The Idiot has been faulted for technical imperfections as a novel. Such imperfections do, indeed, exist. The novel begins well—in fact, shows outstanding promise—but as it progresses, the author’s control over his material seems to deteriorate. Consequently, the latter part of the novel, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, appears ill conceived and sloppily written. In all fairness, however, consideration must be given to the circumstances under which Fyodor Dostoevski was working when he wrote The Idiot. He was living abroad with his second wife (the first had died in 1864), moving too frequently to put down roots in any one place. During this period, he suffered severe attacks of epilepsy. His first child was born and died three months after birth. He gambled compulsively, was constantly in debt to his publisher for advances on the novel, and felt intermittent guilt about subjecting his wife and child to privation because of his gambling. Shortly after the death of the first child, whom Dostoevski mourned excessively, his wife became pregnant again, adding more worries and responsibilities to Dostoevski’s already heavy burden. Under these conditions and demands, Dostoevski wrote The Idiot.
The Idiot has also been blamed for obscurity. Without a doubt, it has languished in the shadow of its two more renowned siblings, Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912). That kind of obscurity, however, is an equivocation of the term. The obscurity charge leveled at The Idiot is really one of impenetrability, the inability of the reader to grasp what is happening in the novel. Much of this confusion is simply a failure not of the novel but of the Western mind to apprehend the essence of the Russian soul, for The Idiot is a quintessentially Russian novel. Its uniqueness—and hence its so-called obscurity—derives from the distinctive qualities of the Russian psyche unfamiliar to Western readers. At least seven such qualities can be identified.
First is the concept of Russian brotherhood. It is illustrated, among other places, in Prince Myshkin’s return from Switzerland when he is befriended en route by Parfen Rogozhin, a complete stranger, and on arrival by the Epanchins. The concept, however, is not thus limited. Myshkin’s enduring reputation as “the idiot” with the Epanchins and others throughout the novel evidences an affectionate alliance or brotherhood often underappreciated in the West.
Another trait is an unmethodical approach to life. Western people tend to place high value on social ritual and punctuality; however, Russians express themselves spontaneously and observe time schedules only when the schedules do not interfere with the more important business of living. Such a tendency leads to a rather irrational attitude toward handling the necessary trivialities as well as the serious aspects of everyday life. Hence, against all logic and reason, Myshkin proposes marriage to Natasya. Myshkin does not calculate advantages and disadvantages; he simply responds automatically to what each situation requires. His impulsive behavior, like the impulsive behavior of many others in the novel, is typically Russian.
Russian people are also compassionate and humble. The Epanchins, with affectionate compassion, refer to Myshkin as “the idiot.” Myshkin’s own compassion is demonstrated in his impulsive proposal of marriage to Natasya. In fact, Myshkin, throughout the novel, remains kindhearted and compassionate. Likewise, he is humble, just as are—ultimately—Natasya, Rogozhin, Ganya, and the Epanchins.
Religiosity is yet another Russian characteristic manifested in The Idiot . This quality is particularly demonstrated in Myshkin’s peculiar diatribe at Madame Epanchin’s party when he recollects four conversations he had concerning the matter of faith. It is evidence of the Russians’ unquestioning...
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devotion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In fact, Dostoevski even goes so far as to allege that Roman Catholicism and socialism are working conjointly toward imposing authoritarian goals and standards, whereas Eastern Orthodoxy encourages individuality—albeit within a set standard of ethics. This logic can be understood only within the framework of the faithful believer.
The belief in the messianic destiny of Russia adds still another dimension to Dostoevski’s view of the Russian soul in The Idiot. This belief manifests itself as a sense of honor, which is best displayed when Myshkin goes to Rogozhin’s apartment only to find the dead body of Natasya. Myshkin spends the night with Rogozhin, the murderer, and Natasya’s corpse—performing his honorable duty. The next morning, Rogozhin confesses to the police that he murdered Natasya. These dutiful observances of honorable behavior are, in the context of the novel, attributed to proper Russian conduct. As such, they are individual contributions to Russia’s manifest destiny in fulfillment of her obligation to save the world from perdition.
Closely allied to this Russian mission to save the world is the practice of public confession. This practice, too, is intimately connected with the difference between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The former requires whispered revelations to a closeted priest; the latter mandates publicly spoken admission of wrongdoing to the full congregation. Consonantly, Ganya and Rogozhin make “confessions” of misdeeds early in the novel. Other characters as well confess transgressions—as Rogozhin confesses murder to Myshkin—throughout the novel. Everyone, it seems, has some dirty little secret hidden away and, finally, can hide it no longer, “confessing” it to someone else. Such purgation is but another typical Russian trait.
The last essential Russian quality in The Idiot is the warping effect of the conflict between humility and pride. On the most literal level, this trait is demonstrated by Rogozhin’s vow to kill “the idiot” because Rogozhin is sure that Natasya left him for Myshkin, while, as a consequence, Myshkin becomes an extortion victim for being deluded by the same misapprehensions. On a more sophisticated level, all the characters in the novel are warped by the conflict between pride and humility. They are, in effect, the double personalities so typical in Dostoevski’s novels. Myshkin, for example, is Dostoevski’s Christ figure as well as the idiot savant of folklore. Natasya is a sadomasochist, reveling in her exploitation while she avenges it. Other characters follow suit.
These factors make The Idiot a uniquely Russian novel—dense, complex, and at times too Russian for the non-Russian reader. It can be appreciated best from the Russian point of view—native or trained.