Simon O. Lesser (essay date 1958)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6413

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 exception, no great analogues. The exception is Don Quixote; and it is not by accident that references to the poor knight find their way into the Russian version of the same story. The perennial theme of modern fiction is that of a great man being torn and finally overcome by some one emotional weakness: lust, ambition, jealousy. Whatever the external situation, the fundamental internal conflict is always between what Freud would call the id—the emotional, instinctual, unsocialized part of our personality—and either the superego, which embodies our ideals and values: our conscience; or the ego: the directing, rational part of our personality, the prudent little judge who mediates between the id and superego and reconciles the demands of both with the demands of reality. In The Idiot, as in Don Quixote, the fundamental conflict is between the superego and the ego. Myshkin suffers from the noblest and most endearing of all possible weaknesses: an excess of goodness. His fatal flaw is an undeveloped ego: a sense of reality so deficient that it not only prevents him from accomplishing good, but causes him to fail everyone, himself included, in the long run and to leave behind him during his brief encounter with nineteenth-century Russian society a trail of defeats and destruction. As Freud—and Dostoevsky—knew, the unbridled superego can be as dangerous as the id. Many of our notions of right and wrong are accepted early and uncritically. They are no safer a guide to the complicated problems of life than our instinctual impulses. Both those impulses and the instructions from the superego must be weighed by the conscious intelligence and related to the objective situation. It is amazing, in a way, that there are not more novels along the lines of Don Quixote and The Idiot—our own century has of course added The Trial—for the harm done by an over-developed and tyrannical superego, in a person with a deficient sense of reality, is a familiar phenomenon in life.

So weak is Myshkin's sense of reality that in the last analysis he is an idiot. There are of course ironies on ironies in calling him that. He is morally so superior to, and in many respects so much wiser and more penetrating than, the characters who think of him as an idiot that our first tendency is to laugh at them. But if we set up the simplest operational definition of intelligence: self-knowledge and a capacity to appraise people and situations accurately enough so that one can thread one's way safely through the jungle of the world, we see at once that Myshkin is indeed an idiot; a second irony is the literalness of the title. We balk at perceiving Myshkin's “idiocy” because his intellectual weaknesses are weaknesses we admire. We are aware of our own malice and envy, our tendency to do less than justice to the qualities of almost all other human beings—all, indeed, but a handful whose accomplishments in some curious way feed our own narcissism. How then can we despise a man who suffers from an excess of generosity, who “sees the good” in everyone and everything? Or, hating ourselves for our concessions to expediency, how can we despise a man who is invariably honest and candid?

We face the same difficulty in taking a critical view of Myshkin's actions. We know our own timidity and cowardice. How can we despise a man who acts spontaneously and, though frail, even rashly, manifesting no fear? We know how incapable we are of accepting the words of Jesus about the lilies of the field; an anxious, wizened old man possesses our soul and keeps even our charities within bounds. How can we feel contempt for a man who is unfailingly and excessively generous? Nothing blocks us perhaps from perceiving the childishness of Myshkin, his probable sexual impotence, but even this deficiency, particularly since it has a physical cause, we tend to judge indulgently.

Yet Dostoevsky wants to see the stupidity and shortcomings of Myshkin: The Idiot is the story of the tragedy they cause. To understand the novel, we must shed our illusions and view Myshkin's character and conduct with our everyday eyes. In our hearts we know the futility of pure goodness and the stupidity of naive generosity. There is a level, as we shall see, on which Myshkin's “goodness” is immoral and cruel. It is admirable perhaps but also foolish to accept everyone and everything. The appropriate reaction to something hateful is hatred. We should shrink from the potential murderer, not welcome him to our circle of friends. We should be on guard against involvements with neurotic people, for example, women whose neurosis feeds our own. We should be sensible enough not to permit our generous and admirable tendencies—kindness, let us say, or candor—to carry us away. There are times when it is prudent to be silent or even to lie—perhaps even do things of dubious propriety, for example, open letters not intended for our eyes but which may contain information it is essential for us to have if we are to act wisely. So much Dostoevsky is saying, it might be maintained, explicitly. One other equally important thing is implied. This is the wrongness of completely repressing our instinctual needs. Myshkin is doubly crippled by his sexual innocence: he is incapable in the end of satisfying either of the women with whom he becomes involved—this is a failure of response—and he has no healthy guiding impulse to give order to his own life.

The complete man would perhaps be an amalgam of the three men whose destinies become interlocked in the first chapter of the novel—idealistic, sensual, prudent. The amalgam is unlovely, but it is man. Anyone who, like Myshkin, tries to deny, or simply lacks, some of the components is doomed, more surely than the mixed and imperfect ordinary man, to defeat and destruction by society.

Of course, there is a final, mocking irony in Dostoevsky's title: in a more perfect world the prince's “idiocy” would be something else again. Before the story proper opens, Myshkin has scored his one notable triumph. He has brought peace and ultimate happiness to the wronged and despised Marie. But, significantly, he has achieved this idyllic victory by influencing the hearts of children, and the woman he helps is herself child-like, making no demands on life; she is surprised and satisfied by pity.

Only in a world of children and Maries, or as Aglaia perceived, in a world where he did not get involved in action at all, could Myshkin possibly succeed and his “idiocy,” his unrealistic acceptance of everything, be regarded as entirely admirable.


In writing The Idiot, Dostoevsky faced the, it would seem, insuperable problem of dramatizing pure goodness and certain failures of response—failure, for example, to react adequately to the cruelty perceived in Rogozhin. Now for fictional purposes these qualities have a dubious value, for they seldom lead to action. They suggest the spectator rather than the participant, the person acted upon rather than the person setting a chain of events in motion; and neither of these roles is adequate for the central character of a novel. Making a completely faultless character believable also presented difficulties—and difficulties which had to be solved if The Idiot was to be a flesh-and-blood novel, not a bodiless allegory. Perhaps Dostoevsky divined very early during the gestation of the book that his hero's goodness would have to be alloyed with weakness or evil. Otherwise the ultimate failure and even destructiveness of the goodness would possess no narrative significance, would seem unrelated to character; it would represent a basically expository comment on the wickedness of the world.

Dostoevsky's difficulties were resolved when, in developing the eighth plan for The Idiot, he selected a Christ-like character for his protagonist and proceeded to endow him with his own variety of masochism. In retrospect it is easy to see that no other kind of hero could have fulfilled Dostoevsky's narrative and thematic purposes. Myshkin's goodness is based upon masochism, and the masochistic man invites reactions and involvements; he has a principle of action, albeit a neurotic one; his passivity is only apparent. Myshkin's goodness, his moral masochism, rests on a denial of his lusts and hatreds; it is an extension of his personal or, using the term broadly, his sexual masochism. A man whose goodness has this kind of underlying structure can be an active and wholly credible agent of destruction.

Inevitably, the people with whom such a character would become most closely involved would be sadistic, full of the passion and hatred he represses. He would be attracted by such people and they by him. The masochistic person seeks people who will use him cruelly; the sadistic, people he can torture. There is even more to it than this. According to Freud, neither masochism nor sadism is ever found in isolation. While one characteristic may be dominant, every masochist or sadist has some element of the opposite tendency in his makeup, so that he is drawn to other sadistic-masochistic people not only by his needs but by his ability to identify and sympathize with them.

Thus we have Rogozhin, Nastasya Filippovna, and Aglaia, the only kind of people with whom Myshkin could have established deep emotional relationships. The nature of the other principal characters in The Idiot, and the prince's relation with them, is inherent in his personality structure. The dominant traits of the three principal characters have an almost formal symmetry. Myshkin is apparently an example of pure masochism; in Rogozhin sadism is dominant; Nastasya, vindictive to all men but bent on self-destruction, has both qualities in equal proportion.

There is nothing mechanical about the actual working out of the relationships, however. The relationship between Myshkin and Nastasya is underscored and echoed by the relationship between him and Aglaia. Aglaia is a genteel bourgeois counterpart of the fiercer Nastasya. The relative breadth of Nastasya's reaction to Myshkin, as compared with Rogozhin's, is another asymmetrical factor. She reacts to his moral as well as his sexual masochism, in this respect serving as a link with the novel's minor characters. In the proposal scene which ends Part I, for example, she thrice rebukes Myshkin for regarding her, unrealistically, as an innocent. Rogozhin, the sensual man of instinct, is almost completely oblivious to the prince's moral masochism. From the time he first meets him, and expresses distrust of his disclaimer of interest in women, to the time he expresses his fear that Myshkin's “pity” may prove a more powerful weapon than his own passionate, sadistic love, he is almost wholly concerned with the prince as a sexual rival.

Rogozhin's reaction to Myshkin makes up in intensity for anything it lacks in breadth. The relationship between the two men frames the book dramatically and cuts to its heart psychologically. When it is fully understood, The Idiot has yielded its ultimate secrets. The most deeply buried parts of Myshkin's personality come to light in his relationship with Rogozhin.

The dominant traits of Rogozhin and Myshkin, and the nature of the relationship which is to bind them together, are brought out in the short initial chapter of the novel. The first word Rogozhin addresses to Myshkin—he of course does not then know his name—reveals his cruelty. Myshkin's masochism is disclosed almost as promptly by his willingness to answer any question, however impertinent or inappropriate. As the two men part after this first meeting, Rogozhin extends a patronizing invitation to Myshkin and offers him aid; and the prince—though we later find he possesses considerable means—abjectly accepts the offer.

In this initial chapter we are also given a wealth of information about the woman for whom these men will soon be bitterly competing, who will serve to ripen the relationship between them. By the end of Part I of the novel Myshkin and Rogozhin are destined to be implacable rivals for the hand of this woman. By the end of Part II, in her cruelty, confusion, and vacillation, she will have twice run away from each of them, feeding their hatred for one another at the same time that she enmeshes each of them more deeply in a sadistic-masochistic relationship with her. By the end of the novel, every possibility of a non-tragic solution of the affair exhausted, the two men—themselves on the verge of destruction—are destined to be reunited over the corpse of this woman. She, Nastasya Filippovna, has of course been murdered by Rogozhin. It is indicative of the rapidity with which Dostoevsky develops his plot that by the end of Chapter 3, the probability of this murder has been consciously foreseen by Myshkin.

The relationship between Myshkin and Rogozhin reaches its climax in Part II of the novel. The dramatic focus of Chapters 3 to 5 of this part is on the impulse the prince and Rogozhin feel to kill one another. The prince, of course, represses his murderous impulses, but they are revealed to us none the less, once our eyes are open, with unmistakable clarity. Rogozhin's impulses are more obviously revealed and are of course confirmed in the end by his actual attempt to kill Myshkin.

The section which brings the relationship of the two men to a head begins with the prince seeking out Rogozhin in his gloomy home. In the ensuing conversation the motives each man has for hating the other—as well as the motives each has for hating Nastasya—are clearly revealed. With what anguish we can imagine, Rogozhin tells Myshkin that he is the one Nastasya loves and that if she marries him, Rogozhin, it will only be as a way of seeking her own destruction. Rogozhin also shows an awareness of Nastasya's sadism and of the contempt she feels for him. Nor does he attempt to deny the sadistic nature of his love for her: he accepts Myshkin's charge that he wants to marry Nastasya only to pay her back for the torment she has caused him, just as he had previously accepted the charge when it was made by Nastasya herself. At the end of Chapter 4, he announces the decision against which he is fighting and which is the ultimate source of his hatred of the prince: he offers to surrender Nastasya to him. How incapable he is of this renunciation his subsequent attempt to kill Myshkin reveals.

But the prince is no more capable of finally renouncing Nastasya than is Rogozhin. He has come to see his friend to assure him that if it is true, as he has heard, that Rogozhin and Nastasya have been reconciled and are to be married, despite his own feeling that the marriage will be ruinous for her, he will not interfere. Yet that very evening he finds himself irresistibly drawn to the house on the “Petersburg Side” where he believes Nastasya to be staying. It is a stroke of genius that his compulsive desire to see her asserts itself at this time, for his impulse to kill Rogozhin also reveals itself most clearly on this same day, and it is psychologically and artistically right that his libidinal and aggressive repressions should crumble simultaneously. Myshkin's thoughts while he is walking to Nastasya's also show that no one has surpassed Dostoevsky as a psychologist. The prince keeps reassuring himself about the purity of his intentions. He tells himself that he wishes he could see Rogozhin, so that the two friends could visit Nastasya together. In fact, he does see him a few minutes later—Nastasya, it turns out, has gone to Pavlovsk—and is so guilt-ridden he cannot speak to him at all.

Myshkin's desire for Nastasya is of course also the primary basis of his repressed hostility toward Rogozhin. In the scene where the prince visits his friend it emerges very clearly that, just as Rogozhin is suspicious of Myshkin's “pity,” so Myshkin is jealous of Rogozhin's passionate love, a kind of love of which he feels himself incapable. The scene at Rogozhin's house also reminds us that Myshkin has a more legitimate reason for wishing Rogozhin out of the way—his desire to protect Nastasya against the laxly curbed violence he perceives in his friend.

Myshkin's murderous impulses toward Rogozhin must of course be revealed to us by unconscious manifestations. Myshkin cannot become aware of them; a principal purpose of his epileptic fits, one of which he feels impending, is to keep such an “idea” from consciousness. Two other factors may keep a hurried reader of The Idiot from becoming aware of the murderous rage against which Myshkin is struggling. The first is his apparent innocence of such impulse. The second is our conscious and sympathetic awareness of the prince's fear of Rogozhin. Our initial impulse is to assume that the prince's preoccupation with knives and the subject of murder stems from this fear, from the need he feels to defend himself. But on closer examination it becomes clear that Myshkin's awareness of Rogozhin's desire to kill him—an awareness for which he reproaches himself—is screening the still more terrible idea that he, Myshkin, wants to kill his friend. He is probably as sensitive as he is to what Rogozhin is feeling because of the murderous hate in his own heart.

The evidence for this hate, when we open our eyes to see it, is unmistakable; as though compensating for the fact that he could not be more explicit, Dostoevsky has piled on clue upon clue. It is Myshkin, not Rogozhin, who twice unconsciously, in a state of extreme agitation, picks up a knife which is lying on his friend's table. Later that afternoon the prince realizes that for some hours previously “he had at intervals begun suddenly looking for something.” The “something” proves to be an item he had seen in a hardware store window—a knife with a staghorn handle. It materializes that he has been haunted all day by thoughts of murder. He has been thinking of Lebedyev's nephew, whom he has confused with the murderer of whom Lebedyev spoke at the time he introduced his nephew to the prince. During dinner he has discussed the crime committed by this murderer with his waiter.

The fact that Myshkin is guilty of the same murderous and erotic impulses which are more nakedly revealed in Rogozhin is of the greatest structural importance. It explains his ability to forgive Rogozhin's attempt upon his life—forgive him, it might almost be said, in advance of the attempt. It is a key to understanding the entire relationship between the prince and Rogozhin. It is basic to our emotional acceptance of the overwhelming final scene of The Idiot. Myshkin cannot find it in his heart to reproach Rogozhin for the murder of Nastasya for very much the same reason that Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill Claudius: he is himself filled with guilt. Even consciously he has cause to reproach himself: not only has he failed to protect Nastasya, but his inability even at the very last, at Pavlovsk, to give her up has set in motion the final chain of events leading to her death. Unconsciously he knows that his complicity is far deeper and more encompassing than this. Through his identification with Rogozhin he has acted out the sadism and lust for Nastasya he tries so desperately to deny. Through his identification with her he has responded to those feelings, thus satisfying unacknowledged passive and feminine tendencies. In his own person he has felt homosexual love and murderous hate for Rogozhin and irresistible desire for Nastasya. Though these feelings have been repudiated and repressed, at the core of his being Myshkin knows that he is guilty of lusts and hatreds no less terrible than those to which his passionate companions have yielded.


Except for the chapters which have been discussed and much of Chapter 1, which summarizes what has happened between the time of the proposal scene and Myshkin's reappearance in St. Petersburg six months later, Parts II and III of The Idiot are concerned with Myshkin's efforts to extricate himself from the neurotic triangular situation in which he is involved and make a reasonably normal adjustment to Russian society. Only failure to perceive this, it seems to me, can account for the charge, in part baseless and in part irrelevant, that this middle section of the novel is diffuse and structurally deficient. It is, of course, less intense than Part I. But this loss of intensity is inevitable, for it is of the essence of Myshkin's efforts to achieve stability that Rogozhin and Nastasya must tend to disappear from his life. Some diffuseness is also inevitable, for Dostoevsky is trying to show us the prince's ability to cope with a wide variety of people and problems, of the sort that a man in his position would not fail to encounter. In this section of the book Dostoevsky is giving his hero his chance. Not until we are convinced that he is incapable of taking advantage of it are we fully prepared for The Idiot's tragic conclusion. Considering the prince's position in society, it is essential that he be given a broad test. Considering the nature of the relationships he is attempting to escape and establish, it is essential that the test extend over some period of time.

As a matter of fact, the technical skill and economy with which this portion of the novel are developed cannot be passed by without some comment. The loss of intensity is fully compensated for by an accrual of richness which is the despair of anyone trying to write about the book. We not only see Myshkin's relationships with many characters, but we see those characters live and breathe apart from him—see them in their setting, see their vanities, ambitions, intrigues. The Idiot's minor characters are without exception interesting in their own right—so interesting that we may fail to observe the structural roles they play. But our knowledge of them, and of the way they treat one another, provides indispensable background information for judging Myshkin's responses. The way Lebedyev tortures General Ivolgin to punish him for his theft shows us, for example, how far the prince goes in the other direction in his indulgence of the old man. The interrelationships of the secondary characters, which are also casually and, it appears, effortlessly revealed to us, are also used to advance the action of the novel; consider, for example, the use made of the relationship between Ganya and Ippolit, and between each of them and Aglaia.

On examination we find that Dostoevsky achieves the rich, realistic, peopled texture of the middle part of the book by focusing on just four families—the Epanchins, Lebedyevs, Ivolgins and Ptitsyns—and Mrs. Ptitsyn is the already introduced Varya Ivolgin. Even the “Burdovsky incident,” while perhaps spun out too much in length, is developed with great economy so far as use of characters is concerned. Burdovsky is—apparently—the bastard son of Myshkin's benefactor, Pavlishtchev, and we have already been introduced to Lebedyev's nephew. The two characters who do not stem from the past, Keller and Ippolit, are used extensively in the further development of the story, and the latter is a friend of Kilya Ivolgin. The Burdovsky affair can by no means be regarded as simply an interpolated incident designed to show Myshkin's attitude toward social problems and ability to handle affairs. All of the characters involved in it have links with the larger movement of the novel.

A final brilliant technical achievement of the middle part of The Idiot is the way in which Dostoevsky makes the presence of Nastasya and Rogozhin felt, even though it is essential that their actual appearances on the scene be held to a minimum. The presence of Nastasya in particular is felt with cumulative intensity toward the end of Part III, even though she and Myshkin do not encounter one another face to face until the section's final pages. Without bringing her on the scene often, Dostoevsky, in preparation for the final catastrophe, shows how deeply she and Myshkin are still involved with one another. Her interest in the prince is revealed by their one encounter, the testimony of Rogozhin, and, as Aglaia realizes, in inverted fashion by the several letters she has written Aglaia and her effort to eliminate Yevgeny Pavlovitch as a suitor for that young lady so that she will be free to marry Myshkin. His interest in Nastasya is shown by his intervention to protect her during the altercation at the band concert and, even more portentously, by his dreaming of her while awaiting Aglaia's arrival for their early morning rendezvous.

The main focus of the middle section of The Idiot, however, is on Myshkin's efforts to make a normal adjustment to society. These efforts center on his relationship with the Epanchin family, and, above all, of course, with Aglaia. Though the Epanchins constitute Myshkin's bridge to the ordinary life of his time and place, it is to be noted that they are by no means a typical bourgeois family. If only because of the warm, impulsive character of Lizaveta Prokofyevna, they have a touch of eccentricity about them and are fully aware of it themselves. Aglaia is no run-of-the-mill specimen of the well-brought-up upper-middle-class young lady. She is not only the most remarkable and beautiful of the three sisters, but in any group, however large, would stand out for her intelligence, high spirit and intrepidity. In the character of the Epanchins and Aglaia, Dostoevsky has tilted the scales in Myshkin's favor. If he cannot achieve satisfactory relations with them, his case, it is clear, is hopeless.

Like Nastasya, Aglaia is what Freud would call a castrating type of woman—a type encountered frequently enough in modern fiction and modern life. Her sadism is revealed by her treatment of Yevgeny Pavlovitch and Ganya as well as by her treatment of Myshkin himself. It is recognized by her not too perceptive father. Her mother comments on her daughter's cruelty at the time she drags Myshkin to the Epanchin home when she finds he has misinterpreted a note from Aglaia and again a little later on:

“She is exactly, exactly like me, the very picture of me in every respect,” the mother used to say to herself. “Self-willed, horrid little imp: Nihilist, eccentric, mad and spiteful, spiteful, spiteful! Good Lord, how unhappy she will be!”

Aglaia's sadism, however, is tempered and redeemed by her intelligence and her deep and growing love for Myshkin. It may be, too, that only a woman possessed of a certain masculine firmness could take the prince seriously as a suitor. Aglaia is compelled to arrange rendezvous, to make Myshkin face his relationship with herself and Nastasya realistically, to reveal her own love with a nakedness that must have shamed her, to maneuver the prince into proposing to her. Her tendency to tease and torment her “suitor” is understandable enough. Aglaia errs only once, and this error is one we cannot fail to admire: in her determination to clear up the matter of Myshkin's relation with Nastasya once and for all she overreaches herself and sets the stage for The Idiot's crushing reversal.

Just as Myshkin's sexual masochism keeps us doubtful, throughout the middle section of the novel, about his ability to establish a good relationship with Aglaia, so his moral masochism makes us question his ability to adjust to society. His behavior in handling the Burdovsky affair is so meek that, on one level, it outrages the Epanchins. He is so lenient in his judgment of Ippolit that even the kindly Prince S. chides him for his lack of realism. He shows no ability to protect himself—does not know when he is being chaffed, readily forgives Keller and Lebedyev for exploiting him, is unwilling to accept reports about intrigues even when there is every reason to credit them. A curious and more disturbing fact is that Myshkin frequently provokes the attack of the very people he tries to help. His motives are mistrusted and his ingenuousness makes it difficult for him to attain his idealistic ends. Without being sure of our ground, we are inclined to wonder if there is not some truth in the charge levelled against him by Lebedyev's nephew:

“Yes, prince, one must do you justice, you do know how to make use of your … well, illness (to express it politely); you've managed to offer your friendship and money in such an ingenious way that now it's impossible for an honourable man to take it under any circumstances. That's either a bit too innocent or a bit too clever. … You know best which.”

