The Novelist’s Craft:
Reflections on The Brothers Karamazov

by Paul H. Ornstein, MD


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

“ . . . we may have a sigh of relief at the thought that it is nevertheless vouchsafed to a few to salvage without effort from the whirlpool of their emotions the deepest truths towards which the rest of us have to find our way through tormenting uncertainty and with restless groping.”
—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

“Imaginative writers are valuable colleagues . . . In the knowledge of the human heart they are far ahead of us common folk because they draw on resources that we have not yet made accessible to science.”
—Sigmund Freud, Delusions and Dreams in Jensen’s ‘Gradiva’


The first Dostoevsky novel I ever read was Notes from Underground. I was fascinated by the power of Dostoevsky’s language, his imagery, and his penetrating insights into the life of his characters—some of which I took to be into his own inner life, as he spoke in the first person singular. By directly addressing the reader, he drew me inside his narrative. Through this experience Dostoevsky enticed me to read everything he wrote in chronological order. Reading his literary output in sequence deepened my appreciation of his craft as a novelist.

There are a number of reasons that I have sustained my interest in Dostoevsky’s writings. In the first place, I became aware of the fact that in each of his short stories and novels his descriptions indicated a deepening understanding of the psychology of his characters. I was particularly interested in the fact that he, just as my patients, never changed the subject But although the core ideas and experiences he wished to portray remained the same throughout his literary career, each of his successive stories and novels portrayed his characters’ inner worlds ever more richly and added a deeper comprehension of their motives and actions. Concentrating on the psychological layers of his writings, my own interest focused on the inner world of the characters that peopled his novels and on the nature of their relationships. Later—with the help of his biographers, especially Joseph Frank’s five-volume study (1976–2002)—I became cognizant of the other, richly textured historical, socio-cultural, and political layers of his works. Dostoevsky—who was born in 1821 and died in 1881—always framed historical, cultural, and political currents in Tsarist Russia within individual or family stories, rather than report about them in a direct narrative form as historians do. He thereby included those currents within the psychological layer of his great novels and at the same time contextualized his expanding insights into his characters’ inner worlds. And in this fashion, too, he entered into a dialogue with other writers of the period. Dostoevsky’s contemporary readers could easily identify these multiple dimensions embedded in his novels and this kept them intensely engaged: his novels spoke to them about their own socio-cultural and political lives <…>


American Imago, 69/3, p. 295-316, 2012.

Link to Online Publication


Previous Posts

Stephanie R. Brody, PsyD (2013) Entering Night Country: Reflections on Self-Disclosure and Vulnerability. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 23:1, p. 45-58.

Ellen Pinsky, PsyD (2012). PHYSIC HIMSELF MUST FADE: A View of the Therapeutic Offering through the Lens of Mortality. American Imago, Vol. 69, No. 1, 29-56.

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