“In a world where God is simply dead flesh, a good man becomes simply an idiot.” – AS Byatt, “Prince of Fools,” The Guardian, June 2004
Dostoevsky explained in a letter to a friend, and later to his niece, that his project in writing The Idiot was that of portraying a “perfectly beautiful man.” This man, Prince Myshkin, the titular “idiot,” is an epileptic who returns to Russia after four years in a Swiss sanatorium.
Myshkin isn’t an intellectual idiot; his idiocy stems from naivety and simple-heartedness. Myshkin is an idiot because he is foolish to the nastier, baser parts of man and to the cruel reality of an impure world.
Dostoevsky writes goodness with the same attention he gave meanness in Crime and Punishment. He writes it as an otherness, received only with reservations, suspicion and disbelief. Goodness disintegrates, is dragged through the street and becomes tangled up with the coarser parts of society until it is unrecognizable and even damaging.
From the first pages of The Idiot Dostoevsky brands Myshkin as being somehow inappropriately outside of things. Myshkin returns to Petersburg without plans, money or even suitable clothing; not once in the course of the novel does he take permanent lodgings, instead always choosing to stay with friends or at an inn. He is either shamelessly candid or frustratingly reticent. His views are more European than Russian and he has a curious predilection for talking about capital punishment. Both of the women he loves, innocent and teasing Aglaya Ivanovna and unfairly disgraced Nastasya Filippovna, cannot feel more than the most tenuous, dubious love for him. They are doubtful, each in her own way, of the possibility of his very existence.
Myshkin’s first impressions of the two women are prelude to two views of life that Dostoevksy advances through his other characters. When Myshkin sees a portrait of Nastasya Filippovna mere hours after arriving in Petersburg he tells us her beauty could “overturn the world.” Aglaya, he says, has a beauty that could save the world.
As an author Dostoevsky has given us psychological glimpses of death in many of its causes, namely sickness, self-destruction and murder. In The Idiot he adds to this list capital punishment. He reminds us of Christ’s execution and prompts doubt in the power of Christ to resurrect and redeem.
A copy of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of Christ taken from the cross hangs over a doorway in Rogozhin’s labyrinthine house. It is a realist depiction: a dead man’s body, made Christ only by the title Holbein gave it.
“A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” But in his next breath Myshkin confides in Rogozhin that just before an epileptic fit he feels as if he is peeking into eternal life and that the second before it happens is a “boundless happiness” for which he might give up everything.
The final moments of life are a constant preoccupation for Myshkin, as indeed they were for Dostoevsky. Tried and sentenced to death in 1848 for his participation in the dissident Petrashevsky circle, Dostoevsky’s sentence was commuted only in the last moment.
There is another character in The Idiot who glimpses, if not the limitless realm of eternal life, of a “boundless happiness,” at least the edges of his present life.
Proud Ippolit suffers consumption and becomes a deathbed intellectual. He appears at first to value life so cheaply that he is willing to rush his death by suicide because, really, what does it matter to learn, to be kind, to teach if six weeks will bring the end? But his dissertation, his Necessary Explanation, on the terrace of Lebedev’s dacha and his admitted fear that man can never fully convey the whole of his ideas to others – that man will die with the main thing behind his thoughts never understood – give the other impression. Did Ippolit subconsciously make his own suicide a predetermined lie?
Ippolit trembles and wavers between believing in Christ the redeemer and believing in Christ as Holbein painted him. Ippolit differs, therefore, from the character Kirillov in Demons, whose conviction was that man has mastery over life and death only when he no longer fears or values either and that man in this way actually becomes God himself.
Richard Pevear, in his introduction to the Vintage Classics edition of The Idiot, cites biographer and historian Joseph Frank, who wrote that Ippolit “contains all the elements of the Prince’s worldview, but with an opposite attitude.” Beauty – goodness – will either save the world or overturn it depending on whether we take Myshkin’s or Ippolit’s view of things.
The Idiot brims with minor characters who, while tangential to the plot and the main questions of the novel, give us so many things to think about. General Ivolgin, drunkard, occasional thief and compulsive liar, has one of the biggest hearts of any of the characters. The carouser Ferdyschenko tells us that a truthful man is never witty. Evgeny Pavlovich, as much “European” as he is Russian, gives us a view to the political and philosophical threads of mid-nineteenth century Russia.
The Idiot is more loosely composed than Crime and Punishment and more tightly written than Demons (though to be fair, Dostoevsky never intended Demons to be a novel). It has many of the same themes that drove the story in The Brothers Karamazov, and its characters will feel familiar – Myshkin is a lay version of rosy-cheeked Alyosha, Ippolit a more timid Ivan, Nastasya Filippovna a more confused Gruschenka.
But The Idiot is entirely its own and its question of the possibility (or prudence) of untempered Christ-like innocence in this world is perennial.
The Idiot · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1868-’69
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2003 · 633 pages, paperback