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The Underground Man: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Psychology

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is probably least mentioned as one of the early proponents of Psychology. While the acclaim is owed to Wundt, James, Freud, etc for the formal establishment of ‘Psychology’ as a legitimate discipline, there have been a few subtle contributions by Dostoevsky, one of the greatest Russian writers in history. The characters in his epic novels provide a remarkable insight into the psychology of a man, and he has been acknowledged as one of the greatest psychologists in world literature. The evolution of his protagonists as criminal minds of Raskolnikov, Rogozhin, Stravgin and Smerdyakov in his various novels depicts mostly suffering, search for meaning, alienation and abject poverty. Dostoevsky’s narrative gives insight into the depth, complexity and irrationality of the human soul along with vivid depiction of despair and wretchedness through stories from the dark and cold corners of Russia. His works such as The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Crime and Punishment (1866) and Notes from the Underground (1864) remain his best novels, most published before texts in psychology. His own desperate poverty along with lifelong epileptic seizures and a prison sentence of four years in Siberia became grounds for most of his novels and characters. Dostoevsky is recognized as one of the forerunners of psychoanalysis and existentialist thought, although his philosophy was mostly inferred from his fictional works. Of his earliest admirers, Sigmund Freud was very critical that Dostoevsky could not be understood without psychoanalysis, which he believed was illustrated in every character and sentence by Dostoevsky. Freud drew many extracts from his novels to describe ideals of his own theories too including the oedipal complex transforming to parricide in The Brothers Karamazov. The value of suffering as a theme in his novels also inspired a great number of existentialists including Nietzsche, Viktor Frankl, Albert Camus, etc. ‘If there is no God, everything is permitted’, The Possessed (1971) illustrates the nature of ideas that early existentialists dealt primarily with, which coincides with that of Dostoevsky, who was however dedicated to religious mysticism and not radical free will unlike his characters.

With the development of psychoanalysis, psychopathology, humanism and physiology in the early twentieth century, Psychology’s focus shifted a great deal towards the disease model and illness ideology. Dostoevsky’s works capture the essence of scientific thought of an entire era devoted towards the negative side of the human psyche as evident in the nothingness of existentialism and Freud’s unconscious and destructive id. The growth of humanism through contributions of Maslow and Rogers after 1950 paved the way for the development of positive psychology, a sub discipline of psychology that contrasts greatly with others for its emphasis on the fully functioning person along with positive emotions, strength based character and healthy institutions. The ground breaking works of Martin Seligman in the turn of the century helped define positive psychology and its focus on what makes individuals and communities flourish; and the attainment of authentic happiness. The huge growth of positive psychology in recent years in many domains of life and as an area of research depicts a gradual change in human nature and inquiry that emphasizes the importance of positive emotions and happiness.

In understanding the nature of concepts in positive psychology, one can draw a comparison with the negative outlook of Dostoevsky and most part of psychology to provide a relevant context. Positive psychology values subjective experiences of well-being, contentment, satisfaction, hope, flow, happiness and individual traits, while Dostoevsky’s era of thought emphasized suffering, death, loss of freedom and pathology. It is interesting to analyse the incidence of Seligman’s positive concepts among Dostoevsky’s characters and contexts that emphasized mostly negative life conditions like illness and poverty which remains an everyday reality for a significant portion of the population today. While positive psychology emphasizes the fully functioning person, it will be interesting to see how such concepts can be relevant among people who already have a great deal of adverse life conditions. While critics may point out that positive psychology emphasizes the positive at the expense of the negative, the predominant focus on the negative psychology for almost a century justifies a need for an ideal opposite. The idea that everyone possesses inner resources for personal growth and development has gained momentum in society as a genuine interest of well-being of individual and communities. The point of bringing up Dostoevsky in relation to positive psychology is to present an example of the sharp contrasts in ideologies and psychological knowledge of two different eras and also to link these two periods using a timeline of events. Dostoevsky’s fictional works also provide a stage for a hypothetical conceptualization of the relevance of various concepts of positive psychology in the evolution of his dejected and neurotic protagonists. While reading The House of the Dead, one can often wonder how helpful hope and optimism can be for a person incarcerated for life in prison. The blend and dynamics of positive and negative sides makes human psychology most intriguing and subject to differing speculations. While happiness and contentment is emphasized today, Dostoevsky questioned the very nature of happiness. According to him, man needs unhappiness in the same way and in equal proportions with happiness.


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  4. Gable, S.L., Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is Positive Psychology. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), pp. 103-110.

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