Dostoevsky and Freud: Exploring the Relationship Between Psyche and Civilization

Few novels delve as deeply into the twists and turns of the human psyche as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The novel explicitly describes the protagonist Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov’s fluctuating mental state as he commits a brutal crime, becomes tortured by guilt, and finally turns himself in. This detailed description of Raskolnikov’s psyche gives readers a clear picture of his character within the context of the events that take place in the novel. Yet we know little of Raskolnikov outside of this context. How, for instance, does Raskolnikov come to develop those beliefs and characteristics that impel him to commit his crime? We know only that he embodies these beliefs and characteristics from the outset of the novel. In order to fully comprehend the whys and hows of Raskolnikov as a character, then, we must examine him outside the framework of this novel.

But how, we might ask, are we to move beyond the narrative context in which Raskolnikov exists? The answer is simple: we must place Raskolnikov within a different context and analyze him in light of this new context. How do we know which context to choose? It depends on what we hope to discover by such an analysis. In this case, we want to expand our knowledge of Raskolnikov’s characteristics and psyche. From Dostoevsky’s explicit narration, we already know Raskolnikov is a neurotic character who exhibits a number of neurotic tendencies throughout the novel. We must therefore locate a context that will help us discover the meaning behind these neurotic tendencies. The logical backdrop to choose is a Freudian context, since Freud deals extensively with human psychology and neurosis.

How exactly will Freud’s writings help us? For an answer, let us compare what an ordinary reader would conclude about Raskolnikov with what Freud would conclude. Let us begin with a short summary of the novel:

Raskolnikov is a twenty-three-year-old student living in mid-19th century St. Petersburg. His extreme poverty has recently caused him to drop out of the university; moreover, he has ceased working or attending to practical matters. He is a proud, contemptuous, bitter, and irritable character, often remaining alone in his box-like room for days at a time. It is during these periods of isolation that he devises a theory that divides humankind into two categories: those ordinary and those extraordinary. Extraordinary individuals, he believes, have an inner right to transgress the law in order to make their great ideas and/or discoveries known to humanity. Believing himself to be an extraordinary individual, he decides to test his theory by deliberately murdering an old woman pawnbroker. Upon committing this crime, however, he is immediately tormented by guilt and the constant fear of being found out. This torment drives him to confess his crime, and he begins serving eight years of penal servitude in Siberia as punishment.

In part I of the novel, Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov as "having been in an overstrained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria" for some time past (1). When out in public, he is almost always preoccupied with his own agitated thoughts or muttering to himself in a state of feverish confusion. These irregular characteristics indicate Raskolnikov’s nervous anticipation of the murder that he plans to commit. The guilt that he experiences after carrying out the murder further amplifies his irritable condition, thus plunging him into a period of illness and delirium. A reader would conclude, therefore, that Raskolnikov’s mental state is directly linked to the guilt about the crime.

Although Freud would most likely agree with this conclusion, it would constitute only a small point in his analysis if he were to explore Raskolnikov’s psychic condition. The psychoanalyst has much loftier goals, namely to discover "what [a neurotic patient’s] symptoms mean, what instinctual impulses are concealed behind them and are satisfied by them, and what course was followed by the mysterious path that has led from the instinctual wishes to the symptoms" ("Character Types" 151). This description indicates that neurotic characteristics are deeply rooted in the human psyche, and a complete Freudian analysis of Raskolnikov’s neurotic characteristics would therefore have to extend far beyond the context of his crime.

In order to engage in such an analysis, it is necessary to bring in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, a text that lends itself well to an exploration of Raskolnikov’s character. By systematically analyzing Raskolnikov against Freud’s arguments in this text, we can fully answer all of Freud’s psychoanalytic questions (as listed in the previous paragraph). Moreover, we can gain a deeper and more critical understanding of Raskolnikov’s character, while examining to what extent the constructs of civilization influence his behavior and actions.

Let us begin by examining Raskolnikov within the context of Freud’s theory of the two-sided pleasure principle. Freud maintains that all human beings live under the auspices of this principle, which is perpetually "at loggerheads with the whole world" (729). In order to cope with this incompatibility, humans engage in three primary palliative measures—deflections, substitutive satisfactions, and intoxication—which aid us in either avoiding displeasure or achieving a moderate sense of pleasure from other sources. Raskolnikov, however, is unable to make proper use of these palliative measures. Although he makes use of deflections and substitutive satisfaction, he never experiences the pleasure that these techniques are supposed to produce.

