Patterns of guilt and repentance in the

life and work of Fyodor Dostoevsky








Mark Wilson

Professor Carmines POLS Y315

April 7, 2000

The psychoanalysis of individual human beings, however, teaches us with quite special insistence that the god of each of them is formed in the likeness of his father, that his personal relation to God depends on his relation to his father in the flesh and oscillates and changes along with that relation, and that at bottom God is nothing other than an exalted father.

-- Sigmund Freud

A trait that is common among extraordinary people is not just the ability to overcome adversity, but also the ability to incorporate adversity into their masterpieces. Throughout his life, Fyodor Dostoevsky encountered the darkest depths of human emotion within himself. The undercurrents of murderous rage and subsequent guilt were a continuous theme in his writing, as well as, his psyche. What makes Dostoevsky extraordinary was his ability to incorporate his subconscious urges and penance into a body of literature that has enlightened individuals for over a century. Continuously present throughout Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life and work was the need to give tangible form to his repressed patricidal wishes; therefore, Dostoevsky subconsciously attempted to repent for the death of his father.

The existence of an oedipal conflict within Dostoevsky is the origin of his unconscious need for repentance. The death of Dostoevsky’s mother, combined with the vicarious fulfillment of Dostoevsky’s patricidal fantasy when servants murdered his father, imbrued a deep sense of guilt in Dostoevsky. This guilt was acted out on numerous fields of Dostoevsky’s life. It appeared within his first love, Maria, whose marriage symbolized Dostoevsky’s ideal possession of his mother. The guilt appeared in Dostoevsky’s compulsive gambling and the allure of redemption through winning and sufferable penance through losing. The pattern of guilt also appeared in the way Dostoevsky coped with the fearful epilepsy he suffered. Most importantly, Dostoevsky’s subconscious suffering was incorporated into his writing, which in turn outlines universal aspects of the human condition.

Dostoevsky’s self-destructive tendencies were founded during his childhood. During this time, Dostoevsky lived with his mother, father and seven siblings in a "close, crowded," (Breger 71) apartment. He was the second born and, unlike his older brother, Fyodor had a wet nurse. Subsequently, the mother reportedly favored the first born (71). Fyodor was competing not only against seven siblings for his mother’s attention, but also against his jealous and untrusting father. Dostoevsky’s father "created an atmosphere of scarcity: the feeling that there was never enough of the mother," (78). Dostoevsky’s father, Mikhail, was a self-made doctor who entered into an arranged marriage at age 31 with the 19-year-old Maria Nechaeva. Originally from the Ukraine, Mikhail Dostoevsky ran away at age 15 to Moscow in order to avoid becoming a priest like his father. Forced to take care of himself, Mikhail originated a "rigid moral religious code" (84) and an obsessive work ethic. When educating his two oldest sons, Mikhail and Fyodor, Dr. Dostoevsky stressed that their worth was only contingent on their achievements. Their father treated them as if "they were nothing—lazy, stupid beings—except what they produced by study and effort," (73). For instance, Dr. Dostoevsky would require that the boys stand and recite Latin and any mistake would result in fatherly insults and criticism (85). By making his approval contingent on academic success, Dr. Dostoevsky imbued his sons with the guilt associated with failure.

Within a few months of Mrs. Dostoevsky's death from tuberculosis, Dr. Dostoevsky insisted that his sons move to the Academy of Military Engineering in Petersburg. The death solidified the unresolvability of Fyodor’s Oedipus complex. Furthermore, the concurrent events of his mother’s death and his father’s domination of his education caused Fyodor to develop a "mysterious throat and chest ailment" which can only be explained psychosomatically (13). By interrupting the grieving process, the father undoubtedly fanned resentment in Fyodor. While Fyodor was at school, the guilt exchange only worsened. Fyodor, low on finances, would petition his father for funds and his father would respond with blame and gratuitous self-pity over his own lack of money. The members of the overcrowded Dostoevsky household competed against each other for resources: "The psychological center of this was competition for love, but it early became tied to money," (14). The most significant means of communication between father and son during this time was the "mutual induction of guilt," (87).

During the years following the mother’s death, Fyodor’s father grew increasingly corrupt. He moved to the plot of land that he was able to buy after being promoted to the lower ranks of Russian nobility. He managed the serfs beneath him to the point of mutiny. Reportedly, he drank heavily, bedded a young peasant girl and was a cruel landowner. As a result, it is believed that his serfs murdered Dr. Dostoevsky (88).

Only two years after his mother’s death, the second half of the oedipal fantasy became vicariously true for Dostoevsky with his father’s murder. Young Dostoevsky was preoccupied with death. He would occasionally leave notes incase he died during the night (Freud 182). Freud argues that such preoccupation signifies identification with a dead person, "or with someone who is still alive and whom the subject wishes dead," (183). The thought of murdering his father would be unthinkable to the religiously and morally raised Dostoevsky. The guilt associated with the act of vicariously murdering his father was repressed due to the subliminal nature of the Oedipus complex.

