Study Guide

The Idiot

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Idiot Essay - The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Introduction

The Idiot Fyodor Dostoevsky

The following entry presents criticism of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot (1868). See also Dostoevsky Short Story Criticism and Notes from the Underground Criticism.

In The Idiot Dostoevsky attempted to portray what he termed a “positively good man” in the character of Prince Myshkin. Endowed with Christ-like spiritual attributes and professing a childlike, innocent belief in the possibility of achieving heaven on earth, Myshkin obliviously enters a Russian society corroded by avariciousness, moral corruption, and spiritual desolation. The ensuing action presents a starkly apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of how inconsequential goodness and humility are in the midst of a society on the verge of moral and spiritual disintegration. Despite Dostoevsky's best literary intentions, The Idiot has been faulted by many critics for its undeveloped characters, its artificial plot structure, and its bitter polemicism.

Biographical Information

Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot between 1867 and 1868, at a time when he endured dire financial and emotional difficulties. In an effort to avoid his numerous creditors, Dostoevsky and his wife fled Russia and traveled from city to city in Europe, trying to eke out a humble living. During this gloomy period of poverty, the author suffered a number of serious bouts of epilepsy, which left him in a fragile emotional and physical condition. Some critics and biographers have speculated that Dostoevsky endowed Myshkin with epilepsy in an almost cathartic attempt to come to terms with the circumstances of his own condition. Dostoevsky also continued to succumb to his obsession with gambling, which left him desperate and penniless. Asa result, Dostoevsky realized that he needed to produce a work that would lift him out of debt and change his family's fortunes. To that end, he began work on a novel which he had promised the journal Russian Messenger. When The Idiot appeared in serial form beginning in 1868, readers responded with bewilderment to what they considered to be incomplete characters, an incoherent narrative structure, and a fantastical, unrealistic setting. Given the initial reticence of the periodical subscribers, publishers were reluctant to purchase the book rights to the novel. Indeed, readers and commentators alike considered The Idiot a step backward for Dostoevsky after the resounding popular success of his previous novel, Crime and Punishment (1867).

Plot and Major Characters

The Idiot begins with the meeting of Prince Myshkin and Parfen Rogozhin on a train traveling from Switzerland to St. Petersburg. Myshkin had been receiving treatment for epilepsy in a Swiss sanatorium, and now was on his way to visit his distant relatives, the Epanchins, in Russia. At first, Myshkin is welcomed into the upper-class society as something of a curiosity, a penniless and childlike character upon whom the cynical group focuses with amusement. Almost immediately upon arriving, Myshkin makes clear his dream to influence all of his acquaintances on the merits of living a life of honesty and humility. Little does he know that the group he intends to influence includes Rogozhin, a sinister and jealous predator, who is Myshkin's alter-ego; Ganya Ivolgin, General Epanchin's greedy and ruthless secretary, who will consider any means to amass personal wealth; Ippolit Terentev, a terminally ill intellectual who arrogantly flouts Myshkin's naïve spirituality; and Nastasya Filippovna, a haughty and beautiful woman who, as a young girl, was seduced by her guardian, Afanasii Totsky, and who now schemes to exact revenge on him. Despite his good intentions, Myshkin succeeds in embarrassing and offending nearly everyone with whom he comes in contact, but his presence, however awkward, becomes tolerated when he receives a sizable inheritance from a distant relative. Myshkin's naïve, oblivious actions set into motion a number of events which culminate in the novel's tragic conclusion. Through his platonic admiration of Nastasya Filoppovna, Myshkin unwittingly makes himself a rival for her hand in marriage, sending her other suitor, Rogozhin, into a jealous rage. Rogozhin's fury leads to the attempted murder of Myshkin and, later, the murder of Filippovna herself in the climax of the novel. Myshkin's actions also affect the lives of other characters, such as Aglaya Epanchin, the general's daughter, with whom Myshkin has a budding romantic relationship, and Ivolgin, who has designs on Aglaya for himself. In the tragic conclusion, the chaos and social disintegration of the Russian society finally overwhelms Myshkin's innocent idealism. Ippolit has died, Filippovna has been murdered, Rogozhin has been incarcerated, Aglaya runs away from Russia, and Myshkin regresses into a state of childlike idiocy.

