A Russian Magdalen: Dostoevsky's Saintly Prostitute

Aurora E. Choi
May 7, 1995

Not for this I was born and then raised up.
Unacquainted was I with such need.
I once prayed to God, I was faithful.
I once had a soul that knew peace.
-from "Fallen," a Russian brothel song (Bernstein, 169)

Prostitutes, women who sell their bodies for money, have been frowned upon since antiquity by most members of society. However, from as early as Rahab, the Whore of Jericho in the Old Testament who helped Joshua and his men regain the Promised Land, prostitutes have been portrayed as not only as sinners with the possibility of redemption, but women who lead men to salvation as well. This trend was particularly taken up in nineteenth-century Russian literature: "Elevated into powerful literary symbols by authors like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy..., prostitutes became female archetypes who either disillusioned the men with whom they associated or raised them to a higher plane of being" (11). Dostoevsky uses this idea of a "saintly prostitute" repeatedly in his works. The archetype that Bernstein claims he creates in based on the image of Mary Magdalen from the New Testament, the celebrated reformed prostitute who devotes her life to Christ. Crime and Punishment's Sonya Marmeladova, of whom "Notes from Underground's Liza is a prototype, performs the role of the penitent sinner who leads the way to salvation: the saintly prostitute Mary Magdalen.

Despite common belief, Mary Magdalen is never referred to as a reformed prostitute in the four Gospels of the New Testament, though her actual role is just as pertinent to Dostoevsky's writing. In spite of the Gospels' tendencies to conflict with each other, they agree on four aspects of the Magdalen's life. First of all, she is one of Jesus Christ's female followers who is present at his crucifixion" (Haskins, 3). She is also either one of, or the witness to Christ's resurrection(4). In this role, she is the first to deliver the message of Christianity, bringing "the knowledge that through Christ's victory over death, life everlasting was offered to all who believe" (4). There is no explicit mention of her being a prostitute in the Gospel; the closest is in Luke, where she is referred to merely as a woman out of whom seven devils had been expelled by Christ (7). This can reasonably be interpreted as the seven deadly sins, which does not necessarily entail offering one's body for payment. Despite what the Bible says, her accepted biography is quite different. Through the course of time, Mary Magdalen's life has been associated with at least two other women appearing in the New Testament.

In the Gospel according to Luke, an unnamed female sinner appears in the House of Simon the Pharisee, where Christ is dining (16). She falls at his feet, begging forgiveness for an unspecified sin, though one probably of the flesh. Then she bathes his feet in her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints them (16). Christ accepts her actions and repentance, for which the Pharisee criticizes him. Simon believes that the reason Christ accepts her offering is out of ignorance of her sins. Though Luke does not say exactly what her sin is, through language, appearance (her unbound hair) and circumstances, it is implied that the unnamed sinner is a prostitute. Christ replies with a parable of the debtor whose moral is that the person who forgives the most will be the one who receives the most love in return (16).

Mary of Bethany is the second persona that Mary Magdalen assumes. She, along with her sister Martha, are named Christ's friends (20). They are also the sisters of Lazarus, another friend of Jesus, who falls ill and passes away. The sisters reproach Christ for his absence, and out of his friendship to them, Christ raises Lazarus from the dead (21), a miracle which is the indirect cause of his death. Later, at a feast of celebration, Mary of Bethany anoints his feet in thanksgiving (23), similar to the action performed by the unnamed sinner.

In the centuries following Christ's death and resurrection, all three women were synthesized into one being. According to the Gospel of St. John, the unnamed sinner and Mary of Bethany are the same (23), which is not supported by the other three gospels. Much later, in a proclamation made by Pope Gregory the Great (16), further supported by the popular medieval work on the lives of saints,The Golden Legend (Malvern, 90), all three women are the same entity who fall under the name of Mary Magdalen.

