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Dostoevsky and Psychology


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Dostoevsky and Psychology

'A sick man's dreams are often extraordinarily distinct and vivid and extremely life-like. A scene may be composed of the most unnatural and incongruous elements, but the setting and presentation are so plausible, the details so subtle, so unexpected, so artistically in harmony with the whole picture, that the dreamer could not invent them for himself in his waking state. . . '1

Fyodor Dostoevsky's remarkable insight into the psychology of man is seen here in the development of Raskolnikov's dream on the beating of a horse by drunken peasants. The dream is significant on several planes, most notably in the parallel of events in the dream with Raskolnikov's plan to murder the old pawnbroker. It also serves as perhaps the most direct example of the inseparable tie between events of the author's life with the psychological evolution of his protagonists, as well as lesser characters, through the criminal minds of Raskolnikov, Rogozhin, Stavrogin, and Smerdyakov, and into the familial relationships of The Brother's Karamazov.2

Traditional interpretation of literature from a psychoanalytic standpoint has relied extensively upon the work of Sigmund Freud. In the case of Dostoevsky, however, this method is both anachronistic and inadequate. Dostoevsky's great works, considered individually or holistically, though fictional, established him as one of the forefathers of psychoanalysis, and a predecessor to Freud.3 Indeed Freud himself acknowledged that 'the poets' discovered the unconscious before he did,4 stating further in a letter to Stefan Zweig, 'Dostoevsky 'cannot be understood without psychoanalysis- i.e., he isn't in need of it because he illustrates it himself in every character and every sentence.''5 There is, however, a complementary relationship between Dostoevsky and Freud brought about through the striking clinical accuracy of psychological traits exhibited both individually in Dostoevsky's characters, as well as in reflecting the author's own mental processes. Thus, it is necessary first to examine Freud as a point of departure before looking at modern alternatives of psychoanalytical method.

Freud on the Oedipus complex

Epileptic seizures plagued Dostoevsky throughout the last thirty-four years of his life, occurring about once a month on average, and consisting of 'A brief, intensely exalted, premonitory sensation, loss of consciousness, convulsions, and a lingering depression with vague feelings of criminal guilt for three to eight days.'6 Freud delves into the psychological roots of this illness in his essay 'Dostoevsky and Parricide', calling into question Dostoevsky's 'alleged epilepsy'. 'It is highly probable', he states, 'that this so-called epilepsy was only a symptom of his neurosis and must accordingly be classified as hystero-epilepsy- that is, as severe hysteria.'7 Dostoevsky's 'hystero-epilepsy', Freud believed, occurred throughout his early life, but did not take the form of violent attacks until after the death of his father. Evidence of mild trances which occurred regularly throughout his childhood in the years preceding his first epileptic attacks, indicated to Freud the beginnings of an Oedipus complex in Dostoevsky. 'Dostoevsky would fall into a 'death-like' sleep', about which Freud states,

'signify(ies) an identification with a dead person, either someone who is really dead, or with someone who is still alive and whom the subject wishes dead. . . For a boy, this other person is usually his father and that the attack (which is termed hysterical) is thus a self-punishment for a death wish against a hated father.'8

Based on this method of clinical psychology, the boy essentially regards his father as a rival for the love of his mother. Additionally, he seeks to achieve the status of his father because he respects and admires him; but it is the primal fear of castration, punishment by the loss of masculinity, which prevents the boy from removing his father.9 There are, however, in Dostoevsky, indications of sexual ambivalence, which Freud refers to as,

'(Latent homosexuality) in the important part played by male friendships in his life, in his strangely tender attitude towards rivals in love and in his remarkable understanding of situations which are explicable only by repressed homosexuality, as many examples from his novels show.'10

Thus, his condition becomes more complex. Equivalent feelings of rivalry occur in the boy's mind towards his mother, competing for the love of his father. Again, ultimately castration is necessary to gain the femininity that will achieve him the love of his father, but again, the boy cannot relinquish his masculinity.11

