Sweet Dreams?
The Non-Freudian Role of the Subconscious
in Достоевский’s
Преступление и Наказание


In his Interpretation of Dreams, a book that has had profound influence on psychoanalysis in the last century, Freud writes that dreams often have the character of blatant wish-fulfillments. Furthermore, he asserts that dreams serve as an expression of the id, portraying our most savage, bestial, and socially unacceptable desires. While in our conscious lives we are restrained by societal and moral codes of conduct, he claims, in our subconscious these innermost thoughts break through without the cautious watch of the wary social superego. While dreams in Фёдор Достоевский’s Преступление и Наказание do reveal the contents of his characters’ subconscious, they seem to play the opposite of the Freudian role. Both Раскольников's and Свидригайлов’s dreams appear to reveal a superego-like moral restraint lacking in the bestial and unrestrained actions these characters perform in real life. Moreover, these characters’ dreams reveal a major disconnect between their physical actions and their subconscious moral beliefs. Ultimately, characters’ inability to reconcile their outward actions and theories with their subconscious leads them to crises that destroy their ways of life and serve as these characters’ most powerful punishment.

Even before the murder is committed, Раскольников’s very first dream intensifies his inner struggles. In the horrid dream he has as he is sleeping in the bushes, Раскольников appears as a young boy who, upon seeing Миколка brutally kill an old horse, “с криком пробивается […] сквозь толпу к савраске, обхватывает ее мертвую, окровавленную морду и целует ее, целует ее в глаза, в губы... Потом вдруг вскакивает и в исступлении бросается с своими кулачонками на Миколку” (1.5). Достоевский’s use of imagery in the dream is quite blatant—the savage and pointless death of the mare must represent the looming murder of the pawn broker at Раскольников’s hands. The major difference between the dream and reality, of course, is Раскольников’s role. He rushes through the crowd, passionately kisses the bloody mare in an act of almost disturbingly gruesome reverence, then exacts his revenge on the murderer with his little fists. This incarnation of Раскольников—as an innocent, righteous young boy—seems to represent the as yet untainted, morally upright part of his character, or at least of his subconscious, acting to punish his immoral side.

For a short period of time, the subconscious’ message is effective. Much like many of the novel’s characters pass through and stand in physical thresholds, Раскольников passes through a threshold between his sleeping and awake states, and it is during that very short time—when he is neither in nor out—that his conscious and subconscious intersect. As he wakes up from the first dream in a cold sweat, Раскольников immediately begins to seriously doubt his ability to commit the planned murder, recalling his dream in horror, finally admitting to himself that “я не вытерплю, не вытерплю! Пусть, пусть даже нет никаких сомнений во всех этих расчетах, будь это всё, что решено в этот месяц, ясно как день, справедливо как арифметика” (1.5). In other words, the nightmarish vision of the murder of the mare brought on by Раскольников’s subconscious has made him incapable of withstanding going through with the murder. Раскольников clearly admits that he is unable to reconcile his plans and decisions based on careful “calculations,” “true as arithmetic,” and, probably, on his lofty theory of extraordinary people, with the limitations of his subconscious. Math may allow Раскольников to commit a murder, but there is a part of Раскольников that cannot be calculated or controlled—that young boy inside him. Достоевский intentionally mentions the young boy’s “кулачонки” (notкулаки”); at this point in the novel, this subconscious part of Раскольников can only throw a few weak punches—after all, after a short walk Раскольников leaves the “threshold” and, in a conscious state of mind, makes the decision to go forth with his plan.

Despite Раскольников’s hopes of killing his scruples along with the pawn broker, the unresolved dispute with his subconscious comes back to haunt him in another dream. This time, Раскольников reenters the pawn broker’s apartment and swings the axe over her head. But the hag “даже и не шевельнулась от ударов, точно деревянная.” When he looks in horror at her face, he “помертвел: старушонка сидела и смеялась, -- так и заливалась тихим, неслышным смехом” (3.6). In spite of the fact that he was actually able to murder the pawn broker, in his dreams Раскольников is completely unable to commit the crime. This resulting dichotomy points a major lack of coherence between the outer and inner parts of Раскольников’s character. In fact, this dream can almost be seen as Раскольников’s subconscious laughing at him—both the pawn broker and the people in the hallway behind him laugh harder with each swing, and the entire scene is grotesquely comical. But Раскольников is not amused (in fact, he “помертвел = deadens”); this dream is the latest sign that his efforts to convince his inner mind of the logic and justification for his murder have failed. Indeed, it is this lack of conciliation that urges Раскольников to revisit the pawn broker’s apartment, in search of some physical proof that the murder was indeed committed. When Раскольников comes to the apartment and sees, in anguish, that all evidence of the crime has been washed up, he loses yet another battle against his subconscious.