The stories of these three women coalesce to form the Mary Magdalen with whom Dostoevsky was familiar. She becomes this prostitute who repents her sinful ways, bathes Jesus Christ's feet with her tears, has a brother who is resurrected by Christ, witnesses the crucifixion and resurrection, and who brings the Word of Christianity and salvation to the world. Because of these alternate interpretations of the New Testament, "for nearly two-thousand years, the traditional conception of Mary Magdalen has been that of the prostitute who, hearing the words of Jesus Christ, repented of her sinful past and henceforth devoted her whole life and love to him (Haskins, 3). The parable told to Simon the Pharisee preaches forgiveness for one's sins, the greater the magnitude of the sin, the more rewarding the forgiveness. By the mid-nineteenth century, she "became the representative of the 'single fallen woman'" (319), who is often portrayed by Dostoevsky in his novels and short stories.

Liza, Dostoevsky's first attempt at portraying a saintly prostitute, makes her appearance in "Notes from Underground," a short story published in 1864. The Underground Man, the narrator of the story, visits the brothel where she works and sleeps with her. In their ensuing conversation, he learns that she is a 20 year-old runaway from Riga who must earn her living as a prostitute in St. Petersburg (2:6). She is already in debt to the madam, so cannot freely leave the brothel . Her only hope is a medical student who knows nothing of her occupation and sends her a love letter (2:7). After the Underground Man's abusive tirade, she turns the other cheek, refusing to lash back out at him (2:7). She visits him in his home, and after another tirade, she forgives him yet again and sleeps with him (2:9) out of love rather than profit. In a moment of cruelty, he pays her for her services, and she departs, never to be seen again (2:10).

Dostoevsky's other prostitute is Sonya Marmeladova from Crime and Punishment, published two years later in 1866. She is the daughter of the drunk, Marmeladov (1:2). Her family is so poor that the despairing step-mother, Katerina Ivanovna all but forces her onto the street. Sonya obeys and returns two hours later with 30 roubles. Weeping, Katerina Ivanovna kisses Sonya's feet as a gesture towards her sacrifice (1:2). Under the current Russian law, as a prostitute, Sonya must carry a yellow card and leave home. She is ashamed of her occupation, but continues to support her family. The protagonist Raskolnikov is fascinated with her, and in their first discussion, he, too, kisses her feet after she reads him the passage of Lazarus' resurrection (4:4). Later, he confesses his crime to her, and she immediately forgives him, instructing him on how to repent (5:4). Afterwards, she follows him to Siberia (Epilogue: I), and witnesses his final conversion (Epilogue: II). Despite several similarities, Liza fails to be Sonya, and therefore a Magdalen. They are both unwilling prostitutes, but Liza is a prostitute to make her own living, while Sonya is one for her family's survival. Like Christ, the Underground Man "reforms" Liza: "the effect of his sympathetic and compassionate concerns to leave Liza in convulsive despair before the condition she finds herself in and with a desperate desire to leave her present way of life" (Wasiolek, 51). Until the Underground Man finishes his first tirade, she gives no indication of being unhappy with her situation, whereas Sonya always shows herself to be ashamed of being a prostitute. Liza is saintly only so far as she retains her innocence as the Underground Man notes: "That's girlish innocence for you! That's virgin soil!" when speaking of her faith in his good will towards her(2:8). Her response to the Underground Man, her forgiveness of his actions, is based more on intuition than religious belief: "she sees in a flash of insight his unhappiness, and through the warmth of true love she momentarily breaks through the vicious circle of hurt and being hurt" (52) and "in the midst of a furious diatribe against himself and against the world, he notices that she is listening, not to his versatile insults, but to the pain that underlies them. She understands and is prepared to love him" (Conradi, 37). Even if it is true understanding, it is only temporary, for the Underground Man refuses to allow himself to be transformed by her. By paying her for what she gave freely out of love and sympathy, he "leaves Liza with an insult burning in her soul, convinced that 'this highest form of consciousness' (consciousness of self) is better than the love he might offer her if he overtook her" (Wasiolek, 53). At first it seems Liza can reform him, but the Underground Man overpowers her. The difference between her and Sonya is that she does not have even a quarter of the religious faith that Sonya possesses. She offers no good argument for conversion, only instinctively possessing the potentail for sainthood. When she flees the Underground Man's home, one receives the impression that her fate will be the one he predicted for her: she will grow old and no longer be desired as a prostitute, or she will contract a disease and die, the inevitable fate of the nineteenth- century prostitute. Liza does not stand up to the Underground Man, instead giving into despair and fleeing into the wet snow. She is not the messenger of Christianity for which Mary Magdalen in known.

