The Karamazov Brothers and their Discontents: A Freudian Reading of Pain and Pleasure, Aggression and Confession in Dostoevsky’s Classic Novel

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Alexandra Lamb

(UBC Arts One, Brandon Konoval seminar)


While Sigmund Freud came to be known as one of the most (in)famous psychologists of all time, and while Fyodor Dostoevsky established himself as one of the great psychologists of world literature, some modern scientists might point out the audible similarity between ‘Freud’ and ‘fraud,’ and no professor of clinical psychology would be likely to assign The Double as required reading on schizophrenia. While one was primarily considered a psychologist, and the other primarily an author, the speculative features of both author’s writings have resulted in works that modern readers would recognize as resembling each other’s more than they resemble contemporary psychology. Neither had the statistically-based clinical research that is currently performed in the field informing their texts; psychology as we conventionally recognize it today was in its infancy in their times.

Yet the works of Dostoevsky and Freud have retained a special influence on the way we think and make sense of the world because they both possessed tremendous insight into human nature that readers have continued to find relevant for decades now, and their influence on modern psychology cannot be minimized. Many elements of psychoanalysis are still hugely important in clinical psychology, and it remains a popular way of approaching the human mind. Freud’s own engagement with, and estimation of, Dostoevsky’s writings clearly demonstrates the novelist’s influence on the evolution of psychological thought. Freud once wrote of Dostoevsky, “[his] place is not far behind Shakespeare. The Brothers Karamazov is the most magnificent novel ever written.”[1]One of the best ways Dostoevsky’s influence can be observed in Freud’s writing, as well as one of the best ways to interpret many well-known Freudian ideas, can be seen by drawing parallels between The Brothers Karamazov and Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents; in particular, by analyzing the three Karamazov brothers according to Freud’s theories on pain, pleasure, and how we survive the difficulties of life.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud describes how one of the biggest challenges we face in life is figuring out how to best mitigate its horrors: “Life, as we know it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments, and impossible tasks. In order to bear it, we cannot dispense with palliative measures.”[2]He calls the variety of methods we use to achieve this goal the ‘pleasure principle,’ which states that in life, we protect ourselves from its darkness with two techniques: a negative one, avoiding pain, and a positive one, seeking pleasure. “There are perhaps three such measures,”[3]Freud adds, by which we approach this matter: “…powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it, and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it.”[4]In these three approaches we see a characterization of each of the Karamazov brothers.

In Dostoevsky’s account, the three brothers each represent a response to ‘the Karamazov,’ a base, primal vigour and enjoyment for the sensualities of life, which manifests itself as a unique degree of intensity and impulsivity. ‘The Karamazov’ is an embodiment of the characteristics of their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, similar to what Freud would call an unrestrained libido. The unconscious influence of his parenting led his children’s personalities to develop as a response to it.

A common interpretation of The Brothers Karamazov holds Ivan to be an atheist and Alyosha to be devoutly religious; a Freudian reading would suggest that to be a drastic oversimplification, and it’s more plausible both were agnostic. This is more obvious for Ivan, as he explicitly states he believes in God but does not understand his ways:

 “And so, I accept God, not only willingly, but moreover I also accept his wisdom and his purpose, which are completely unknown to us… It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.”[5]

The case for his brother Alyosha’s agnosticism is slightly more complicated to argue, but a careful analysis of many details casts a different light on the nature of his beliefs.

When the Elder Zossima, near death, instructs Alyosha to go forth into the world once he passes away, Alyosha is horrified by the proposal: “Give me your blessing to stay here,”[6]he pleads. The Elder is firm: “You are needed there. Leave the monastery. Leave it for good.”[7]Freud might suggest the Elder Zossima is suspicious of Alyosha, recognizing the presence of ulterior motives, and so he casts him out to either find his faith through experience or learn the truth about his motives. What could have brought Alyosha to a monastery in the first place, if not faith? He senses within himself the presence of ‘the Karamazov,’ which terrifies him, as he desperately wishes to avoid turning out like his father.

