Representation of individual psychology in Kafka's The Trial and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Two of the greatest psychological novels ever written, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Franz Kafka’s The Trial delve into the minds of their protagonists in insightful, challenging and groundbreaking ways. Both Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov’s struggle with the consequences of murder, and Joseph K.’s plea for innocence against a legal system that recognises all accused as guilty, grip the readers’ attention from the outset, for their dramatic suspense, as well as for their psychological complexities.

An exploration into the character of Raskolnikov is a dark one. Plagued by the guilt of his double murder, yet justifying himself nonetheless, the reader witnesses the unravelling of Raskolnikov’s sanity, until he must at last confess. The scenario facing Joseph K. is even more problematic, since he is innocent– or arguably, unaware of his guilt, and faces the impossible task of proving ones innocence against unknown charges. Nevertheless, the psychology of a man defending (and later, questioning) his innocence and that of a man concealing his guilt contain striking parallels.  

The techniques used to represent the psychological struggles faced by both Raskolnikov and K. share many similarities. Both works give insight into the thoughts (both voiced and subconscious) of the men in relation to their guilt, or perceived guilt. One such way that guilt and its perceptions materialise in both novels is through dreams. Indeed, a glaring hole would be present in any novel so concerned with human psychology as these two, should they fail to relate to dreams in any way.

Dreams have long played a significant role within many cultures, yet a truly modern, scientific understanding of dreams was not to emerge until the dawn of the twentieth century, notably in Freud’s publication of Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, directly connecting dreams with the dark subconscious mind. Yet Dostoyevsky seems to precede such groundbreaking psychoanalytical studies, and indeed the narrator directly associates disturbed dreams with the “morbid” and “monstrous”;

“In a morbid condition of the brain, dreams often have a singular actuality, vividness, and extraordinary semblance of reality. At times monstrous images are created, but the setting and the whole picture are so truthlike and filled with details so delicate, so unexpectedly, but so artistically consistent, that the dreamer […] could never have invented them in the waking state. Such sick dreams always remain long in the memory and make a powerful impression on the overwrought and deranged nervous system.”[1]

Raskolnikov’s first dream certainly makes a powerful impression; he recalls a memory from childhood, of when he witnessed the flogging, and killing, of a horse. The scene is brutal and graphic, and sets itself beside Raskolnikov’s own violent intentions; the dream can be interpreted as the psychological manifestation of the struggle between the conflicting morality and rationality that Raskolnikov faces in killing Alyona. Many of the characters within the dream sequence represent, or at least mirror, certain elements of Raskolnikov’s mentality. Mikolka, the owner of the horse, represents both Raskolnikov’s malicious and rational tendencies which surface in the murder of Alyona and Lizavetta, while the child Raskolnikov is representative of his compassionate side.

Interestingly, Mikolka denies the horse’s sentiency, reducing it to mere “property” which he is free to use or misuse as he likes, reminiscent of the way Raskolnikov himself dehumanises Alyona to an insect. "I've only killed a louse, Sonia, a useless, loathsome, harmful creature"[2], he declares, as if murdering the old pawn broker is on the same level as using pesticide, and can be perceived as evidence of Raskolnikov’s over-rationalising sociopathic mindset. Sonia however, (pillar of morality and conscience throughout) cannot comprehend such a lack of empathy; "A human being—a louse!” Raskolnikov does however possess the ability to empathise, as is apparent from his younger self defending the horse, as well as his numerous charitable moments. These polar elements of Raskolnikov’s personality are to play out against one another throughout the entire novel.

Svidrigaïlov’s final dream is equally revelatory concerning the subject of guilt psychology, and can be read in parallel with Raskolnikov’s own dream about the horse. Here, Svidrigaïlov is also represented by numerous characters within his dream; he is represented by the innocent, and the corrupted child, as well as himself. Dostoyevsky presents an image of innocence that is soon corrupted and darkened;

“There was something shameless, provocative in that quite unchildish face; it was depravity, it was the face of a harlot, the shameless face of a French harlot. Now both eyes opened wide; they turned a glowing, shameless glance upon him; they laughed, invited him…” [3]

Like the child, Svidrigaïlov was once innocent, yet this innocence has quickly been fouled. Svidrigaïlov had the potential for good, but rejected it. Most disturbing still for the reader is Svidrigaïlov’s response to the child; at first he touchingly cares for her and looks after her, but grows disgusted at her loss of innocence. Simultaneously, however, he is also aroused by the sexualised child;

“The stern and already rigid profile of her face looked as though chiselled of marble too, and the smile on her pale lips was full of an immense unchildish misery and sorrowful appeal.”[4]

The phrase “sorrowful appeal” seems most revelatory; when the child was innocent, he wished to preserve her innocence, yet once Svidrigaïlov recognised that she was corrupted, he was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions of disgust and lust.

He himself, however, has been responsible for corrupting so many, and his dream seems to lay heavy on his conscience. Svidrigaïlov then, is not completely amoral, as seen in his generosity towards Sonia amongst others, but is overcome by a desire to corrupt. The dream represents many conflicting, subverted aspects of his psychology; a combination of the innocent, the corrupted, and the corruptor. It is this realisation of his own depravity that ultimately compels him to suicide.