Sonya succeeds in being a Magdalen through her strong faith in God and her influence on Raskolnikov. Her name, Sofya, means wisdom, which is an indication of her role in the novel. She gives more of the impression of the unwilling prostitute, one who sacrifices her purity for love of her family. She is forced by circumstance to remain a prostitute, unwelcome among "decent folk" for "the regulation system [of Imperial Russia] had transformed Sonia into a full-time prostitute...without the yellow ticket...perhaps she would have sacrificed herself only a few times to save her family from hunger" (Bernstein, 277). As Mary Magdalen is the first to reveal the resurrection of Christ, Sonya reads the passage of Lazarus to the murderer (4:4). In spite of Raskolnikov's malicious claim that God does not exist, that she and her family are doomed to lives of suffering, she stands firm with her "God will not allow it!" Sonya possesses the Magdalen/Christian sense of forgiveness for all. For example, she does not blame her step-mother for her plight; she even feels guilty for not being as giving as she could be (the incident with the collar) (4:4). Despite her occupation, she is viewed as a "tiny, self-sacrificing figure with and unsullied heart" (Wasiolek, 61). Furthermore, although "she is shamed at having him where she receives her guests, and timid in the defense of her beliefs and hopes" (Conradi, 72), she stands firm in face of Raskolnikov's abuse given during his first visit to her, similar to the abuse given by the Underground Man to Liza. Unlike Liza, she wins him over in this scene: he "gets up and with trembling lips and flashing eyes he falls down before her and says, 'I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all suffering humanity'" (72), which is Sonya's message. She says to him after his confession, "Accept suffering and achieve atonement through it-that is what you must do" (5:4). This is how Sonya copes with her life, she accepts suffering; she repents her sins and spreads this message, just as Mary Magdalen did. "Sonya, the symbol of rebirth and faith...there is birth in the reading of the story of Lazarus..." and she "remains uncorrupted, and the mysterious attraction Raskolnikov feels for her is...a sign of what she represents (Conradi, 81).

Liza, in "Notes from Underground," is merely the prototype for Sonya. In his earlier work, Dostoevsky wanted to portray a saintly prostitute, a Mary Magdalen, but, as so often happens with him, his anti-hero gets away from him. The Underground Man refuses to repent, and is so overpowering that this "meek one" cannot win. Yet the reason is that Liza displays no sign of faith, and that is how Dostoevsky resolves the problem in Crime and Punishment. Mary Magdalen is a dominant figure in both the religious and secular world, a symbol of Eternal forgiveness and salvation. "Her image embodie[s] the perceptions of every era, being refashioned again and again to suit the needs and aspirations of the time" (Haskins, ix). Dostoevsky takes a common image of his time period, that of the prostitute, and utilizes her in conjunction with the myth of Mary Magdalen, to convey the ultimate message of repentance for one's sins and the perpetual chance of salvation.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Laurie. Sonia's Daughter's: Prostitutes and Their Regulation in Imperial Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Conradi, Peter. Modern Novelists: Fyodor Dostoevsky. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor M. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Jessie Coulson. Ed. George Gibian. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor M. "Notes from Underground." Trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew. New York: Penguin Books, 1961.

Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993.

Malvern, Marjorie M. Venus in Sackcloth: The Magdalen's Origins and Metamorphoses. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1975.

Wasiolek, Edward. Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press, 1964.