In relation to Freud’s pleasure principle, what Alyosha is doing is using substitutive satisfactions to avoid suffering in life. According to him, “this type of defence against suffering is no longer brought to bear upon the sensory apparatus; it seeks to master the internal sources of our needs.”[8]Alyosha is “killing off the instincts”[9]that might lead him to become like his father, as he feels that being like his father would bring him pain in life; it appears what is motivating him is a profound hatred of his father that creates a sense of aggression he must channel. He is disgusted by these aggressive drives within himself, and he is trying to manage them by restricting them with an ascetic lifestyle that turns the aggression inwards, a form of internal punishment for possessing ‘the Karamazov.’

Freud says this method represents a negative approach to the pleasure principle:

Here the aim of satisfaction is not by any means relinquished; but a certain amount of protection against suffering is secured, in that non-satisfaction is not so painfully felt in the case of instincts kept in dependence as in the case of uninhibited ones. As against this, there is an undeniable diminution in the potentialities of enjoyment.[10]

By limiting the impact of powerful emotions, pain is restricted, at the cost of pleasure being cut back as well. A monk’s life would mean to Alyosha undesirable urges within him will be repressed, but he would miss out on many of life’s great joys like marriage and children as well. If unconscious forces that possibly derail the satisfaction of his true desires are influencing such major decisions, his method of avoiding pain will eventually bring him far more down the road.

The relationship between Alyosha and his father can be associated with elements of Freud’s Oedipus complex. Alyosha despises and resents his father, probably due on one hand to his failure to raise him after his mother passed away; on the other, for how his father’s reputation is cast upon him and causes prejudice against him when he very much desires social acceptance. As Alyosha is decidedly trying to avoid turning out like his father, he cannot enact any aggression upon him, for such would be a classically ‘Karamazovian’ act and would attract external punishment. These conflicting desires between enacting revenge upon his father and not succumbing to ‘the Karamazov’ produces a sense of conflict within Alyosha: the divide between what he wishes to do and the fear of facing punishment from society causes the repression of his aggressive drives. In turn, he feels guilty such undesirable impulses are within him; it causes pain he desires an escape from, and the religious life provides him with both that escape and an internal source of punishment to alleviate his guilt.

The Brothers Karamazov was intended to be either a prequel, or the first book in a series; as Dostoevsky died just two months after its publication, it was never followed up. Fortunately, a fair number of clues revealing Alyosha’s intended destiny were left behind, which give us far more insight into the character. The novel describes Alyosha as “a social activist still undefined’”[11]and according to James Rice, a dark future was planned for him by the author:

In a private conversation with his close friend Suvorin…Dostoevsky unequivocally spelled out the destiny of [Alyosha] Karamazov: “He would commit a political crime. He would be executed.” A few months later an Odessa newspaper reported a rumour in Petersburg literary circles: [Alyosha] “by some sort of special psychological processes at work in his soul actually arrives at the idea of assassinating the tsar.”[12]

He also points out the surname Karamazov is similar to Karakozov: in 1866 a radical activist named Dmitri Karakozov attempted to assassinate Alexander II.[13]Freud might find these details particularly interesting. The Tsar of Russia, undeniably, is a national father figure; this makes his murder somewhat of a parricide, and makes a parricide the central event in both The Brothers Karamazov and its intended sequel.

Freud was acutely interested in themes of parricide within literature, as was outlined in his essay Dostoevsky and Parricide,” which takes up the similarities between the roles of parricide within Dostoevsky’s own life and The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s father was murdered while he was still young; he was remembered as being a wicked and abusive father his son despised. Freud suggests parricidal urges existed within Dostoevsky before his father’s murder; after the event, the sense of guilt for having wanted to commit the act became so strong, the ‘epileptic’ attacks (which Freud believed to simply be fits of hysteria) began as means to punish himself. The Brothers Karamazov can be understood as a highly confessional text, and Freud believes Dostoevsky unconsciously used it to describe many of his own neuroses. The epileptic character Smerdyakov who commits parricide offers proof of Freud’s theory: he points out, “[i]t is a remarkable fact that Dostoevsky has attributed to him his own illness, the alleged epilepsy, as though he were seeking to confess that the epileptic, the neurotic, in himself was a parricide.”[14]But the alleged epilepsy, Freud believes, wasn’t punishment enough on its own:

