Shame and Punishment

Deborah Martinsen, Columbia University

In this paper I argue that Dostoevskij creates a tension between guilt and shame that keeps readers off-balance for the duration of Crime and Punishment. Because Dostoevskij’s protagonist commits murder, readers expect a guilt script: crime, repentance, punishment/expiation. Instead, Dostoevskij portrays a man whose shame overshadows his guilt.

Shame relates broadly to human identity, guilt more narrowly to human action. Shame arises when a person negatively evaluates his/her whole self in relation to an idealized self, thereby arousing feelings of inferiority or inadequacy. Guilt arises, in contrast, when a self acts so as to transgress against personal, moral, social, or legal norms. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevskij fashions a protagonist whose crime results from and exacerbates an identity crisis. He develops a theory in which guilt serves as the litmus test of identity: those who can transgress without guilt (like Napoleon) prove their greatness; those who experience guilt demonstrate their weakness. Once Raskol′nikov commits murder, he opens a narcissistic wound: feeling guilt establishes his shame. He thus attempts to deny his guilt in order to avoid confronting his shame: admitting that it was wrong to murder the pawnbroker means destroying his dreams of greatness.

Just as Raskol′nikov welds shame and guilt in his theory, so Dostoevskij offers both shame and guilt as motives for the development of that theory. Nonetheless, Dostoevskij provides readers with some help separating them out. The predominant figure in Raskol′nikov’s shame script is the pawnbroker. Her sister Lizaveta figures largely in the guilt script. Sonja, a fallen woman who lives at the crossroads of shame and guilt, reminds Raskol′nikov, and Dostoevskij’s readers, of Lizaveta and serves as the agent to heal the shame and guilt of Dostoevskij’s hero.

By focusing on Raskol′nikov’s shame and his defenses against it, I will correct an imbalance in the scholarship on the novel, as most critics have paid greater attention to the hero’s guilt. To demonstrate my thesis that Dostoevskij unsettles readers by showing how Raskol′nikov’s shame interferes with his moral responses, I will examine Raskol′nikov’s dream of impotence (when he tries to kill the laughing pawnbroker), his confession to Sonja, and his final union with Sonja.