While we are troubled by this charge and by the recurring evidence of Myshkin's ineffectuality, on the whole, throughout the middle section of the novel, we are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. By and large his relations with people seem to be going along well enough and, as has been mentioned, his shortcomings are amiable ones. Dostoevsky dramatizes this fact: we are inclined to judge the prince in kindly fashion not only because we cannot condemn such faults as he reveals, but because we see him much of the time through indulgent and admiring eyes—Kolya's and Vera Lebedyev's, for example, and Madame Epanchin's and Aglaia's. It is the judgment of the latter two, above all, that is decisive. While we have some forebodings, our dominant feeling, at the end of Part III of The Idiot, is that we are on the eve of the prince's engagement to Aglaia—and this engagement does in fact become a reality early in Part IV. Seeing Myshkin through the hopeful, loving eyes of his intended and her mother—who so much resembles her that, like Aglaia, she continues to feel warmly toward him even when her mind tells her he is impossible—we begin to believe that somehow he may “make out” despite his unworldliness. At the end of this middle section of the novel the prince's affairs are apparently prospering.


But of course his situation is really precarious. We have been prepared openly in the first part of the novel and subterraneously throughout the middle part for the possibility that the prince will not be able to free himself from Nastasya or cope with his other problems. He has still hardly demonstrated his capacity for affairs, and what success he has had may be attributed in part to the happiness and confidence he feels as a result of his relationship with Aglaia. And her indulgence softens and extenuates his failures.

Thus Myshkin's worldly success and the solution of his personal problems both pivot around Aglaia. Ironically, the consummation of his relationship with her is jeopardized by the very growth of his love and his partial success in freeing himself from Nastasya. The compulsive attraction he feels for Nastasya undoubtedly fades in intensity during the middle portion of the novel. However, simultaneously, his pity for her grows; he comes to the conclusion that she is mad and desperately in need of help. At this point in the story there is no doubt for which woman Myshkin feels the more normal, complete love. But with his fatal flaw of masochism there is no doubt either that, in any showdown, he will choose the woman he loves least, the woman for whom he feels deepest pity, the woman who will bring him most pain.

Myshkin's showdown occurs in Chapters 6 to 8 of Part IV. His ability to make an adjustment to society, being the matter of lesser intensity, is disposed of first. The decisive test comes during the party which the Epanchins have planned to introduce Myshkin, now formally engaged to Aglaia, to society. In particular they are eager for him to make a good impression on Madame Epanchin's influential friend, Princess Byelokonsky. The party is planned with some apprehension and, even though it pains her to do so, Aglaia does not hesitate to brief her fiancé about how he should conduct himself.

There is a shift of focus here which permits Dostoevsky to show us Myshkin's shortcomings magnified. Whereas before we have seen him much of the time through the clement eyes of the Epanchins, in this scene we see them watching his conduct anxiously. Still another technical device is employed to disclose Myshkin's ineptness. In previous scenes, we have seen the prince in relation to people whom we knew and for whom we felt some sympathy. If he judged them too charitably we were inclined in turn to be charitable toward him. But most of the people at the Epanchin party we do not know or have met only casually. We have no emotional investment in them, and when Myshkin's judgment of them is absurdly overgenerous, nothing prevents us from perceiving the fact. It is even easier to perceive the stupidity of his view of the party as a whole and of his willingness to whitewash the Russian aristocracy en masse.

Even in this scene, there are some residual traces of ambiguity. Within limits the prince's sincerity and intensity seem admirable precisely because he is with a group that takes nothing very seriously and has long since forgotten the meaning of simple honesty. It is significant, too, that despite the prince's fiasco and the pain he has caused them, both Aglaia and her mother continue to feel warmly toward him. Even at the end of Chapter 7, his position is not completely hopeless.

But on the whole Dostoevsky does not spare Myshkin in this scene. In addition to dramatizing his failure, and giving us the negative reactions of such a kindly observer as Adelaida, Dostoevsky intervenes as omniscient novelist at a half dozen points to call attention to the prince's ineptness. In this scene, too, we finally come to see why Myshkin's readiness to forgive defeats its apparent purpose. In judging the Epanchins' guests, he is so indulgent that his ingenuousness has precisely the effect of irony. His appraisal of the aristocracy is so at variance with the facts that it makes his listeners more keenly aware of their shortcomings. Instead of providing expiation, it increases their sense of guilt.

It may be that Dostoevsky is saying that one is not in a position either to blame or forgive another unless one first understands him. It is clear in any case that many of the people drawn to Myshkin want understanding as well as forgiveness, and are disappointed when they receive only the latter.

Perhaps the most obvious example is General Ivolgin. In contrast to Lebedyev, who has tortured Ivolgin in reprisal for his theft and ridiculed him for his lying, Myshkin says nothing about the former and accepts the most outrageous lies with no show of incredulity. At first Ivolgin is delighted and feels a rush of affection for the prince. But that evening he writes him a letter in which he informs him that “he was parting with him, too, forever, that he respected him, and was grateful to him, but that even from him he could not accept ‘proofs of compassion which were derogatory to the dignity of a man who was unhappy enough without that.’” On reflection it is easy enough to understand this later reaction. Although the course Myshkin follows is apparently dictated by kindness, what he is doing is playing make-believe with the General. Ivolgin is aware of his tendency to lie; he would probably respond either to a serious analysis of the tendency or to the sort of chaffing which suggests that his being found out in a lie has not led to any diminution of affection. The prince's course of disregarding the General's lying is not without a trace of malice, for it implies that it is hopeless to talk to him, that he is beyond redemption. Madame Epanchin's treatment of the General dramatizes the fact that there is a sensible middle course between the deliberate cruelty of Lebedyev and the unsatisfactory form of forgiveness offered by Myshkin: she is critical but at the same time tolerant and, above all, perfectly straightforward.

Even after the fiasco of the engagement party, it is still theoretically possible for Myshkin to make some sort of adjustment to society, for he still has Aglaia's love. But one of the purposes of that scene is to prepare us for Myshkin's graver failure in the climactic scene of the novel where for the first time he, Nastasya, Aglaia, and Rogozhin come together to work out their destiny. It is one of the ironies of the book that Aglaia, the most likable of the four central characters, plays so prominent a part in this catastrophic meeting. She has suggested the meeting and it is her harshness to Nastasya which stings her into attempting to prove her continued power over Myshkin. But of course the decisive failure is his. It is not a moral failure in the usual sense of the term. It is a neurotic failure, the final triumph of his masochism. He chooses the woman he most pities, not the one he most loves.

Once that choice is made, the triangular situation of Part I is re-established—with one decisive difference. Every possible solution of the situation of Myshkin, Nastasya, and Rogozhin which does not involve their destruction has now been eliminated. We are reconciled to a tragic liquidation of their relationship and even prepared for the specific series of events which now follow so swiftly—Nastasya's final recoil from Myshkin, her murder by the tormented Rogozhin, the prince's forgiveness. It is a measure of Dostoevsky's greatness that horrible as the final scene of The Idiot is—it is a scene that few writers would attempt—we do not balk at accepting its truth for a minute.


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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.”

Robert Hollander (essay date 1974)

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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 most schooled and intelligent readers: “The first part of The Idiot was conceived and written as a self-contained unity, which may perhaps best be read as an independent novella. After this point, however, it is clear from Dostoevsky's notebooks and letters that he had no satisfactory idea of how to continue the action. This uncertainty persists all through the middle sections of the book (Parts II and III), where Dostoevsky is obviously writing from scene to scene with only the loosest thread of any central narrative line.”2 While it is probably fair to accuse Dostoevsky of novelistic uncertainty, and also just to claim that the narrative line of the continuation of the novel is impromptu in character, it is also important to understand that Dostoevsky himself was aware of these problems, and that he tried to do something about them. The Notebooks of The Idiot3 reveal Dostoevsky's concern, for instance, with his mismanagement of such major characters as Aglaia and Ganya. More importantly, the Notebooks, as will be demonstrated in what follows, make plain that Dostoevsky did develop a thematic framework for Parts Two through Four, while the text of the novel offers convincing evidence that his new plan became functional in the finished work. In short, while I do not assert that The Idiot is aesthetically resolved, I do hold that there is a major and continuing new thematic element present in its last three parts which, though it may not resolve the looseness of the narrative line, does implicitly bring together what may otherwise not seem to be thematically related characters and events. This new element is a direct result of Dostoevsky's renewed interest in the Book of Revelation.

The Notebooks for The Idiot reveal that the first seven drafts of Part One occupied Dostoevsky from September to November of 1867. It is only in the last of these that he decided on an attempt to develop a totally positive hero. The last week of November and the first week of December were then devoted to a total rethinking of Part One, and the next three weeks, ending on December 30, to a feverish rewriting of the first seven chapters; the final nine would cost him another month of rewriting. Part Two caused him still greater difficulty. For more than a month after he had completed Part One he did not even make notes toward a continuation of the novel. Once these are begun, in late February, they show little relationship to the final form the beginning of Part Two will eventually take, until on February 29, 18684 the figures of Lebedyev and Ippolit first begin to take on major importance. The notes and actual writing of Part Two occupy Dostoevsky for an additional five months (from late February to July of 1868). Where the actual writing of the final version of Part One had taken the inspired author little more than a month (after three months of false starts), and where the planning and execution of Parts Three and Four would take him a little less than five months (August 1868 to January 1869), the planning and writing of Part Two cost him more than six months. The reason for this is clear enough: Dostoevsky himself did not know how his novel was to proceed from the climactic conclusion of Part One.

Before examining the major new elements that enter the novel in Part Two, I should like briefly to consider the role of the novel's hero in Part One. From the very first pages we witness a series of characters manifest changing responses to Myshkin: first Rogozhin on the train, then the inhabitants of the Epanchin household (from Footman5 to General), then those of the Ivolgin apartment (including the visiting Nastasya and Rogozhin), Ippolit, and finally the members of the party assembled at Nastasya's. Almost all who come in contact with him are strangely moved by him. While some may respond with scorn (General Epanchin, Ganya, Ippolit), most find themselves temporarily freed from the self-interest which has given their lives their prime motivation. In almost all of them Myshkin has raised, at least temporarily, some hope in the possibility that they might change their lives. What his actions demonstrate is an advocacy—usually expressed in ways that are not immediately clear—of brotherhood in Christian humility. Myshkin's acceptance of the slap Ganya at first intended for Varya and then for him (p. 109) is significant, not only because the passive gesture is surely reminiscent of Christ's suggestion that we turn the other cheek,6 but even more because it displays Dostoevsky's concern for the breaking of the chain of human viciousness, of hate returned for hate, and his hopes for the substitution of a chain of brotherhood in which each is tied to each by recognition of a common sinfulness before God. One thinks of the phrase of Father Zossima, “All men are guilty for all and everyone,” which will bear so much weight in The Brothers Karamazov.

However, it is clear, not only from evidence afforded by Dostoevsky's notes and letters,7 but from the text of the novel itself, that there are iconographic connections between Myshkin and Jesus. We have already noted the accepted slap. The scenes in the novel which may most likely be said to yield parallels with the life of Jesus are to be found in Chapter Six of Part One, when Myshkin tells the Epanchin ladies about his life in Switzerland. There we find obvious parallels to the Magdalen in the pointedly named Marie, as well as a fellowship of children united under Myshkin in Christian brotherhood.8 These children, who have been pharisaic doubters and stoners, are suffered by Myshkin to come unto him, and end by being converted to his unnamed religion of brotherhood; they even overturn the pharisaic Calvinism of the village schoolmaster and pastor, establishing a kind of children's moral republic of their own. It is at a waterfall that Myshkin would meet with his “converts,” some of them, like the early Christians, “even coming secretly” (p. 66). (The waterfall, which is possibly reminiscent of the Gospel's water of life [John 4:10-11] will be remembered in Part Three of the novel in the phrase “the springs of life.”) For Myshkin the waterfall is a mystical natural force; for Dostoevsky—a highly conscious Christian where his character, just now emerging from idiocy, is an only partially conscious one—it is probably iconographically significant. Of likely Christian iconographic significance is the ass which Myshkin hears braying just as he arrives in Switzerland, at Basel. During his voyage from Russia through Germany Myshkin remained shattered by his epilepsy. Everything seemed strange to him. Then, hearing the ass bray, he felt that “suddenly everything seemed to clear up in my head” (p. 51). Of this moment Joseph Frank has written: “The image of the donkey is no doubt used partially to stress the Prince's innocence and naïveté; but it also, and more profoundly, conveys the lack of hierarchy in his ecstatic apprehension of the wonder of life.”9 Yet it seems difficult not to be aware as well of the Gospel ass (Matthew 21:4-9; John 12:12-16) upon which Jesus is seated when he enters Jerusalem, in accord with the prophecy in Zachariah 9:9. When the Prince sees the ass he is suddenly transformed into a man who will take upon himself a Christian mission to the world. To underline the probable identification we have the detail that this epiphany occurred in Basel, the same city in which Dostoevsky (and Myshkin) saw Hans Holbein the Younger's Christ in the Tomb—that painting which used a cadaver as its model10 and which, according to Dostoevsky and his porte-parole Myshkin, could make a man lose his faith. The braying ass is possibly Dostoevsky's answer to Holbein's painting. Each object points to Jesus, the first iconographically and with faith, the second literally and without it.

The main characteristic of Myshkin's Christianity is radical innocence. Unable to make cognitive sense of his longings, Myshkin responds mainly to an inner urge toward discipleship in the service of an all-embracing charity. It is for this reason that Dostoevsky, in the letters and notebooks, so firmly associates Myshkin with Quixote and Pickwick—as a sort of reminder to himself of the limitations of the Christian parallel. As Mochulsky has it, Dostoevsky “overcame his temptation to write ‘a novel about Christ.’”11 In Part One of the novel the parallel to Jesus is a great deal more vivid than it will later be. The sort of active Christian career that Alyosha has begun by the end of The Brothers Karamazov was, however, a part of Dostoevsky's plan for Myshkin's development. In the notebook entries for the month of March of 1868—the crucial period of gestation for the as yet totally unwritten Part Two—there are six entries which point to Myshkin's founding of a children's club in St. Petersburg. We can only imagine what the organization would have been like, and since we have the model of that group of once sinful youths which Myshkin has brought to goodness around the fallen Marie, we may be glad the boys' club stayed in the notes. Yet I think that Dostoevsky discarded the plan for thematic as much as for aesthetic reasons. The last chapter of Part One left Dostoevsky with a central character who must inevitably fail. Myshkin may offer charity to Nastasya Filippovna, but she is not compelled to accept it. Indeed, she seems more compelled to deny it. The first fifteen chapters of Part One show Myshkin's mission as essentially successful, but the great dénouement makes further success seem at least unlikely. Assuming the burden of Nastasya's guilt is in itself an impossible task, for she will insist on keeping her shame to herself. It is the only identity she fully maintains, as Aglaia points out (p. 541). And if that were not impossibility enough, Myshkin will try also to “save” Aglaia. Myshkin, in attempting to love all, in attempting to love them both, takes away any chance of “saving” either, for each of them is willing even to flirt with the possibility of accepting Myshkin's love only if it belong to her alone. With the last chapter of Part One Dostoevsky created an impasse for the continuance of Myshkin's positive career. Living in a Geneva he despises; suffering from his usual self-inflicted poverty and thus distressed when his first child, Sonia, is born amidst squalid surroundings on 24 February 1868; agitated by the events chronicled in the Russian newspapers he so avidly read; disgusted with the political activities of the emigré Russian leftists also gathered in Geneva; Dostoevsky suddenly saw an entirely new dimension for his novel: Russia is to be conceived of as having entered the Time of Tribulation. The Apocalypse became the major resource for his continuation of the novel.

Not every critic of Dostoevsky has been blind to the resonance of John's vision on the Island of Patmos in The Idiot.12 But Konstantin Mochulsky is the only one who has at least appreciated the sweeping relevance of the Book of Revelation to the work, which he calls “Dostoevsky's Apocalypse.”13 Discussing the relevance of Mazurin's murder of Kalmykov (referred to in the novel on pp. 153 and 433), Mochulsky says, “Once again the legal chronicle bursts in on the novel. The author constructed his apocalyptic vision of the world on the facts of ‘the current moment.’”14 Part Two begins with a chapter that is both epilogue (to Part One, now six months distant) and introduction. The action of Part Two begins in Lebedyev's house in Petersburg. We discover, to our amazement, that the venal buffoon of Part One is now not only a venal buffoon, but also a lawyer of sorts, a “philosopher” (thus to some degree sharing Myshkin's own role—see p. 54), and, most surprising of all, a commentator of the Apocalypse. In what follows I shall try to show, in concert with Mochulsky's more general appreciation, the extent to which Dostoevsky has grounded this novel in the Apocalypse. In Parts Two and Three two characters who were of little importance in Part One—Lebedyev and Ippolit—become vastly more important. I suggest that this is so because Dostoevsky has reformulated the novel's subject, and that these two characters are among the primary agents within the novel of that reformulation. Where he had set out to portray a truly beautiful soul,15 he now decided to accomplish that portrait against a background of impending doom. The Apocalypse does not serve as a framework for Part One. Indeed, reference to it is entirely lacking, and the Biblical references found there are to the Gospels. But where in Crime and Punishment and The Devils, the novels which Dostoevsky respectively wrote before and after he wrote The Idiot, the Gospels are used to focus the varied conflicts of the novels against a single statement of Christian truth (Sonia's reading of the Lazarus passage from John to Raskolnikov, Sofya Matveyevna's reading of the devils passage from Luke to Stepan Trofimovitch)—in The Idiot the central Biblical passages are from the Book of Revelation.

When did Dostoevsky first think of the Apocalypse in relation to his novel? His letters and notebook entries suggest an answer. The notebook entry for 29 February 1868 yields the first mention of Lebedyev in the written plans for Part Two (p. 171):

(Lebedyev and the Prince) (Lebedyev's family)

Lebedyev is a philosopher. He continually deceives the Prince. His characteristic. Lebedyev's children.

The Prince says of sinful persons: ‘All sick people have to be taken care of.’


At N. F.'s house. The Apocalypse, prayers, about Christ.

Then the notes return to Lebedyev some twenty lines later (p. 172):

A warped man.

The star Wormwood.

He ate sixty monks, people were stronger in those times than in ours, he ate and ate and confessed and for this he was burned.

The jottings then move on to a lengthy sketch of the dying Ippolit—present in the notes for the first time (pp. 172-174). The decisions to make Lebedyev and Ippolit major characters in the continuation of the novel seem to have been simultaneous; it would further seem that they both enter Dostoevsky's mind as major characters in conjunction with the Book of Revelation.

Dostoevsky himself believed in the propinquity of the Apocalypse. Berdyaev quotes him as writing in a notebook “The end of the world is coming.”16 Mochulsky adds further documentation: In the Citizen in 1873 Dostoevsky wrote, “The world will be saved only after its visitation by the evil spirit … And the evil spirit is near: our children, perhaps, will look upon him.17 Mochulsky, citing the same notebook entry from which Berdyaev quotes, gives from it the following pertinent phrase, “The end of the century will be marked by a calamity, the likes of which has never yet occurred.”18 And referring to Dostoevsky's morbid interest in the criminal trials reported in the Russian newspapers, he connects this interest to Dostoevsky's apocalypticism: “We know with what agitation Dostoevsky watched all that happened from abroad, how somberly he looked at reality, how he attempted to find in the legal chronicles threatening signs of the near end.”19

In a letter to the poet A. N. Maikov, written from Geneva 20 March 1868 (letter 284), Dostoevsky congratulates Maikov for having completed his verse translation of the Apocalypse. A later letter to Maikov (letter 289) of 18 May 1868, reporting the death of the Dostoevskys' first child, Sonia, concludes by saluting the magnificence of Maikov's work, which Dostoevsky says he has read in the April Russian Messenger. Between these two letters Dostoevsky had written and published the first two chapters of Part Two, which also appeared, by a happy coincidence, in the April Russian Messenger. (In light of Dostoevsky's rekindled interest in the Apocalypse, apparent in Chapter Two, his silence to Maikov on the subject almost seems strange. But then Dostoevsky was generally silent about the intellectual strategies that lay behind his fictions, usually preferring to discuss, in his letters at least, their moral significance, or, far more often, their hoped-for popular and financial success.) While it is true that Dostoevsky would have required no external stimulus to return to thoughts of a text with which he was familiar, one that was so much in the air of the 1860's and of which he had made previous use,20 it is at least possible that his knowledge of Maikov's project renewed his own interest in the Apocalypse.21 It had been the Apocalypse that informed his vision of London in 1862, during his first journey outside of Russia. Chapter Five of his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is entitled “Baal”: London

is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the Apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal. …22

Of this passage Mochulsky says: “Dostoevsky is inspired by the Apocalypse, a work with which all his work is mystically joined.” And he adds, “The author here [discussing the Crystal Palace] touches upon his most profound idea regarding the Anti-christ's earthly kingdom: criticism of the bourgeois order in the spirit of Herzen suddenly grows into an apocalyptic vision.”23 What Dostoevsky felt about London in 1862 he has now, in 1868, come to feel about Russia, also ruled by the spirit of Baal, her daily life governed by mercantilism and murder, the one the result of the old order's sterile leap forward into the age of the machine, the other connected with the new political activism of the 1860's, especially that of the outer fringes of the Nihilists.

It is Lebedyev who establishes the novel's first clear point of contact with the Book of Revelation when he informs the startled Myshkin that he has been trying to calm Nastasya by reading to her from the Apocalypse, and that she agrees with him that “we are living in the age of the third horse, the black one …” (p. 189). Lebedyev's quotation of this text (Revelation 6:5-6) stands as a kind of epigraph to The Idiot. His interpretation makes of this time an age of outrageous mercantilism and political madness—a madness that leads to murder. While his commentary is idiosyncratic at best (the traditional interpretation of the third horse is that it represents a devastating famine), it does point to the two major social ills documented by The Idiot, and thus receives the confirmation of the text itself. These are mercantilism and murder, of which the two most frequently recurring examples are the new railway system and the murder of the Zhemarin family.

Dostoevsky read about the Zhemarin murders in the Voice for 10 March, and thus after the notebook entries had already introduced the notion of the Apocalypse, and some time well before the last weeks of April, when he sent the second chapter of Part Two, with its reference to the Zhemarins (p. 182), to the Russian Messenger. The murders, committed by the young student Gorsky, took the lives of six members of the family. The murders themselves and the ensuing trial fascinated Dostoevsky, as the seven notebook entries concerning them testify. The entry24 that points specifically to the murderer (rather than to his victims) draws together Gorsky, Lebedyev, the Apocalypse, Burdovsky's plot against Myshkin, and the famine year, this last possibly a reference to the traditional interpretation of the black horse in the Apocalypse.25 Danilov (the murderer of the money-lender Popov and his maid in January 1866, whose deed so closely recreated Raskolnikov's, thus proving to Dostoevsky the rightness of his “psychology”), Balabanov (who, while praying God's forgiveness, cut the throat of Susslov to steal his friend's new watch in October 1867), Mazurin (who slit the throat of Kalmyko the jeweller in November 1867), and Gorsky (who killed the Zhemarins 1 March 1868)—all these provided Dostoevsky with an almanac of Russian murderers who prowl the consciousness of the characters of The Idiot.

The new railways, also, serve Dostoevsky as an apocalyptic symptom of the times. His concern with the railways has a curious history. Three letters to Maikov (surely the most interesting of Dostoevsky's correspondents at this time insofar as he received so many letters which shed light on the thematic components of the novel) written between August and October of 1867 (nos. 260, 261, and 266) give vent to ardent hopes for the future of Russian railroading. In the last of these we read: “My heart stood still with joy when I read that the railway was to be extended as far as Kursk. Ah, faster! And hurrah for Russia!” This jingoistic zeal was entirely absent from the following passage in The Diary of a Writer for 1876:

All through Russia we see railways stretching out—almost twenty thousand versts of them—and everywhere along them even the lowest functionary appears as a propagandist of this idea [‘Get rich, and everything is yours, and you may do as you please.’ No more demoralizing idea can exist. And yet it soars everywhere and gradually penetrates everything].26

This volte-face had already been accomplished some eight years before. Indeed it occurred some time between Dostoevsky's first work on Part One and the period in which he was struggling with the unwritten Part Two. On March 20, 1868 he wrote to Maikov27 that he has read in the Voice (perhaps in the same issue that brought news of the Zhemarin murders) that the new railways were in very poor shape, commenting that new men are needed to administer them. This disillusionment with the railway,28 occurring in conjunction with the early stages of his new apocalyptic design for The Idiot, was quickly joined to that design.

Myshkin, Rogozhin, and Lebedyev arrive in St. Petersburg on the Warsaw train on 27 November 1867. Thus begins the novel. At this point Dostoevsky seems to have nothing against this form of transportation beyond its physical discomfort. (Myshkin seems to have been just about as cold as was his author when he travelled on a gambling expedition to Homburg via Swiss and German railways while he was preparing to write The Idiot.) In Part Two the railways begin to be associated with mercantilism and the general spirit of political corruption. On the first page of Part Two we learn the relatively innocuous fact that Myshkin has travelled to Moscow by train to collect his inheritance, but then, shortly later (p. 175) that the liberal Prince S., Adelaïda's fiancé, has helped improve the plan for a new railway line. And this emblem of the new technology is present as a backdrop for many scenes in the rest of the novel, helping to create a sense of doom. At Lebedyev's house we discover that Doktorenko, having abandoned his studies, has just taken a job on the railway and is trying to cadge some money from Uncle Lebedyev in order to get himself properly outfitted for his new post (p. 183).29 In Chapter Four Myshkin tells Rogozhin of a conversation he has had with an atheist on the new railway (p. 207). This railway motif is continued in several later passages. Among these two of the more important are the narrator's diatribe against the inefficiency of the railways with which Part Three opens and the remarks made by Mme. Epanchin—so often given speeches that veil Dostoevsky's own views behind the character's comic crankiness—30 when she makes idle conversation by abusing the railways in Part Four (p. 489). We are, however, offered a central explication of the significance of the railroads. It is not surprising, in light of what has been said before, that this comes to us from Lebedyev. In Chapter Eleven of Part Two his young son explains to Myshkin that his father interprets the star that is called Wormwood in the Apocalypse as “the network of railways spread over Europe” (p. 288). Myshkin does not believe Lebedyev actually maintains this position, and resolves to question him about it. His opportunity comes in Part Three, Chapter Four, when Ippolit asks the Prince the meaning of the phrase “springs of life” in the Apocalypse, and also asks whether Myshkin has heard of “the star called Wormwood” (p. 354). Myshkin turns the question to Lebedyev, who gives a drunken and full interpretation of the relevance of the Apocalypse to contemporary Russian history.

“The springs of life” is Constance Garnett's rendering of the Russian “istochniky zhizny.” The phrase winds through pages 354-360, from Ippolit to Lebedyev, to Ganya, and back to Lebedyev, while Myshkin listens intently and others scoff. The phrase, as Ippolit's opening remark makes plain (we shall see shortly why he is so interested in bringing the Book of Revelation into the discussion), is from the Apocalypse. Dostoevsky refers to the “fountains of waters” of Rev. 8:10, upon which Wormwood falls, or to the “living fountains of waters” of Rev. 7:17, to which the Lamb shall lead the 144,000 saved at the end of the Tribulation, or to God's words to John in Rev. 21:6, “I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”31 The entire six-page passage centers in the Apocalypse and allows Dostoevsky, through the drunken Lebedyev, to make his message clear: Russia, having become Godless in her pursuit of Baal and her political madness, has entered her Time of Tribulation, a time when the Apocalypse itself is rightly interpreted only by drunken buffoons (Lebedyev is contrasted with the “real” interpreter Burmistrov, who wore medals and made people faint, by the drunk and ridiculous General Ivolgin—p. 361). It is a time when even Christ's name has become confounded: for Ganya the phrase “King of the Jews” refers to Rothschild—his idol—not to Jesus (p. 116, and see pp. 374, 440, 443). That we are to take Lebedyev's interpretations seriously is drawn to our attention by Myshkin's seriousness about them while all the rest are laughing (p. 359). For in Lebedyev's clarification, or at any rate exposition, of the way in which the railways are “the artistic pictorial expression” (p. 357) of the emptiness of mercantilism and liberalism, we find the core of Dostoevsky's beliefs concerning the impending threat to Russia. The famine that Myshkin knows is the true portent of the third horse has been satisfactorily explained by Lebedyev as glut. For to seek material plenty is to find spiritual starvation; men seek to live by bread alone and therefore starve for God. This thought is underlined by the outrageous, uproarious, and apparently senseless tale Lebedyev goes on to tell (pp. 359-360), which concerns one of the many medieval Russian famines and a cannibal (it was he who accompanied Lebedyev's birth as a “philosopher” in that notebook entry of 29 February 1868). At the end of his life this cannibal confessed he had consumed sixty monks and six infants. The tale even manages to offend the credulity of one of literature's great offenders of credulity, General Ivolgin. Lebedyev brings us to see the point: even that cannibal, who had at least the urge to repent his sins, had more godliness in him than the men of the nineteenth century. There must have existed then, Lebedyev concludes, an idea that bound men together, “guided their hearts, and fructified the ‘springs of life.’ Show me anything like such a force in our age of vices and railways … I should say steamers and railways, but I say vices and railways, because I'm drunk but truthful.” And for once he is. Possibly no one but Goethe (whom Dostoevsky did not perhaps greatly admire32) and Shakespeare (whom he worshipped) were as brilliant in their employment of comic scenes to recapitulate the central thematic elements in their works.

Lebedyev's cannibal consumes an interesting number of victims. Sixty-six. If this novel is centrally concerned with the Apocalypse we should expect it to contain some reference to the number of the Beast, the 666 of Rev. 13:18. The sixty-six cannibalized medievals may not in themselves be convincing proof of Dostoevsky's numerological underscoring of his point. When, however, we contemplate Ippolit's anecdote concerning the philanthropic “general” who “spent his whole life visiting prisons and prisoners” we find the brief description (p. 385) of a prisoner who had “murdered a dozen people and slaughtered six children,” and we may begin to put all these sixes together. Further, we may remember that Ippolit once amused himself by imagining that he might murder “a dozen people at once” (p. 392), that Lebedyev claims that these new fringe Nihilists would “do for half a dozen people” to gain their ends (p. 244), and that Myshkin, in an argument with Prince S., refers to terrible criminals, “men who have committed a dozen murders” (p. 322). And then there is, at the root of all these multiples of six, the historical Gorsky with his six victims, whose murder is referred to directly at least nine times in the text of the novel. It is likely that Dostoevsky created this list of six sets of victims with a sense of their “sixness” in order to point to the spirit of Antichrist. That is evidently the spirit he saw lurking behind the impulse to murder in this novel that is so occupied with murder and murderers.

A notebook entry for Part Three (September 1868),33 reads: “Ippolit—the main axis for the whole novel.” No character in the work, not even Lebedyev, is more receptive to the Apocalypse. His anguish is nourished on his faithless recapitulation of John's vision. Where Lebedyev is pleased to be an apocalyptic critic of Russian reality, Ippolit turns his own life into an Apocalypse. He becomes Dostoevsky's exemplar of the failed younger generation of political liberals, as Lebedyev with his incessant cheating is a buffoonish exemplar of the older generation's deification of money. The dying Ippolit, lying in wait for over half the novel, suddenly explodes into a major character on Myshkin's birthday. His confession, “An Essential Explanation,” resembles, in outward form at least, the seven seals of the documents in the Apocalypse; it is contained in “a large envelope sealed with a large seal” (p. 364). Shortly after producing the document, Ippolit, asked by Myshkin to defer his reading to the next day, answers, “To-morrow there will be ‘no more time’” citing Rev. 10:6—out of context. For Myshkin, who has used the phrase earlier (p. 214) to describe the eternal moment he experiences at the onset of his epileptic seizures, the phrase expresses the passing into the eternity of God's eventual kingdom, while for Ippolit it expresses a self-lacerating surrender to the forces of death and points to his planned suicide that dawn. There may also be a touch of apocalypticism in the epigraph Ippolit has chosen for himself: “Après moi le déluge.”34 James Billington points out35 that men of the late imperial period in Russia were fond of thinking of the Apocalypse in terms of flood. And to inhabitants of St. Petersburg, the city built on marshland which had suffered major floods in 1725 and 1825, the image was particularly potent.

Where the structure of parts in Crime and Punishment seems to be based on a series of dreams (Raskolnikov has one in each of the first three parts; the fourth and fifth parts contain none; but the sixth describes three of Svidrigailov's, which are more or less exact counterparts to Raskolnikov's three; Raskolnikov has a final dream in the Epilogue which is in some sense an answer to the demonic visions of the first six), The Idiot, although mentioning and briefly reporting the content of several dreams (a dozen and a half passages in the novel refer to dreaming), presents only one full-scale Dostoevskian dream. It is as though the author, one of literature's great masters of the dream, had wanted Ippolit's dream to stand out from the novel. And if Dostoevsky at one point thought of Ippolit as the “main axis of the whole novel” it is his dream, the expression of a soul that is without faith, that most forcefully establishes the relevance of the Apocalypse to The Idiot. Myshkin, Ippolit tells us, has forecast that a removal to Pavlovsk will calm his “excitement and dreams” (p. 370). The one he has had about an hour before Myshkin's visit—as though expressly for the Prince, a sort of faithless plea for help—shows the rightness of Myshkin's intuition of Ippolit's inner state. He was in a room in which he saw “an awful animal, a sort of monster. It was like a scorpion, but was not a scorpion … there was nothing like it in nature … it had come expressly to me … there seemed to be something mysterious in that” (p. 370). In the Apocalypse the locusts (which are declared to be like scorpions while not being scorpions) that arise from the bottomless pit at the command of Apollyon, the destroyer, are sent forth to hurt only those men who have not the seal of God on their foreheads. Just this much recapitulation of Rev. 9 shows us that it is the major source for Ippolit's dream.36 Ippolit, who has been tormented by his hatred of Myshkin for five months (p. 368) and who seeks death without finding it, discovers that the beast has crawled up the wall behind him and is touching his hair. Since it could have struck him from that distance, we may conclude that its office was torment and not death.

The horrible scene is interrupted by the entrance of Ippolit's mother, Marfa Borissovna “with some friend of hers” (p. 371).37 These two, while unafraid (like certain untroubled characters in Kafka, they are unconscious of the metaphysical drama which contains them), are ineffective against the beast. Marfa Borissovna opens the door, allowing Norma, the huge black dog which has been dead for five years, to enter the room and, despite her fear, to confront the beast. In the ensuing dream action, in which she will seize the reptile in her huge jaws and destroy it, Norma will shriek with pain when the beast, its head in her mouth, bites her on the tongue. It seems to me that this perplexing action is meant to convey Ippolit's version of the struggle between Christ and Antichrist. In this version the reborn savior, while having the power to defeat its adversary, is at the same time mortally vulnerable to that adversary (Norma is, after all, dead in Ippolit's account of her). Ippolit's savior, like Holbein's Christ in the Tomb, is conquered by nature and death. Norma,38 come back from the dead in an attempt to save Ippolit, destroys the dream's version of Antichrist, but only at cost to herself. That Ippolit's locust-scorpion should also be identified with Antichrist rests not only on its relationship to Apollyon, but in its shape, which Dostoevsky gives us in such painstaking detail. Its two legs go out from the body at 45-degree angles; it has the shape of a trident when it is seen from above (p. 370). The unnaturalness of the creature, which has only two legs, calls our attention to its symbolic valence: [and] is, among other things, the ancient sign of Antichrist, originating, at least according to some scholars, in Nero's crucifixion of Peter, head down, on a broken cross. It is that sign which Dostoevsky has placed at what to many might well seem to be the moral center of his novel.

Ippolit's dream contains, implicitly at least, a denial of Christ's last words to his Apostles as these are recorded by Mark (16:17-18):

And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.

Ippolit's dream of Norma's self-sacrifice and vulnerability is dedicated as a kind of challenge to the healer Myshkin, self-sacrificing and vulnerable, who is about to visit him; it is a foreshadowing of Myshkin's eventual defeat, with which the novel concludes, despite Lebedyev's assurance that Myshkin, the “babe” of Matthew 11:25 and Luke 10:21, has been saved from the “bottomless pit” of the Apocalypse (p. 568). Ippolit, like Nastasya, is a lost soul. For that soul two forces strive, the forces of light and darkness, of Christ and Antichrist. In the novel's cast of characters two figures rise above the rest as representatives of these two forces: Myshkin and Rogozhin. We should remember that both Nastasya and Ippolit finally succumb to the attraction of the latter.

Myshkin, in Chapter Three of Part Two, visits Rogozhin in that house which Ippolit will describe (later in the novel's action but actually two or three days before Myshkin's visit) as being “like a graveyard” (p. 387).39 “You are living here in darkness,” says Myshkin, perhaps to put us in mind of John 12:46: “I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness.” Myshkin (if not a “figure of Christ,” he is the embodiment of the novel's Christian values), who seeks the light for others as well as for himself, will fail to bring that light to Rogozhin, to Ippolit, to Nastasya, to Aglaia, and will find it for himself only in his two epileptic fits. All, including himself, will end in darkness, in the “bottomless pit.” In Part One, and during the six-month lacuna in the action between Parts One and Two, Rogozhin seems at least open to the temptation held out to him by Myshkin. It is the temptation which goodness, humility, holds out to Satanic pride in the “mutual trespass of belief and unbelief” (the phrase is R. P. Blackmur's). But even as Rogozhin rehearses the Moscow moments with Myshkin for the last time in the darkness of that dirty green40 house, even during the exchange of crosses and during his mother's speechless blessing of Myshkin, he is no longer open to that temptation. The tin cross he puts on represents the cynicism of the drunken soldier who sold it to Myshkin, not the Christian forgiveness of Myshkin the buyer. In only five hours he will be waiting in the darkness of Myshkin's hotel to murder him. That the Rogozhin who reappears in Part Two has become the representative of Antichrist is reflected in his habitual cynical laughter, in his resolution of all human possibility into murder or suicide (in this he is much like the Svidrigailov of Crime and Punishment). The notebook entry that introduces the Apocalypse in the working drafts of the novel (29 February 1868) is the very entry which contains the first working out of the novel's final scene—Rogozhin's murder of Nastasya. It would seem that Dostoevsky's initial vision of Rogozhin's character was itself in major respects modified by the writer's new apocalyptic plan for the continuation of the novel. Although it is true even in Part One that the action towards which all others in the novel lead is Rogozhin's murder of Nastasya,41 the murder itself assumes a different tonality because of its association with the Zhemarin murders, from which several of its details (e.g., the American leather, Zhdanov's disinfectant) are appropriated. It is the climactic event of the novel and points to the victory of Antichrist, whose spirit is the spirit that governs the darkness of Rogozhin's house.

Holbein's Christ in the Tomb, alluded to by Myshkin in Part One, is seen by him at Rogozhin's in Part Two. We are only briefly given his response to the painting: “Why, that picture might make some people lose their faith” (p. 206). A full description of the painting must wait for Part Three, when we are given Ippolit's detailed reaction to it. Ippolit, “the main axis of the whole novel,” has lost his faith. His chain of associations in response to the Holbein is instructive. It shows him Jesus as conquered by nature, not as its conqueror. He reformulates this notion to make nature “an immense, merciless dumb beast …, a huge machine of the most modern construction …” (p. 389). We think back to the guillotine Myshkin has seen in operation in Lyons (pp. 19, 58f.); the machine and the cross are the two great antithetical objects of that scene. (We should note that the story of the Lyons execution is told to the Epanchin ladies in lieu of Myshkin's promised description of the Holbein—pp. 58, 61). And we remember Dostoevsky's own harrowing experience before the Czar's firing squad in 184942 which Myshkin is permitted to describe (pp. 54-55), the light flashing from the gilt roof of the church the only living force against the certain fact of death. The three scenes—the dead, battered body of Jesus, the man awaiting certain death, the man undergoing that death—are brought together to give a composite picture of life without hope, a life shut away from the possibility of change, of rebirth. In all three scenes Christ is present as the answer: Christians believe He rose from that death; the light gleaming from the church roof points to another, better life; the cross promises life against the certain death of the guillotine. None of these is true for Ippolit. When his thread of thought continues from that “huge machine of the most modern construction” he wonders, “Can anything that has no shape appear in a shape? But I seemed to fancy at times that I saw in some strange, incredible form that infinite Power, that dull, dark, dumb force,” and then he equates a “huge and loathesome spider” with that force, now referred to as a “dark, dumb and almighty Power” (p. 389). At this point he imagines that Rogozhin has entered his room (the scene is similar in some respects to Ivan's tête-à-tête with the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov). Careful reading of the text makes it clear that Rogozhin was not there. Rogozhin has become, in Ippolit's stream of associations that has its cause in the Holbein (the ikon of Rogozhin's house), the representative of the godless spirit of death. He is the Russian servant of Antichrist, the spirit Myshkin will later attack in his uncharacteristically polemical outburst in Chapter Seven of Part Four, when he claims that the Roman Church “preaches the Antichrist” (p. 518), and is thus responsible for the growth of atheism and socialism. Ippolit will later dream (p. 535) that Rogozhin will smother him with a wet cloth. He will murder Nastasya Filippovna with a garden knife. By their fruits ye shall know them.

When Myshkin finds that knife on a table at Rogozhin's at the end of Chapter Three of Part Two, he twice absent-mindedly toys with it. Rogozhin, angered, takes it from him, puts it in a book, and throws the book to another table (p. 205). The blade of the knife is described as being “about three and a half vershka long” in the Russian text. The book into which Rogozhin puts the knife is a volume of Solovyev's history of Russian (p. 202). Rogozhin tells Myshkin that when Nastasya found that book in his room and promised to make him up a list for further reading, “I was positively amazed. For the first time I breathed like a living man” (p. 203). In his small gesture of putting the knife in the book, a gesture which could be said to deny the hopes for life revived in him by Nastasya's kindly promise, we have an emblem of Dostoevsky's apocalyptic sense of the Russian present and future. The knife in that book43 is the sign of Antichrist. It is metaphorically the last and as yet unwritten chapter of the history of Russia, as it is literally to be the instrument of Nastasya's death. And that murder is the novel's eventual and total expression of all those murders, historical and imagined, which dot its pages, and which are so frequently identified with the number of the Beast from the Apocalypse.

The knife, in measurement perhaps and certainly in moral effect, has a counterpart in the novel. Again I translate from the Russian, for Constance Garnett makes both these objects seven inches long, and Dostoevsky has them only approximately equal in length. “About four vershka long.” This describes that “crawling reptile” in Ippolit's dream that has the shape of Antichrist's sign (p. 370). The knife in the book, the creature in Ippolit's dream, the notion of Jesus conquered by nature, the picture of a man the moment before the machine-monster executes him: all these have become for Dostoevsky the hopeless portents of the triumph of Antichrist.

Myshkin's last form of expression is weeping. His tears flow down the insentient Rogozhin's cheeks, and the two characters fuse in madness and hopelessness, as they were joined as opposites in the frame of a train window of the Warsaw-Petersburg express in the foggy morning light of 27 November 1867. One might be tempted to see the whole novel as a kind of psychomachia, in which the forces of good and evil contend in the soul of Russia, with the latter emerging the stronger. In that struggle the “idiot” who is a fool in Christ becomes the lump of insentient idiocy who, in Dostoevsky's last paragraph, is so present before us in his changed state that most readers do not even see him there. Mme Epanchin speaks of Europeans: “‘They can't make decent bread anywhere; in winter they are frozen like mice in a cellar,’ she said; ‘here, at any rate, I've had a good Russian cry over this poor fellow,’ she added pointing to Myshkin, who did not even recognize her.” Not even that other great retrograde novel, Flaubert's Education sentimentale, ends so dishearteningly.


  1. My English text has been Constance Garnett's (New York: The Modern Library, 1935). Page references in the text of the paper are to this edition. I should like to record here my gratitude to four colleagues at Princeton who have been generous in responding to my requests for help concerning matters both large and small: James Billington, Clarence Brown, Georges Florovsky, Joseph Frank.