We can safely say that Dostoevsky never got free from the feelings of guilt arising from his intention of murdering his father. They also determined his attitude in the two other spheres in which the father-relation is the decisive factor, his attitude towards the authority of the State and towards belief in God.[15]

Freud believes Dostoevsky’s Russian nationalism and religious fanaticism that marked his political philosophy later in life were submissions to father figures as self-inflicted penance: “[He] accepted the undeserved punishment at the hands of the Little Father, the Tsar, as a substitute for the punishment he deserved for his sin against his own father.”[16]Alyosha’s submissions to God and the Father Zossima might reflect these means of punishment. When Father Zossima sends him into the world, he feels he has been rejected by yet another father figure. As his illusion of faith seems to have been a protective barrier against his hidden impulses, and it has been shaken, this triggers his descent into ‘Karamazovian’ behaviour. His true feelings become progressively less repressed and he develops the state of mind that leads to his murder of the tsar. Despite Alyosha’s initial desire to restrict his impulses, his plan backfires as he winds up becoming the most archetypal Karamazov of the family—what could be a more Karamazovian act than killing the tsar? Freud would interpret this act as his repressed parricidal urges finally escaping: Alyosha has projected his image of his father onto another father figure and enacted his revenge. Historical evidence and a psychoanalytic reading together conclude Alyosha is being motivated not by faith, but by repressed fear, aggression, and other dark forces.

Alyosha’s oldest brother Dmitri takes the most overtly opposing approach to this possible. Dmitri embraces his father’s attitude towards life in stark contrast to Alyosha’s avoidance; he is infatuated with its highs and lows. As Alyosha’s contemporary Ratikin describes him, “He’s stupid but honest, still he’s a sensualist. That is his definition, and his whole inner essence. It’s his father who gave him his base sensuality.… In your family sensuality is carried to the point of fever.”[17]Dmitri takes the positive approach of the pleasure principle to the extreme, hiding from no emotions and letting them consume him, which leads to him constantly finding himself in the middle of all sorts of drama: love triangles, bar fights, financial scandals, becoming a murder suspect. Unlike Alyosha, his dislike of his father is not repressed at all. His aggression manifested itself physically and verbally; most significantly, he pursued his father’s love interest, Grushenka, and won her affection when his father was obsessed with her. Here we see more traces of Oedipal behaviour: if Fyodor was to have his way with Grushenka, she would become Dmitri’s stepmother. Dmitri quite literally takes his father’s place when he intervenes in their situation and becomes the object of her desires instead. Dmitri and Fyodor’s violent attitudes towards each other were so recognized by the community that when Fyodor was murdered, many immediately believed Dmitri must have done it.

In relation to the pleasure principle, Dmitri seeks intoxication. His is not necessarily a chemical consumed; he is addicted to, and becomes inebriated by, strong emotions. He avoids taking on responsibilities by becoming so overtaken by passion, he is too preoccupied to find ways to live a productive or meaningful life. Freud criticized this approach for its impracticality:

With the help of this ‘drowner of cares’ one can at any time withdraw from the pressure of reality and find refuge in a world of one’s own with better conditions of sensibility. As is well known, it is precisely this property of intoxicants which also determines their danger and their injuriousness. They are responsible, in certain circumstances, for the useless waste of a large quota of energy which might have been employed for the improvement of the human lot.[18]

Dmitri has no regard for the future and only lives for the moment; he is prone to shirking responsibilities, throwing away thousands of rubles on wild sprees, and making provocative public displays of emotion. He gets himself through life by stimulating the senses, but has made himself insensitive to what he is missing out on.

Dmitri serves as a confession of Dostoevsky’s addictive tendencies. For a period Dostoevsky “was obsessed with a mania for gambling…which no one could regard as anything but an unmistakable fit of pathological passion.”[19]The only thing that would stop his gambling sprees was losing all the money he had.[20]The similarities to Dmitri are already apparent, above all with Dmitri’s fits of passion that also resulted in impressive dwindling of funds. Freud, however, infers further self-punishment in Dostoevsky’s gambling:

When his losses had reduced himself and [his wife] to the direst need, he derived a second pathological satisfaction from that. He could then scold and humiliate himself before her, invite her to despise him and to feel sorry that she had married such an old sinner; and when he had thus unburdened his conscience, the whole business would begin again the next day.[21]

Following this logic, Dmitri’s wild sprees are his own form of self-punishment from the numerous sources of guilt plaguing him: his relationships to his father, Katerina Ivanovna, and Grushenka, to name a few of many.

