The Centrality of Pulkheria’s Letter in Crime and Punishment

Tania Gordeev, Princeton University

In the small amount of scholarship devoted to Pulkheria’s letter in Crime and Punishment, it is typically considered an integral component of part one of the novel. The letter introduces the novel’s main characters, provides important background information on Raskolnikov and incites him to action. Yet the letter’s impact goes well beyond part one. Keeping in mind two primary features of epistolary discourse, addressivity and the dynamic of distance and “embracement,” I will explore the ways in which Pulkheria’s letter resonates throughout the novel.

My discussion will begin with a reexamination of the intense epistolary exchange in part one, that is, Pulkheria’s letter and Raskolnikov’s thought-response to it, which constitute a whole epistolary utterance. I will discuss how distance and “embracement” dominate on both sides of the exchange. By distance I refer to the physical or emotional distance that divides epistolary correspondents, while “embracement” implies the letter-writer’s and reader’s attempts to embrace via the letter not only figuratively, but also in the very physical sense of arms enveloping another body. This bodily embrace is simulated through various fictional abstractions, such as the routine of writing as well as the opening and closing formulae of the letter: Dear X…, Love Y.

What will become clear is that this constant reaching forward and pulling back not only governs the mother-son exchange in part one of Crime and Punishment, but also encapsulates Raskolnikov’s “epistolary” model of loving that persists throughout the rest of the novel. I will highlight several crucial scenes that come closest to generating the intensity evinced in Raskolnikov’s response to his mother’s letter: kiss followed by malicious smile, that is, bodily embracement followed by the relief of distance. Other major themes that originate in the epistolary sequence will also be treated, such as alms-taking and the difficulty of lying. I will then conclude with a second letter-writing instance, Sonya’s letters from Siberia in the epilogue, considering how letters frame the novel and comparing Sonya’s epistolary approach, a transcription of truth, with Pulkheria’s more extravagant model of fictionalized hopes and dreams. In this manner, the letter and thought-response sequence in part one will be examined as a crucial interpolated text that connects to the novel’s whole thematically, emotionally and structurally.