  2. Joseph Frank, “A Reading of The Idiot,Southern Review, V (1969), 313-314.

  3. Edward Wasiolek, ed., The Notebooks for The Idiot, tr. K. Strelsky (Chicago, 1967).

  4. For all dates I have given those of the Russian calendar of the time. I have followed this course, even though it necessitated recasting the dates of some of Dostoevsky's European records, in order to maintain a time sequence that is readily ascertainable by the reader. The recorded date for this notebook entry, for example, is 12 March 1868.

  5. Alexey, the Epanchin footman, offers a kind of paradigm of possible reactions to Myshkin: 1) First he is suspicious of an ulterior motive in Myshkin's strange behaviour, 2) then relieved to find Myshkin innocent and inoffensive; 3) next he is aware of the young man's impossible social behaviour; 4) he finally feels sympathy with him. While not all of the other characters move through all of these stages (General Epanchin, for instance, is primarily interested in Myshkin for selfish reasons), many of them do.

  6. Romano Guardini (“Dostoyevsky's Idiot, a Symbol of Christ,” tr. F. X. Quinn, Cross Currents, VI [1956], 359-382) sees Myshkin as “The Lamb” in the slapping scene (p. 370). Both he and Franco Zoppo (Dostojevskij, il Dio russo e il Cristo russo [Taranto: Athena, 1959]) insist that Myshkin is “a symbol of Christ.” While I do not totally disagree with it, I find this particular formulation of the Christian parallel rather more limiting than enlightening, and tend to agree instead with Mochulsky (see footnote 11).

  7. For instance, the “Yurodivyi” of the Notebooks (ed. Wasiolek, p. 69). For a brief discussion of the “fool in Christ” in Dostoevsky see the section entitled “The Holy Lunatic” in G. Gibian, “Dostoevskij's Use of Russian Folklore,” Journal of American Folklore, LXIX (1956), 239-253. See also K. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, tr. M. A. Minihan (Princeton, 1967 [1942]), p. 570, for the reminder that in the preliminary notes for The Brothers Karamazov Alyosha is referred to as “the Idiot.”

  8. R. P. Blackmur has discussed the continuing relevance in Dostoevsky's fiction of the figure of the Magdalen as well as of what he calls the “childishness of Christ”—“A Rage of Goodness: The Idiot of Dostoevsky,” Accent, III (1942), 30-45.

  9. “A Reading of The Idiot,” p. 307.

  10. According to Z. Malenko and J. J. Gebhard, “The Artistic Use of Portraits in Dostoevskij's Idiot,Slavic and East European Journal, V (1961), 243-254, who also reproduce the words of the second Mrs. Dostoevsky that when her husband saw this painting he exhibited the same frightened look she was accustomed to seeing at the onset of his epileptic fits (p. 250).

  11. Dostoevsky, p. 349. My colleague Theodore Ziolkowski, in his Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus (Princeton, 1972), after noting that The Idiot is one of many modern works that is sometimes referred to, virtually meaninglessly, as being “christological” (p. 28), implicitly but nonetheless clearly denies that Myshkin is a “fictional transfiguration of Jesus” (pp. 104-105). Ziolkowski's definition of this term requires that a novel's action be “specifically based on the life of the historical Jesus as depicted in the Gospels” (p. 29). While I agree with Ziolkowski's estimate as it applies to the novel as a whole, I am also of the opinion that The Idiot is a work which would have fitted his definition had Dostoevsky continued as he began: at least Myshkin's Swiss idyll conforms in major ways to the pattern of the Gospels. And I would further maintain, in a slight adjustment of Mochulsky's remark, that Dostoevsky overcame his temptation to write “a novel about Christ” only after he had at first succumbed to that temptation.

  12. After I had completed this article Joseph Frank pointed out to me that I had neglected the chapter on The Idiot in Roger L. Cox, Between Earth and Heaven (New York, 1969). While I am both impressed and depressed to find a number of my juxtapositions of the Apocalypse and the novel in Cox (there are others present in only one or another of the two studies), my sense is that we disagree strongly as to the use Dostoevsky makes of the Biblical text in the novel. For Cox, Myshkin is a Johannine seer who serves to give the novel a positive Christian focus. For the present writer, as will be seen below, Dostoevsky's references to the Apocalypse seem rather to be put to the service of delineating the elements of a “time of trouble” that the novelist sees as emergent in the Russia of the 1860's.

  13. Dostoevsky, p. 357.

  14. Dostoevsky, p. 356. The comments of N. Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, tr. D. Attwater (New York, 1957 [1934]), pp. 170-177 are also interesting, though they are less precise: “Dostoevsky … belonged to a new era that was sensible of change and looked for its religion in the Book of the Apocalypse”; “Dostoevsky discerned the division brought about in the movement of his day by the appearance of Antichrist therein better than did anyone else. …”

  15. So Dostoevsky thought two days after he had completed the seventh chapter of Part One. Cf. his well known letter to his niece S. A. Ivanova—Letter 275 of 1 January 1868. Here and elsewhere references to the letters are to Correspondance de Dostoievski, tr. N. Gourfinkel (Paris, 1960), Vol. III.

  16. N. Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, p. 135.

  17. K. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky, p. 481.

  18. Ibid., p. 652.

  19. Ibid., p. 352.

  20. Cf. discussions referred to in notes 16-19, above, and in notes 22 and 35, below.

  21. G. M. Fridlender, in a note to his edition of The Idiot (Moscow, 1957, p. 727), asserts that “reading Maikov's translations intensified Dostoevsky's interests in the symbolic images of this Book.” However, Dostoevsky's renewed interest in the Apocalypse predates by at least two months his reading of the translations. In the letter written to Maikov on 2 March 1868, that is, two days after the Apocalypse first entered the working plans for the continuation of The Idiot, Dostoevsky reports that he has just now changed the whole plan for Part Two for the third time (this corresponds to the actual condition of the notes of 29 February-1 March [12-13 March new style] in relation to the two preceding false starts), and now requires three days to think about the new composition which is evolving (there are no further notebook entries for four days, in fact). He continues by asking Maikov to announce his opinion of the last nine chapters of Part One, published in the February Russian Messenger, adding the words, “Believe me, your words are a fountain of living water to me” (Letter 282, tr. N. Gourfinkel, Vol. III, p. 204). The citation of the Apocalypse (21:6) may indicate that something in an earlier letter from Maikov had moved Dostoevsky's mind in the direction of the Book of Revelation. At any rate it shows Dostoevsky's involvement with that text at this time.

  22. Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, tr. R. L. Renfield (New York, 1955), p. 91.

  23. Dostoevsky, p. 233.

  24. The Notebooks for The Idiot, p. 228.

  25. During the winter of 1868 there was a terrible famine in Central Russia; it is alluded to by Dostoevsky in a letter to Maikov—Letter 277 of 18 February 1868, p. 185. It is at least possible that Dostoevsky looked upon this famine as another apocalyptic sign.

  26. The Diary of a Writer, tr. Boris Brazol (New York, 1949), Vol. I, Chapter III, i, 188.

  27. Letter 284, tr. Gourfinkel, Vol. III, 214.

  28. J. H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe (New York, 1968), pp. 382-385, offers a brief discussion of the moral impact of the new railway on the men of the 1860's.

  29. Doktorenko is aligned with the Zhemarin murders as well. It is as though he were born in Dostoevsky's mind along with the new “apocalyptic” Lebedyev. (His only “upstage scene” in The Idiot occurs in that second chapter of Part Two, which introduces the Apocalypse to the novel.) The details that contrive to give him novelistic life reveal him as an epitome of his author's apocalyptic concerns. The first thing that Lebedyev says of him is that he is “the actual second murderer of the Zhemarin family … that is, allegorically speaking, the future second murderer of a future Zhemarin family, if such there be. He is preparing himself for it …” (p. 182). He is further joined to the Book of Revelation when he advises Myshkin to seek Kolya at the hotel called “The Pair of Scales.” We should be reminded of Lebedyev's discussion, two pages later (p. 189), of the rider of the black horse who holds the balance in his hand, “seeing that everything in the present age is weighed in the scales …” (Rev. 6:6). We might further speculate on the fact that in Letter 289, of 18 May 1868, to Maikov, Dostoevsky refers to his step-son, Pasha, as a potential Gorsky or Raskolnikov (p. 238). In at least some respects Pasha seems to be a model for Doktorenko, both in his “modern” convictions and in his inability to hold down a job.

  30. Cf., inter alia, her anti-European, Russophile remarks with which the novel concludes.

  31. In Russian the three phrases are, respectively, “na istochniky vod,” “na zhivy istochniky vod,” and “istochnika vody zhivoy.”

  32. “The Prologue in Heaven” of Faust is invoked rather nastily by Ippolit at the beginning of his huge outburst (p. 354).

  33. The Notebooks for The Idiot, p. 236.

  34. In two passages of Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, tr. Renfield, pp. 102, 105, Dostoevsky puts the phrase into the mouth of a cartoonistic exemplar of the money-grubbing and complacent French bourgeoisie. This might suggest that, in Dostoevsky's mind at least, Ippolit's lineage is not to be traced from the royal Louis, but from Jacques Bonhomme.

  35. The Icon and the Axe, p. 368.

  36. The full text of verses 4-6 follows:

    And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads.

    And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: And their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man.

    And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

  37. In the Russian the friend has the masculine gender. The dream probably reflects the familiar household presence of General Ivolgin, Marfa Borissovna's lover.

  38. The name of the dog is puzzling. Bellini's Norma, according to advice given me in conversation by Father Georges Florovsky, had a great vogue in the Russia of the 1860's. Is Dostoevsky thinking of the self-sacrificing heroine of that opera, who destroys herself with her lover, thus saving their children? If so, Ippolit's version of a Redeemer is of a flawed and mortal one.

  39. In a conversation James Billington has pointed out to me that the Old Believers' cemetery in Moscow was called “Rogozh Cemetery.”

  40. Page 195. In the novel the color green seems to be associated in particular with sexual jealousy and generically with the sense of doom which pervades the book at least from the beginning of Part Two. It is perhaps a remnant of the Iago theme—the “green-eyed monster”—prominent in the early drafts of Part One. We find it on Rogozhin's scarf, which is bright red and green, when he comes to Nastasya's party (p. 151); Kolya has borrowed Ganya's new green scarf to deliver Myshkin's note to Aglaia (p. 179); Lebedyev's yard in Petersburg contains a “green wooden seat by a green table” (p. 188); the villa Myshkin rents from Lebedyev at Pavlovsk is green (p. 191); the seat in the park at Pavlovsk on which so much of the love intrigue involving Aglaia takes place in Part Three is green (p. 328 and ff.); there is “the jaunty pale green necktie of the apparition” that is Rogozhin just before the whipping scene in the park (p. 331); Ippolit's bed, in his dream, is covered with “a green silk quilted counterpane” (p. 370); and of course the room-divider that separates the bed, on which the dead Nastasya lies, from the rest of Rogozhin's apartment is a “heavy green silk curtain” (p. 577).

  41. “Dostoevsky's intention seems to be to suggest so often and so openly that Rogojin will end by murdering Nastasia that it becomes the one thing that nobody expects because everybody says it”—Edwin Muir, The Structure of the Novel (London, 1960 [1928]), p. 77.

  42. Ippolit's experience of the last stages of consumption is obviously related in some way to Dostoevsky's own torment in the face of certain death before the rifles of the Czar's firing squad. A small detail underlines the commonality of their experiences. Where Ippolit longs to die heroically, like Glyebov, he believes that Myshkin thinks he is more likely to die like Osterman (pp. 497-498). Count Andrei Ivanovich Osterman (1686-1747), who served four Czars and rose to the height of personal power, was imprisoned by the Tsarevna Elizabeth in the coup d'état of 6 December 1741. Sentenced to death, he was reprieved on the scaffold and banished to Siberia. A familiar tale.

  43. Myshkin's “brotherly” letter to Aglaia, which is so important to the love intrigue of Parts Two through Four, is unconsciously placed by Aglaia in her copy of Don Quixote (p. 178). There results a possible parallelism between apparently very different objects. The letter, however, like the knife, will later come back into play; and like the knife it will also have disastrous results.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64

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

Albert J. Guerard (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7851

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 able to articulate the twists and turns of imaginative discovery, repression, rediscovery. Applied science too, for those who desire it, since Dostoevsky not only offers his bundle of neuroses turned to good account, but also a fuller access to a dynamic preconscious and even unconscious than nearly anyone for whom records are available. The literary critic, to be sure, must always beware of interpreting or evaluating a novel in terms of its stated intentions. It is entirely possible to become so bemused by the rich political speculations of the Notebooks for The Possessed as to go on to discover them unimpaired in the novel itself, though in fact many have disappeared.

Many writers, moreover, are unwilling or incapable of understanding what they have done. Conrad's evasive prefaces reflect a fear of his own subversive and skeptical side, and want us to believe his narratives simpler than they are. And even the greatest post facto statements of conscious intention, say Malcolm Lowry's marathon letter on Under the Volcano, must be read in terms of one of its intentions, which was to persuade a publisher that the novel should not be cut since everything there had its place in an elaborate meaningful design. Even Dostoevsky's Notebooks, the greatest of all documents on novel writing, can be misleading. That is, something very essential to the dreaming of the novel may be undertreated or even omitted, either because the material was already fixed in Dostoevsky's mind and under full control, or because the threatening material was half-censored. A diary entry “Suicide” or “Cut her throat” may be quite as much, by way of memorandum, as Dostoevsky needed at a given moment. Notebook allusions to the violation of children are as a rule very brief. And the material may be even more threatening than Dostoevsky himself realized, as Edward Wasiolek shrewdly comments of a particular plan:

It is just possible that Dostoevsky is experimenting with various structural doublings as a way of expressing what is painful to express directly: the seduction of a daughter by a father. This was a factor in the Umetsky case, and there are some hints that Umetsky slept with Ustinia. The seduction of the ward by the general, and his lascivious relationship with Ustinia, may be an indirect analogue to the seduction of Nastia and her impregnation. It is possible, in other words, that Totsky's seduction of Nastasia Filipovna in the final version, is a symbolic displacement of the father's seduction of a child.1

But even evasions and displacements take us close to a mind in movement, and offer their own rewards. There is a still more essential reason for studying the process of dreaming and writing novels. This is that nearly all criticism, be it new or old, structuralist or phenomenological or serenely historical, is to some extent based on inferences about the way novels are made. The critic, it may be against his will, can hardly avoid inferring the presence of a human writer at his desk, one who laid plans and made choices, designed structures and conceived meanings. But these inferences are usually both overelaborate and oversimplified: overelaborate in positing structures of symbolism, or in implying that writers think consciously in terms of a poetics of space, or in dwelling on the connotations of proper names. But the other tendency is to vastly oversimplify psychological content, and reduce a rich congeries of ideas to paraphraseable theme, and discover an overall harmony and order very far from what an alert unbiased (e.g. unprofessional) reader would experience. Thus at an extreme, and because a final ordering and subduing of the intractable seemed to him artistically necessary, and because he wanted to honor a writer he loved—thus Mochulsky's conclusion that everything in the great chaotic The Possessed has its place. “We cannot go to The Idiot,” Wasiolek remarks, “with theories of the organic fitness of every part, of the necessity of every positioning, every image, every sound. … Structure, I hazard, is never as exquisite as our current theories would have it, at least not in this novel.”2 Much historical criticism of Dostoevsky, moreover—say a criticism that describes him as remote from the radicals satirized in The Possessed—similarly makes false inferences because it fails to discern the real biographical situation: what the imagination was up against, had to go through, do. Seldom mentioned is the indispensable psychological fact that the Nechaev who was responsible for the murder of the student Ivanov was at large, his fate unknown, through most of the period Dostoevsky was writing his book. Significant too is the fact that he continued to frequent, in Geneva, the theorists he would put to scorn.

What we propose then, so far from encouraging a discredited intentionalism or crude biographical approach, should counteract the oversimplifying intentionalism on which so much criticism really rests. To study the creative process behind a complex novel makes us more aware of how wayward and wandering and difficult that process can be, of how much goes into the dreaming of a fiction; and thereby enables us to see and enjoy, in the finished work, more of what is discoverably there.

The brief comments that follow will suggest only a few of the creative challenges Dostoevsky faced in The Idiot. Dostoevsky saw his plans for the first part of The Possessed as a “terrible disorder.” But The Idiot long remained even more unsubduable. By contrast the planning and writing of Crime and Punishment and even The Brothers Karamazov were relatively straightforward. The Notebooks for The Idiot, moreover, reflect preliminary dreamings, prolonged gropings for character and theme, rather than the structural manipulation of material already fairly clearly conceived. The Notebooks are thus essential to an understanding of the earliest processes of creation. But to discern the ultimate creative problems and choices we must look instead to the completed novel. Somewhere between the two kinds of evidence one may look “outside,” as to the famous January 1868 letter to the niece S. A. Ivanovna, where Dostoevsky declares his intention to depict “a positively beautiful individual” and, with allusions to Don Quixote and Pickwick, “beautiful simply because at the same time he is also comic.”3 But this intention was discovered very late indeed.

One obvious difficulty, with The Idiot, was that Dostoevsky long failed to see who his characters were, or who were the main ones. Even in very late notes Ipolit (who like Kirilov came late in the planning, and whose narrative is as detachable as Father Zossima's or The Grand Inquisitor), was briefly seen as “the main axis of the whole novel.” Edward Wasiolek has described succinctly the great oddity: that only in the Seventh Plan did the Idiot become “humble, forgiving, sincere, Christian … in short, the Myshkin of the final version. …”4 “The pure, noble Christ-like traits that had existed from the very beginning and had been given at different times to the uncle's son, to Ganechka, and to the Idiot's wife, are now centered in the Idiot himself.”5 Much earlier in the Notebooks Myshkin was double in the way that Stavrogin would be double, with the potentialities for salvation of a Great Sinner. “N.B. The Idiot's basic character. Domination of himself out of pride (not morality) and rabid self-license in everything. As yet, however, self-license is but a dream, whereas at the moment he has only convulsive impulses. Consequently, he could turn into a monster, but love saves him. He becomes imbued with the most profound compassion and he forgives faults in others.”6 He has raped “Mignon”/Umetskaia and “pushes the heroine toward the diplomat out of secret jealousy. He would like (paroxysm) to cover the heroine with shame, make her a whore.”7 Less than two months before Dostoevsky was to submit the first part of the novel, Wasiolek notes, the Idiot “has a wife, rapes Umetskaia, burns his finger, sets fire to a house, loves the heroine and torments his wife.”8

The Idiot's redemption, after long authorial resistance, occurs within the Notebooks not the novel, where he is noble from the start, and is accomplished by the simple (simple!) splitting of self into two—the coarse, brutal, sensual, proud, self-willed traits being transferred to Roghozhin, while the Christian humility and compassion is retained. Dostoevsky was fully aware of this transference of traits, and onto others beside Roghozhin, but did not perhaps see clearly that one human being had become two or, it may be, that his two personages must ultimately be united. Granted that he disliked explanations in his novels, much in the hold that Roghozhin had over Myshkin may have remained mysterious to Dostoevsky himself. Their reunion at Nastasya's deathbed, Roghozhin's insistence that they sleep side by side at her feet, Myshkin's instant seeming acceptance of the crime, his total identification in a word—all this may indeed suggest, as Simon Lesser argues, that Dostoevsky was capable of understanding, if only at an unconscious level, the homosexuality latent in his narrative.9 Or we may use René Girard's terms of mediation and triangular desire. For Mochulsky, who stresses a religious myth-plot of perdition and redemption, deathly seducer and potential liberator have alike failed Nastasya and are therefore accomplices who have killed her by their “love.”10 At the very least we can say that at Nastasya's deathbed two beings were reunited, two sides of a single self, that had been rather violently torn asunder.

Such, briefly, are a few bare essentials of the evolution of Myshkin in the Notebooks. But if we turn to the novel (looking only incidentally to the Notebooks for help) we may see the creative problem in larger terms. They are terms which often apply to Dickens and Faulkner as well, and to other writers whose conscious conceptions and half-conscious or unconscious intuitions are alike very strong.


We may discern, even more than in Dickens, fictional worlds within worlds; or, more usefully, the gradual narrowing of a pictured Russian world, the world of “social realism,” to the intense interpersonal relations of six or seven persons, then four, then three, then two who are ultimately one. In the background, barely noticed, is ordinary Russian life: the drunken poor in Petersburg, the vacationers in the park at Pavlovsk, the bystanders in the hotel where Myshkin has his fit, the virtually anonymous community shocked at the prospect of the marriage to Nastasya, and as hostile as those at Lucetta's wedding in Casterbridge or Sutpen's in Jefferson. Nearer to the reader is the novel's accepted social circle of ordinary named persons—not so ordinary, after all, since they are Russians and Dostoevskyan Russians. Some are virtually Dickensian eccentrics (Ivolgin, Roghozhin's rowdies and the radicals who protest Myshkin's inheritance). But there are also the relatively well-balanced aristocrats and nobodies at the betrothal party, and the wonderfully vivacious women of the Epanchin household. Dostoevsky's scenic, uninterpreted, unflaggingly inventive presentation of Myshkin's first day in Petersburg, more than a fourth of the novel in length, makes of Part One one of the great triumphs of realistic narrative.

There is a conspicuous narrowing of the lens, and of the fictional world, as we experience what I will call the central Quartet: Myshkin, Roghozhin, Nastasya, Aglaia. On the one hand Dostoevsky saw their desires and anxieties and neuroses in common-sense terms, and their ballet of shifting relationships, and reasoned about them in the Notebooks. Who is to marry whom? Who is to murder whom? Even Aglaia, even Ipolit are seen capable of murder, and the Idiot himself from very early in the plans. A far more coherent common-sense psychology is apparent at this level, as we turn to the novel, and most critics never go beyond it. Myshkin's Christ-like humility and compassion for the ‘fallen’ yet pure Nastasya, living in her hell of suffering and madness, and a normal fascination with her beauty, may account for much of his eccentric behavior. And Christian forgiveness of the ‘brother’ Roghozhin he had hoped to save, and with whom he had exchanged crosses, might lead to that reconciliation at Nastasya's death-bed. In such naturalistic terms his several fits may be attributed to reasonable anxiety and his final madness to extreme strain and grief. There is a hint, for the alert eye, such as Gide's, that impotence may be one reason for his behavior. And Yevegeny Pavlovitch at one point, “with great psychological insight,” contributes just such an analysis as a cautious modern critic might come up with: the interest in the woman's question, the curiosity concerning Russia, the heart-rending story of Nastasya heard on the first day, her beauty. … “Add to that your nerves, your epilepsy, add to that our Petersburg thaw which shatters the nerves, add all that day, in an unknown and to you almost fantastic town, a day of scenes and meetings.”11

In such common-sense terms Roghozhin's behavior, if reduced to summary, may also seem explicable: a proud man intoxicated by his new riches, eager to revenge himself for past humiliations, infatuated by Nastasya, at times respectful of Myshkin and at times deeply jealous, driven at last to murder by the loved one's exasperating oscillations and withdrawals. Aglaia is simply and plausibly a vivacious, fun-loving, teasing young woman, as proud as any of the others and so vulnerable to humiliation; and very jealous of Nastasya. The portrait of the hysterical self-lacerating Nastasya is entirely convincing. Really discovered by her guardian Totsky at twelve, his mistress at sixteen, her life now seems devoted to humiliating him and humiliating herself. With others she seems compelled to provoke then repudiate sexual desires, as though in reenactment of her years with Totsky. She is a poignant victim of manic and depressed moods, of the folie circulaire. It is “as though she had a stone for a heart and her feelings had been withered and dried up for ever.” More precisely she does have a genuine passion, which is for self-destruction. Her noblest impulse is to save Myshkin from herself; her strongest one is to reenact her degradation, as Myshkin himself sees. She “ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say to herself at once: ‘There, you've done something shameful again, so you're a degraded creature!’”12 To save Myshkin she tries to marry him off to Aglaia, which only adds to the latter's rage. Myshkin regards Nastasya as literally mad, and therefore needing his care—what some see as his fatal generosity and compassion. It would appear she went to Roghozhin at the end with full knowledge that she was going to her death.

Such are the intense personages in an explicit drama of interpersonal relations, with three neurotics tearing at each other and at themselves. The relatively sane and almost child-like Aglaia is drawn into the furnace of this interior drama helplessly, as such people often are in ‘real life,’ while Ganya and other suitors remain outside and watch aghast. At times Myshkin not merely desires both Nastasya and Aglaia—the dark depraved beauty and the child-like one—but seems almost to believe he can have them both: an illusion which might be attributed, simply, to his estranged “innocence.” It is evident that on one level of consciousness Dostoevsky thought about his story in these more or less clear terms. He might, that is, have conceived a novel by Flaubert or James.

But this summary scarcely touches on the deeper intensities of The Idiot, which is obviously “about” much more. Once we look at the strangest scenes of the book, at its moments of “illuminating distortion,”13 we are concerned with darker matters, and poor Aglaia simply drops out of the picture. At another, still conscious level, Dostoevsky saw his triad of lovers, but Myshkin and Roghozhin especially, in terms of mysterious connections. A more intuitive psychology, that is, was operating parallel to and sometimes in conflict with the one formulated by Jamesian common-sense, and outward happenings often seem to be psychic events. The shifting of partners within the triangle, for one thing, sometimes involves the complicity of all three. The first meetings of Roghozhin and Myshkin, of Myshkin and Nastasya, are “uncanny,” as though someone known long before had been recognized, someone (Freud would say) who had sprung from within. (This is, for Mochulsky, a mystical meeting of two exiles from paradise, who “remember their heavenly homeland … as ‘in a dream.’”)14 Roghozhin sets a recurring pattern at the start when he proposes, and although he doesn't know why he is so drawn to Myshkin, that they visit Nastasya together. Much later Myshkin assures Roghozhin that he will not stand in their way, though he believes marriage with Nastasya would be perdition for them both. Immediately prior to Roghozhin's attempt to kill Myshkin in the hotel, and with the familiar symptoms of a fit looming, the Prince dreams of going with Roghozhin to Nastasya. “His heart was pure; he was not Roghozhin's rival!” “And how could he have left her when she ran away from him to Roghozhin?” “Why, he himself had wanted to take Roghozhin by the hand and go there with him.” Later still, when Nastasya has sent Roghozhin to bring Myshkin to her, the Prince urges the messenger to come too. The drama of complicity, of a deep willingness and even eagerness to share the loved one, could hardly be more explicit.

Nastasya's pattern, in turn, is to move to the brink of marriage with one, then rush feverishly to the other, as though something essential were missing. It is much as though the three were drawn somnambulistically into meetings they themselves do not understand, through sudden repudiations and reconciliations, never satisfied for long. In the novel's last pages the three are indeed united, as it were against the outside world, the whole world of outside appearance and external events, not merely the world threatening punishment in Siberia, madness in Switzerland. The trivialities of rational dialogue, of everyday activities, of “social realism” are behind them. But by now there are really only two, since Nastasya Filipovna lies dead. On the way to the dark funeral house Roghozin had insisted that they walk on opposite sides of the street, as though to preserve a psychic separateness. But separation is overcome in the most extreme way, as Myshkin not only accepts Roghozhin's crime but wonders whether the knife that threatened him in the hotel was the one that killed Nastasya. He asks to see and hold the cards with which Roghozhin and Nastasya used to play. But even this symbolic sharing no longer satisfies. “A new feeling of hopeless sadness weighed on his heart; he realised suddenly that at that moment and a long time past he had been saying not what he was wanting to say and had been doing the wrong thing, and that the cards he was holding in his hands and was so pleased to see were no help, no help now.” Shortly thereafter Roghozhin shows first signs of hysteria, and Myshkin begins to stroke his head, his hair, his cheeks. “Quite a new sensation gnawed at his heart with infinite anguish.” (In the next to last Notebooks entry, where both are said to be “out of their heads,” Roghozhin caresses Myshkin: “If only you don't have a seizure?”) By morning, when people come, they find the murderer unconscious and raving, and Myshkin unable to understand questions or recognize the people around him. Before the immensity of such a scene any single explanation—be it latent homosexuality or ultimate spiritual brotherhood or the reunion of components of the self—would seem oversimple and reductive. But the spiritual drama has indeed now narrowed, in Hawthorne's terms, to “the interior of a heart.” The two are one, and the aftermath of separation—Roghozhin to Siberia, Myshkin to Switzerland—seems scarcely more plausible than the conclusion to Crime and Punishment.

By what process of invention could Dostoevsky render such deeply inward workings, more inward than the Secret Sharer's, without sacrificing the dramatic interest of two persons struggling for and sharing a third? One answer lies in a frank use of the occult: the more than mesmeric power of Roghozhin's eyes—more, because Myshkin is aware of those watchful, glittering eyes even where there is no possibility of his seeing them. His awareness of the eyes is associated, moreover, with his epileptic fits, and would seem similarly to come from within. To be sure Myshkin is not alone in succumbing to their power. Nastasya says that two terrible eyes are always gazing at her, and she knows their secret: that Roghozhin keeps a razor wrapped in silk as did a murderer in Moscow. And when she catches Roghozhin's eyes in the crowd collected for her wedding, she rushes to him as to a devil or robber bridegroom, and is whisked away as by a fairy tale coach. For the dying Ipolit, Roghozhin is much like the hallucinated devil/double of The Brothers Karamazov. He appears in Ipolit's locked room shortly after the dying man's vision of the almighty Power or Godhead as a “dull, dark, dumb force” taking the shape of a huge and loathsome spider.

We hear of Roghozhin's fiery eyes on the first page. But the first instance of their occult power comes at the railway station of Myshkin's return from Moscow: a “vision of strange glowing eyes fixed upon him in the crowd that met the train.” (There had been meetings between the two of which the novel tells us almost nothing, meetings that had “left a lasting memory in their hearts.”) Later that day Myshkin feels himself transfixed by Roghozhin's gaze and, for the first time, has warning signs of the fits he had five years before. They discuss Roghozhin's possible marriage. Myshkin, who says he is very fond of Roghozhin, will not stand in their way. But will it not be as though Nastasya, marrying, were deliberately asking to be drowned or murdered? Near the end of the chapter Myshkin twice picks up a knife from a table and Roghozhin twice takes it from his hands. It would seem related, psychologically, to the knife of Stavrogin's thoughts, of his will to see Mary Lebyadkin dead … which at once becomes a real knife in his agent Fedka's hand. In the next chapter, as though to combat Roghozhin's growing intention, Myshkin tells the story of a man who asks for God's forgiveness in the very act of cutting his friend's throat for a watch. And Roghozhin in turn proposes that they exchange crosses and be spiritual brothers; he introduces Myshkin to his mother. But Roghozhin's eyes glow at their parting. Is he driven against his will, as perhaps Coleridge's Geraldine with her snake's small eye? In the pages to follow the threat of a fit darkens, and Myshkin once again feels the way he had that morning, with the eyes fixed on him. An “insuperable inner loathing” gives way to remembrance of the moments of ecstasy that precede a seizure: harmonious joy, a sense that there shall be no more time. Now, as the mental darkness deepens, he has his vision of union with Nastasya and with a Roghozhin who would feel compassion for her. For “him, Myshkin, to love her with passion was almost unthinkable, would have been almost cruelty, inhumanity” … But

Why that shiver again, that cold sweat, that darkness and chill in his soul? Was it because he had once more seen those eyes? But he had gone out of the Summer Garden on purpose to see them! That was what his ‘sudden idea’ amounted to. He had intensely desired to see ‘those eyes’ again, so as to make quite certain that he would meet them there, at that house. He had desired it passionately, and why was he so crushed and overwhelmed now by the fact that he had actually just seen them?15

He longs to take Roghozhin by the hand and go with him to Nastasya's house. But instead on the staircase of the hotel, a man is waiting in a hollow niche, and the same two eyes meet his own. It is Roghozhin with the knife. Myshkin's long-anticipated epileptic fit now ensues, and presumably saves him from death.

Myshkin's forgiveness is total, and totally unexplained: Christian forgiveness or indulgence for the secret sharer? Myshkin even feels he has sinned in suspecting Roghozhin might attempt murder; he would virtually seem an accomplice in the attempt against himself. “We were feeling just the same. If you had not made that attack (which God averted), what should I have been then? I did suspect you of it, our sin was the same in fact.”16 Later in Pavlovsk an hallucinated impression of Roghozin's eyes precedes the appearance of Nastasya and, some minutes later, of Roghozhin himself, who leads her away. In the important sequence of the betrothal party (Part IV, Chapter VI) Myshkin's premonitions of a fit are accompanied by an “intense and unaccountable desire to see Roghozhin, to see him and say a great deal to him—what about he could not himself have said. …” This time the fit is associated with a compulsion to commit an act he has been warned against: not to knock over a Chinese vase. His illusion that he saw Roghozhin's eyes at the old general's funeral precede by only a few pages the wedding holocaust. Nastasya's own “great black eyes glowed upon the crowd like burning coals.” But they are no match for Roghozhin's. In the novel's next to last chapter Myshkin recalls the eyes as they had looked at him in the darkness. Was Roghozhin even in Petersburg? “He could not have explained if he had probed his own thought why he should be suddenly so necessary to Roghozhin, and why it was so impossible that they should not meet.” And now it seemed as though Roghozhin would appear if only Myshkin mentally summoned him. “What if he suddenly comes out of that corner and stops me at the stairs?” Minutes later, Roghozhin does appear: “follow me, brother, I want you.” He takes Myshkin to the house where the crime has already in some sense been committed by them both. “Roghozhin's face was pale as usual; his glittering eyes watched Myshkin intently with a fixed stare.”

The premonitions of fits and the fits themselves, the depression and inner loathing succeeded by a vision of ecstatic harmony outside time, the illusion of watchful eyes even when Myshkin is alone, the need to go to Roghozhin and be united with him (if only through the shared Nastasya, even through the dead Nastasya), the knife intuited and the knife in Roghozhin's hands, the remorse for having unjustly (!) thought Roghozhin capable of murder—so much intimately associated, connected material conveys a deeply inward psychological or spiritual experience, one that defies common sense. Even the broad elastic concept of the double seems to beg the question. The important creative fact, again, is that Dostoevsky did not permit his formulated common-sense reasonings to interfere with this rich intuitive imagining.17 The Notebooks touch on this dynamic material only briefly, and a single entry may combine the carefully reasoned and the intuitive: “N.B. At lunch before Roghozhin's arrival, about Roghozhin, that the feeling between him and the Prince is mutual; the word ‘take!’ uttered at the station is cherished in both their hearts, and that the Prince had an extraordinary influence on Roghozhin because of his noble bearing.” More fruitful for the writer, no doubt, were the notebook entries recording scraps of enigmatic dialogue: i.e. where no explanation is attempted: “After the knife. Roghozhin says to the Prince: ‘You know that my life is yours now; take it.’” The scene at Nastasya's deathbed, one of the greatest in novelistic literature, is once summarized in three lines, followed by two words of authorial self-approval:

Goes to Roghozhin in despair.

(He murders.) Summons the Prince.

Roghozhin and the Prince beside the corpse. Finale.

Not bad.18


One other strategy, partly unconscious, protected the dynamic and mysterious inward drama: the omission or undertreatment of certain crucial events and even periods of Myshkin's life. It may well be Dostoevsky felt a fuller understanding, even a fuller visual imagining of this material would be crippling. We are given only the briefest allusions to Myshkin's month in the provinces with Nastasya, when he had been seeing her almost every day, though it “had had a fearful effect upon him, so much so that he sometimes tried to drive away all recollection of it.” “Oh, if you only knew with what horror I recall the time I spent with her!”—the horror of witnessing Nastasya's self-destructiveness, her “irresistible inner craving to do something shameful.” Earlier still, according to the shadowy rumors that open Part II, there had been an awful orgy at the Ekaterinhof Vauxhall, in which Nastasya had taken part, presumably with Roghozhin and his followers and (this more than rumor) that Myshkin had spent that night at Ekaterinhof, returning at six in the morning. This is the night following Nastasya's blatant “sale” of herself to Roghozhin for 100,000 roubles and her rejection of Myshkin's offer to marry her without dowry. Dostoevsky gives no details at all, leaves entirely in shadow what would have been, for Myshkin, an intensely traumatic, psychologically determinative experience. But even more significant may be the undertreatment (almost tantamount to repression) of Myshkin's six months in Moscow, a period perhaps as crucial as Stavrogin's shadowed time in Petersburg. For during three of those months there had been long hours spent with Roghozhin, and “meetings, moments of which had left a lasting memory in their hearts.” But of these meetings we learn next to nothing. They had talked, it appears, of work to be done “in our Russian world”; “they had been intimate, they had been like brothers”; they had read the whole of Pushkin together. Even Marlow reporting the discourse of Kurtz is more specific! The references to the Moscow period are so few and so sparse as to suggest Dostoevsky did not know what went on there (as with Fitzgerald's acknowledged ignorance of a whole period of Gatsby's life) or that he did not want to know (i.e. that genuine repression occurred) or, to be sure, that he wanted to avoid what James called “weak specification.” Significantly, Myshkin's recollection of the Moscow days immediately follows the breaking of the Chinese vase at the betrothal party and immediately precedes a fit. Association with Roghozhin thus shatters a primary sexual symbol and, because of the fit, makes marriage with Aglaia seem out of the question. But the exclusions are altogether extreme, and are perhaps related to the radical confusions of identity, or linkings of personality, that precede that confrontation in the hotel stairwell.19 The geography of union, separation, reunion, of dissociation and integration or incorporation, seems as important as in Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer; and infinitely more complex. It would appear the intimacy of the Moscow days could not be looked at in common-sense terms, or perhaps in any terms at all, without danger of major imaginative loss.

Such in brief, and in far simpler form than it is experienced in the novel's dense reality, is one essential drama of creative process in the writing of The Idiot. Even within the novel Dostoevsky admonishes himself not to explain: “Don't let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them. And these can rarely be distinctly defined. The best course for the story-teller at times is to confine himself to a simple narrative of events.”20 There are, both in the Notebooks and in the novel, no small number of common-sense explanations. But Dostoevsky would not allow these “explanations,” these rational configurations, these ordered pictures of personal relationships, to destroy the deeper drama of Myshkin and his double/brother Roghozhin. And this deeper drama he explains almost not at all. He would seem to an unusual degree capable, simultaneously, of rational and intuitive creation.


Even this general description of the creative situation may seem excessively orderly, as we lose ourselves in The Idiot's first half-dozen plans. And the windings of conscious and unconscious understanding and creation will seem more than ever intricate, with ideas and dramatic events and persons whirling in ever-changing patterns. We may take, as a single instance, the burned finger that runs through the Notebooks, usually without explanation—the Idiot's finger until fairly late in the plans, ultimately Gania's. A recent fait divers, and one that fed Dostoevsky's long preoccupation with abused or violated young girls, is referred to in the first plans: the trial of the 15-year old Olga Umetskaia in September, 1867 for setting fires to buildings on her father's estate, and of the parents for neglecting her upbringing and for beating her savagely. The daughter may have been raped or seduced by the father; a finger had been broken by the mother. In one of Dostoevsky earliest fantasies the Idiot, teased by “Mignon” /Umetskaia, rapes her, sets fire to the house and on her command burns his finger; in a later plan he sets a house on fire with her. Oddly enough the rape, repeatedly re-imagined, scarcely disturbs Umetskaia, though on one occasion his “brutal defilement of her was both an overwhelming happiness to her, and death itself.” The fourth plan momentarily anticipates a major configuration of The Possessed: a raped young woman, a house set on fire, a loss of desire for “the heroine,” “a sudden total apathy,” suicide … and once again the unexplained burned finger.21 (In some places the burning appears to be a test of love.) The burned finger sometimes occurs before the rape, as though itself a glowing sexual object; sometimes after, as in token of self-punishment. And once it is associated with a greater crime: Gania strangling Aglaia. Little remains in the completed novel. Aglaia tells Myshkin that Gania burnt his hand before her eyes to show he loved her more than his life, and kept his finger in the fire for half an hour. But she has then to acknowledge this was a lie. An event referred to almost obsessively in the Notebooks thus comes to virtually nothing.

But a much more powerful association of money, sexuality and fire (with the violation of the young Nastasya in the background), occurs with the great scene that ends Part One. Roghozhin has met Nastasya's fierce challenge and arrives with the hundred thousand roubles she had set as her price. He lays the money on the table, a phallic roll six inches thick and eight inches long, wrapped in a copy of the Financial News. In her frenzy of rebellion and self-degradation Nastasya asks who will take her for nothing, and Myshkin offers to marry her. But this is only a diversion in the real movement and meaning of the scene. She says she cannot allow herself to ruin such a child; the ruin of children is more in Totsky's line. “I've been Totsky's concubine. …” Her challenge is rather to Ganya, who had planned to marry her for a dowry supplied by Totsky. She will throw the money in the fire; it will be Ganya's to keep if he is willing to snatch it out. “As soon as the fire has got it all alight, put your hands into the fire, only without gloves, with your bare hands and turn back your sleeves, and pull the bundle out of the fire. If you can pull it out, it's yours, the whole hundred thousand. You'll only burn your fingers a little—” All stare at the smouldering roll of notes. Ganya, his vanity stronger than his greed, resists saving the money; but faints. Thereupon Nastasya herself pulls out the notes; the inside of the roll was untouched. She lays the roll of notes beside Ganya, while Myshkin and the others watch. The common-sense interpretation—that she honors ironically Ganya's self-control and shows her scorn for the others—hardly touches the power of the scene. Rather this: she alone, who has withheld herself from Totsky for five years, after the years of adolescent concubinage, now controls sexual energies and will transfer them as she pleases. Ganya is impotent because unconscious, however; the watching Myshkin is also impotent, if only because a child. The money has been taken from the baffled Roghozhin, though he will moments later seem successful. Is there some hint that he too is impotent? On the ground floor of his gloomy house is a money-changer's shop owned by one of the Skoptsy sect of castrates. … And his Christian name Parfen, Richard Peace notes, is the Greek parthenos = virgin.22

All this is but to say that Dostoevsky erected a powerful cluster of associations—burning finger / burning roll of money / sexual crime against a young girl / impotence / confusion of sexual partner and sexual role—without ever clearly explicating his meanings. Once again the unconscious, and half-conscious envisionings too, wrought better than he knew; or, for that matter, better than most of his critics. This doubtless accounts in part for the immense power and reality of a scene that, in bare summary, might seem implausible and even ridiculous.

Many writers resist their “true subjects” indefinitely, and so suffer from writer's block. Even for Dostoevsky the liberation of dynamic materials in The Idiot did not occur overnight.


Edward Wasiolek's analyses of the Notebooks are succinct, scrupulous, often brilliant. His summaries of the various plans emphasize how “names and qualities live in these notes in a fluid relationship,”23 with traits repeatedly redistributed as characters come to the forefront and recede. The Eighth Plan, he observes, reads like a step backward, and even the later notes (except for a few intense entries) remain far from the published novel. The next to last entry, however, takes us close to the scene at Nastasya's deathbed, referred to only very briefly in scattered earlier entries. This may suggest that Dostoevsky, once he had fully acknowledged and visualized this culminating scene, could go on with less difficulty and with little need for grouping analyses. In any event the Notebooks are throughout so confused, with so many plots in competition, and so many minor or irrelevant personages pressing forward to demand attention, and with both Gania and Ipolit conceived as of major importance until near the end, as to suggest that Dostoevsky long evaded and resisted his crucial preoccupations, especially the implications of the Myshkin-Roghozhin relationship.

Insight seems to have been momentarily achieved in the fourth plan, then quickly rejected. There complicity with “the son” (later Roghozin) is related to a queer and terrible love for him:

In surrendering her to the son, the Idiot does not ask any gratitude. His pride alienates him from them all. N.B. He has a terrible love for the son. A queer passion. N.B. Queerest of all, he loves the uncle too.24

A cryptic entry for April 23, 1868, following closely on allusions to the murder of Nastasya and the planned death of Aglaia, with Myshkin at her side, may refer to the same central situation:

(“You gave her to me. You united us but you didn't separate us.”) “You watched over her.” N.B. (N.B. And at the same time Roghozhin was afraid of the other's arrival.)25

Characteristically, Dostoevsky had achieved an initial insight in the First Plan, then repressed or cast it aside: “If she married another man, likely his reaction would be quite different from what one would expect: ‘Let her marry him, I will love her just the same.’ If she were a whore, it would come to much the same thing: ‘But I will love her just the same.’ Eventually he begins to lose all sense of reality. He even goes to the son and talks about her without concealing his own love, yet as if supporting the son, so that the latter marvels and begins to believe him out of his mind.”26

The Idiot, like many great novels, has its share of lost subjects that preoccupied its author. Dostoevsky long clings to the changing Ganya as a central character, and to the Umetskaia story with which he had begun. There were multiple efforts, as Wasiolek remarks, to “use the theme of the maltreated child, the cruel and ugly environment of childhood and its effect upon the soul of the adult, the horrifying prospect of a father's betrayal of his God-like trust”27—little of which gets into the published novel. There are recurring allusions to the Idiot and Mignon wandering the city and to Nastasya dying in a brothel. There are also a number of cryptic references to a children's club directed by Myshkin. On March 21, 1868 Dostoevsky boxed the word nevinyi in the manuscript—which may mean ‘innocent,’ ‘guiltless,’ possibly ‘virginal’28—and follows it by an exclamation mark. Only a few lines later the club seems to have an extraordinary significance: “When at the end of the 4th Part N.F. again deserts the Prince and runs away with Roghozhin on her wedding day, the Prince is wholly absorbed with the club.” All that remains in the novel are the children of his Swiss memories, though the “club” may look ahead to The Brothers Karamazov and Alyosha. A number of entries also anticipate the later novel in imagining a father and son competing for the same woman.