This leaves us with Ivan Karamazov representing the last measure of the pleasure principle: powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery. This method is usually achieved by devoting one’s self to, and finding meaning in, the joy of their creations: “The task here is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustrations from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assistance. One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from the sources of psychical and intellectual work.”[22]Ivan is a highly educated and brilliant academic who has given his whole life to his work and his philosophy—literally. He is so committed to his ideas that he is planning on dying for them by committing suicide at the age of thirty. This would help him meet two goals: on one hand, it would reject the gift of life God has given him in such an unjust world; on the other, it would assuage his fears his enthusiasm for life will begin to decline around that time and he will not enjoy it as much as he had when he was younger. Unlike his brothers, Ivan seems very unbothered by the influence of his father; he is too preoccupied with self-hatred. His aggressive drives are turned solely inwards, epitomized by his nihilistic plans.

Ivan illustrates another well-known Freudian concept as he exists in a state of suspension between Eros, the drive to live, and Thanatos, the drive to die. Obviously, as living beings we have a desire to survive. Freud’s theory adds “that, besides the instinct to preserve living substance and join it to even larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve those units and to bring them back to their primeval, inorganic state. That is to say, as well as Eros there was an instinct of death.”[23]Ivan is portrayed as being in love with life, rejecting the idea there is anything wrong with ‘the Karamazov:’ “Some snotty-nosed, consumptive moralists, poets especially, often call this thirst for life base. True, it’s a feature of the Karamazovs, to some extent, this thirst for life despite all… but why is it base?”[24]While he does not embrace this characteristic as fervently as Dmitri, he does not feel a need for salvation from it, like Alyosha, either; he accepts ‘the Karamazov’ and is at peace with it. Yet other forces are drawing him towards death at quite a young age. Freud believes these impulses to die “come to light as an instinct of aggressiveness and destructiveness.”[25]Ivan recognizes within himself these death drives, which manifest themselves as aggression towards his own existence. But Ivan tends to rationalize his impulses away instead of dealing with them. In this case, what he did was he rationalized those aggressive impulses by creating a philosophy that mandated his suicide, intellectualizing his death drives and disguising them as something noble instead of recognizing them as a repressed urge. A third, unconscious goal is then met by his impending suicide: that of managing this extreme self-hatred.

Ivan’s approach to the pleasure principle—rationalizing life’s pains away and preoccupying himself with intellectual work—seems a lot more productive at first than those taken by his brothers. However, Freud believes it possesses a unique and powerful dark side: “This method cannot give complete protection from suffering. It creates no impenetrable armour against the arrows of fortune, and it habitually fails when the source of suffering is a person’s own body.”[26]As this approach attempts to make “oneself independent of the external world by seeking satisfaction in internal, psychical processes”[27]it cannot save itself from failings of internal processes. When it is revealed that his father’s murder was inspired by Smerkyakov’s interpretations of his beliefs, Ivan’s life is thrown into disarray. He can no longer find comfort in his work, because the situation he has found himself in is a product of his work. Ivan is left with no way of channeling an extreme sense of guilt, and in a truly Freudian moment, Ivan’s guilt manifests itself as a delusion of being visited by the Devil. Freud would suggest this is Ivan’s unconscious self-hatred finding a voice to condemn him; it reveals how Ivan unconsciously feels about himself.

Now that Ivan’s internal and psychical processes have been irreparably harmed by guilt, his philosophy can do nothing for him: he has been left with no defence against suffering. Here, the last component of Freud’s pleasure principle is seen both working and failing the way he said it would. What we see now in the approaches taken by all three brothers is how their efforts to avoid pain will likely serve to bring more on instead. A Freudian interpretation of The Brothers Karamazov perhaps brings us to the dark conclusion there is no way to live a life free of suffering, and our attempts to prevent it might likely cause us to face more of it.

