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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dostoevsky the Oedipus: Freud’s Dostoevsky and Parricide

Sigmund Freud’s `Dostoevsky and Parricide’ (1927) is an excellent example of application of Classical Psychoanalysis to literature. The essay is significant because it contains Freud’s classic exposition of the Oedipus Complex and its relation to literary texts. The essay can be read together with Freud’s other famous and insightful essays on literature like `The Uncanny’ (1919), `Creative Writers and Day Dreaming’ (1908) and `The Theme of Three Caskets’ (1913). That Freud should write extensively on literature is not surprising as he considers psychoanalysis as being ` art of interpretation’ and that many of his ideas are drawn from literary texts.
Freud is fascinated by complex and rich personality of Dostoevsky. He points out four facets of Dostoevsky’s personality, viz., the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner. Freud, characteristically, declares ` before the problem of creative artist, analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.’ Freud is more interested in Dostoevsky the neurotic and the causes of his neurosis.

Freud argues that Dostoevsky’s epileptic attacks, compulsive gambling, his latent homosexuality and his submissive attitude to religious and state authorities are manifestations of his neurosis resulting from his `Oedipus Complex’.

The Oedipus complex is an essential concept in Freudian psychoanalysis. According to the theory, during the `phallic phase’ (the phase where child’s phallus is the centre of his erotic interest –his love object) of psychosexual development of a child, the child recognizes that he is not a sole object of his mother’s love and sees father as his sexual rival. He is jealous and directs his aggression towards his father.

During the Oedipal phase, the child wants to take place of his father and thus become the object of his mother’s love. This requires identification on the part of the child with his father to obtain his mother’s love. Freud points out that the child identifies with the father to an extent that the father becomes the part of child’s personality. This part of child’s personality formed by identification with parents is called `Superego’ by Freud.

However, during this based on his knowledge of girl’s genitals, the child develops the anxiety of losing his prized possession, of being castrated and losing his masculinity. His aggression towards his father, the desire to kill him has to be repressed or driven away beyond his conscious mind into the unconscious part of his psyche out of the fear of father and father’s power to castrate him. Freud also points out the `ambivalence’ towards father in the mind of child where there is distinct love and tenderness for the father along with the desire to kill him. This gives rise to deep guilt in the mind of the child.
In Dostoevsky’s case, Freud argues, this emotional crisis arising in his phallic phase is unresolved and gives rise to his neurosis. Dostoevsky has identified with his father and hence the wish to kill his father is also a desire to kill oneself. This unresolved and unrepressed conflict results in `epileptic attacks’ which resemble the experience of dying for Dostoevsky.

The guilt arising from his unconscious parricidal desire manifests itself in self-punishing attitudes in Dostoevsky. This severe guilt and desire for self punishment, according to Freud, is at the back of Dostoevsky’s compulsive gambling, which Freud sees as a self punishing activity. As Dostoevsky’s internalized father, his superego, Freud says, is sadistic and Dostoevsky’s ego is masochistic in its desire for self punishment.

Freud also says that gambling which is a form of play is also a substitute for masturbation and hence a cause for guilt for Dostoevsky.

Freud remarks that the three masterpieces of literature Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dostoevsky’s Brother Karamazov should deal with parricide carried out of sexual rivalry for a woman is not an instance of coincidence. In the light of his theory, all literature embodies neurotic conflicts and unconscious instincts in a disguised and indirect ways so as to make them acceptable. 

The writers employ literary devices to make these unconscious sexual and socially unacceptable contents of psyche acceptable to people. In Oedipus Rex, the hero kills his father unintentionally, in Hamlet, it is carried out by someone else and in Brothers Karamazov the deed is carried out by the brother of the protagonist Dmitri. Freud also draws attention to a scene in Brothers Karamazov where Father Zossima bows down at the feet of Dmitri when he learns Dmitri is planning to kill his father.

Freud seems to imply that creative writing is similar to dreaming or neurotic symptoms which he sees as camouflaged and indirect expressions of conflicts arising from early sexual development of the child and unconscious instinctual wishes. This is obviously very `reductive’ view of literature which is a far more complex artifact. Freud himself does not seem to be entirely unaware of this limitation.

Another problem with such an approach is that too preoccupied with ` origins’ of work of art instead of its structure and meaning –critics term as originological fallacy or genetic fallacy. Hence, the obsession with biographical details and personal neurosis of the author.

As Jung (1930) points out the man who suffers and the man who creates are not identical and personal history of the artist is not very useful for understanding the works of art because the artist has to transcend himself in order to create so that he may reach out to the entire humanity. But, remember what Freud has said about `analysis…laying down its arms in front of creative artist’ in the beginning of the essay.

Freud’s ideas have been received very skeptically and often with hostility ever since their statement. Critics have pointed out that they cannot be proved rigorously and scientifically.  Other critics have also pointed out the deep seated gender bias in his theory especially his ideas like `penis envy’ which is feminine counterpart to man’s `castration anxiety’. However, Freud has always been very influential thinker whose influence is felt not just in literary criticism but also on the creative writers themselves.

Freud’s ideas regained prominence in literary theory in the twentieth century largely due to Jacques Lacan’s semiotic and structuralist reading of Freud. 


  1. Wonderfully written, i liked all the images as well.
    I teach Managerial Effectiveness and Organizational Behaviour to MBA students. Well, i learned few new things to make them understand from this article of yours, thanks.
    h i sarvaiya

  2. Dostoevsky suffered from guilt feeling. We must understand that this guilty feeling aroused from his not fulfilled the promise so he constantly punishing himself losing in gambling.Recent research in neuroscience on "mirror neurons and empathy" suggest that victim promised some thing to somebody but unable to fulfil that promise so he punishing himself

    1.Neither involved in this discussion (incl. Freud) read FD in original language.
    2. Karamazovs alone is not FD. His other novels (Demons, Idiot, Crime... etc.) are more powerful and important than BK.
    Where is parricide in those masterpieces?
    I think Freud was simply jealous of FD’s greatness (did he ever try to understand what sort of complex he [Freud] had related to FD?)
    You gentlemen are simply not capable of understanding of FD's depth as long as your native language is not Russian.

  4. Ash-You seem to be neglecting the fact that Frued himself was a pioneer and achieved posterity through his greatness.

    I concede that in reading FD in Russian you can appreciate the text to a greater extent.


  5. it's just amazing . I came to know about many new concepts .

  6. No doubt it is the arena of literature which is more benefited by the theories of Freud. Psychoanalysis has been proved to convincingly analyze the thought patterns and emotions of fictional characters.
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