While dreams play a less obvious role within Kafka’s novel, it contains dream-like elements; K.’s situation is certainly nightmarish. Kafka, a symbolist writer, presents a surreal environment in which the protagonist wanders around awake but helpless, almost the equivalent of a lucid dream. The plot, and K.’s case, jumps and bounds from one scenario to the next, without any conclusion or true development; surreal scenario’s regularly emerge, only to be abandoned for another equally surreal, confusing one.

Most notable is the scene of the flogging of the warders. So absurd, so dream-like, is this scene, that the reader cannot help but perceive it as an external manifestation of K.’s own increasingly erratic mind. Clearly there is a parallel here between the punishment of the two warder’s based on hearsay, and his own case, yet K. hardly even questions why the flogging takes place in an empty storeroom in his bank, or why it seemingly halts until he returns a day later; the flogging, it seems, must be performed under K.’s watch.

The confusing scenario again draws up questions of psychological guilt; is justice being served here, or is K. responsible for the suffering of these men? Eric Marson points out that K. accuses the warders of many things during his first hearing, but that only the attempt to take his clothes from him has any truth in it. He goes on to argue that they are punished to prove the just nature of the court, arguing that “it is not a corrupt organ of senseless persecution, but an organisation so scrupulously just that it will savagely punish its menials on  the mere word of an accused and arrested man”[5].

Such a suggestion, however, seems wholly unsatisfactory; the implication that the vicious punishment of these men (who otherwise treated K. courteously) is just, or at least permissible in order to reveal something to K. of the nature of the court, seems particularly myopic. Marson seemingly supports the Whipper’s assertion that “the punishment is as just as it is inevitable”, yet fails to take into account (here at least) the warders response; “we are only being punished because you reported us. Otherwise nothing would have happened to us, even if they had found out what we had done.”[6]

Clearly, links can be made between the flogging of the guards and the flogging of the horse in Raskolnikov’s dream; just as the characters in Raskolnikov’s dream represent differing aspects of himself, Kafka uses the punished warders and the Whipper to reveal more of K.’s personality also. While K. strives to protect these men from their torture, he runs away from them when they scream, and actively slams the door on them when he discovers them still there the second evening. We see sympathy in K. for the guards, (a trait uncommon in him throughout much of the novel) but also recognise his powerlessness in the situation. If he cannot save the men he himself ‘accused’, what hope has he in proving his own innocence?

The entire proceedings of such an unfamiliar legal system, and indeed the events of the novel as a whole, are so surreal and dream like that they seem almost to echo, or even promote, psychological breakdown. As in Crime and Punishment, scenarios repeat themselves with such striking familiarity that one feels the whole system is a vast maze designed specifically to break the accused.

Illness is also used in both novels as a technique representing the individual psychological struggles of both men. Raskolnikov regularly falls into delirium, while K.’s dizzy spells worsen as the case proceeds. Clearly, for Raskolnikov the sickness and deliria are as a result of overwhelming guilt and paranoia. Raskolnikov himself recognised this to be an inevitability; "If he [a murderer] has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be his punishment—as well as the prison."[7] Dostoyevsky, it seems, presupposes the theories of modern psychologists in asserting that subconscious emotions surface through physical sickness.

For Raskolnikov, air, it seems, is the anecdote, serving as a metaphor for the relief found in confession. While concealing his crimes, Raskolnikov suffers physically, but through humbling himself in the face of justice, his sickness is relieved. Once stifled by his palpitations and his deliria, confession will literally prove a breath of fresh air. Porfiry recognises it to be, and reveals this to;


“There is justice in it. You must fulfil the demands of justice. I know that you don't believe it, but indeed, life will bring you through. You will live it down in time. What you need now is fresh air, fresh air, fresh air!"[8]

K. also suffers illness, brought on by the stifling atmosphere of the courts. K. is physically sickened by the system, and it is “justice” itself that proves so stifling to him. Even Kafka’s long, sprawling paragraph’s leave no room for breath. Whenever the burden of the trial is too much for him, K.’s immediate response is to open a window.

The image of the window recurs throughout the novel; on the morning of his arrest, K. is soon distracted by the curiosity of the couple peering through his window from across the street. When in the painter’s apartment (which we later discover leads directly to the courthouse) K. is distressed by the claustrophobic nature of the room, and the painter’s refusal to open a window. Having left the warders to their flogging, K. again instantly heads to the nearest window.

As well as the obvious motifs of light and dark etc, the window, it seems has a duel purpose for Kafka; psychologically, it provides relief from the oppressive environment of the courthouse and its tributaries in the form of fresh air, yet simultaneously remains as a barrier between K. and freedom. This second point is made no clearer than in K.’s dying moments;

“His eyes fell on the top storey of the house at the edge of the quarry. The casement window flew open like a light flashing on; a human figure, faint and insubstantial at that distance and height, forced itself far out and stretched its arms out even further. Who was it? A friend? A good man? One who sympathised? One who wanted to help? Was it one person? Was it everybody?[9]

Perhaps, like the man in the parable, K. could have ventured past the window, if he only knew the right question to ask.