Another great imminent novel intrudes now and then in the Notebooks to play its part in delaying a final discovery of theme: The Possessed. (The intrusion is natural enough, since Dostoevsky had already attended in September 1867 the Congress of the League for Peace and Freedom in Geneva, and heard Bakunin speak there, and associated with Herzen, Ogarev and other emigrés.) Ipolit, who appears so late in the planning of The Idiot, would seem to anticipate Kirilov and Camus' Meursault. For the man condemned to death “telling the truth or lying is absolutely the same. …” His confession and statement is far fuller and more coherent than Kirilov's. But there is much material for The Possessed that flickers to the surface in the Fifth and Sixth Plans, only to be submerged, with little or no place in the final text of The Idiot. There are a number of parallels between the Idiot and Stavrogin, who also returned from Switzerland: the Idiot filled with “morbid pride to such a degree that he cannot help considering himself a god, and yet at the same time he has so little esteem for himself (he analyzes himself with great clarity) that he cannot help despising himself intensely, infinitely, and unjustifiably.”29 The Idiot like Stavrogin has made a secret and absurd marriage with an abused innocent, one who like Mary Lebyadkin has qualities of the Madonna. Is this abused innocent of the Notebooks the Marie of the novel, seduced by a commercial traveler and sheltered by Myshkin in Switzerland? Stavrogin's linked crimes of The Possessed (the murder of his wife, the violation of the child Matryosha and the passive attendance upon her suicide by hanging) are even more closely juxtaposed in the Notebooks for The Idiot. For there we see Myshkin's wife, in one plan, hanging herself, the repeatedly raped Mignon hanging herself too and even, for good measure, the “heroine,” who also had been raped.30

At this point it is perhaps well to remark that the incidence of violence in the Notebooks is greater than in the finished The Idiot. As Dostoevsky rid himself of many political speculations in the Notebooks for The Possessed, so here he worked his way through no small number of imagined and reimagined crimes. The most remarkable fact, given so much confusion and turbulence, so many violently contradictory ideas, so much liberated fantasy subsequently diverted or repressed (and so much contemporary distress in his personal life) is that The Idiot got written at all. It should be consoling for aspiring novelists to know that Dostoevsky, when he had completed the 75,000 words of his very great Part One, had no real idea what was to happen next. This novel, like more than one of Conrad's, was saved by financial necessity: by the need, in spite of everything, to struggle on.


  1. The Notebooks for The Idiot, edited with introduction by Edward Wasiolek, translated by Katherine Strelsky (Chicago, 1967), p. 134. Hereafter Notebooks.

  2. Notebooks, p. 9.

  3. Quoted in Konstantin Mochulsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, translated with introduction by Michael A. Minihan (Princeton, 1967), p. 345.

  4. Notebooks, p. 131.

  5. Notebooks, p. 132.

  6. Notebooks, p. 37.

  7. Notebooks, p. 87.

  8. Notebooks, p. 122.

  9. Simon O. Lesser, “The Role of Unconscious Understanding in Flaubert and Dostoevsky,” Daedalus (Spring, 1963), 364-6.

  10. Mochulsky, op. cit., p. 379.

  11. The Idiot, Part 4, Chapter 9. Translated by Constance Garnett. In Heinemann edition (London, new impression 1948), p. 570.

  12. The Idiot, Part 3, Chapter 8, p. 425.

  13. Albert J. Guerard, “The Illuminating Distortion,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction (Winter, 1972), 101-121. “By illuminating distortion I refer to the oddity, the anomaly, the moment of strangeness which (if understood at last) may reveal a scene's or even a book's larger meaning, and the source of its creative energy and dynamic power over us,” p. 101.

  14. Mochulsky, op. cit., p. 378. Dots are Mochulsky's.

  15. The Idiot, Part 2, Chapter 5, p. 225.

  16. The Idiot, Part 3, Chapter 3, p. 357. Crucial suspicion was expressed in Part II, Chapter 5, pp. 222-3.

  17. The Christian common-sense, for instance, of an impulse to rehabilitate Nastasya: “The theory of practical Christianity” … (The Prince declares when he marries N.F. that it is far better to resurrect one woman than to perform the deeds of Alexander of Macedon.) Notebooks, pp. 222, 223.

  18. Notebooks, p. 242.

  19. As when he reflects on Roghozhin's eyes: “Yes, that morning Roghozhin had for some reason denied it and told a lie, but at the station he stood almost unconcealed. Indeed, it was rather he, Myshkin, had concealed himself, and not Roghozhin. And now at the house he stood on the other side of the street fifty paces away on the opposite pavement, waiting with his arms folded. There too he had been quite conspicuous and seemed to wish to be conspicuous on purpose. He stood like an accuser and a judge and not like … what?” (The Idiot, II, v), p. 226.

  20. The Idiot, Part 4, Chapter 3, p. 473.

  21. Notebooks, p. 82.

  22. Richard Peace, Dostoevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge, England, 1971), p. 85.

  23. Notebooks, p. 74.

  24. Notebooks, p. 80. Mochulsky reverses the terms, calling Myshkin the son and Roghozhin the idiot with references to their early Notebook roles. Dostoevsky, p. 339. The problematic relationship remains the same, of course.

  25. Notebooks, p. 221.

  26. Notebooks, p. 41.

  27. Notebooks, p. 149.

  28. Notebooks, p. 191, note 8. (Wasiolek's interpretation.)

  29. Notebooks, p. 101.

  30. Notebooks, pp. 127, 33, 130.

Robin Feuer Miller (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7095

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 characterizes it as a “picnic to which the author brings the words and the reader the meaning.”2 Meaning in the novel lies in the collision between two equally important entities: the author and the reader. V. N. Vološinov articulated this idea as early as 1930: “… there is no reason for saying that meaning belongs to a word as such. In essence, meaning belongs to a word in its position between speakers; that is, meaning is realized only in the process of active, responsive understanding.”3 It is, of course, a small step from speaker and listener to author and reader, and in fact, Vološinov chooses to illustrate this very point with a quotation from Dostoevskij's Diary of a Writer. But while critics may be engaged in discovering and describing the reader, authors have never lost sight of him either in his created or actual manifestation. Cervantes, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Tolstoj—most serious novelists have written about the importance of their reader's responses. The whole of Aristotle's Poetics enumerates and scrutinizes the means by which a poet can best affect and manipulate his audience's responses.

For Dostoevskij, calculating the effect of his work upon his audience was an activity of the highest priority. His concern for maintaining his reader's interest largely determined his narrative manner. No one disputes the prosaic, even commercial reasons for Dostoevskij's preoccupation with his audience. Far more interesting, however, is the construct of the reader that emerges directly from the works.

From the outset of his career Dostoevskij viewed his audience as a group upon whom the most wily strategies should be exercised. His narration always embodied a conscious method of persuasion. As early as 1846, after he had finished Poor Folk, he wrote of his audience: “In our public there is instinct, as there is in any crowd, but there is no education. They do not understand how one can write with such a style as mine. They are accustomed to seeing the ugly mug of the author in everything; I have not shown mine. And they haven't even guessed that Devuškin is speaking and not I. …”4 As late as 1876 Dostoevskij was still complaining about the tendency of his readers to confuse the narrator's voice with that of the author. “… I wrote my Letters from a Dead House fifteen years ago under the name of a fictitious person, a criminal who supposedly had murdered his wife. In passing, I may add, by way of detail, that since that time many people have been under the impression, and are even now asserting, that I was exiled for the murder of my wife.”5

Wayne Booth has written about the difference between the real-life author and the implied author of a work. The implied author differs from the real man. The epithet implied author provides a way of speaking about the self an author becomes as he writes. Booth asserts that the real man “creates a superior version of himself, a ‘second self,’ as he creates his work …”6 But Dostoevskij sought to conceal the implied author's voice. This concealment continued as a basic principle of Dostoevskij's narrative technique for thirty-five years.7

The question of his audience's response also remained a central concern. Towards the end of his life Dostoevskij wrote, “… I am always tormented by the question: how will this be received—whether people will want to understand the essence of the matter or whether it will turn out that I shall have done more harm than good by publishing my sacred convictions,” (Pis' ma, IV, 194-95.) Though his fiction did contain his “sacred convictions” they were carefully shielded by layers of narrative fabric. That is, the reader of a work by Dostoevskij must himself uncover the meaning of that work.

In 1876 Dostoevskij ruefully asserted this truth about the necessity for indirectness:

I have never yet allowed myself, in my writings, to follow … my convictions to the end, to say the very last word. … Set up any paradox that you like, but do not take it to its end, and you will be considered witty, subtle, and comme il faut; but take some risky word to the end, suddenly say, for example: “And here is the Messiah”—directly, and not by hinting, and no one will believe you precisely because of your naiveté, precisely because you took things to the end and said your very last word. … If many of the most famous wits, like Voltaire, for example, instead of mockeries, allusions, hints and reservations, had suddenly decided to express all that they believed … then, believe me, they would not have obtained even a tenth of their former effect. Worse than that, they would only have been laughed at.

(III, 227-28.)8

Dostoevskij goes on to quote the famous line from Tjutčev's poem “Silentium,” “the thought spoken is a lie” (“mysl' izrečennaja est' lož'”). Thus questions of narrative are inextricably bonded to the question of the audience; an understanding of one leads to an understanding of the other.

In The Idiot Dostoevskij began to develop the figure of the narrator-chronicler which he used later in The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov. He combined the techniques of first and third person narrative in the figure of the narrator-chronicler; this narrator offered the advantages of both forms. He lives in the town where the action takes place, has access to minute details of the action, but does not participate in it. He does not shrink, however, from judging or interpreting the people and events around him. The narrator-chronicler, who can, at times, express outrageous opinions, provides a subtle mask for the implied author. The reader can easily confuse this narrator's voice with that of the implied author.9

This discussion of the reader in The Idiot does not focus on a figure to whom the narrator directly addresses himself throughout the novel. Unlike the narrators of Puškin and Gogol', Dostoevskij's narrator in The Idiot seldom refers to his reader at all, and he never address him directly. Nevertheless, a model may be proposed for describing the reader in this novel which contributes to uncovering the intentions of the implied author. Put simply, while reading The Idiot one becomes two readers at once: the reader who responds directly to the words of the narrator-chronicler (the narrator's reader) and the reader who responds to the indirect manipulations of the implied author (the implied reader). It is the interaction between these two readers that is significant.

To use Booth's terminology, one can speak of three authors in The Idiot—the real author Dostoevskij, the implied author, and the narrator. The implied author makes, that is, creates, his implied reader. They are capable of making more disinterested judgments in fiction than in life. Just as Booth distinguished between the real author and the “superior version of himself” he becomes as he writes, so does he differentiate between the real man and the implied reader:

Of course, the same distinction must be made between myself as reader and the often very different self who goes about paying bills, repairing leaky faucets, and failing in generosity and wisdom. It is only as I read that I become the self whose beliefs must coincide with the author's.


These two created selves, the implied author and the implied reader, are often in collusion behind the narrator's back (Booth, 304). In The Idiot though the implied author and the narrator do not coincide, they share certain ideas. But towards the end of the novel they disagree sharply. The narrator rejects Myškin, while the implied author stands staunchly behind his hero.

Booth and Wolfgang Iser have tended to concentrate on the implied reader who responds to the implied author's lofty machinations. But the experience of reading is not so clear-cut. For example, in The Idiot one can speak of three readers—the real reader, the implied reader, and the narrator's reader. On certain occasions the reader posited by the narrator lacks serious moral concern; he merely reads for plot and enjoyment. The real reader of the novel subsumes the implied reader and the narrator's reader but he does not combine them. They continue to exist separately, at times in diametric opposition within the real reader, who experiences both their responses simultaneously.10 The implied reader responds to the implied author's serious, indirect manipulation of him, while the narrator's reader, uncritical and curious, does not suspend belief in the narrator's rendition of the story. To experience the novel most fully the real reader must know in precisely what ways the two readers within him diverge.

How does this work? Several sharply contrasting modes of narration coexist within The Idiot so that the reader must constantly readjust his attitude towards the narrative texture as well as towards the characters it portrays.11 In parts I and II the reader comes to expect the use of a particular voice to describe a particular character or group of characters. In the following passage we hear a voice which is ironically detached from the action and easily swayed by the current local rumors:

It was well known that General Epančin had participated in government monopolies in the past. At present he participated and had a strong voice in several substantial stock companies. He was known as a man of big money, big operations, big connections. In certain circles he knew how to render himself absolutely indispensable, among others, in his own branch of the administration. At the same time it was also well known that Ivan Fedorovič Epančin was a man of no education who had started as the son of an ordinary soldier, facts which undoubtedly reflected only the honor upon him; but the general, although an intelligent man, was also not without his petty and quite excusable weaknesses and did not enjoy allusions to certain things. But intelligent and adroit he certainly was. For example, he made it a rule not to put himself forward when it was essential to stay in the background, and many people appreciated in him precisely this ingenuousness, precisely this quality of always knowing his place. Yet if those who judged him thus could have seen what sometimes transpired in the soul of Ivan Fedorovič, who knew his place so well!12

The narrator-chronicler directs his sarcasm both towards General Epančin and towards the assessments about the general made by public opinion. In a manner reminiscent of Gogol', two layers of irony operate here: the narrator's irony towards the general, and, to a lesser degree, the reader's slightly ironical feelings about the narrator, who is so addicted to reporting all the gossip known about the general. The reader and the narrator find themselves in a pleasant, soothing state of collusion both against the general and against the society judging him. The reader's confidence in the narrator's perceptions solidifies. So does the reader's confidence in himself; after all, he has easily detected the presence of this ironic voice.

At times the narrator assumes a comic voice which relates a kind of novel of ill manners:

All three Epančin daughters were tall, robust young ladies, in the full bloom of youth and health, with magnificent shoulders, powerful bosoms, strong, almost masculine arms; and of course, as a result of their strength and good health, they occasionally like to eat well, a fact which they did not choose to disguise. Their mamma, Lizaveta Prokof'evna, sometimes looked askance at the honesty of their appetites, but as certain of her views, despite the outward respect they were shown by her daughters, had long since lost their former unquestioned authority among them, so much so, in fact, that the firmly established entente of the three young ladies had begun to prevail quite regularly, the general's wife, conscious of her own dignity, had found it more convenient to give in without argument.

(32; 57-58.)

The humor of this passage and, indeed, of much of the narrator's description of the Epančins' family life depends upon the reader's acquaintance with the form of the novel of manners or domestic novel. From the start the narrator plays with conventions and, as it were, bursts the seams enclosing this form. His physical portrait of the three daughters begins somewhat typically, but it rapidly goes astray. However independent and strong a typical heroine proves herself to be, she rarely first appears to the reader with such attributes as amazing shoulders, a powerful bosom, strong, almost masculine arms and a gigantic appetite. The narrator teases the reader's expectations of what three marriageable maidens of good family should be like.

The narrator even goes so far as to present Nastasja Filippovna's wretched history from Totskij's uncompassionate point of view. He writes chattily to the reader about the failure of Nastasja Filippovna's “education”:

In fact, to give an example, if Nastasja Filippovna would have suddenly displayed some kind of sweet and graceful ignorance of the fact, for instance, that peasant women could not wear fine cambric underwear as she did, then Afanasij Ivanovič, it seems, would have been extremely pleased.

(115; 156.)

Totskij's point of view has infected the narrator. Here the implied author seduces the readers into laughing, if only for a moment, inappropriately, and he thereby implicates us in Totskij's crime. In terms of the reader mechanism proposed here the reader responds to the narrator's ironies and to Totskij's point of view and finds them funny.13 At the end of the novel, then, when the situation has become overwhelmingly tragic, the reader must realize that he, like the narrator and Totskij, is guilty because he is capable, even if briefly, of making amoral judgments.

The effect of the narrator's choice of a detached voice serves to render comic the situation at the beginning of the novel. The reader's emotions have been kept at bay through the narrator's assumption of an amused tone. The reader, at the start of this novel, has been lured by this tone into accepting as comic certain situations in fiction which he would not smile at in life. He has given in, if you will, to a willing suspension of conscience. Later the narrator will engage the reader's emotions and make him feel these same situations to be tragic.

The narrator discards this ironical voice when he describes Myškin. In a sympathetic and omniscient manner, he enters Myškin's mind:

And still another insoluble question presented itself, one of such importance that the prince was afraid to think about it; he could not, he dared not even admit it, he was unable to formulate it, he blushed and trembled at the mere thought of it. Nonetheless, in spite of all his doubts and anxieties, he ended by entering and asking for Nastasja Filippovna.

(114; 155-56.)

Throughout the novel the narrator portrays Myškin's thoughts in a similar way: he frequently uses indefinite pronouns instead of nouns; he mystifies instead of enlightens the reader. Thus the reader expects the narrator to enter Myškin's mind with seeming directness, but he does not really expect to learn much.

In the following quotation we hear an instance of the narrator's Gothic voice which employs techniques of arbitrary disclosure and heightened terror:

And quite recently, at the Tsarskoe Selo station when he was boarding the train for Pavlovsk to see Aglaja and had suddenly seen the eyes again, for the third time that day, he had felt a terrible urge to tell him whose eyes they were! But he had run out of the station and had only come to his senses in front of the cutler's shop at the moment he was standing there estimating the cost of an object with a deer-horn handle at sixty kopecks. A strange and hideous demon held him fast and would not leave him again. This demon had whispered to him in the Summer Garden, as he sat lost in thought under a lime tree. …

(193; 251.)

Alluding to fears provokes a greater effect than fully describing them. At this point Myškin, having returned to Petersburg after a six-month absence, has just left Rogožin's house, and, followed by Rogožin, he is wandering through the city. A typical narrator in a Gothic novel seeks to interest the reader by any means whatsoever, whether by rendering things mysterious and admitting the supernatural world or by describing events in ghastly detail. Here “something” pursues Myškin, a “demon” has attached itself to him. His forebodings, in Gothic fashion, inexorably come to pass: the scene climaxes with Rogožin's attempted murder of Myškin and with Myškin's epileptic fit. The reader finds himself in a world far removed from the easy ironies of the Epančin household.

In parts I and II of the novel the reader's trust in the narrator's judgment, taste, wit, and tact has been established. At the same time the reader knows the narrator is manipulating him and withholding information. (For example, he does not tell the reader of Myškin's inheritance until the end of part I; the reader, like the other characters, thinks Myškin is a poor relation.) The reader senses that the narrator does not coincide completely with the implied author; the narrator's powers of reasoning sometimes seem mildly suspect. His reliance on rumor diminishes his stature and at times reduces him to the status of a town gossip. The narrator may not be unreliable, but he is blatantly, shamelessly manipulative.

In parts III and IV the reader's position vis à vis the narrator becomes more complex and it becomes necessary to distinguish between the responses of the implied reader and the narrator's reader. The polyphony of narrative voices in the first half of the novel collapses, at times, into cacophony in the second half. From the beginning of part III the narrator more frequently makes his presence known. He excuses himself to his reader for “digressing too far,” but he then digresses further by complaining about the lack of competent civil servants in Russia. The rapid shifts in point of view may begin to irritate the implied reader.

The narrator crams his account of climactic events even more closely together. For example, when the reader might logically expect to hear more about Ippolit on the morning after his bungled suicide attempt, the narrator instead diverts the reader's interest to the relationship between Aglaja and the prince. Aglaja reveals that Nastasja Filippovna has been writing to her. The narrator's reader, in this jumble of climactic disclosures, finds himself forgetting about Ippolit's confession and becoming immersed in the new situation. These narrative “bounces” (to use Forster's phrase) do not offer the reader a respite in the form of comic relief, as they often do in the novels of Dickens, but serve to create an air of unrelieved tension. The implied reader, who unlike the narrator's reader does not simply read along, finds himself in a world where there is no escape from extreme, difficult situations. Perhaps, like Myškin, the implied reader longs for escape, but he must delve further.

Later, the narrator displays a sudden concern with the actual business of narration. He digresses at the beginning of part IV on the question, “what is the novelist to do with absolutely ‘ordinary’ people, and how can he present them to readers so that they are at all interesting?” (383-84; 480.) The digression distances the narrator's reader from the events; it forces him to remember that he is only reading a novel. But the implied reader realizes that the narrator's new obsession with the difficulties of storytelling echoes a dominant thematic concern of the implied author and of Myškin himself: the theme of the inevitable distortion of an important idea.

When the narrator confesses his insufficient explanation of the “ordinary” people of the novel (Varja, Ganja, Pticyn), the reader does not know what to expect next in the face of the narrator's sudden nervousness. The narrator remembers Pirogov in Gogol's Nevskij prospekt:

The great writer was forced … to thrash him [Pirogov] for the sake of satisfying the reader's offended moral feelings, but, seeing that the great man only shook himself off after the ordeal and consumed a small layered pastry to fortify himself, he threw up his hands in amazement and thus left his readers to make of him what they would.

(385; 481.)

That is, the events of the work escaped “the great writer's” control. By citing Gogol''s story, the narrator is preparing the reader for his own abdication of responsibility.14 The implied reader picks up this forewarning, while the narrator's reader merely follows the flow of the humorous literary criticism about Pirogov.