Major Themes

The central theme of The Idiot revolves around the main character, Prince Myshkin. Dostoevsky represents him as a young man whose emotional and intellectual development has been arrested by the circumstances surrounding his illness. Although physically he is a man, he has the innocent personality of a child. In this regard, Myshkin represents a Christ-like figure, a character of innate goodness, who believes that humility and brotherly love can transform the earth into a kind of heaven where all humankind can live in harmony. However, Myshkin's innate goodness contends with an overpowering antithesis in the form of the morally and spiritually corrosive Russian aristocracy with whom he associates. Here, Dostoevsky carefully contrives an elaborate allegorical structure to accentuate the conflict between Myshkin and his acquaintances. The author employs a vast array of images, proper names, geographic places, physical descriptions, and biblical references to evoke moral decay, social chaos, and a pessimistic vision of the current spiritual state of Russia. Further, this spiritual decline signals an apocalyptic omen for Dostoevsky, and he integrates this idea into the fabric of his story as well. The characters' hysterical preoccupations with amassing wealth, sexual conquest, intellectual egotism, and power all reflect the author's fatalistic belief that the Russian civilization was on the verge of a moral and spiritual collapse which could very likely herald the Apocalypse prophesied in the Book of Revelations. The fact that Myshkin ultimately succumbs to the vortex of deceit and spiritual destruction that surrounds him reflects Dostoevsky's bleak conclusion that there is no hope of reversing the encroaching moral decay in contemporary Russia.

Critical Reception

From the time of the publication of The Idiot, readers and commentators alike have been highly dissatisfied with what they perceive as loosely drawn characters, an incoherent narrative, and an artificial structural unity in the work. It has been suggested that these issues perhaps reflect the difficult circumstances under which Dostoevsky wrote his novel. Literary scholars have combed Dostoevsky's letters and notebooks in an effort to determine why a novel of such promising scope and intention ended up as such an artistic failure. Indeed, in recent decades many critics have attempted to salvage the literary merits of The Idiot, arguing that while the novel might be structurally deficient, it is also rich in esoteric spiritual and philosophical insights. In fact, one critic, Robert Hollander (1974) has perceptively argued that Dostoevsky ingeniously integrated the apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelations into the structural framework of The Idiot to unify the characters and narrative action of the novel. Other critics have analyzed the etymological significance of the characters' names as well as geographic places and iconographic images to demonstrate how Dostoevsky employed biblical allusions to underscore the major themes and symbols in the novel. Commentators have also focused on the character of Prince Myshkin, debating the success or failure of Dostoevsky's attempt at creating a “positively good man.” While some commentators have asserted that the author set himself up for a nearly impossible task and, as a result, created an implausible and unrealistic character, others have maintained that the author endowed Myshkin with a sophisticated combination of ethereal spiritual attributes and inescapable human flaws which make him a compelling and ultimately tragic figure. Indeed, critics such as Janet G. Tucker (1997) have argued that the time has come to move beyond the simplistic view that Myshkin is merely a one-dimensional, Christ-like character. According to Tucker, “considering Myshkin solely or even primarily in these terms strips both the hero and novel of significant gradations of complexity crucial to understanding both.”

Principal Works

Bednye lyudi [The Poor Folk] (novel) 1846

Zapiski iz mertvogo doma [The House of the Dead] (novel) 1860-62

Zapiski iz podpol´ya [Notes from the Underground] (novel) 1862

Prestuplenie I nakazanie [Crime and Punishment] (novel) 1866

Igrok [The Gambler] (novel) 1867

Idiot [The Idiot] (novel) 1868

Besy [The Possessed] (novel) 1872

Dnevnik pisatelya [The Diary of a Writer] (essays and short stories) 1873-77

Brat´ya Karamazovy [The Brothers Karamazov] (novel) 1880

Criticism

Simon O. Lesser (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Lesser, Simon O. “Saint and Sinner—Dostoevsky's Idiot.Modern Fiction Studies 4 (autumn 1958): 211-24.

[In the following essay, Lesser examines Myshkin's inner struggle in The Idiot, claiming that Dostoevsky's intention was to demonstrate the stupidity and shortcomings of his character and the tragedy these flaws caused.]

The theme of The Idiot is the inadequacy of mere goodness in the world of today. The Idiot is the modern morality story in the same sense that Hamlet is the modern rendition of the Oedipus situation.

It is easy to miss the point of the novel entirely because it has, with one conspicuous...

(The entire section is 6413 words.)

Robert Hollander (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Hollander, Robert. “The Apocalyptic Framework of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 7, no. 2 (1974): 123-39.

[In the following essay, Hollander argues that critics who have commented on the aesthetic failure of The Idiot have not considered that a thematic interpretation of the novel based on the Book of Revelation does indeed bring the characters and events together.]

The Idiot1 is frequently described as being an aesthetic failure. One major complaint is that, formally at least, the parts do not constitute a whole. The problem is well expressed by one of Dostoevsky's...

(The entire section is 9902 words.)

Albert J. Guerard (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Guerard, Albert J. “On the Composition of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 8, no. 1 (fall 1974): 201-15.

[In the following essay, Guerard analyzes Dostoevsky's Notebooks, evaluating the changes that the writer chose to make in developing the final published version of The Idiot.]

Why scrutinize the process of creating great complex novelistic masterpieces such as The Idiot, with due recourse to the Notebooks, when to read and interpret the finished texts is a more than sufficient task? One may reply that this is at the least pure science and pleasure: to follow rich minds...

(The entire section is 7851 words.)