On the subject of individual psychology within both novels, one must inevitably turn to Alfred Adler, founder of the Individual Psychology school of thought. Indeed, in his seminal work Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, Adler devotes an entire chapter to Dostoyevsky, a man he credits with a “psychological seer-vision [that penetrates even] deeper than the science of psychology”[10]

Adler’s research in particular emphasises the inferiority complex, capable of manifesting itself in the superiority complex, or the delusion of the “Übermensch”. In essence, while suffering subconscious feelings of inferiority, the subject overcompensates, or views himself in higher esteem than is the reality. Such a description could easily be placed up Raskolnikov, who seems to feel he himself is above the moral code applicable to “ordinary” human beings.

Raskolnikov’s “Napoleon” theory is clearly an example of such thought. Not an original idea, the concept of ‘permissible’ criminality by a select few was almost a Russian preoccupation at the time. Raskolnikov’s commitment to such a principle, and his blindness concerning his own superiority, that proves most damaging.

Porfiry reminds Raskolnikov of his own words, published in an article on the very subject, in which he argues “that there are certain persons who can . . . that is, not precisely are able to, but have a perfect right to commit breaches of morality and crimes, and that the law is not for them."[11] Raskolnikov considers himself to be one such person; "Crime? What crime?" […] "That I killed a vile noxious insect, an old pawnbroker woman, of use to no one! . . . Killing her was atonement for forty sins. She was sucking the life out of poor people. Was that a crime?” [12]

Yet it is with sad recognition that it dawns on Raskolnikov that he is not a Napoleon figure, and in as much, cannot justify his crimes. He reverts to an inferiority complex, caused by the high standards he himself has set, and grows to see himself as a “louse” like the others.

K. could also be perceived as having a superiority complex, and his downfall can partly be attributed to hubris. K. continually attempts to place himself above others around him, and his inability to view the court with the required gravitas damages his case immeasurably. Whenever K.’s own intellect or reasoning is challenged by the courts, he immediately seeks to reassert himself over others, thereby raising himself by contrast. His relationship with women, in particular, seems to validate this point: when K. feels threatened by the courts, and by his own paralysis within the system, he reaffirms his masculinity and power through sexual politics.

On the evening of his arrest, when recounting the day’s events to Fräuline Bürstner, he adopts the role of the official, and reduces her to the defendant; he projects his victim status onto her. Similar examples emerge throughout the novel.Eventually, however, K. begins to see his own delusional behaviour; the revelation that the accused men were not bowing for him, but before the court official, marks the stage where K. begins to truly question his own guilt.  In essence, however, K. is incapable of conceding any guilt on his behalf. Like the man in the parable, K. doesn’t get any revelation until too late, if at all.

Both novels demand much from their readers, and challenge our preconceptions on the nature of guilt and innocence, and of their effects upon the human psyche. Through Raskolnikov, the reader begins to question the concept of guilt and its moral and intellectual repercussions. Through Joseph K. however, we are forced to reassess our very understanding of the nature of innocence and guilt.

What’s most striking to any reader of either works is the incredible foresight both authors must have had. Dostoyevsky’s insight and understanding of the human condition can truly be described as proto-Freudian, while Kafka’s image of unquestionable bureaucratic system eerily resembles the numerous totalitarian regimes of the Twentieth Century. It goes without saying, however, that Kafka could not have known of the ills that would plague the modern world in the years after his death, and so to view The Trial singularly in this light seems futile. More significant, it seems, are the questions Kafka raises concerning the individual’s perception of him or herself and society.


Works cited


Adler, Alfred. Practice and theory of individual psychology. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co ltd, London. 1924.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. William Heinemann ltd, London. 1945.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Trans, Idris Parry. Penguin Books, London. 1994.

Marson, Eric. Kafka’s Trial; The Case against Joseph K. University of Queensland Press. Queensland, 1975.


Further works of influence

Braun, Michael. Rooms with a View?: Kafka's "Fensterblicke", in German Studies Review, Vol. 15, No. 1. 1992. Orgler, Hertha. Alfrd Adler: the Man and his Work; Triumph over the Inferiority complex. Sidgwick and Jackson, London. 1963.

[1] (p49) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. Trans. Constance Garnett. William Heinemann ltd, London. 1945.

[2] (p366) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.

[3] (p449) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.

[4] (p447) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.

[5] (p129) Marson, Kafka’s Trial; The Case against Joseph K. University of Queensland Press. Queensland, 1975.

[6] (p.67) Kafka, The Trial. Trans, Idris Parry. Penguin Books, London. 1994.

[7] (p234) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.

[8] (p45) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.

[9] (p178) Kafka, The Trial.

[10] (p290) Adler, Practice and theory of individual psychology. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co ltd, London. 1924.

[11] (p229) Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.

[12] (p457)Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment.