Crime and Punishment: Marmeladov’s Masochism–But Only to a Point…

Chapter II, and it’s time for another post. I promise to not post on every chapter in Crime and Punishment.


I promise to maybe not post on every chapter in Crime and Punishment. I think that’s fair.

Here’s the story behind the topic of today’s post. Marmeladov has lost his job. He and his family live in crushing poverty. He loves them terribly. Things are very bad. His wife is coughing up blood, His children are starving. His oldest daughter, a tiny, pious thing, has been forced into prostitution, which takes an enormous psychological toll on her. But Marmeladov gets his job back. Everything is going to be okay. He comes home with money from work that night. The family is feverishly manic with hope. He talks of the amazing transformation in the atmosphere of the apartment, of the real cream they’ve gotten for his coffee. That night, Marmeladov takes the money he has earned, sells his work uniform, and goes on a five day bender. The only reason he is still able to drink after spending all the money is because he went to his daughter and begged her to give her all she had, which she did. And there he is, at the end of his last pint (which he almost proudly said was bought with her money), telling his story to Raskolnikov at the bar.

There is an elephant-in-room-sized question here. Marmeladov never says why he snuck off in the night to drink instead of going back to work. He has plenty of self-loathing to vocalize, but he never says why he did it. Instead he just says that he stole his wife’s key in the night, took the money, and has been drinking for five days. Raskolnikov never asks why, and, frankly, I never thought to ask either until now.

Just about everyone in Crime and Punishment has a delusion of some sort. I used to think the Marmeladov family all had different delusions, but I realized today that they are all just different flavors of the same delusion. Or maybe delusion is the wrong word for it because of how unverified by experience and fact delusions are, ipso facto. It’s perhaps more that the family has coping mechanisms that reflect Marmeladov’s delusion–for make no mistake, his way of thinking is certainly a delusion. They all express faith that God will understand their sin and misery and forgive them for it, and their justification for all the things poverty drives them to do is that their suffering will be redeem them from their sin. The only one who wavers from this hope for a moment (in my favorite line of the novel) is Marmeladov’s wife Katerina, saying that if God doesn’t forgive her, she doesn’t care. But the quintessential Marmeladov family delusion is that suffering = redemption in the afterlife. They have to believe it–they don’t have much more to hold onto.

Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad or harmful way of thinking for everyone. I think that Sonia’s (Marmeladov’s daughter’s) faith that God sees her intentions and not her actions is the only thing that stops her from falling into the kind of despair we see in Raskolnikov–the kind of despair that drives him to madness. But Marmeladov…his beliefs are delusions to the core. He claims he drinks his family’s money away because he seeks the suffering at the bottom of the glass. He wants to feel the weight of all he’s done, he wants his wife to pull his hair and beat him (which he claims is an absolute pleasure to him). He wants to be “judged” and “crucified,” daydreaming about how God will say that though his sins are many, he has loved much, and that it’s Marmeladov’s very knowledge that he is unworthy that will cause God to receive him. 

Marmeladov is stuck in a wretched cycle. He has to do things that make him worthy of punishment so that he can be punished and feel redeemed. The more terrible the thing, the deeper the punishment that will be inflicted upon him, as he sees it. The “crucified” implies that he might see himself as a martyr, and it is guilt that is his primary source of suffering. So what must he do? Things that make him feel guilty. I think that’s why he didn’t return to the job and instead spent the money on a five-day drinking spree instead of, say, helping his children not starve to death. But there are problems with this. There are some forms of suffering he chooses to avoid.  

If Marmeladov truly wanted to suffer, he would dwell on his daughter’s occupation. This is clearly what troubles him the most. He explains enough of it to make Raskolnikov understand that she has had to become a prostitute, but often the conversation, when it turns to her, wanders on to other topics.

Take this:

“She has a room at the Kapernaumovs’ the tailors, she lodges with them; Kapernaumov is a lame man with a cleft palate and all of his numerous family have cleft palates too. And his wife, too, has a cleft palate. They all live in one room, but Sonia has her own, partitioned off…. Hm… yes… very poor people and all with cleft palates… yes.”

And that’s the end of Sonia talk. 

Marmeladov’s theory–that he is such a wretch and so thoroughly, wonderfully punished for it that God can’t help but have pity on him–falls short, I think. He believes emphatically that he suffers as much as one possibly can, yet he avoids thinking for long on what hurts him the most about what he’s done. He revels in the rest of his sins, feeling as terrible about it all as he possibly can, but he falters when he thinks on Sonia for too long.

The other explanation is that he’s an alcoholic, which is probably also true. (However, I’d like to point out that he stopped drinking when he married Katerina. That isn’t to say alcoholics can’t stop drinking for a time. But he’d done it once, meaning he could probably do it again. But perhaps he’d reached the point where he figured he would always return to drinking and no longer had the will to fight it.)

Anyway, Marmeladov’s masochism and the world of sin-cycle he’s built his life theories upon are heartily felt and thoroughly believed. But, like any delusion, there are holes in his beliefs.

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