Much like he is unable to murder the pawn broker in his dream, in real life, Раскольников cannot seem to tell anybody—even himself—the words “I murdered the pawn broker.” Even in his exchange with Sonya, Раскольников is unable to utter this convicting phrase, offering her a series of hints instead. Presumably, at least according to his theory, the successful murder should be something to be proud of—proof of extraordinariness. But the subconscious launches a major attack that prevents Раскольников from living at ease with his actions. Though it may start out as a little boy with mere Кулачонки, over the 500 pages that follow Раскольников’s crime, the subconscious grows in power, punishing him internally by painfully splitting his mind in two, almost resulting in his suicide, and ultimately forcing him to seek out legal punishment. As he explains to Дуня before turning himself in, “мне бы хотелось хоть в эту-то минуту владеть собою вполне” (6.6) In other words, Раскольников admits that he is not in full control of his own, полный self. Indeed, it is only at the confession, after he has willingly accepted that punishment and the consequences for his actions and admitted his fault before society, that his subconscious triumphs as his inner and outer selves join together to finally produce the short utterance that changes his life forever.

Just like Раскольников, Свидригайлов, who appears to live a hedonistic and immoral lifestyle, is haunted by subconscious scruples. In his first encounter with Раскольников, Свидригайлов lays out his core belief: “я ничьим мнением особенно не интересуюсь,[…] а потому отчего же и не побывать пошляком, когда это платье в нашем климате так удобно носить и... и особенно если к тому и натуральную склонность имеешь” (4.1). In other words, Свидригайлов lets his natural desires and inclinations, or склонности—what Freud would call the Id—run wild, because he simply does not care for the opinion (мнение) of others; Свидригайлов feels no shame in front of anyone for being пошлый. However, in the very same chapter, Свидригайлов also admits that he is haunted by the ghosts of the people he has indirectly murdered in his pursuit of pleasure. And though Свидригайлов may claim to enjoy his borderline-pedophilic affair with a girl, his dream, in which a five-year-old girl begins to stare at him with the passionate look of a harlot, reveals that his subconscious is troubled by his immorality. Frightened by the girl, Свидригайлов screams “‘А, проклятая!’ […] занося над ней руку...” (6.6). Scared by the vision he is given by his subconscious, Свидригайлов attempts to get rid of it in the same way that he voiced his grievances to Марфа Петровна: he raises his arm to strike the girl. Just as he is about to hit her, however—poof!—the vision returns, indestructible, to the back of his mind, and he awakes. Ultimately unable to reconcile his pursuit of pleasure with the recurring phantoms and dreams that he cannot physically destroy, Свидригайлов opts to destroy himself.

A deeper analysis of dreams and the subconscious in the novel seems to suggest that roles of society and the subconscious are completely reversed from those laid out in Freud’s theories (perhaps illustrating an important difference between the authors' German and Russian cultures). While Freud may insist that society is the force that imposes a grid of morality on its participants, Достоевский seems to make a point of showing that society condones the very Id that Freud makes it out to curb. In the quotation discussed above, Свидригайлов insists that he continues his lifestyle because “это платье в нашем климате так удобно носить” (6.6). In other words, a major reason for his пошлость is simply that it is accepted by society. Similarly, just as he is about to confess that he is a murderer in the public square, “Все эти отклики и разговоры сдержали Раскольникова, и слова "я убил", может быть, готовившиеся слететь у него с языка, замерли в нем” (6.6). In other words, the larger atmosphere of St. Petersburg, full of drunks and vagrants, seems to prevent these characters from admitting their crimes, both to society and to themselves. In Раскольников’s dream about the unsuccessful murder, a sneering crowd laughs from the hallway at each futile axe hit. And finally, in Раскольников’s first dream, the people at the scene simply look on as the mare is beaten to death, and only the young boy—Раскольников’s subconscious—dares to punch the murderer. Достоевский seems to insinuate that in a society that condones the savage actions of the id, punishment can only come from that subconscious element. Indeed, the second half of the novel’s title—the punishment—can only refer to the 500-page internal battle that culminates in Раскольников’s confession. The eight-year prison term may be a physical punishment, but it is the internal punishment followed by a spiritual rebirth (and his submission to the collective subconscious of Russian Orthodox Christianity) that ultimately matters. Similarly, Свидригайлов’s punishment is, literally, in his own hands.

Such a view of punishment rings very nicely with Раскольников’s theory of Extraordinary People, which states that Extraordinary people answer to nobody but their own selves. It is true—ultimately, they do. But, as we saw with Свидригайлов and Раскольников, that self is often divided, and the subconscious half, too often loyal to morals, cannot be controlled through arithmetic or reason. After all, Napoleon probably had a subconscious, too.