The overall result of Dostoevsky’s relationship with his father became an overly dominant id and super-ego:

If the father was hard, violent and cruel, the super-ego takes over those attributes from him and, in the relations between the ego and it, the passivity which was supposed to have been repressed is reestablished. The super-ego has become sadistic and the ego becomes masochistic (Freud 185).

The id seeks gratification in the masochistic self-abuse of guilt, while the super-ego is also placated by the morality of martyrdom. It is commonly accepted that a weak ego is the root of neurosis.

Between the time of his father’s death and his political imprisonment, Dostoevsky’s condition foreshadowed the epileptic seizures he would battle for the rest of his life. After his second novel, The Double, was called "fantastic and mad" by literary peer Vissarion Belinsky, Dostoevsky suffered from "hypochondriacal symptoms and a disturbance in his sense of reality," (Breger 107). Dostoevsky may have subconsciously invited his peers to attack his work: "Gratification and triumph," resulting from the acceptance of his first book, "must be paid for … with punishment and suffering," according to Dostoevsky’s psychology (110). Furthermore, the attacks on The Double were more poignant because the story reveals a conflicted duality of its protagonist, which Dostoevsky based on himself.

In time, Dostoevsky’s association with Belinsky and other Socialist writers led to his political exile in 1849. Dostoevsky’s arrest was the result of planning a unlicensed printing press and it is not necessarily true that Dostoevsky supported the Socialist overthrow of the tsar.

Dostoevsky’s symbolic relationship with the tsar parallels his relationship with his father. Insecure of his power, the tsar decided to make an example out of Dostoevsky’s secret group and prepared them for execution. However, this was merely a ruse. The death sentence was read to them in front of a firing squad and at the last moment in "his infinite mercy" it was announced that the tsar had spared their lives (131). The mock execution resembles the sadistic guilt induction inherent in Dostoevsky’s father. During Dostoevsky’s imprisonment, he "landed in the retrograde position of submission … both for the Tsar and for the God of the Christians, and of a narrow Russian nationalism," (Freud 177). This change in attitude seems to parallel the repentant submission to his father’s domination of his education.

Also symbolic of Dostoevsky’s Oedipus complex was his marriage to Maria Isayeva. After her husband drank himself to death, Dostoevsky acted out his Oedipal desire to possess his mother figure by marrying Isayava. Like Dostoevsky’s mother, Maria Dostoevsky, Maria Isayava was in the beginning stages of the tuberculosis that eventually took her life and was the mother of a son (Breger 14). In reality, Isayava was nothing like Dostoevsky’s idealized view of her and they mostly lived apart.

Soon after Maria died in 1864, Dostoevsky’s brother, Mikhail also died suddenly. Furthermore, a few months later a friend of Dostoevsky’s, Grigoryev, died and The Epoch, a journal that Mikhail and Fyodor founded, went bankrupt. Dostoevsky was deep in family and personal debts.

In the midst of all this suffering, Dostoevsky produced his most psychologically revealing book: Crime and Punishment. Rationally, the book was an attempt to pay off his debts. Subconsciously, Dostoevsky worked "conflict through in his writing," (16).

Dostoevsky used Punishment’s protagonist, Rasvolnikov, to give form to his own intangible, murderous guilt. Rasvolnikov’s redemption, as well as Dostoevsky’s, is found by aligning himself with suffering. Like Dostoevsky, Rasvolnikov begins the book in a state of indebtedness. To cure this state, Rasvolnikov resolves to murder an useless "old hag of a moneylender," (Dostoevsky 529) and steal her money. Like Dostoevsky gambles with roulette, Rasvolnikov "gambles with life to see if he dares to risk going beyond all moral limits," (Leonard 182).

The conflict within Dostoevsky's super-ego and id manifests itself in Raskolnikov's intense suffering. Raskolnikov dreams of a suffering, beaten horse and he "put his arms round her dead bloodstained muzzle, and kissed her, kissed her on the eyes, on the lips ... Then he suddenly jumped to his feet and rushed in a rage at Mikolka with his little fists" (Dostoevsky 78). Raskolnikov portrays both the compassionate child and the cruel Mikolka from his dream. In The Notebooks for Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky writes "My first personal insult, the horse, the courier," (qtd. in Breger 2). Raskolnikov’s dream is based on a real experience Dostoevsky had shortly after his mother’s death. Dostoevsky witnessed a government courier beating a peasant carriage driver. In turn, the peasant viscously beat the lead horse with the whip. "Here every blow dealt at the animal leaped out of the blow dealt at the man," (qtd. in Breger 2) Dostoevsky described 40 years later. This scene became a metaphor for many of the insults that affected Dostoevsky throughout his life, as well as, the hierarchical oppression of the Russian people. For example, Dostoevsky’s father, feeling oppressed by his superiors, "passed down his pain and outrage to his wife, the servants and the children," (74).

