younger than her age, almost quite like a child, and this sometimes even appeared comically in some of her movements. 1 The childlike purity to which Sonya is characteristically predisposed is surrendered as Sonya contravenes the defining elements of her personality to become a prostitute in order to provide a means of financial support for her family.

The sacrifice of her chastity, which is the greatest she can make, is unbearable to her, as she is forced to suffer in the shame of her uncharacteristic sin. However, by becoming a prostitute, Sonya lives out the self-sacrifice that Jesus commands in John 15:13, when he says, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. “2 As the verse commands, Sonya dies to her own concerns and values in order to improve the circumstances of those close to her. Just as Sonya is the embodiment of purity, innocence, and chastity, these virtues are also the dearest gifts that she possesses.

When Sonya becomes a prostitute, she sells her virtue, her only possession of value, to men who do not appreciate the gift that they receive. Much like these unnamed men, Sonya’s stepmother Katerina Ivanovna, who is desperate in her passion and fear for her family, devalues the worth of Sonya’s chastity, commenting, “What’s there to save? Some treasure! “3 Despite Katerina’s derisive statement, which calls into question the significance of the sacrifice that she asks Sonya to make, the surrendering of her purity is the most that Sonya can give to her family.

By becoming a prostitute and forfeiting her greatest virtues, Sonya demonstrates the sacrifice of Christ as she assumes sin for the sake of others. Before she enters the street as a prostitute, Sonya asks Katerina, “What, Katerina Ivanovna, must I really go and do such a thing? “4 Her question to Katerina is reminiscent of Jesus’ prayer before his arrest, anticipating his crucifixion. Jesus asks, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will but as You will. 5 Both Jesus and Sonya ask if the horror that they will face is necessary. In the way Christ offered himself up for the sake of humanity, Sonya offers herself for her family. Much like Sonya, Dunya is also willing to sacrifice herself for those she loves, specifically for her family; though her sacrifice is realized mainly in her consent to marry the conniving Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin. Despite her insistence that she is marrying Luzhin in self-interest, Dunya’s true goal is to better the vicarious situation of her family.

Sonya sees the needs of her brother Raskolnikov and her mother Pulcheria and attempts to remedy those needs, even at the cost of her own happiness. Dunya’s, as well as Pulcheria’s, great love for Raskolnikov is expressed in a letter written to Raskolnikov by his mother, Pulcheria: “You know how I love you; you are all we have, Dunya and I, you are everything for us, all our hope and our trust. “6 As a result of this love, Dunya acts in contrast to her own interests, marrying Luzhin in order to help Raskolnikov, whose situation is deteriorating both monetarily and psychologically.

With the support of Dunya, Pulcheria writes of her hope that the match will serve Raskolnikov, explaining, “So, dear Rodya, he may be quite useful to you, even in everything, and Dunya and I have already decided that from this very day you could definitely begin your future career and consider your lot already clearly determined. “7 Separating her hopes from her own interests, Dunya believes that by uniting herself in marriage, she will help Raskolnikov complete his education, and to eventually become successful, because, as Pulcheria notes, Raskolnikov’s success “is all Dunya dreams about. 8 Communicating the sacrifice that Dunya has made for Raskolnikov and herself, Pulcheria carefully advises Raskolnikov to be aware of all that Dunya has done for them, instructing him to appreciate the sacrificial love of his sister: Love your sister Dunya, Rodya, love her as she loves you, and know that she loves you boundlessly, more than herself. She is an angel, and you Rodya, you are everything for us – all our hope, and all our trust. If only you are happy then we shall be happy.

Despite his surly response to Pulcheria’s letter, Raskolnikov is able to appreciate the extent to which Dunya’s actions are made for his benefit. He discerns immediately from his mother’s description of the engagement the sacrificial nature of Dunya’s act. As he explains that Dunya’s pride would never allow her to marry Luzhin for herself or for money, he recognizes her engagement an act for the betterment of her family: The man is clear to her, and she’ll have to live with this man. She could eat only black bread and wash it down with water, but she would never sell her soul, she would never trade her moral freedom for comfort…

The thing is clear: for herself, for her own comfort, even to save herself from death, she wouldn’t sell herself; no she’s sell herself for someone else! For a dear, beloved person she will sell herself! That’s what our whole catch consists of: for her brother, for her mother, she will sell herself. 10 Despite the incredible significance of Dunya’s gift, Raskolnikov is displeased by her engagement, specifically with sacrifice which he discerns has been made according to his interests and also the interests of his mother.

As he wanders around Petersburg, pondering his mother’s letter, Raskolnikov mutters, “I don’t want your sacrifice, Dunechka. “11 Dunya, who serves as a picture of Christ to Raskolnikov, believes that she can offer salvation to Raskolnikov, a gift in which he is uninterested. Raskolnikov creates the connection between Christ’s sacrifice and Dunya’s engagement to Luzhin, likening the marriage to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross: “I also know what you were thinking about all night, pacing the room, and what you prayed about to the Kazan Mother of God that stands in mama’s bedroom.

