I just wrote an essay comparing the figures of the prostitute and criminal in Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist for my college English class. I'm supposed to explore the social and the symbolic meanings of the images of the murderer and the prostitute and examine what role the characters' interaction with each other play in the novel. It's a big topic, and I'm afraid I've rambled, so I'd just like to know if this essay makes sense to anybody. Nitpickiness = wonderful.
The Embodiment of Sin
In society the figure of the prostitute is generally seen as that of a sinner. In both Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, however, that categorization is resisted through the representation of the motivations of the prostitute in relation to the character who commits the ultimate sin, that of taking another person’s life. In Crime and Punishment, for instance, Sonya Semenova might be a prostitute, but it is not a vocation she happily embraces, because she was driven to it by economic necessity. In fact, the figure of Sonya is essentially Christ-like, in that she persuades Raskolnikov, the murderer, to confess his sin so he can achieve peace within himself. And when he is exiled to Siberia as punishment, she travels along with him to help him bear his metaphorical cross. In that way, she becomes a figure of redemption for him, though she is a prostitute and morally condemned by society for it. Similarly, in Oliver Twist the prostitute Nancy’s redeeming quality lies in her attempt to help Oliver by revealing pertinent information about Monks to Dr. Losberne and Rose Maylie. She does this at the cost of her own safety, and Sikes murders her for her intentions of doing what is right, which makes his sin unforgivable in the novel. Thus, through the role the prostitutes play in the novel in relation to the murderer, they are relegated to the position of upholders of morality, despite their own socially frowned upon vocation in life.
Sonya in Crime and Punishment actually did not actively choose such a vocation, for she was driven to it by her stepmother, who, in her desperation over the state of their poverty, chastised Sonya for not helping the family financially. In effect, Sonya became a prostitute due to emotional blackmail from her stepmother. However, Sonya emerges as a redeemed figure in the novel, for despite her vocation in life, her motives were pure of sin. The position she is in is a constant struggle for her, though, and that is reflected in the way she has to ignore her own feelings of shame in favor of aiding her family. For example, when Marmeladov was dying, she rushes home and had to “cast down her eyes” in shame when “the whispering among the crowd” that had gathered to witness her father’s death “seemed to reach her ears” (157). She knows they were whispering about her circumstance and was duly ashamed of it, for before entering them room she had “stopped in the lobby, near the door, but without crossing the threshold of the room, utterly forlorn and apparently unconscious of her surroundings; she seemed forgetful alike of her garish fourth-hand silk dress” (157). Crossing the threshold here, as elsewhere in Dostoevsky’s novel, signifies a transition in the character’s state of being, that once the threshold is crossed a decision has been made. This highlights the choices and sacrifices that she consistently makes for her family. In addition, this is Sonya’s first meeting with Raskolnikov, who had killed two old women some days before, and their relationship is established in this scene, for she works for the lives of others, while he is “soaked with blood” (159)—physically from Marmeladov’s wound as well as from the metaphorically from murder of the old women—as Nikodim Fomich notes when Raskolnikov crosses the threshold of the door to exit, carrying with him the memory of his sin.
In Oliver Twist, Nancy relationship to Bill Sikes is initially different than Sonya’s to and Raskonikov, since Nancy and Sikes have had a history some time before the starting point of the novel. Nancy and a fellow prostitute are introduced into the story through the young eyes of Oliver, and in his naivety he describes them as “a couple of young ladies,” “one of whom was named Bet, and the Nancy”; and though they “had a great deal of colour on their faces,” “Oliver thought them very nice girls indeed. As there is no doubt they were” (47). A judgment is clearly passed upon them, but it is an unexpected one, since the reader would have been able to identify them as prostitutes and would have doubted their “nicety.” However, Oliver does not, and the narrative slowly reveals that it, too, appraises the female figure represented in Nancy. For instance, when Sikes’s dog threatened to rip Oliver to pieces and he screams for help, the person to come to his aid is Nancy, who fights with Sikes, declaring: “‘I don't care for that, Bill, I don't care for that, […] the child shan't be torn down by the dog, unless you kill me first’” (87). Thus, Nancy is portrayed here as defender of the defenseless. It is Fagin, specifically, who voices the role that the women in general play their society, for he “was sufficiently well acquainted with the manners and customs of that particular species of humanity to which Nancy belonged, to feel tolerably certain that it would be rather unsafe to prolong any conversation with her, at present” (87)—that is, when she is so morally outraged by Sikes’s treatment of Oliver.