As Dostoevsky’s confessional, a first, obvious assumption is that Ivan represents Dostoevsky in his past, when he was a young atheist and political radical critical of the monarchy. In 1847, “he began to attend meetings of the Petrashevsky circle, a secret society of liberal utopians, and within it he joined the most extreme faction, a group intent on preparing the Russian people for a general uprising.”[28]He was imprisoned for his membership in the group and spent ten years in Siberia[29]; his writings after he was released commonly featured characters representing the kind of man he used to be.

However, Ivan is starkly different from other characters in Dostoevsky’s novels who are portrayed as possessing liberal beliefs or engaging in radical activities. They tend to be static characters, and range from unsympathetic ones, like the cold-blooded Pyotr Stepanovich in Demons, to foolish ones like young Kolya in The Brothers Karamazov. Freud might suggest that the thoughtful consideration and humanization given to Ivan’s beliefs would demonstrate how Dostoevsky still struggled with feelings of religious doubt: “According to apparently trustworthy reports [Dostoevsky] wavered, up to the last moments of his life, between faith and atheism. His great intellect made it impossible for him to overlook any of the intellectual difficulties to which faith leads.”[30]Very powerful arguments for atheism that can scarcely be refuted are made by Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov, despite the author’s apparent religiosity. This suggests he was making the best possible cases for faith and for skepticism in his own head as he spelled them out in his writing; his characters may have been debating his internal monologue.

A psychoanalytic reading of this book reveals how many of Dostoevsky’s most severe and personal neuroses likely spilled out of him and onto its pages; its confessional nature may have been either deliberate or unconscious, but it would be difficult to deny its presence exists on some level. Through Smerdyakov, he has shown us his guilt for possessing parricidal urges and how his hysterical fits served as punishment; through Alyosha, how he used submission to higher father figures as means of punishment; through Dmitri, his addictive tendencies and how they worked against him as means of punishment; and through Ivan, he made what might have been the most personal of all revelations: the admittance he struggled with his faith up until his death. Perhaps he feared divine punishment for his uncertainty.

While Freud and Dostoevsky are no longer considered our most accurate psychologists,  they might yet be considered among our most compelling. And while their writings are interpreted more widely as philosophy and not as science, what The Brothers Karamazov and Civilization and its Discontents have both achieved is, in its own right, something powerful and indispensable to humanity, something no amount of research has yet been able to accomplish. In these works, both authors show us what it is like to be human: how we are motivated by parts of ourselves we’d like to wish didn’t exist, and how most of us spend most of our lives struggling to figure out what the best way to live it is. Such simple facts of life are often the hardest ones to distinguish, and it is no small feat both authors were able to illustrate these to us in such a meaningful and memorable way.


Works Cited

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

Freud, Sigmund.Civilization and its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: Norton, 2010.

Freud, Sigmund. “Dostoevsky and Parricide.” In Writings on Art and Literature, edited by James Strachey. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Pevear, Richard. Forward to Crime and Punishmentby Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1992.

Pevear, Richard. Forward to Demonsby Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1994.

Rice, James. “Foreshadowings of the Karamazov Sequel.” In Russian History 35, issues 1-2 (2008): 157. Accessed April 21, 2020.


1. Sigmund Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” in Writings on Art and Literature, trans.James Strachey (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 234

2. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 2010), 41

3. Freud, 41

4. Freud, 41

5. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 235

6. Dostoevsky, 79

7. Dostoevsky, 79

8. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 47

9. Freud, 47

10. Freud, 47-48

 11. James L. Rice, “Foreshadowings of the Karamazov Sequel.” Russian History 35: Issues 1-2 (2008): 157-164, 157. accessed April 21, 2020,

12. Rice, 157

13. Rice, 157

14. Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” 247

15. Freud,  245

16. Freud, 244

17. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 79

18. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 46-47

19. Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” 248

20. Freud, 248

21. Freud, 249

22. Freud,Civilization and its Discontents, 48

23. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents,106

24. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov,230

25. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 106

26. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents,49

27. Freud, 49

28. Richard Pevear, forward to Demonsby Fyodor Dostoevsky, ix. New York: Vintage Books, 1994

29. Richard Pevear, forward toCrime and Punishmentby Fyodor Dostoevsky, vii.New York: Vintage Books, 1992

30. Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” 245