Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Dostoyevsky and Kafka: Guilt, Redemption and the Modern Man

Realism and Reality

If, as Eagleton claims, the novel is a genre which both “eludes definitions” and “actively undermines them” (1), then Crime and Punishment and The Trial are cases in point. In particular, they both present a uniquely modern relationship to the concept of “reality”: the former is a major exponent of psychological realism; the latter, a very modern fantasy. The “foundation of every human society is a generally accepted model of reality”, which claims to be “truth”; however, modern psychology and cultural studies suggest that any “model of reality is [...] a mere interpretation of the world” (Heller 166). Thus “reality” cannot “precisely correspond to what is commonly understood in our positivist age as real, namely, the neutral sense-perception of objects” (Heller 161). “Realism”, then, is necessarily “a matter of representation” (Eagleton 10); so how can a novel be “realistic”? Nabokov argued that “any outstanding work of art is a fantasy insofar as it reflects the unique world of a unique individual” (252); yet Dostoyevsky stressed that “the world which he depicts in Crime and Punishment is no more fantastic than the world of real experience” (Russell 215). The “only way back to objective reality”, Nabokov proposes, is to take “several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together [...] and call it objective reality” – an irreverent but analogous format to Bakhtin’s polyphonic novel (253). In this way, Dostoyevsky became a leading proponent of psychological realism: along with Turgenev and Tolstoy, he is “distinguished by an unparalleled ability to portray the complex inner mental states of their characters” (Wachtel 130). In their ability to “reproduce to the complex associative mechanisms of human thought” (Wachtel 134), the great Russian novelists prefigured Western Modernist movements by decades: aesthetically, they pre-empted psychoanalysis, examining the human character as a “shifting conglomerate of impressions and emotions”, not a “fixed monolithic entity”; Dostoyevsky counted “dreams, memories, and fantasies” as important as “actions and thoughts” (Showalter xviii); and through the use of “embedded viewpoints” instead of “the fixed perspective of the omniscient narrator”, Dostoyevsky “breaks up the narrative plane [...] as the Cubists broke us the visual plane” (Showalter xxi). Their contempt for “academic psychology” was justified in that their own psychological observations “far outstripped anything that contemporary science had achieved” (Wachtel 139). Dostoyevsky’s novels in particular portrayed by an “unparalleled artistic intuition” in revealing the human mind’s “attempts to hide” its “inner workings” from itself, and was much admired by Freud (Wachtel 139). Thus, although form “Dostoyevsky employed for his examination of the existential and psychological condition of modern man was the realistic novel”, it was

a new kind of realism, what he [...] termed “realism in a higher sense,” and in its blend of verisimilitude and fantasy, it is instability and unpredictability, it was exactly suited to the depiction of contemporary life, and [...] a major influence throughout the next century (Russell 214).

Dostoyevsky’s “higher” realism recognises the unstable relativity of human experience; it is a rejection of the overly-reductive rational schemata of philosophy and ideology, but also of the unproblematic Romantic tale. His “highly-volatile, identity-questioning prose” involves narrative techniques and concerns – the “volatility” of character and narration (which “[switch] without warning”), a “mood of anxiety and alienation that permeates the entire work” – which are “characteristic” both of the “modern sensibility” and contemporary literature (Russell 215). Thus Dostoyevsky, by “some profound understanding of the great shift in consciousness that was about to take place”, both “anticipates and, through his enormous influence on twentieth-century art and thought, helps to shape modern consciousness” (Russell 214).

In many ways, then, Dostoyevsky is a father of the Modernist text; and that same “sense of being on the edge of the abyss” saturates The Trial (Russell 215). However, Nabokov contrasts this understanding of reality, as “an average sample [...] individual realities” with the “specific fantasies” of Kafka (253). In Kafka reality itself “crumbles and collapses”, because “there is no such division between the external sphere and the domain of inwardness, and therefore no such reality” (Heller 161). In his perceptive analysis of “The Metamorphosis”, Nabokov suggests that

The beauty of Kafka’s [...] private nightmares is that their central human characters belong to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around them, but the central one tries to get out of that world, to cast off the mask (254).