What is crucial to note, though, is that Nancy, the savior, also plays the role of the captor, for it is she who brought Oliver back to Fagin and Sikes. However, the culpability cannot rest on Nancy alone, for she herself is a victim of her situation. As she recollects, she had grown up under their domination and was taught to follow their immoral route: “‘I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this!’ point to Oliver. ‘I have been in the same trade and in the same service, for twelve years since’” (88). It is amazing, then, that she is able to perceive the errors of her way and repent for having captured Oliver back to the den of iniquity. “‘God Almighty help me, I am!’ cried the girl passionately; ‘and I wish I had been struck dead in the street, or had changed places with them we passed so near to-night, before I had lent a hand in bringing him here’” (88). Thus, Nancy’s contrition is rendered all the more powerful for having had to overcome the detrimental influence of her two crime leaders. In effect, Nancy then becomes the figure of hope for the redemption of mankind; she represents the fallen human who rues her sins and seeks forgiveness from God. However, she does not get a chance to live a better life, for Sikes, led by Fagin into thinking that she had plotted against him (Sikes), murders her. His crime is shown in the worst light possible, for, although Nancy as a prostitute is a dreg of society, she has shown remorse. To sentence her to death after her repentance is a barbarous act, and divine punishment is apparent in the very manner which Sikes dies, which is accidentally hanging himself. Thus Sikes is not forgiven for passing judgment on Nancy while Nancy is depicted as a victim of her situation, who still tries to maintain her morality despite of her sinful upbringing.
In Crime and Punishment, Sonya also plays the role of a victim of society, and this is most notable from the way Raskolnikov reflects upon her condition after having killed Lizaveta. “I wonder why I hardly ever think of her, as though I had not killed her….Lizaveta! Sonya! Poor, meek, gentle creatures, with meek eyes! […] They give up everything…they look at you meekly and gently…Sonya, Sonya, gentle Sonya!” (234). From classic words of the Bible, we know that the meek shall inherit the earth. Their “giving up everything” makes them like Christ, a sacrificial lamb. Furthermore, Sonya’s suffering is not just apparent by the look in her eyes, but also in her very physical appearance. Raskonikov at one point even mentions: “’How thin you are: just look at your hand! It is quite transparent. Your fingers are like a dead woman’s’” (267). And Sonya replies with a faint smile, “‘I was always like this’” (267). What is apparent here is Raskonikov’s bluntness and inadvertent cruelty; he is basically calling Sonya a corpse. However, what it points out about Sonya is that she has led a wretched existence based on toleration of her plight, and that she never had the opportunity to really thrive in life.
Thus, Sonya may have sold her body, but her motives are unselfish; and she does not see her pitiful condition as an excuse for suicide or murder, unlike Raskolnikov, who tries to draw parallels between their plights: “You too have stepped over the barrier. . .you were able to do it. You laid hands on yourself, you destroyed a life. . .your own (that makes no difference!)” (278). In making this analogy, Raskolnikov provides a parallel between himself and Sonya, that his taking of a life is the same as her taking her destroying her own through prostitution. This argument complicates the issue of culpability, because what Sonya does is clearly for the benefits of her family and Raskolnikov claims his is for the good of society. Looking at it from that perspective, it becomes problematic to condemn Raskolnikov for murdering the two women if one does not condemn Sonya for ending her socially respectable and moral life. Thus, the crime of murder is complicated by many factors, making it not as easy to condemn as it may seem, and that the punishment for it is just as difficult to mete. Additionally, it is Sonya who in the end saves Raskolnikov from the guilt of his mind and teaches him to carry his burden like a good Christian. This leads to Dostoevsky’s use of female figures, for there is a very clear purpose for Sonya in the novel: she is the redeemer and voice of conscience for Raskolnikov. Despite the circumstances which might have compelled her to turn sinful; she remains pure of soul by maintaining her faith, thus making her more saintly than sinful.
Prostitution is a sin, but both novels do not condemn the prostitutes for their vocation. Instead, the prostitutes are presented as victims of society, and that prostitution as an institution is a sign of the corruption of society. In fact, the figure of Sonya the prostitute is arguably Christ-like, for she is not sinful at heart—only in body—since she was driven into prostitution by her stepmother’s emotional blackmailing. Nancy, as well, was no doubt driven to prostitution having grown up an orphan and taken in by Sikes at an early age. She is just as to be pitied as Sonya, since Nancy symbolizes a fallen human who, despite her immoral upbringing by the person who eventually murders her, still attempts to walk the straight and narrow path. Thus, while the social and symbolic meanings of the image of the murderer are that of criminal and sinner, the image of the prostitute—although one of criminality in society as well—is symbolically one of a savior and sufferer. In the religious context, the prostitutes’ sins are absolved because the novels portray them as the redemptive figures for humanity.