In order to determine the reasons behind Raskolnikov’s faulty employment of these palliative measures, we must first understand the connection between our palliative measures and our instincts. "Just as a satisfaction of instinct spells happiness for us," Freud writes, "so severe suffering is caused us if the external world lets us starve, if it refuses to sate our needs. One may therefore hope to be freed from a part of one’s sufferings by influencing the instinctual impulses" (731). In other words, deflections, substitutive satisfactions, and intoxication are actually control mechanisms that serve to limit the force of our instincts. We can draw the conclusion that these palliative measures are only effective insofar as one’s instincts are suppressed.

It is in this relationship that Raskolnikov’s problems lie. As a neurotic, Raskolnikov is unable to suppress his instincts as effectively as a regular person. He engages in these palliative measures for the same reasons as everybody else does, yet is unable to achieve the same results due to the abnormal strength of his instincts. When the instincts of regular people come into contact with their palliative measures, they are instantly subdued. But when Raskolnikov’s powerful instincts come into contact with his palliative measures, they combine with the palliative measures, thus turning them into extreme and distorted mental obsessions.

Raskolnikov’s deflections and substitutive satisfactions start out normally, but soon expand beyond the realm of normal mental preoccupation. His primary deflection, for example, is to engage in long periods of solitary thought. He uses these thinking sessions to develop his theory of extraordinary and ordinary individuals. We can assume that he begins with innocent enough intentions—as a student, the development of an insightful new theory would help him gain distinction in intellectual circles. Before long, however, his theory begins to take hold of him completely and consumes more and more of his time. As he recounts, "I sat in my room like a spider. [. . .] I ought to have studied, but I sold my books; and the dust lies an inch thick on the notebooks on my table. I preferred lying still and thinking. And I kept thinking. . ." (359). His preoccupation with his theory eventually leads him to his most distorted and dangerous deflection: the plan to murder the old woman in order to prove himself an extraordinary individual.

Raskolnikov’s substitutive satisfactions, taking the form of fantasies, are closely related to his deflections. As his deflections expand in size, his fantasies follow suit. In the days immediately preceding his crime, Raskolnikov spends almost all of his time imagining the murder in vivid detail. Tied up with this fantasy is his view of himself as a larger-than-life heroic individual. "I’ve learned to chatter this last month, lying for days together in my den thinking. . .of Jack the Giant-killer," he tells himself (1). Raskolnikov’s preoccupation with this fairy tale character shows that his desires and instincts have overwhelmed him completely. Instead of his palliative measures controlling his instincts, his instincts have joined forces with and amplified the palliative measures.

Obviously, Raskolnikov’s stronger-than-normal instincts are a key component of his neurotic character. But which instincts are influencing him the most and how did they become so powerful? Freud’s Civilization text once again provides us with the key to finding an explanation. In tackling the question of why it is difficult for human beings to be happy, Freud identifies three sources of human suffering: the human body, nature, and social relationships. While we cannot change the first two sources, he says, it seems that we should be able to influence the third. "And yet," he answers himself, "when we consider how unsuccessful we have been in precisely this field of prevention of suffering, a suspicion dawns on us that here, too, a piece of unconquerable nature may lie behind—this time a piece of our own psychical constitution" (735). This "piece of psychical constitution" refers to the perpetual struggle between our two primary instincts: the libidinal instinct and the aggressive instinct.

It is the existence—not the conflict—of these two instincts that is important for our purposes here. And in this context, the aggressive instinct plays the larger role in Raskolnikov’s life (even though his libidinal instinct is no doubt present). This is the instinct that most frequently takes hold of Raskolnikov and directs his thoughts and actions, as evidenced by his development of a theory that advocates crime and his actual perpetration of murder. Since Raskolnikov is still quite young, we can assume that the unusual ferocity of his aggressive instinct stems from a traumatic childhood event or a difficult passage through a childhood phase of development.