There is something truly nightmarish about the self-sufficiency of Kafka’s novels; they rely on their own, internally consistent logic which the reader must accept unquestioningly. The “clarity [...] precise and formal intonation” of his language is in “striking contrast to the nightmare matter of his tale”, and “stresses the dark richness of his fantasy” (Nabokov 283). Camus compares Kafka to Greek tragedy, in which “fate” operates under the “guise of logic and naturalness”: Oedipus’ “fate is announced in advance”, but the “drama” consists in revealing the “logical system which, from deduction to deduction, will crown the hero’s misfortune” (103). The “uncommon fate” alone is not “horrible”, because “improbable”: but if its necessity is demonstrated to us in the framework of everyday life, society, state, familiar emotion, then the horror is hallowed” (Camus 103). This kind of “horror” – the naturalised nightmare – is Kafka’s speciality. His heroes are “like everybody else” (Camus 104). The world they inhabit is “unmistakably like the reader’s own”, with its “obscure hierarch of officialdom”: in fact it is “excruciatingly familiar” in its common absurdity (Heller 161). Yet these men wake up in nightmares: whether in the body of a beetle or under arrest, Kafka introduces a glitch in the comfortable programme of their existence. The result is a peculiarly “Kafkaesque” uncanny: “something at once absolutely familiar [...] yet also estranged from us” (Bloom 448). Camus identifies in Kafka – who “expresses tragedy by the everyday and the absurd by the logical” – a “naturalness” which, “by an odd [...] paradox”, presents “the divergence we feel between the strangeness of man’s life and the simplicity with which man accepts it” (101-2). The genius of Kafka is that he carries simple, familiar themes to their final conclusions: a literary parallel to reductio ad absurdum. ‘The Metamorphosis’ is the “product of that incalculable amazement man feels at being conscious of the beast he becomes effortlessly” (Camus 101); in The Trial, the concept of freedom is frankly mocked through Josef K’s frequent voicing of the misplaced conviction that “He was still free” (6), reduced at the moment of death to only his neck, “which was still free” (171). Kafka, the great comedian, excludes nothing from ridicule. The “absurd effect is linked to an excess of logic”: Kafka paints a universe “in which man allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come out of it” (Camus 104). In these fantasies, “truth and illusion are mingled [...] in such a way that it is deprived of all order of reality”: “truth is permanently on the point of taking off its mask and revealing itself as illusion, illusion in constant danger of being verified as truth” (Heller 171). Whereas in Dostoyevsky universal principles are severely criticised, Kafka presents “a world where everything is given and nothing is explained, the fecundity of a value or of a metaphysic is a notion devoid of meaning” (Camus 108). On my initial reading, I read The Trial in much the same way as Crime and Punishment – as a predominantly psychological novel – and became preoccupied with the question of whether Josef K. was suffering from paranoid delusions; surely a medieval-style flogging could not take place in a bank with only one (reliable) witness? Yet this ignored a fundamental difference between “Dostoyevsky’s novels with their completely unsystematic, paradoxical, contrary, but infinitely rich presentation of individual men” (Friedman xiv), and the “inspired automata” with which Kafka populates his tales (Camus 105). Kafka’s works embody a series of “perpetual oscillations between the natural and the extraordinary, the individual and the universal, the tragic and the everyday, the absurd and the logical”, and it is these eternal paradoxes that give his work “resonance and meaning” (Camus 102). If Dostoyevsky’s realist novels represent a revival of casuistry in rejection of abstract theoretism (Morson 157), Kafka’s profoundly modern fiction gives a home and a form to the paradox: “the exact point” at which the general and the particular “meet in their greatest proportion” (Camus 110).

Ultimately, we must accept that “Realist art is as much an artifice as any other kind of art”: they have simply the “air of reality” (Eagleton 10). However, for some commentators “realism in art is actually more realistic than reality itself” (Eagleton 10); and certainly, Friedman subscribes to such a view:

The novel or drama which presents an image of man is not less but more precise than an abstract treatise on the nature of man or an existentialist analysis of the human condition. It says something that cannot be adequately paraphrased in conceptual terms or translated into symbolic meanings, something that cannot be said better, therefore, in some other form. In its very particularity the image of man in literature gives us the wholeness of man as more abstract principles cannot. Next to the lives of actual men, literature comes closest to retaining the concrete uniqueness of individual men while at the same time enabling us to enter into a sufficiently close relationship with these men that they can speak to us as [...] exemplifications of what it does and can mean to be a man (xiv).

In their very different ways, both Crime and Punishment and The Trial provide us with a depth image of modern man; yet Friedman’s description seems biased towards the Dostoyevskian exposition, which presents to us – within the limits of authorial possibility – an entirely convincing psychological portrait of a problematic young man. However, in some ways the revival of casuistry in the Russian novel is too extreme a reaction to the abstractions of the Enlightenment and Revolutionary eras; and though it is concerned with the fundamental anxieties of man, there are palpable limits to its universal appeal. On the other hand, Camus said that it is the “whole art of Kafka” that he forces the “the reader to re-read [...] from another point of view” – a criticism I find personally relevant – and as such it is necessarily a “symbolic work” (100). Where Friedman values the “particularity” and “concrete uniqueness” in an “image of man”, I would place the opposite emphasis, and assert the importance of an “existentialist analysis [...] translated into symbolic meanings” in representations of the human condition. Crucially, there is an element of Kafka’s art which, unlike Dostoyevsky’s, exists is in “a dialectical tension with the possibility of commentary” at all (Bloom 451) – and it is this fundamental conviction of one’s own uncertainty that Kafka captures in his “disturbing adventures”, which is something that perhaps “cannot be said better” in any “other form.”



Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. Ed. Caryl Emerson. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Bloom, Harold. ‘Kafka: Canonical Patience and Indestructability’. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. London Papermac, 1995. 447-462.

Albert Camus. ‘Hope and the Absurd in the Work of Franz Kafka’. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955. 100-110.

Derrida, Jacques. ‘from Of Grammatology’. Leitch, 1822-1830.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue. London: Vintage, 2004.

Eagleton, Terry. ‘What is a Novel?’. The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 1-21.

Friedman, Maurice. Problematic Rebel: Melville, Dostoievsky, Kafka, Camus. London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Heller, Erich. ‘The World of Franz Kafka’. The Disinherited Mind: Essays in Modern German Literature and Thought. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1952. 155-181.

Hegel, G. W. F. ‘from Phenomenology of Spirit’. Leitch, 630-636.

Jones, Malcolm V. and Miller, Robin F., eds. The Cambridge Companion to the Classic Russian Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2008.

---. ‘The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Trial, by Franz Kafka’. 2003. Project Gutenberg. 27/04/2010. <>

Leitch, Vincent B., ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

---. ‘Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’. Leitch, 626-630.

---. ‘Jacques Derrida’. Leitch, 1815-1821.

Morson, Gary Saul. ‘Philosophy in the nineteenth-century novel’. Jones and Miller, 150-168.

Nabokov, Vladimir. ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915). Lectures on Literature. Ed. by Fredson Bowers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1980. 251-283.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. ‘Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters’. On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 39-77.

Russell, Robert. The Modernist Tradition. see Jones and Miller

Showalter, Elaine. Introduction to Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin Books, 2000.

Wachtel, Andrew. Psychology and society. Jones and Miller, 130-149.

1 . 2 . 3