Dostoyevsky and Parricide

views updated


Freud distinguished Dostoyevsky the writer, Dostoyevsky the neurotic, Dostoyevsky the moralist, and Dostoyevsky the sinner. Freud regarded Dostoyevsky the writer as unassailable, placing his work alongside Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Hamlet. The moralist Freud dismissed, for Dostoyevsky confined himself to being the sinner, subject to the czar and God, even while he oscillated between faith and atheism. Sadistic toward the outside world where small things were concerned, and toward himself where large things were concerned, Dostoyevsky finally appeared to be a masochist, "that is to say the mildest, kindliest, most helpful person possible" (p. 179). But for Freud there is more: Dostoyevsky's projections into his charactersviolent, egocentric, criminalbear witness to his identification with them. The sexual attack on the young girl as related to Strakov, would support this view, as would Dostoyevsky's passion for gambling.

Dostoyevsky's impulsive character interfered with his neurosis, and as a result, his ego lost its unity, a condition that expressed itself in his so-called epilepsy. This condition was, however, no more than a symptom of his neurosis, hystero-epilepsy, a serious form of hysteria. Freud pointed out the memory difficulties associated with such epilepsy and the limited understanding of the disease at the time. Dostoyevsky's affliction appears to have been a case of the ancient morbus sacer (sacred illness) or a clinical variant. Its link with psychic life does not interfere with "complete mental development and, if anything, an excessive and as a rule insufficiently controlled emotional life" (p. 180), characteristic of Dostoyevsky's mental functioning. The mechanism of his abnormal instinctual discharge, organically preconditioned, was made available to his neurosis, and through somatic means, it eliminated any excitation not psychically contained.

For Freud, Dostoyevsky's first, slight attacks harked back to childhood and did not assume a true epileptic form until after the traumatic event of the murder of his father by Russian peasants. Psychoanalysis showed that this was the keystone of Dostoyevsky's neurosis, and the parricide of the Karamazovs reflects this. Dostoyevsky's anxieties about death, which he experienced in his youth, together with his states of lethargic sleep, would indicate that Dostoyevsky identified with the dead or with someone whose death he desired, and may have triggered a mechanism of self-punishment.

Freud then returns to his hypothesis about the murder of the father in the primitive horde, humanity's primal crime, which is reproduced in fantasy in every individual: the little boy, in his ambivalent relationship to his father (fear of castration or tenderness), must renounce his desire to possess the mother and eliminate the father, but a sense of unconscious guilt remains. In Dostoyevsky, a strong bisexual disposition conditioned and reinforced his neurosis, intensifying his defense against a "remarkably harsh" father. Thus the relationship between Dostoyevsky and the paternal object was transformed into a relationship between the ego and the superego. Once the murder of his father had given a sense of reality to such repressed desires, epilepsy followed.

The atmosphere indicates the liberation experienced, whereas the punitive dimension is confirmed in jail, where Dostoyevsky's crises do not disappear but at least no longer weaken him, in spite of the injustice of the punishment: the czar has replaced the father. Dostoyevsky took this one step farther: the epileptic is the parricidethe culmination of his identification with common, political, and religious criminalsbut the gambling debt, satisfying the need for self-punishment, enables him to write and succeed as a novelist.

Curiously, at the end of this article on Dostoyevsky, Freud also analyzed Stefan Zweig's short story "Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman." Freud sees this short story as the fantasy of a young man (also a gambler), in which his mother initiates him into sexual life to protect him from masturbation, a compulsion Freud assumed to be present in Dostoyevsky.

Freud spent two years (1926-1928) reluctantly writing this article on "the cursed Russian," whom he claimed not to have liked. His work led to discussions with Theodor Reik and Stefan Zweig. The article did not cause much of a stir when it was published, and the question of epilepsy failed to generate interest. Freud's ambivalence toward the writer's "pathological nature" attests to a certain rivalry with Dostoyevsky over the latter's exploration of the unconscious, but may also indicate Freud's parricidal wishes toward Jean Martin Charcot, the father of hystero-epilepsy, wishes quite different from Dostoyevsky's epilepsy. Freud's interpretation of the onset of Dostoyevsky's crisis remains questionable, as does his interpretation of the father's "murder." At the time (1928), Dostoyevsky's past was still largely unknown.

Marie-thÉrÈse Neyraut-Sutterman

See also: Self-punishment; "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming"; Literary and artistic creation; Parricide; Zweig, Stefan.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1928b). Dostoyevsky and parricide. SE, 21, 173-196.


Drouilly, Jean. (1977). Freud et Dostoïewski.Évolution psychiatrique, 42, 1, 127-140.

Green, André. (1992). Le double double: Ceci et cela. In his La déliaison: Psychanalyse, anthropologie et littérature (pp. 299-311). Paris: Belles Lettres.

Marinov, Vladimir. (1990). Figures du crime chez Dostoïewski. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Neyraut-Sutterman, Marie-Thérèse. (1970). Parricide etépilepsie:À propos d'un article de Freud sur Dostoïewski. Revue Française de Psychanalyse, 34, 4, 635-652.

Tellenbach, Hubertus. (1976). Phénoménologie de l'intrication entreépilepsie et changement de la personnalitéà l'exemple du prince Myichkine de Dostoïewski. Psychanalyseà l'Université, 1, 2, 341-354.