July, 2001

1. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot

A couple months ago, our book group read Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot. The edition that we chose is part of a series called Oxford World’s Classics; it’s a good edition in every respect — translation, introduction, bibliography, notes, maps, etc. One book mentioned in the bibliography caught my fancy: Unconscious Structure in The Idiot: A Study in Literature and Psychoanalysis, by Elizabeth Dalton. I’ve always been fond of Freudian (and Jungian) interpretations of literature, and The Idiot seemed ripe for such interpretation. Apparently most people don’t share my fondness for Freudian interpretations; I found that Unconscious Structure was a rare book, difficult to obtain, and impossible to buy. (I like to own the books that I read, so that I can make notes in the book, and then lay the book aside; when I read a library book, I feel compelled to make notes in my computer, which is a tedious task. Typing page after page leaves me with tired fingers and wrists; I’ve tried voice-recognition software, but it makes so many mistakes that I gave up on it.)

When I began reading Unconscious Structure, I soon found that it lived up to my highest hopes. It allowed me to review and re-experience the novel. It also allowed me to review Freud’s theories. Truth, said Schopenhauer, agrees with itself and confirms itself. In this case, Dostoyevsky and Freud agreed with each other and confirmed each other, and one was left with greater respect for both writers. Unconscious Structure deserves to be considered a classic in its field, along with Marie Bonaparte’s Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, and Phyllis Greenacre’s Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study. (Is it just a coincidence that all three of these books are by women? Or do women have a greater sensitivity for grasping the unconscious?)

The chief character in The Idiot is Prince Myshkin. “The main idea of the novel,” said Dostoyevsky, “is to depict the positively good man,” and Myshkin is that man. Myshkin is a Christ figure — honest, ingenuous, indifferent to wealth and to physical pleasure. Myshkin is a very attractive character indeed. Whether or not Dostoyevsky succeeded in ‘depicting the positively good man,’ he deserves credit for making the attempt. Things that are truly great can never be completed perfectly; credit should go to those who make the attempt.

The author of Unconscious Structure, Elizabeth Dalton, argues that Myshkin’s personality has its share of violent and lustful drives, but these drives are repressed; “Myshkin’s goodness is obviously problematic; it has a dark underside of which Myshkin himself is aware in the form of what he calls ‘double thoughts.’”1 In the May issue of Phlit, we discussed how Freud and Nietzsche believed that morality is related to the death-instinct, that morality springs from the super-ego raging against oneself. Dalton argues that Myshkin’s morality is related to a death-instinct, a masochistic impulse; Myshkin derives a sort of sexual pleasure from suffering. Dalton summarizes thus:

In the person of Myshkin, the novel poses a radical question. We are presented with an apparently ‘good’ man whose character embodies Christian ideals of self-sacrifice and compassion ...yet this figure is treated in such a way as to raise the most disturbing questions about the origins of his goodness and the concealed gratifications afforded by his self-abnegation. By its presentation of the good man, the novel calls into question the very nature of goodness, and its relation to what we call evil.2
The character of Myshkin confirms Freud’s view of morality; it confirms Freud’s view that morality is ambiguous, not as simple, pure and lily-white as some people suppose. Likewise, the character of Myshkin confirms Nietzsche’s view that the “good” man, the saint, has a variety of motives; his motives are “human, all-too-human.”

In the May issue of Phlit, we discussed Freud’s views on aggression and violence, as spelled out in Civilization and Its Discontents. Here, too, we find a correspondence between Dostoyevsky’s thinking and Freud’s thinking. Both of them see aggression as a widespread, deep-seated instinct in human nature. Dalton writes thus:

Aggression has a particularly disturbing quality in The Idiot. One does not of course actually see the instinct or the drive itself; but its effects are felt everywhere in the novel. Violence is a constant brooding threat in the dark coloration and atmosphere of the novel; it appears explicitly in imagery and action, and in the ideas and fantasies of the characters. The final action toward which everything in the novel tends is murder.3
Like many of Dostoyevsky’s works, The Idiot was inspired by a newspaper story, a story about a 15-year-old girl who was tortured by her parents, and who tried to burn their house down. The aggressive impulses depicted in Dostoyevsky’s works were not hatched in the author’s own imagination, they were manifested in the world around him — the world described in the daily newspaper, and also the world of the Siberian prison system, of which Dostoyevsky had firsthand knowledge.

There is one final point on which Dostoyevsky and Freud are in agreement: the importance of guilt in the human psyche. In the May issue of Phlit, we focused on Freud’s views on aggression, and overlooked his views on guilt. Guilt is one of the major topics of Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud says that the sense of guilt is “the most important problem in the development of civilization... The price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”4 The sense of guilt is often unconscious, and it’s often accompanied by an unconscious need for punishment.

Dalton argues that, in The Idiot, Nastasya and Myshkin both have “an irrational guilt and a need to suffer.”5 Nastasya’s guilt, and her need for punishment, lead her to give herself to Rogozhin, even though she expects that Rogozhin will murder her.

A person like Myshkin, who represses much, is prone to guilt; guilt springs from intentions, as well as from actions. “A sense of guilt,” says Freud, “could be produced not only by an act of violence that is actually carried out (as all the world knows), but also by one that is merely intended (as psycho-analysis has discovered).”6 The more Myshkin represses his aggressive impulses, the more guilty he feels; as Freud said, “a person’s conscience becomes more severe and more sensitive the more he refrains from aggression against others.”

Guilt goes hand-in-hand with aggression because the repression of aggressive impulses creates the sense of guilt. If The Idiot is pervaded by aggression, as Dalton argues, it is also pervaded by guilt. Dalton says that Myshkin has a “pervasive sense of guilt.... On the day Rogozhin tries to murder him, Myshkin feels overcome with guilt. Speaking of the murder attempt afterwards with Rogozhin, Myshkin says, ‘Our sin was the same.’ It is evidently as much a sin to be murdered as to murder!”7

Doubtless some people will argue that a Freudian analysis of The Idiot violates the work of art. But if such an analysis can throw light on human nature, on the dark side of human nature, is it not worthwhile? To be aware of man’s darker impulses is the first step in dealing with them.

© L. James Hammond 2004
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1. Part II, ch. 2. Dalton notes that the people Myshkin interacts with later meet disaster. “Myshkin’s conscience seems to have lost contact with the realities of the external situation, to be functioning instead in the service of some more obscure inner purpose; thus instead of preventing harm and doing good, it wreaks havoc.” Thus, Myshkin reminds us of another “sweet prince,” Hamlet, who also “wreaks havoc” among the people around him. (Cf. Wilson Knight’s interpretation of Hamlet.)

The New Criterion published an essay on The Idiot by Gary Saul Morson. Morsonís conclusions often agree with Daltonís. I recommend Morsonís essay on War and Peace, which I discussed here. back

2. ch. 12 back
3. ch. 8 back
4. Civilization and Its Discontents, ch. 8 back
5. ch. 4 back
6. ch. 8 back
7. ch. 2 back