Indeed we find throughout the text of Dostoevsky's major works, language and gestures which are inherently suggestive of heterosexual, homosexual, and even incestuous tendencies in the author. Heterosexuality in Dostoevsky is rather overt, given that each of his protagonists at one point, or throughout has romantic inclinations towards a female figure: the Underground Man in his youth with prostitutes, Raskolnikov with Sonya, Prince Myshkin with Aglaya and Nastasya, Stavrogin in his countless sexual conquests, and in the seemingly boundless love network between women and the brothers Karamazov. Examples of homosexuality in Dostoevsky's novels arise with more subtlety. The final embrace of Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin beside the dead body of Nastasya, in which Myshkin's tears flow down Rogozhin's face, invariably connotes 'the culmination of the homosexual fantasy',12 as well as reiterates a degree of the bisexual Oedipus complex with the dead figure of Nastasya.13 In Devils, we again see the 'tenderness' of Dostoevsky's language, to which Freud referred, in the early relationship between Stepan and Stavrogin:

'Stepan Trofimovich had succeeded in touching his young friend's deepest heartstrings and evoking in him an initial intimation, as yet undefined, of that eternal, sacred yearning which some chosen souls, once they've tasted and known it, never ever exchange for any cheap pleasure. (There are some devotees who value the yearning even more than the most radical satisfaction of it, if such a thing were to be believed.) In any case, it was a good thing the tutor and his fledgling were separated and dispatched in different directions, even though it came a bit late.'14

It is important to note here, that Freud somewhat contradicts himself in looking to the texts for examples that support his contention for an Oedipus complex within Dostoevsky. Given that many personality traits of his characters fall into the category (and perhaps contributed to the foundation, as evidence suggests) of Freudian psychology, Dostoevsky strove to, and succeeded in developing characters whose psychology defies the clinical mold.15 One leg of Freud's argument stands on the inseparability of elements between Dostoevsky's life and his novels; and it is difficult to contest given the circumstances of Dostoevsky's life which so readily manifested themselves in the fabric of his work, and appear consistent with an Oedipus complex. Clearly Dostoevsky's early family life laid the foundation for such interpretations. His father was an authoritative figure, whose position Fyodor both respected and admired, yet he harbored intense hatred, and even a degree of guilt for his father's harsh treatment of his mother.16 Louis Breger likens the Dostoevsky family situation to that of an image instilled on Fyodor in his adolescence- the beating of a carriage driver by a courier, who intern whipped his lead horse. Forty years later, Dostoevsky writes of this experience in his notebooks,

'Here there was method and not mere irritation- something preconceived and tested by long years of experience- and the dreadful fist soared again and again and struck blows on the back of the head. . . [The driver who] could hardly keep his balance, incessantly, every second, like a madman, lashed the horses. . . This disgusting scene has remained in my memory all my life. . . This little scene appeared to me, so to speak, as an emblem, as something which very graphically demonstrated the link between cause and effect. Here every blow dealt at the animal leaped out of the blow dealt at the man.'17

Like the horse and courier, Breger states, '[The] father, feeling insecure and oppressed from above, passed down his pain and outrage to his wife, the servants, and the children. Fedya, recipient of his father's criticism and coercive control, no doubt felt like passing his hurt down the line to the siblings beneath him.'18 This image of the beating of the horse unquestionably finds its way into the text of Crime and Punishment as Raskolnikov's dream, foreshadowing the murder of the pawnbroker; again reinstating a parallel of events in accordance with Freud.

