This chapter centers on the climax of the Marmeladov subplot, with the frenzied death of Katerina Ivanovna. The combination of Luzhin’s accusation of Sonya with the family’s eviction by their landlady pushes Katerina over the edge, and she explodes in a frenzy of activity that culminates in her death. She desperately turns to illusions of her nobility and fantasies of the rich offering her support. When the rich treat her as badly as everyone else, however, it is more than her defenses can take, and she breaks down. In contrast to Raskolnikov, who accepts the deconstruction of the “superman” identity that he has envisioned for himself, Katerina defiantly plows through the reality that her proclaimed nobility is meaningless.
Although Katerina is delusional about the world around her, her sense of dignity is very real and quite strong. When her dignity bears the brunt of an intolerable attack, she responds by singing, dancing, and screaming her outrage against the world. Even her death, marked by sighs and convulsions, comes in a burst of activity. The juxtaposition of her grotesque behavior and repeated claims to nobility accentuates her obstinate refusal to alter her perception of herself in response to circumstances. Her pathetic claim to nobility becomes an increasingly angry assertion. On her deathbed, Katerina irritably refuses the services of a priest, declaring, “A priest? I am not in need of one. My conscience is free from sin! And, even were it not, God must forgive me. He knows how I have suffered!” Believing that her unending and highly visible tribulations have rendered her a martyr, Katerina believes that not even God can legitimately find fault with her.
This final portrait of Katerina Ivanovna completes the picture of the ruined Marmeladovs, a family that includes a drunk husband trampled to death in the streets, a proud but consumptive mother reduced to beating her children and begging, and an older daughter forced into prostitution. Sonya’s suffering and devotion to her family stands out remarkably against this backdrop of utter despair. She has long understood and accepted her identity and role, despite the cruel and crushing reality of her life.
Svidrigailov’s appearance at Katerina’s deathbed moves the plot in two important directions. First, by offering to pay for the funeral and provide for Katerina’s children, he frees Sonya from the overwhelming burden of caring for them, just as Razumikhin’s willingness to care for Pulcheria Alexandrovna and Dunya enables Raskolnikov to separate himself from them without feeling that he is abandoning them. Second, Svidrigailov draws Raskolnikov into his web by revealing that he has overheard Raskolnikov’s confession of the murders. He, Sonya, and Raskolnikov himself are now the only three people who know without a doubt that Raskolnikov is the murderer. While Sonya uses this knowledge for good—to try to persuade Raskolnikov to confess—it is unclear what Svidrigailov intends to do with it, but it is certain to be something much less honorable. Raskolnikov is losing control of his secret, and his control over events is about to unravel rapidly as well.