In order to repent their intense guilty feelings, Dostoevsky, and Raskolnikov, align their consciences with all others who are suffering. Raskolnikov kisses the virtuous Sonia's feet: "I did not bow down to you, I bowed down to all suffering humanity" (Dostoevsky 337). Dostoevsky feels that suffering is a form of repentance. In Punishment, The dying Mrs. Marmeladov exclaims, "You can't afford to spend a rouble on a priest. I have no sins. God must forgive me without it. He knows how I've suffered! And if He won't forgive me, it just can't be helped!" (447).

Dostoevsky’s own gambling vice was the result of his subconscious need to suffer and repent. Dostoevsky rationalized his gambling, because, if he could just stay clearheaded and win, he would redeem himself and pay off his debts. Furthermore, the peculiar connection between money and love was established within Dostoevsky by his father’s guilt-ridden funding. On the other hand, Dostoevsky’s gambling was irrational—he always played until he was dead broke. The inability to quit signifies compulsion. This situation fed both the gratification of Dostoevsky’s id and the needs of the super-ego. The gambling satisfied the id with its impulsive passion. The super-ego’s need for repentance was satisfied once all was lost and Dostoevsky had to play the role "of penitent seeking forgiveness and love," (Breger 178). Once the id and super-ego were satiated, Dostoevsky allowed himself to write. "When his sense of guilt was satisfied by the punishments he had inflicted on himself, the inhibition upon his work became less severe and he allowed himself to take a few steps along the road to success," (Freud 191). After repentance, Dostoevsky’s ego had control once again.

To Dostoevsky, the only way to achieve true morality was to experience the "lowest depths of sinfulness," (Reik 143). Raskolnikov’s redemption is only believable because he has learned the suffering that accompanies selfishness. Dostoevsky’s gambling created a tangible counterpart to the Oedipus complex that allowed him to act out his penitence with his loved ones every time he was broke. To a devout Christian, "appearance of forbidden impulses is in itself immoral," (146). Therefore, the only way to purge himself of his murderous fantasies was for Dostoevsky’s subconscious to invent a vice which he could repent for in the real world.

The way in which Dostoevsky described his epileptic experiences paralleled his Oedipal crisis. First came the pleasurable aura, a moment of intense happiness that Dostoevsky likened to the idealized love between Mary and Christ. The unconscious seizure, Dostoevsky likened to death. Freud compared the bliss and subsequent death as resembling the initial bliss and horror Dostoevsky must have felt when his Oedipal death wish came true: "You wanted to kill your father in order to be your father yourself. Now you are your father, but a dead father," (Freud 185). Following the seizure, Dostoevsky would experience a period of intense guilt. "I was an evildoer, [I felt] that I had committed a terrible crime which had gone unpunished," (qtd. in Breger 237).

It is significant to note that Dostoevsky’s final work, The Brothers Karamazov, confronted the topic of patricide. In the end of Karamazov, Ivan realizes that he unconsciously aided in his father’s murder when he confesses, "all men desire their father’s death," (qtd. in Breger 231). Indeed, all the brothers have a motive to murder the father Karamazov, even though Smerdyakov was the factual murderer. By writing Karamazov, Dostoevsky was able to publicly confess his murderous feelings. His wife, Anna Dostoevsky, aided Dostoevsky in his recovery from the cycle of guilt and repentance. Through Anna’s devotion, Dostoevsky was able to come to terms with his murderous designs—not unlike Raskolnikov’s redemption through the purity of Sonia. She recognized that Dostoevsky did his greatest work only after he purged the need to gamble and by granting her continual forgiveness, she helped him overcome his addiction forever (180). By incorporating his Oedipal anxiety into his work, Dostoevsky was eventually able to confront it. During his lifetime he became a loved father and a cherished writer. By the end of his life, Dostoevsky no longer felt the compulsion to recreate his repressed patricidal wishes or repent for his father’s death.


Works Cited

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

Dostoevsky, Anna. Dostoevsky Reminiscences. 1971. New York: Liveright New York, 1975

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. 1866. New York: Greenwich House, 1982

Freud, Sigmund. "Dostoevsky and Parricide," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1928. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953

Leonard, Linda. Witness to the Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc, 1990

Reik, Theodor. "The Study on Dostoyevsky," From Thirty Years With Freud. Letchworth, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom: Garden City Press Ltd., 1942