The role of dream in Dostoevsky's novels, for the most part, cannot be considered independently of his theological mission, as in 'The Dream of a Ridiculous Man', and others, such as the dreams of Alyosha and Dmitri. In Crime and Punishment, however, Svidrigaylov's final dream reiterates yet another source of internal conflict which Breger believes existed within the author himself. 'The theme of the abuse of young children', he states, 'and specifically the sexual abuse of young girls, had a strong grip on Dostoevsky's imagination.'19 The image of raping a young girl, as in Svidrigaylov's dream, arises again through 'Stavrogin's confession' in Devils. Breger goes further to suggest, 'Dostoevsky was drawn to it with fascination and horror, it represented the ultimate crime and source of guilt. [T]his was because it symbolized the most powerful source of rage and guilt in his own life: the wish to attack his own mother and the children who were rivals for her love.'20 If this is the case, and indeed Freud would agree, other examples in the text appear which, though speculative, contribute to further psychological connections between the author and his characters. Raskolnikov's rage towards Luzhin arises primarily through jealousy, indicating sexual tension between he and Dunya, and perhaps incestuous feelings within the author in his adolescence.21 Additionally, Stavrogin is ultimately responsible for the death of a young girl who, prior to her hanging, 'kept brandishing her little fists at [him] menacingly and shaking her head in reproach.'22 'One wonders', Breger states, 'if this repeated image (also seen in The Eternal Husband) does not come from Dostoevsky's own sexual/angry games with a young sister?'23

At the core of Freud's essay 'Dostoevsky and Parricide' lies The Brothers Karamazov. If nowhere else in his other works, this novel provides the most compelling evidence outside his biography of the author's own struggle with his father and with epilepsy. Ironically, despite its overt, and seemingly direct accordance with the Oedipus complex, it is at this point where departure from Freud is necessary to further understand the complex psychology behind Dostoevsky and his characters.

Shortcomings of Freud: Breger's View

As aforementioned, one leg of Freud's argument rests on the idea that elements of Dostoevsky's life are inseparable from his works. The other rests upon a medical assumption by Freud, that his seizures were not epileptic, but rather 'hysterical', driven by neurotic impulses which stemmed from an Oedipus complex, unresolved by natural means. Breger states,

'Hysterical epilepsy' is a recognizable entity today; it appears in patients who mimic, or act out, seizures, almost always before an audience. It is clear that Dostoevsky did not have this particular condition; his seizures mainly occurred during sleep when he was alone. What is more, he suffered physical injury from them, something that does not occur in hysterical epilepsy.'24

It is believed that Dostoevsky suffered from temporal-lobe epilepsy, the most common form of the disease.25 Another obvious shortcoming of Freud's analysis, as previously mentioned, lies in his attempt to cite specific traits of Dostoevsky's characters as rooted wholly within the psyche of the author. Indeed, despite some unquestionable parallels, his characters appear infinitely more complex than Freud's stock, clinical psychological portraits. Victor Terras elucidates one of the fundamental differences between Dostoevsky and other nineteenth-century novelists in the psychological development of his characters:

'They are developed centrifugally rather than centripitally. As the novel progresses, the reader keeps discovering new character traits in a Dostoevskian hero, and some of these will come quite unexpected. As a result the character in question keeps growing fuller, more complex, and more intriguing. . . . Dostoevsky himself did not believe in psychological determinism and insisted on the double-edged nature of all psychological analysis.'26

Indeed, this theme is consistently apparent throughout Dostoevsky's novels, in Raskolnikov's self-discourse prior to his confession of the murder, 'everything cuts both ways', through to the moral, philosophical, and religious debates in The Brothers Karamazov- 'moral perfectibility may be a two-edged weapon'27, and in Father Iosif's words regarding Ivan's article, 'He brings forward much that is new, but I think the argument cuts both ways,'28 and concluding with Dmitri's trial in the argument of the defense, 'But profound as psychology is, it's a knife that cut's both ways.'29 Clearly, Dostoevsky seeks not only to express here the old cliché, 'two sides to every story', but to reiterate the pluralistic nature of psychology, as well as moral philosophy and theology, which in his characters, cannot be considered independent of psychology.