To describe the Epančins' soirée (when Myškin eventually breaks the Chinese vase) the narrator employs his familiar cynical mode for depicting society. But this time, significantly, he does not exempt Myškin from a portrayal through this harsher voice. At the party the awful climaxes follow in close succession: Myškin's outburst which renders ridiculous his ideas, his breaking of the Chinese vase, and, finally, his second epileptic fit. Throughout this scene the reader undergoes contradictory responses. Or, the narrator's reader dismisses Myškin's ideas about Roman Catholicism, Russia, and the mission of the aristocracy as mad ramblings; he waits impatiently for the inevitable smashing of the vase. But the implied reader sees in Myškin's outburst the logical extension to Myškin's stated beliefs; he realizes he is witnessing Myškin's attempt to express an idea directly (to state, in Dostoevskij's words, a sacred conviction). While this attempt is doomed to failure, the reader must at least offer Myškin the same understanding that Myškin himself has extended to other characters who seek, and fail, to express their own ideas. The implied reader finds the key to the narrator's devious multivoicedness here: were the implied author simply to express his own idea directly, it too would fail. The implied author needs a mask; he needs the narrator to shoulder the burden of seemingly direct expression for him.

The narrator suddenly abdicates responsibility for his story as a whole:

Two weeks had passed since the events related in the last chapter, and the situations of the characters of our tale had changed so much that it is extremely difficult for us to continue without specific explanations. And yet we feel we must confine ourselves as much as possible to a simple account of the facts without such explanations, for a very simple reason: because we ourselves in many instances would be hard put to explain what happened. Such a preliminary statement on our part must seem exceedingly strange and obscure to the reader: how can we narrate events about which we have no clear understanding or personal opinion? To avoid putting ourselves in an even falser position, let us rather try to explain our difficulty with an example, and perhaps the kindly disposed reader will then understand what that difficulty is, especially since this example will not be a digression, but, on the contrary, an immediate and direct continuation of our story.

(475-76; 589.)

He says he has no clear understanding or personal opinion about the events of his novel. He admits that his position before the reader has become false and beseeches him to understand his predicament (475-76; 589).15 He promises a direct continuation of the story, but what follows is the reportage of a tangle of rumors. The implied reader begins to distrust the narrator.

The narrator knows no more than the rest of society about events or even about Myškin:

And now, if we were asked for an explanation—not of the nihilistic aspects of the matter, oh no!—but simply of the extent to which the proposed marriage satisfied the prince's real desires, of exactly what those desires were at the moment, of how to define the prince's state of mind at this time, and so on and so forth, we would admittedly be hard put to reply. We know only that the wedding had actually been arranged and that the prince himself had authorized Lebedev. … But beyond these very precise circumstances, a number of other facts are known to us which completely throw us off, because they directly contradict the foregoing ones. We strongly suspect, for example. …

(477; 591.)

He confesses that he would be hard put to characterize the condition of his hero's soul; he no longer even knows Myškin's real wishes.

By disclaiming knowledge of his hero and of the events and facts of the novel, the narrator illustrates his theme about the difficulty of narration, but he also places the reader in a peculiar position. It was easy for the reader to gloss over an occasional comment regarding narrative problems, but here the narrator has abruptly called the whole basis of narration into question. As the narrator's reader reads on, sympathizing with the narrator's predicament amidst the jumble of events, the implied reader begins to question the meaning of the very act of reading. What is he reading if the hitherto basically reliable narrator has disavowed both a personal opinion and a knowledge of the facts? Is he reading a collection of misrepresentations and lies? The implied author has made the narrator echo, through the formal medium of narration, Myškin's tragic inability to express his idea. But the implied reader senses that the narrator's sudden unreliability is a fictional construct, a ploy of the implied author to force his reader to work and to uncover the implied author's intent independently.

Finally, the narrator openly turns away from his hero, sharing in the general indignation at the mess Myškin has made:

In presenting all these facts and refusing to explain them, we do not in the least mean to justify our hero in the eyes of our readers. More than that, we are quite prepared to share the indignation he aroused even in his friends. Even Vera Lebedeva was for a time indignant with him, even Kolja was indignant, even Keller was indignant, until he was chosen as best man, not to speak of Lebedev himself, who actually began to intrigue against the prince, also out of an indignation which was in fact quite genuine. But of all this we shall speak later. In general we are in complete sympathy with some quite forcible and indeed psychologically profound words uttered quite plainly and unceremoniously by Evgenij Pavlovič in friendly conversation with the prince on the sixth or seventh day after the incident at Nastasja Filippovna's.

(479; 593-94.)

(At this point, two weeks have elapsed since the hysterical meeting between Aglaja and Nastasja. Because of the ensuing scandal, the Epančins have left town.) The narrator's posited reader is likewise baffled and annoyed with Myškin; he agrees with Evgenij Pavlovič Radomskij's subsequent criticisms of the prince's behavior.16 Myškin has indeed created a web of unhappiness; he has failed Aglaja; he has been overly impressionable. But the implied reader continues to respond to the implied author's manipulation of him behind the backs of the narrator and his posited reader. This more discerning reader refuses to give in to indignation at Myškin and feels instead the extreme pathos and isolation of Myškin's position. The implied reader has learned to see in a new way independently of the narrator and his reader. The implied author, then, has exploited our partial rejection of the narrator.

Of course, once again, the crucial point is that the real reader of the novel is concurrently both readers—the narrator's reader and the implied reader. He recognizes the simultaneous responses of these two readers within him at this moment of their clear divergence. That is, he simultaneously condemns and forgives Myškin.

Thus, through the mechanism of reading, the reader undergoes an experience parallel to that of the characters. Throughout, Myškin has described modern man's inevitable propensity for double thoughts. The real reader realizes, at this crucial juncture of the novel when the judgment of the hero hangs in the balance, that he too inevitably experiences these double thoughts. The method of narration has brought this notion out of the safe realm of fiction and into the reader himself. (One might add that in the remaining chapters the narrator never regains his former closeness to Myškin, although he does sympathize with him.)17

The narrator's voices in The Idiot shape the reader's response to the novel as much as do the voices of any of the characters. The kaleidoscopic mode of narration forces the reader to separate the narrator's overview of events from the events themselves; he must proceed to meaning in the novel by judiciously accepting some of the narrator's renderings while rejecting others. In all his works Dostoevskij compels his characters to accept responsibility for the consequences of their acts, acts which they have undertaken freely. By the device of his reliable, yet unreliable narrator, he has forced the real reader into a similar situation: when the real reader recognizes the coexistence of the implied reader and the narrator's reader within him, he also acknowledges the presence within himself of a heady mixture of those two Dostoevskian catchwords, responsibility and guilt. Usually the real reader's guilt consisted of no more than the tendency to slip into an easy irony and attitude of condescension, as, for example, in the moments when he shared the responses of Totskij; but at times his participation as a narrator's reader brought him to the brink of judging and condemning a suffering good man. It involved him in the same web as the characters of the novel.

Thus this admittedly cumbersome division of the reader into three unequal selves provides a way of talking about the meaning of the novel. The implied reader—who proudly responds properly to the implied author's manipulations, who learns Myškin's lessons and thus refrains from judging, forgiving instead—cannot shape the real reader's entire vision of the novel. Instead, the real reader pulls back from his collision with the narrative, from his reading, both humbled and inspired. He has recognized the simultaneous existence of good and evil within him and, for a moment, his world and Dostoevskij's “fantastic” world have become one.


  1. Stanley E. Fish, “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics,” New Literary History, 2, no. 1 (1970), 123.

  2. Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), 427, quoted by Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974), 30. Originally published as Der Implizite Leser (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1972). This quotation, however, does not describe Frye's own conception of the reader. Frye, like Iser and Fish, has felt the need to set himself against a critical tradition. But he emphasizes the separation between the processes of criticism and of reading: “However disciplined by taste and skill, the experience of literature is, like literature itself, unable to speak. … The reading of literature should, like prayer in the Gospel, step out of the talking world of criticism into the private and secret presence of literature.” (Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957], 27.)

  3. V. N. Vološinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, tr. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (New York: Seminar Press, 1973), 102.

  4. F. M. Dostoevskij, Pis'ma, ed. A. S. Dolinin (4 vols.; M.: GIXL, 1928-59), I, 86.

  5. F. M. Dostoevskij, Polnoe sobranie xudožestvennyx proizvedenij, ed. B. V. Tomaševskij and K. I. Xalabaev (13 vols.; M.: GIXL, 1926-30), XI, 188.

  6. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), 151.

  7. Mixail Baxtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, tr. R. W. Rotsel (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1973), has offered a comprehensive examination of Dostoevskij's narrative technique. He has explored Dostoevskij's methods for establishing the tensions between the voices of the different characters in his novels. Baxtin has developed the now commonplace notion of Dostoevskij's “polyphonic novel” (with roots in the Socratic Dialogue and the Menippean Satire), where the voices of all the characters have equal, contrapuntal value (89-93, 108-13 et passim). This essay seeks to extend his hypothesis to include the multiple voices of the narrator: the narrative of The Idiot is in different keys that often collide with each other in wrenching counterpoint. The narrator's numerous voices serve to sustain the reader's interest as forcefully as do the characters and the sensational maneuverings of the plot. Baxtin himself has proposed that the author (Dostoevskij) and the hero are engaged in a dialectic: “The new artistic position of the author vis-à-vis the hero in Dostoevsky's polyphonic novel is a consequent and fully realized dialogical position. … For the author the hero is not ‘he’ and not ‘I,’ but a full-fledged ‘thou,’ that is, another full-fledged ‘I’ (‘Thou art’).” (51.) Baxtin, however, does not address himself to the narrator's own polyphony of voices except in his discussion of The Double (174-85), and here the narrator's voice is directly related to that of Goljadkin's double. It is not a separate consciousness with its own inherent contradictions as is the narrator-chronicler of Dostoevskij's later novels.

  8. Numerous critics have proposed schemes for characterizing all the possible points of view or angles of vision from which an author can choose to narrate his work. See, for example, Booth, 149-69; Norman Friedman, Form and Meaning in Fiction (Athens, Ga.: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1975), 134-67; Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), 240-82; René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1956), 212-26. Booth and Friedman have presented the most comprehensive studies of the question of point of view. Friedman offers a succinct description of the importance of point of view to every other aspect of fiction: “… the writer is torn continually between the difficulty of showing what a thing is and the ease of telling what he thinks and how he feels about it. … But literature derives its very life from this conflict—which is basic to all its forms—and the history of its aesthetic could in part be written in terms of this fundamental tension, to which the particular problem of point of view is related as part to whole.” (Friedman, 134.) Friedman goes on to provide a brief historical account of the different solutions to this conflict between showing and telling from Plato to the present. In its simplest terms the debate among novelists and critics has been over goals of objectivity versus subjectivity, of the virtues of omniscient narration (Forster) versus those of narration through a consciousness (Lubbock, James).

  9. In a passage where he mentions Puškin's Belkin and “the narrator-chronicler in Dostoevsky,” Baxtin considers the reasons why and the degree to which the implied author's voice may penetrate the voice of the narrator (or narrator-chronicler). “For the author, not only the narrator's individual and typical manner of thinking, experiencing and speaking is important, but above all his manner of seeing and depicting: therein lies his immediate purpose as narrator, as surrogate for the author. … The author does not show us the narrator's word (as the objectivized word of a hero), but makes use of it from within for his own purposes, causing us to clearly [sic] feel the distance between him and this word which is foreign to him.” (158.) What makes Dostoevskij's narrator-chronicler such a fascinating figure, however, is precisely the fact that we do not always “clearly feel the distance” between him and the author.

  10. This model for being a “reader” of Dostoevskij's novel derives from and shares Booth's belief that a reader must contemplate the moral aspect of any narrator's “point of view,” for point of view is always, to some degree, a matter of moral definition. It is only fair to note, however, that this stance has been criticized, and well, by Norman Friedman. Both Friedman and Booth share the notion that it is largely through point of view that the writer controls the reader's responses and impresses his vision upon the reader. But while Booth emphasizes the moral aspects of point of view and of the writer's vision, Friedman addresses the question of how the author embodies his plot in effective form (142-43). Friedman criticizes Booth for his dislike of moral ambiguity in fiction: “The writer, he says, should not leave the reader rudderless in a sea of moral ambiguities; a deadpan, noncommittal presentation of evil, for example, is both aesthetically and morally vicious. … Booth confuses … art and life rather badly: as a man, I must make up my mind about such matters … but as a writer and reader, I must be constantly experimenting and inquiring. …” (164.) But Friedman's avowedly “relativist,” “pluralist” outlook, despite its usefulness as a critical tool, deprives him of experiencing the shock of moral recognition and understanding which great fiction so often engenders in us.

  11. This mixing of modes is not peculiar to Dostoevskij; it prevails in the works of most great novelists. In disagreeing with Percy Lubbock's emphasis on the point of view in a novel, E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1927], 78-79, finds that for him this question resolves itself into the “power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says—a power which Mr. Lubbock admits and admires, but locates at the edge of the problem instead of at the centre. I should put it at the centre.” His example is Bleak House: “Logically, Bleak House is all to pieces, but Dickens bounces us, so that we do not mind the shiftings of the viewpoint” (79). The lack of a single consistent point of view enriches rather than diminishes the novel: the multiplicity of narrative modes in a work serves to make a novel more real. Dostoevkij takes this method of shifting viewpoint to its extreme limits, so that the reader is often rudely jolted rather than bounced.

  12. F. M. Dostoevskij, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij (30 vols.; L.: INLO, 1972-), VIII, 14. My translations coincide for the most part with Henry and Olga Carlisle, trs., The Idiot (New York: The New American Library, 1969), 36. Hereafter, references to the novel will appear in the text with the English page reference following the Russian.

  13. Totskij's point of view is well summed up by the narrator-chronicler's ironic first description of him: “He was a man of about fifty-five, of exquisite character and extraordinarily fine tastes. He desired to make a good marriage; he was an exceptional connoisseur of beauty.” (33-34; 59.) Yet this man of “exquisite character” and “fine tastes” has been Nastasja's seducer and has entered into a plan to “sell her” to Ganja so that he will be free to marry General Epančin's eldest daughter. After the climactic scene in which Nastasja throws Rogožin's money into the fire and rushes off with him, the “aesthetic” Totskij with a rueful smile remarks to General Epančin, “‘A rough diamond—I've said so a number of times,’ and Afansij Ivanovič sighed deeply.” (149; 196.) To find himself capable of sharing Totskij's smiles and sighs might engender in a reader a moment of self-scrutiny.

  14. One might well wonder where to locate “the implied author” in this passage. After all, the introduction of literary criticism inevitably calls attention to the fact that the narrator himself is merely narrating a story. But it is the narrator, not the implied author, who resorts to the destruction of fictional illusion. The implied author, as always in this novel, continues to conceal himself. The narrator may prepare to abdicate responsibility; the implied author engineers this abdication to serve his own more serious purposes.

  15. Joseph Frank, “A Reading of The Idiot,Southern Review, 5 (1969), 328, discovers a similar pivotal change in the narrator at this point in the novel. He finds here “a significant shift in narrative point of view” which is “closely correlated with the unprecedented predicament arising from Myshkin's remarkable character.” (328.) V. A. Tunimanov, “Rasskazčik v Besax Dostoevskogo,” in Issledovanija po poètike i stilistike, ed. V. V. Vinogradov (L.: INLO, 1972), 107, has also described the narrator's increasing distance from the hero. He notes the growth of uncertainty in the voice of “the author-narrator.” Tunimanov remarks how the narrator sinks into a swamp of improbable rumors and leaves “the reader to discover the true verdict for himself” (107). Although Tunimanov's article is for the most part a study of the narrator in The Possessed, he offers an excellent analysis of the effect on the reader of the narrator's style in The Idiot (106-12).

  16. Tunimanov, 109, finds that Evgenij Pavlovič has reached the highest “wordly” interpretation of the events.

  17. The narrator reports that the prince seemed to look upon his approaching wedding with Nastasja as a formality; “he valued his own fate too cheaply” (490; 607). A sense that the narrator is telling things after the fact prevails. He frequently uses phrases like “these last days” and “people declared afterward.” He gives his portrayal of the wedding day in the form of what he has distilled from the accounts of other people—as though he himself had not been present: “The whole following anecdote about this wedding has been told by people who were present, and, it seems, it's correct” (491; 609). The last chapter before the conclusion is a narrative tour de force in its own right; it is a tersely dramatic rendition of the final meeting between Rogožin and Myškin and an account of their vigil beside Nastasja Filippovna's corpse. Here the narrator returns briefly to his sympathetic and straightforward voice for portraying his hero. He presents this final scene in his role of omniscient narrator-observer. Only at the very end does he interject his own voice to draw the reader out of the action and into the more manageable realms of a “concluding chapter.” He remarks that if Schneider himself had come from Switzerland he would certainly find his former patient to be “an idiot!” Finally, in the conclusion, the narrator carefully distances both himself and the reader from the novel. All the characters diminish in stature. Evgenij Pavlovič and Vera Lebedeva have entered upon a romance. They and Lizaveta Prokof'evna resemble the exhausted, unremarkable, but good men left to carry on at the end of Shakespeare's tragedies.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 432


Arbery, Glenn. “The Violated Ikon: Dostoevsky and the Riddle of Beauty.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 36, no. 4 (summer 1984): 182-202.

Explores how Dostoevsky handled the concept of beauty in his writings, including The Idiot.

Comer, William J. “Rogozhin and the ‘Castrates’: Russian Religious Traditions in Dostoevsky's The Idiot.The Slavic and East European Journal 40, no. 1 (spring 1996): 85-99.

Examines how Dostoevsky's interest in non-orthodox Russian religious movements influenced the development of The Idiot.

Kimmey, John. “James and Dostoevsky: The Heiress and the Idiot.” The Henry James Review 13, no. 1 (winter 1992): 67-77.

Compares the attributes of the main characters of Dostoevsky's The Idiot and James's The Wings of the Dove.

Kovacs, Arpad. “The Poetics of The Idiot: On the Problem of Dostoevsky's Thinking about Genre (1978).” In Critical Essays on Dostoevsky, edited by Robin Feuer Miller, pp. 116-25. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986.

Discusses how Dostoevsky employs theme, structure, and characterization in The Idiot to teach the reader about the “ideal” life.

MacPike, Loralee. “Dickens and Dostoyevsky: The Technique of Reverse Influence.” In The Changing World of Dickens, edited by Robert Giddings, pp. 196-215. Old Woking, Surrey: Vision and Barnes & Noble, 1983.

Surveys Charles Dickens's influence on Dostoevsky's works.

Mairs, Tanya E. “Rousseau and Dostoevsky: The Hidden Polemic.” Ulbandus Review: A Journal of Slavic Languages and Literatures 2, no. 1 (fall 1979): 146-59.

Analyzes parallels between Prince Myshkin in The Idiot and the figure of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Malenko, Zinaida and James J. Gebhard. “The Artistic Use of Portraits in Dostoevskij's Idiot.The Slavic and East European Journal, n.s., 5, no. 19 (1961): 243-54.

Demonstrates how Dostoevsky used pictorial images in The Idiot to add thematic depth to the work.

Meerson, Olga. “Ivolgin and Holbein: Non-Christ Risen vs. Christ Non-Risen.” The Slavic and East European Journal 39, no. 2 (summer 1995): 200-13.

Examines the role of General Ivolgin and his Christian influence—or lack thereof—in The Idiot.

Tyrras, Nicholas. “Whence Came the Innocent Perfection of Prince Myshkin?” The Slavic and East European Journal 33, no. 4 (winter 1989): 530-38.

Evaluates the influence of an earlier sketch entitled “The Emperor” on the development of Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

Vladiv, Slobodanka M. “Religious Imagery in Dostoevsky's Works.” Australian Slavonic and East European Studies 2, no. 2 (1988): 95-110.

Discusses Dostoevsky's use of religious images and inclusion of religious topics in his works.

Additional coverage of Dostoevsky's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 238; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Novels for Students Vols. 3, 8; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 2, 33, 44; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 8; and World Literature Criticism.

James B. Woodward (essay date 1980)

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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 Dostoevskij's conception. Arguing that “the novel consists of three quite separate and ill-fitting sections” and that “there are three distinct Myshkins, a different one in each section”,2 he essentially reiterates the views of Robert Hollander,3 Edward Wasiolek4 and numerous other critics who have also noted comparable inconsistencies in the portraits of Lebedev, Ganja and Radomskij. But although it would probably be acknowledged by most readers that in the transition from Part I to Part II the personalities of Myškin and Lebedev do undergo significant changes and that at the end of the novel Radomskij commands appreciably greater respect than on his first appearances, the argument that such inconsistencies are indicative of flaws in the novel is not so easily acceptable. For while inconsistency may well appear to be incompatible with the notion of a coherent over-all design, it can equally be argued, as A. P. Skaftymov demonstrated more than fifty years ago,5 that at least the major inconsistencies identified by criticism—those perceived in the portrait of Myškin—were an integral part of Dostoevskij's conception, and reinforcement of this claim is the purpose of this article. On the basis of a re-examination of certain aspects of the Prince's portrait it is hoped to show that the inconsistencies of his character and conduct reflect a deliberately contrived method of characterisation.

Standing in the sequence of the four major novels between Crime and Punishment and The Devils, The Idiot clearly displays important features of both. As F. F. Seeley has observed, it revolves, like the former, around a single hero, who is cloaked in the same obscurity as the hero of the latter.6 But despite this obscurity, there would now appear to be little sympathy for the view that the duality of Myškin's character is “only apparent”7 and that he is a failure only in the sense in which Christ was a failure.8 Most readers would now regard him as substantially different from the “positively beautiful person” described in Dostoevskij's oft-quoted letter to his niece9 and point to such obvious indicators of imperfection as his epilepsy, his impotence, his naivety, his bizarre attire, and his lack of such virtues as grace and restraint.