Robin Feuer Miller (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Miller, Robin Feuer. “The Role of the Reader in The Idiot.The Slavic and East European Journal 23, no. 2 (summer 1979): 190-202.

[In the following essay, Miller discusses how Dostoevsky intended The Idiot to influence the reader and identifies the various levels on which the novel can be read.]

Recently, a number of literary critics have focused attention on the reader both in his role as a literary creation of the author and as a real presence; they claim to have discovered in him a figure who, as one critic laments, had previously been “excluded by legislation.”1 Northrop Frye has praised a definition of literature which...

(The entire section is 7095 words.)

James B. Woodward (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Woodward, James B. “Overlapping Portraits in Dostoevskij's The Idiot.Scando-Slavica 26 (1980): 115-27.

[In the following essay, Woodward maintains that the character and conduct of Prince Myshkin, while baffling at times, “reflect a deliberately contrived method of characterization” by the author.]

“For me”, writes Robert Lord, “The Idiot remains the most challenging and obscure of Dostoevskij's novels, and Prince Myshkin his most baffling and impenetrable creation”.1 Many readers would doubtless concur with this view. Nor is Lord alone in attributing the novel's exceptional obscurity, in part, to flaws in...

(The entire section is 6003 words.)

Diana L. Burgin (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Burgin, Diana L. “Prince Myshkin, the True Lover and ‘Impossible Bridegroom’: A Problem in Dostoevskian Narrative.” The Slavic and East European Journal 27, no. 2 (summer 1983): 158-75.

[In the following essay, Burgin analyzes the ambivalent nature of Myshkin's love for Nastasya Filippovna, arguing that it is not so much a character defect as it is “a problem of Dostoevskian narrative and the limitations of the novelistic genre as a vehicle of Dostoevskian truth.”]

“The truth … very often seems impossible.”

—General Ivolgin to Prince Myškin

I

...

(The entire section is 8711 words.)

Dennis Patrick Slattery (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “From Switzerland to Petersburg: The Descent.” In The Idiot: Dostoevsky's Fantastic Prince: A Phenomenological Approach, pp. 16-75. New York: Peter Lang, 1983.

[In the following essay, Slattery considers the spatio-temporal imagery of The Idiot to demonstrate how Dostoevsky mixes fantasy with reality in his novel.]

If the reader approaches The Idiot as an ordered poetic experience of fantasy, he must make use of an imaginative reading, one which looks closely at and listens to the voices of the novel's interior dramatic action. For when entered into imaginally, The Idiot begins to direct the reader's...

(The entire section is 14783 words.)

Janet G. Tucker (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Tucker, Janet G. “Dostoevsky's Idiot: Defining Myshkin.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal (1997): 23-40.

[In the following essay, Tucker discusses the character of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, asserting that he is much more complex than most critics have defined him.]

The Idiot is not only the least debated of Dostoevsky's novels; it is also the least understood and frequently misrepresented.1

Few of Dostoevsky's characters seem more elusive or incompletely realised than Lev Myshkin, eponymous hero of The Idiot. Critics have typically defined Myshkin as Dostoevsky's...

(The entire section is 7175 words.)

Liza Knapp (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Knapp, Liza. “Introduction to The Idiot, Part 2: The Novel.” In Dostoevsky's The Idiot: A Critical Companion, edited by Liza Knapp, pp. 27-50. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Knapp presents a general survey of The Idiot, discussing the significance of the major characters' names, the work's artistic and literary sources, and the novel's shifting geographic setting.]

1. HEROES, HEROINES, AND THEIR RELATIONS

The major characters of The Idiot are discussed below with respect to the meaning of their names and their family affiliation. In this novel, Dostoevsky...

(The entire section is 8109 words.)

Nina Pelikan Straus (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Straus, Nina Pelikan. “Flights from The Idiot's Womanhood.” In Dostoevsky's The Idiot: A Critical Companion, edited by Liza Knapp, pp. 105-27. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Straus examines Dostoevsky's conception of femininity and feminism by comparing the principal female characters in The Idiot with the female characters in the author's other works.]

The Idiot exhibits an experiment in terms of “the feminine” that distinguishes it from Dostoevsky's other novels. In Notes from the Underground, The Gambler, and Crime and Punishment, traces of the turbulent...

(The entire section is 8230 words.)

Dennis Patrick Slattery (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “Seized by the Muse: Dostoevsky's Convulsive Poetics in The Idiot.Literature and Medicine 18, no. 1 (1999): 60-81.

[In the following essay, Slattery surveys the impact that Dostoevsky's epilepsy had on his literary career, particularly as seen in The Idiot.]

Few of us are not in some way infirm, or even diseased; and our very infirmities help us unexpectedly.

William James1

With few exceptions critics who undertake to explore the effects of Fyodor Dostoevsky's epilepsy on his writing life will often pass through the territory marked by Sigmund...

(The entire section is 9847 words.)