Louis Breger seems to present the most comprehensive and adequate approach to psychology in Dostoevsky. While building upon Freud, he rejects the simplicity and atomistic nature of his analysis: 'Too often, applications to literature have relied on particular psychoanalytic observations- the Oedipus complex, the primal scene,- or some version of theory- orthodox Freudian, Lacanian. But observations and theory can only be guidelines in the application of the method.'30
Breger argues here, that Freudian methods of analysis tend to think of the author as patient, and believes rather, in the case of Dostoevsky, that he should be considered a fellow psychoanalyst. 'What is most characteristic in [Dostoevsky] is the presence of multiple points of view; he is never, as an author, completely identified with one character.'31

With this, we turn back to The Brothers Karamazov, which, more so than any of his great works, presents the author's multiple viewpoints openly and readily tangible in the brothers, father Karamazov, and the epileptic, Smerdyakov. It is impossible here, nor is it Breger's point, to reject the Oedipus complex as it is so completely manifested within Dostoevsky and his characters. However, a more complete picture is given through individual analysis of Dostoevsky's association with these characters. From a psychological standpoint, the figures of Ivan and Dmitri are more significant than Alyosha. Both harbored the desire to kill their father, Fyodor Karamazov, who, as Breger states, 'displays much of the impulse-ridden side of Dr. Dostoevsky.'32 Additionally, their appears to be a direct correlation between the real and fictitious fathers' handling of money, and it is the figure of Dmitri who embodies Dostoevsky's correspondence with his father- full of hatred, with an innate desire to kill him, but with a constant need for money which the father refused to appease. Ivan's reaction to the death of his father is ambivalent, and indeed illustrates what conflicting emotions were present in Dostoevsky with the death of his father. 'It is certain that his death', Breger states, 'produced a duel effect on Fyodor. On the one side, he must have felt glad: finally justice was done, revenge taken, on the tyrant who had oppressed him. . . On the other side, he must have felt guilty over the actualization of his own murderous wishes.'33 Yet it is Smerdyakov, the epileptic, who murders the father. There is a question as to whether Smerdyakov was actually Fyodor Karamazov's son, thus it is ambiguous to find this as fulfillment of the Oedipus complex. Rather, it is the meaning of this disease which Dostoevsky struggled with his entire life, and addresses here through Smerdyakov's ability to fake an attack in plotting and carrying out the murder. Breger states, 'By showing how Smerdyakov uses his disease for manipulative and selfish ends, Dostoevsky confronts the same tendency in himself.'34

As his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov serves to complete the evolution of Dostoevsky's psychological battles, on a more refined, mature, and wholly paternal level.35 It is impossible to neglect the unarguable Freudian themes within his characters, nor is it possible to consider these characters in isolation from events of the author's life. However, Dostoevsky clearly exhibits unconscious insight into the human mind, and thus must be considered at par, if not above the canon of psychology.


1 Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, Ch. V, Coulson Translation, 1964.
2 Breger, p. 1
3 Id., p.238
4 d., p.5
5 Rice, p.5
6 Id., p. 185
7 Freud, p. 179
8 Id., P. 183
9 Id.
10 Id., p. 184
11 Id., p. 184-85
12 Dalton, P. 180
13 Id.
14 Dostoevsky, Devils, Part I, Chapter 2, Katz translation, 1992.
15 Terras, p. 29
16 Breger, p. 74
17 Id., p. 2
18 Id., p. 74
19 Id., p. 79
20 Id.
21 Breger, p. 80
22 Dostoevsky, Devils, 'At Tikhon's', Katz translation, 1992.
23 Breger, p. 80
24 Breger, p. 241
25 Id.
26 Terras, p. 28, 29
27 Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book I, Chapter V, Garnet translation, 1976.
28 Id., Book II, Chapter V
29 Id., Book XII, Chapter X
30 Breger, p. 6
31 Id., p. 7,8
32 Id., p. 88
33 Id.
34 Id., p. 251
35 Id.


Breger, Louis, Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst, New York University Press, 1989.

Dalton, Elizabeth, Unconscious Structure in The Idiot: A Study in Literature and Psychoanalysis, Princeton University Press, 1979.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Devils, 'At Tikhon's', Katz translation, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor, The Brothers Karamazov, Garnet translation, revised by Ralph E. Matlaw, W.W. Norton & Company, 1976.

Rice, James L., Freud's Russia: National Identity in the Evolution of Psychoanalysis, Transaction Publishers, 1993.

Strachey, James, translator, The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XXI (1927-31), The Hogarth Press, 1973.

Terras, Victor, F. M. Dostoevsky: Life, Work, and Criticism, York Press, 1984.

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