It’s hard to ascend Golgotha. “12 In their sacrifices for others, both Sonya and Dunya are pictures of Christ as they abase and humble themselves. This abasement is a reflection of the abasement of Jesus, who humbled himself for the sake of humanity, descending from heaven to Earth. As John writes of Jesus, “… the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… “13 As he took on the form of humanity, Jesus assumed an unnatural lowness, degrading himself from His godly form.

Just as Jesus assumed sin and vileness that was not his own, Sonya and Dunya humble themselves in their service to others, taking on what is vile and making themselves low. Visibly abasing herself in her sacrifice for her family, Sonya compromises her social status by becoming a prostitute; for living, as Marmeladov describes, “on a yellow pass. “14 As a result of the nature of her occupation, her public virtue has been degraded, which subsequently affects the characterization of her social position. However, Sonya’s abasement is not only of a public nature.

Along with her social abasement, Sonya has also been humbled both spiritually and personally. Recognizing her own sin, Sonya remains humble. Rather than cowering from the image of her own transgression, Sonya reminds herself of her sin, choosing to subjugate herself spiritually. Sonya explains to Raskolnikov, “I’m… dishonorable… I’m a great, great sinner! “15 As she reminds herself of her spiritual lowliness, believing this action to be a spiritual necessity, Sonya strives to maintain a faithful relationship with God.

While discussing the murder, Sonya, demonstrating the spiritual importance she attaches to abasement, advises Raskolnikov to abase himself in the way that she has, instructing him to admit his sins and to ask forgiveness. Dunya, like Sonya is forced to abase herself in her sacrifice for others. Significantly lowering her own value by partnering herself with Luzhin, whom she does not respect, Dunya debases herself in her match with a man who is of lower intellect and character than herself. It is only for the sake of her family that Dunya is willing to be connected with a man as shallow, vapid, foolish, and calculating as Luzhin.

By agreeing to marry Luzhin, Dunya morally degrades herself to the act of prostitution, violating her honor. Raskolnikov describes the engagement as “a vile thing,” as he realizes the base nature of the sacrifice his sisters is attempting to make, and the corruption of her purity that would result from such an alliance. 16 When she is confronted by the ugliness of Luzhin’s character, Dunya is able to acknowledge the baseness of the proposed marriage, while recognizing fully and admitting to the shame that she was prepared to accept for the sake of her family.

Dostoevsky writes, “‘Well, sister, are you ashamed now? ‘ asked Raskolnikov. ‘Yes, I am ashamed, Rodya,’ said Dunya. “17 As in their abasement, Dunya and Sonya also reflect Christ in their personal suffering. Sonya, in particular, is consumed by incredible pain, as one of the most significant realities of her life is in acknowledgement of her own transgressions. Sonya’s great value for Christian virtue is contradicted by her own sin, as she is torn between the purity of her nature and the impurity of her flesh, which has been sinfully violated.

Raskolnikov, as he is overwhelmed by the psychological repercussions of his own sin, is able to appreciate this struggle in Sonya. Dostoevsky writes, “But he fully understood the monstrous pain she suffered, and had long been suffering, at the thought of her dishonorable and shameful position. “18 The suffering Sonya endures as a result of the contradiction of her nature, which is defined by meekness and innocence, is a picture of the suffering of Christ. Jesus’ greatest pain was in the knowledge that his perfect nature had been violated by the assumption of the sin of humanity.

Paul explains, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. “19 Like Jesus, Sonya suffers and mourns the depravity that she has been forced to endure, and the dishonor that she bears for her sacrifice. Though perhaps less obviously, Dunya, like Sonya, suffers for the sake of others. Dunya’s willingness to sacrifice the freedom of her single life is demonstrative of the concern and suffering she experiences on behalf of her mother and brother.

As she responds in dread and mourning to the revelation of Raskolnikov’s murderous actions, Dunya suffers on behalf of him, in fear of both what he has done and for the consequences he will face. Pulcheria describes the distraction that Dunya has been driven to by this realization, explaining to Raskolnikov that Dunya “spent the whole of last night in delirium, and kept mentioning [him]. “20 She is tortured by the knowledge of what her brother is capable of and of what he will face.

Much like Christ, both Sonya and Dunya offer salvation through suffering and abasement. As pictures of Christian virtuosity, Sonya represents spiritual salvation for Raskolnikov, while Dunya represents personal salvation for Svidrigailov. Dunya and Sonya are clear images of Christ in the salvation they offer. As it is the responsibility of every person to pursue the salvation that Christ provides, Raskolnikov and Svidirigailov attempt to achieve salvation through Sonya and Dunya.

Raskolnikov, representing the image of the man who finds salvation through Christ, is restored to life. Svidrigailov, however, due to his carnality, demonstrates the death that results from failure to access salvation. Dostoevsky uses the structure of Crime and Punishment and the characters within the novel, including Dunya and Sonya, to demonstrate the message of the Gospel. Through his work, Dostoevsky expresses the need of every person for salvation and extols the Christian virtues that Dunya and Sonya represent.