At this point, a problem arises. How is it that Raskolnikov’s aggression still exists, when the conditions of civilization are supposed to repress such instincts? Freud maintains that civilization "is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts" (742). In order to answer our question, we must again remind ourselves that Raskolnikov is a neurotic character with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization.

Does this mean that Raskolnikov doesn’t have the "strange attitude of hostility to civilization" that Freud says most people do? (735). No, because his powerful instincts render him much more aware of the repressive nature of civilization. Unlike the general public, his instincts give him more sensitivity to what is going on around him. He thus experiences a higher level of hostility toward civilization because he can sense (albeit still on an unconscious level) more fully how civilization works to limit key aspects of human nature.

This hyper-awareness enables Raskolnikov to identify and directly counter some of the ways in which civilization causes us unhappiness. Freud claims, for instance, that civilization requires that the powerful individual sacrifice his/her power to the larger group. Raskolnikov’s idea of the "extraordinary" man who is a law unto himself constitutes his counter-response. As he explains in the novel, "an ‘extraordinary’ man has the right. . .that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep. . .certain obstacles, and only in case it is essential for the practical fulfillment of an idea (sometimes, perhaps, of benefit to the whole of humanity)" (211). The fact that the extraordinary man transgresses the law in order to implement a better way of living points to Raskolnikov’s desire to change this current law of civilization and put power back into the hands of the powerful—or ‘extraordinary’—individual.

Raskolnikov also protests the fact that civilization limits the liberty and freedom of human beings. According to Freud: "The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. [. . .] The development of civilization imposes restrictions on it, and justice demands that no one shall escape those restrictions" (741). Crippled by poverty and angry at the fact that he must engage in specific institutions (such as work and school) in order to move ahead in life, Raskolnikov completely withdraws from civilization for a period of time. "I didn’t go out for days together, and I wouldn’t work," he says, "I wouldn’t even eat, I just lay there doing nothing" (339). Raskolnikov’s withdrawal from society indicates his annoyance at the fact that human existence is chained to these institutions of civilization.

At this point, let us turn our attention back to Raskolnikov’s theory and crime. We have now established that his employment of palliative measures and his hostility toward the repressions of civilization each contribute to the development of his theory and his decision to commit his crime. If we take into account Freud’s theory of the super-ego as well, we can gain an even more complete understanding of Raskolnikov’s reasons for originating both theory and crime. According to Freud’s definition, the super-ego is a severe and exacting master which "troubles itself little too little about the happiness of the ego" (770). It is an unwelcome presence for normal people and even more unpleasant for a neurotic like Raskolnikov, whose hyper-awareness causes him to experience his super-ego more intensely. For this reason, Raskolnikov wants to escape from the relentless eye of the super-ego.

In light of this information, we could look at Raskolnikov’s theory as an attempt to divest himself of his super-ego, or, better yet, prove his mastery over his super-ego. The extraordinary category of humans that Raskolnikov so admires, represented by men such as Lycurgus, Solon, Mahomet, and Napoleon, all appear to have been unhampered by their super-egos (Dostoevsky 211). These men, explains Raskolnikov, "were all without exception criminals, from the very fact that, making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, [. . .] and they did not stop short at bloodshed, either, if that bloodshed [. . .] were of use to their cause" (211). Therefore, Raskolnikov’s conception of his crime as an "experiment" to see if he is truly one of these extraordinary individuals could also be seen as an experiment to see if he is really affected by his super-ego or not. Unfortunately for Raskolnikov, both his experiment and theory fail: the excruciating remorse that he experiences after the crime proves that his super-ego does indeed dominate him and that it is impossible to completely transcend the super-ego.

The failure of Raskolnikov’s theory serves to affirm Freud’s belief that tension and disappointment go hand-in-hand with human civilization. Our Freudian analysis of Raskolnikov, moreover, indicates that complex connections exist between civilization and the human psyche—connections which are impossible to completely sever. The presence of these connections make it impossible for us to try to oppose the structure of civilization without ending up in the same plight as Raskolnikov. Thus, both Freud and Dostoevsky seem to suggest that it is necessary for us to adapt ourselves as best we can to the pre-existing constructs of civilization and learn to accept its less pleasant aspects.


Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994.

Freud, Sigmund. "Civilizations and Its Discontents." The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. "Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-analytic Work." Writings On Art and Literature. Ed. James Strachey. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.