The precise nature of this imperfection, however, has received differing interpretations, which are basically of two main types. On the one hand, there are those critics who take the traditional view that Myškin, unlike Raskol´nikov, is an essentially passive and well-intentioned figure and attribute his failure solely to such defects as those indicated by Radomskij in his concluding judgement: an “excess of compassion over love”,10 a “deficient sense of reality”,11 and a humility that imposes on others “a greater moral burden than in their human weakness they can carry”.12 On the other hand, there is the much sterner verdict pronounced by the small minority of commentators who ascribe a fundamental duality to the Prince's character and allege that the gulf that separates him from the Stavrogin-like Idiot of the early plans of the novel is by no means so wide as appearances would suggest. For the most extreme formulation of this view we must again turn to Lord, who detects “cunning and ambiguity” behind the Prince's “charm and otherworldliness” and argues vigorously that he retains, especially in Part I, “many of the sinister characteristics evident in the rough drafts”.13

The most appropriate point from which to begin an assessment of these judgements is clearly the Prince's relationship with Rogožin, which is the principal source of information in the novel about the complexity of his personality. The usual view, of course, is that it is a relationship based on contrast, and it is commonly held that Rogožin is the Prince's “double”, the incarnation of the “human” attributes that Myškin lacks. Thus George Steiner refers to him unequivocally as “Myshkin's original sin” and perceives “the strident bitterness of suicide” in his attempt to murder the Prince.14 Notably different from this view is the interpretation offered by Richard Peace. Objecting that the word strast´ (“passion”), which is coupled with Rogožin's name in the Notebooks15 and qualified by the epithet bol´naja (“sick”) in a reference to him by Myškin in the final version of the novel,16 signifies fanaticism rather than physical passion,17 he draws attention to the clear evidence of Rogožin's association with the religious sect of the Castrates and accordingly regards him as embodying “the dark side of the Russian religious mind“, tainted by fanaticism and heresy, as opposed to the “positive aspect” symbolised by Myškin.18 This reinterpretation is convincingly argued, and it offers a plausible explanation of the Prince's failure: the aspect of the Russian religious temperament that he symbolises is subverted by the contrasting aspect symbolised by Rogožin. But how, we may ask, are the Prince's inconsistencies or deficiencies to be accounted for in terms of this interpretation? The question receives no clear answer. In both interpretations, in fact, the contrast between the two characters is treated, like that which exists between Raskol´nikov's conflicting selves as symbolised by Svidrigajlov and Sonja, as basically a contrast between black and white with the result that in neither case is the complexity of the relationship and of the Prince's portrait fully conveyed. Placing the major emphasis on the contrast, both interpretations obscure the equally significant parallel that Dostoevskij combines with it. They obscure, in short, the “overlap” of personalities with which the contrast coexists and thus conceal the crucial factor to which the Prince's deficiencies and the inconsistencies in his conduct may ultimately be related.

Significantly this procedure of combining parallel and contrast is introduced to the reader at the very beginning of the novel—in the physical portraits of the two characters on the first two pages. Naturally enough, the contrasting features are the more striking. Rogožin is short and dark; he has small, grey, fiery eyes and a face with high cheek-bones; and his lips are “continually curved in an insolent, mocking and even malicious smile” (p. 5). The Prince, in contrast, is “a little taller than average” and “very fair” and has “large, blue, dreamy eyes”, “sunken cheeks” and a thin face that is also pleasant. Their clothing too is sharply contrasted. But it is quite wrong to argue that “the entire scene is constructed on the contrast between the characters”.19 Even before the contrast is developed the narrator is at pains to stress their similarity. He describes the two travellers as “both young men, both travelling with little luggage, both not very well dressed, both with rather striking faces, and both desirous of entering into conversation with one another”. The inelegant, but literal, translation reflects the conspicuous anaphoric repetition of the pronoun oba (‘both’) and thus the strong emphasis on identity conveyed by the Russian, and even with the transition to the contrasting elements in the more detailed portraits the conflicting parallel is by no means submerged. Thus the Prince's “sunken cheeks” and “colourless features” seem to be mirrored in Rogožin's “emaciated look” and “deathly pallor”; they are not only “both young men”, but even, it seems, the same age—“about twenty-seven” (Rogožin), “twenty-six or twenty-seven years of age” (Myškin); they are also both fatherless, the death of Rogožin's father being reported (p. 9) two pages after the reference to the death of Myškin's substitute father Pavliščev; they are both returning to St. Petersburg after periods of illness (a little over four years in the case of Myškin, four weeks in the case of Rogožin); and Myškin has spent five years in one source of heresy (the West), while Rogožin has spent five weeks in another (Pskov, a centre for the Old Believers20). With each successive disclosure, therefore, the parallel, no less than the contrast, between the two strangers is notably reinforced.

This curious combination of contrasting and parallel features establishes at the outset a pattern in the representation of the relationship that is sustained throughout the novel. Again, of course, it is the contrast that consistently makes the dominant impression. From beginning to end the “fanatical” Rogožin and “humble” Prince appear to confront one another as opposites. Yet fanaticism or “passion” (strast´), as Peace has observed,21 is also a feature of Myškin's personality, as indicated by his performance at the engagement party in Part IV, and in his case too it is associated not only with illness (his epilepsy) but also with heresy, for just as the “passionate” Idiot of the early drafts of the novel22 was linked with the sect of Jumpers (Prygunčiki),23 so the Prince of the final version is linked by his “passionately” expounded religious teaching with the Old Believers and, more specifically, the sect of Flagellants (pp. 452-3). And it is perhaps in this connection that we should note the “chastity” or “virginity” of Rogožin hinted by the Greek source of his Christian name Parfen, for it reminds us not only of his association with the Castrates but also of the Prince's impotence, suggesting the possibility that the latter affliction may similarly allude to heretical inclinations.24

But however that may be, there can be little doubt about the allusive force of Rogožin's surname. The allusion, it is now generally held, is to his connection with the Moscow sect of Old Believers known as the Rogožniki or Rogožskoe soglasie.25 Hence the significance of his elopement to Moscow with Nastas´ja Filippovna and his subsequent three-month sojourn there. Moreover, his connection with the city is reflected equally in his personality and family background, for, as M. S. Al'tman has written, “the entire cast and mould (I would even say ‘structure’) of his character reveal him to be a Muscovite, a typical representative of the patriarchal merchant class of Moscow, not St. Petersburg. Only the necessity of linking Rogožin with the other, specifically Petersburg, characters of the novel compelled Dostoevskij to transplant the ‘Muscovite murderer’ to Petersburg.”26 Even the immense wealth of Rogožin's family has some relevance to this point, for just as the Castrates were noted for their ability to accumulate wealth, so they, like the other sects of Old Believers, were far more closely associated with Moscow than with St. Petersburg. In the light of these details, therefore, Myškin's connections with Moscow acquire an obvious importance. Not only does he spend six months there at the beginning of Part II, presumably encountering during his stay, in addition to Rogožin, the Old Believers who inspire him with the heretical notion of a Russian Christ, but he too is linked with the city by his family background. His maternal grandfather, we are told, was “a Moscow merchant of the third guild” (p. 139), and from the latter's deceased and “very rich” brother the Prince receives the legacy that reinforces still further the similarity of his position to that of the “Muscovite murderer”. Thus Moscow, wealth, the merchant class, the sects and legacies are all additional links that Dostoevskij forges between his two ostensibly contrasting heroes.

The crucial point, however, is that the “overlap” in their physical portraits, backgrounds and circumstances provides the basis for an “overlap” of personality that is by no means limited to their common susceptibility to “passion”. It extends much further, producing the most striking of the discordant or inconsistent notes in the Prince's portrait which the reader finds so disconcerting. Thus there are clear indications, for example, that the emotion of jealousy, which, together with greed or the desire to possess, is the main driving force behind Rogožin's actions, is as well known to the Myškin of the final version as to the Idiot of the third preliminary plan, who was described in the Notebooks as “an Iago”.27 Appearances suggest, of course, that in seeking to interpose himself between Rogožin and Nastas´ja Filippovna the Prince is merely intent on protecting her from the fate that he foresees, and indeed this is perhaps the only purpose of which he is consciously aware. But if ends may be judged by the means adopted to accomplish them, his actions can only be regarded as evidence of less noble motivation. Even in Part I his conduct arouses suspicions, for in announcing in the famous concluding scene the possibility that he may benefit from his great-uncle's will (p. 139), he is essentially competing with Rogožin in the objectionable “auction” for Nastas´ja's person. Hence Rogožin's dismay at his sudden disclosure. “Rogožin”, we read, “looked on in bewilderment, and in terrible anxiety switched his gaze now to the Prince, now to Pticyn” (p. 139). But it is in Part II, in which we receive our first substantial insights into the subconscious workings of the Prince's mind, that the discords become resonant and unmistakable. His obsession in chapter 5 with the lingering memory of the knife that had caught his eye in a shop-window after his return to St. Petersburg the day before admits of only one interpretation, particularly when viewed in the light of his similar obsession in chapter 3 with the identical knife in Rogožin's house (p. 180). In conjunction with his impatience to ascertain whether Rogožin is keeping watch outside Nastas´ja's apartment, the two episodes suggest a readiness to kill that is plainly more indicative of jealousy than of even the most hypertrophied protective instinct. The conclusion can only be that Rogožin's attempt on the Prince's life is preceded by the latter's thought of a pre-emptive strike. Here for the first time the Prince is obliquely endowed with the capacity for violence that is later discerned by Ippolit, who becomes convinced that, like Rogožin in his dreams, the Prince would like to suffocate him with a wet towel (p. 465). In the eyes of Ippolit the Prince is momentarily indistinguishable from the menacing, destructive image of his contrasting “brother”, and we are reminded by this fusion of the paradox expressed by the Prince's name—of the coexistence of humility and destructive power conveyed by the combination of the surname (derived from myš´ ‘mouse’) with the Christian name Lev (‘lion’). And even the surname by itself may conceivably have been intended to express the same paradox, for it was possibly derived not only from myš´, but also, as Močul´skij has suggested, from the “Myškin district” of Jaroslav province—the home of the peasant Balabanov whose widely reported murder of the artisan Suslov by slitting his throat provided Dostoevskij with the subject of the second of the three stories that the Prince relates to Rogožin in Part II, chapter 4 (p. 183).28

Recalling, therefore, the climactic events of the early chapters of Part II, we are not unduly surprised when Kolja, referring to the Prince's attitude to Ganja's relationship with Aglaja, remarks to him much later: “You are not a sceptic, but a victim of jealousy!” (p. 261). His collision with Rogožin in chapter 5 of Part II results not from the contrast between them, but from their common capacity for jealousy and violence, and the Prince's dawning consciousness of this fact must undoubtedly be considered the major cause of the crisis of personality that culminates in his epileptic attack. The raised knife of Rogožin on the staircase is a reminder of the knife that he himself had wished to raise, forcing from his lips the anguished cry: “Parfen, I do not believe it!” (p. 195)—a cry of disbelief directed, in effect, against the evidence that confronts him of the fatal “overlap”. The contrast between the two phases of the fit is often taken to allude to the flaw in the Prince's teaching, but it may equally be seen to symbolise the conflicting impulses that dictate his actions. Striking in the description of the second phase is the recurrence of the image of darkness, which is inseparably associated with the figure of Rogožin throughout the novel. The “total darkness” that now envelops the Prince's mind is the unmistakable identification mark of the “someone else” who dwells within him. “A terrible, unimaginable scream”, we read, “that is unlike anything else breaks forth from the victim's breast. Everything human seems to disappear in that scream, and it is impossible, or at any rate very difficult, for an observer to imagine or admit that it is this same man screaming. It even seems as if someone else is screaming from within this man” (p. 195). Overwhelming the Prince at the moment of maximum tension between himself and Rogožin, the fit is the culminating expression of the “overlap” between their conflicting personalities, identifying with Rogožin the “strange and terrible demon” that the Prince senses in the depths of his own being while recalling the knife in the shop-window (p. 193). And it is precisely his recognition of this “demon” within him that ultimately explains, as Simon Lesser has noted, his inability to condemn Rogožin after his murder of Nastas´ja Filippovna.29 The consciousness of his own guilt removes the right to judge, and in the darkness of the last night the two heroes sink together into the state of idiocy in which they are finally joined.

To the end, therefore, parallel and contrast are both sustained, explaining Myškin's lament to Keller towards the end of Part II about the “dual thoughts” that continually plague him (p. 258). But at this point we may appropriately refer to one of his later conversations with Ippolit—to his similar lament in chapter 5 of Part IV about the difference between past and present generations. “In those days”, he remarks in reference to the past, “people were somehow men of one idea, but now they are more nervous, more developed, more sensitive. They are somehow men of two or three ideas at once. […] Present-day man is broader and, I swear to you, it is this that prevents him from being so all-of-a-piece as people were in those days […]” (p. 433). Anticipating the comments of Dmitrij Karamazov on the breadth of human nature, this statement too is clearly a definition of Myškin's own predicament that likewise complements the description of the epileptic fit. But it may also perhaps be read as offering oblique confirmation of conclusions on the composition of the Prince's portrait that are prompted by his relationships with the other major characters in the novel. Indicating a still more complex psychological condition than that which has concerned us thus far, the reference to “three ideas” suggests that the “overlap” with the personality of Rogožin is not an exhaustive explanation of the Prince's “inconsistencies”. It reminds us that Rogožin is only one of the three characters with whose lives the Prince's fate is indissolubly connected and that almost from the beginning the relationships between the four of them formed the basis of Dostoevskij's conception.30 The statement prompts us, in other words, to look beyond the Prince's relationship with Rogožin for evidence of similar “overlaps” with the personalities of Nastas´ja and Aglaja. The personalities of the two major female characters in the novel, it suggests, should likewise be regarded not only as centres of dramatic interest in their own right, but also as additional keys to the mystery posed by the central hero.

To interpret the statement in this way is to illuminate at once the significance of the numerous common details in the biographies of the Prince and Nastas´ja that have been noted by Michael Holquist,31 for they indicate an exact repetition of the procedure employed in the representation of the Myškin-Rogožin relationship. Again the coexistence of parallel and contrast on the psychological level is underpinned by parallel and contrasting biographical experience. The indicators of the parallel are rapidly accumulated in the opening chapters of the novel: the title “Princess” that Nastas´ja is accorded when first mentioned to the Prince by Lebedev and Rogožin (p. 11);32 the loss of her father in early childhood; her acquisition of a substitute father (in the figure of Tockij); the wholly rural environment of her childhood, which recalls the narrator's comment that Myškin “grew up in the country and spent his whole life there” (p. 24); the German steward and Swiss governess responsible for her early education; the four-year period spent on the remote, idyllic estate of Otradnoe; and the female landowner in whose charge she was placed there.33 Moreover, Nastas´ja too, of course, is the victim of an illness, though both its nature (her self-destructive demand for vengeance) and its cause (the perversity of the substitute father) point up the contrast as much as the parallel. And even in her physical portrait, as in that of Rogožin, the “overlap” is apparent—in the thinness and pallor of her face with its sunken cheeks and its striking expression of childlike ingenuousness (pp. 27, 68).

Once more, therefore, the echoes of Myškin's biography and portrait are plainly too numerous to be passed off as mere coincidence. Again the self-evident element of contrast in the relationship coexists with a parallel produced by such an uncanny succession of coincidences that once more the notion of partial identity is clearly suggested, and it is surely in the light of this contrived “overlap” of identities that we should regard the curious sense of mutual recognition that Myškin and Nastas´ja experience at their first meeting (p. 89). Here there is surely little need to follow Močul´skij's example and ascribe a mythical substructure to the novel in order to explain this shared experience.34 Resulting directly and logically from the “overlap”, it denotes an instinctive awareness on the part of them both that each is, in part, a reflection of the other. Each confronts the other with an image of beauty that is fatally flawed and accordingly reacts with anguish and pain. Hence Myškin's statement that Nastas´ja's beauty is “even unbearable” (p. 68). “I cannot bear Nastas´ja Filippovna's face”, he says to Radomskij (p. 484), and in conversation with Aglaja he remarks: “If only you knew the horror with which I recall the time that I spent with her” (p. 361). The eyes of Nastas´ja haunt him as persistently as the eyes of Rogožin. “He feared Nastas´ja Filippovna herself”, the narrator informs us. “He recalled several days later that almost the whole time during those feverish hours her eyes appeared before him …” (p. 467). Of course, he pities her and longs to save her from the fate that he foresees, but he is terrified by the reflection that he sees in her of his own imperfection, for the Idiot himself bears the scars of humiliation, and he too is a victim of pride. “Perhaps you imagine”, Aglaja says to him, “that you are a field-marshall and that you have defeated Napoleon”. “I honestly do think of that”, he replies, “especially when I'm falling asleep. Only it's always the Austrians that I defeat, not Napoleon” (p. 354). Thus in his dreams Myškin sees himself not as the conqueror of Napoleon, but as Napoleon himself, the victor at Marengo and idol of Raskol´nikov. The destructive pride of Nastas´ja, like the destructive passion of Rogožin, is an inalienable element of the Prince's personality, rising in dreams from its hidden depths and evoking once more the image of the Idiot that Dostoevskij first conceived.35

Pride is also, of course, the dominant psychological trait of Aglaja, and her beauty too arouses feelings of fear in the Prince.36 Certainly his relationship with Aglaja is not underpinned by the same kind of biographical and physical links that connect him with Nastas´ja and Rogožin, but the basis for an equally close relationship is provided by their ties of blood, which receive conspicuous emphasis in Part I in the references to her mother. Thus on three distinct occasions in the first eighteen pages of the novel (pp. 8-9, 15, 18) the parallel is stressed between the positions of the Prince and Lizaveta Prokof´evna as the last Prince and Princess Myškin. Even more striking is the similar emphasis in chapters 6 and 7 of Part I on their psychological kinship. On hearing herself described by Myškin as “a perfect child in everything, everything, in good and bad alike”, Lizaveta Prokof´evna replies to him: “I believe that your character is just like mine, and I'm glad of it; we're like two drops of water” (p. 65). The full significance of this remark becomes clear only in the light of her comment to Myškin about Aglaja more than two-hundred pages later (in chapter 1 of Part III): “She is exactly like me, the very picture of me in every respect” (p. 273). The remark seems to confirm that the role of Lizaveta Prokof´evna in Part I is almost that of a substitute for her youngest daughter. The emphasis, in other words, on Myškin's blood relationship and psychological affinities with Lizaveta Prokof´evna may be seen in retrospect as characterising his relationship and affinities with Aglaja. And perhaps even the name Epančin, which is presumably derived from the noun epanča (defined by Dal' as širokij bezrukavyj plašč ‘a wide, sleeveless cloak’)37 is meant to reinforce the connection between them, for the outstanding feature of Myškin's attire when he first presents himself to the reader is precisely a epanča—“a rather wide and thick cloak without sleeves” (dovol´no širokij i tolstyj plašč bez rukavov) (p. 6).

The princely rank and childlike qualities of Lizaveta Prokof'evna, however, are by no means the only allusions to Aglaja's affinities with the Prince.38 Equally revealing is the narrator's very first comment on “the last Princess Myškin” in the opening sentence of Part One, chapter 5: “The general's wife was jealous of the dignity of her family” (p. 44)—a feature of her personality which by this time has already been brought to the reader's attention by the Prince's conversation with the Epančins' servant in chapter 2, in which he remarks: “I have heard on good authority that she attaches great value to her family (porodu svoju)” (p. 18). The duplication, we may infer, is not coincidental, for the importance of these statements soon becomes apparent. Indirectly they define the nature of Aglaja's pride, differentiating it at once from the pride of Nastas´ja. They explain not only her fastidious pride in her “purity” (čistota) which determines her contempt for Nastas´ja in the scene of their confrontation, but also the indignation with which she asks Myškin: “Why have you no pride?” (p. 283). But here, of course, she seriously misjudges the Prince, for her distinctive brand of aristocratic pride is just as well known to him as the morbid, offended pride of Nastas´ja, as he eloquently confirms in his “passionate” monologues at the engagement party in Part IV. There he exclaims to his audience: “When I returned here to Petersburg, I promised myself that I would see without fail the best people, people belonging to the oldest families, of ancient lineage, to whom I belong myself and among whom I am in the front rank by birth. I am sitting with princes, like myself, am I not?” (p. 456). And once more it is significant that an aspect of the Prince's personality that conflicts with his customary image is exposed to scrutiny on the very verge of an epileptic attack, for only three pages later Aglaja hears with horror the same “wild scream” which marks the culmination of his struggle in Part II with the instincts that relate him to Rogožin. Once more the Prince's personality seems to crumble under the impact of attitudes and emotions that are primarily associated with another character—a character to whom, as to Rogožin, he considers himself related as “a brother”.39

Like the Prince's relationships, therefore, with Rogožin and Nastas´ja, his relationship with Aglaja seems to be developed on the basis of a psychological “overlap” which Dostoevskij motivates by reference to non-psychological connections. There are occasions, it is true, when “in some strange and scarcely discernible manner”, as Lord has remarked, they “are like the complementary halves of some composite personality”,40 but at other times the two “halves” become psychologically indistinguishable, and we then obtain a glimpse of the “Aglaja element” that coexists with the “Rogožin” and “Nastas´ja elements” in the depths of the Prince's complex personality. Directly relevant, we might conclude, to his relationships with all three characters are the comments that he makes on appearance and reality in conversation with General Epančin in Part I, chapter 3: “It seems to me that we appear to be such different people … through many circumstances, that we cannot have many points in common. But I don't believe in that idea myself, for it often only seems that there are no points in common, whereas in reality they emphatically exist […]” (p. 24).

These words seem to allude directly to the procedure to which this article has been devoted—to the procedure of “overlapping portraits” which lies, it is suggested, at the basis of the portrait of the novel's central figure. Each of the other three major characters in the novel, it is argued, is not so much a contrasting “double” of the Prince as a projection of a subconscious aspect of his personality which is at variance with the image that he normally or consciously presents, and it is precisely the tension between the conscious image and the subconscious impulses objectivised in Rogožin, Nastas´ja and Aglaja that chiefly explains the perplexing inconsistencies of his sphinx like41 character and conduct. Such is the conclusion that is prompted by the recurrent combination in all three relationships of striking contrast and equally striking parallel. Certainly the complete substantiation of this argument would require a much more detailed study than is possible here. It should obviously include, for example, a study of the relationships with one another of the three characters whose portraits have been considered only in relation to that of the Prince, for if it is true that they are basically projections of aspects of a single personality, we would expect the differences between them similarly to coexist with significant common features, and indeed such features are immediately detectable on both the psychological and non-psychological levels. Moreover, the illness that links Ippolit with Myškin and the offended pride that links him with Nastas´ja are merely two of the many clear indications in the novel that the procedure of “overlapping” extends much further than the three major relationships, lending credence perhaps to Lord's contention that all the other characters “are, in a certain sense, Myškin's own projections”.42 But the three relationships that have been examined are not only the principal keys to the mystery of the Prince's personality; they are also the major determinants of the novel's structure, for while the main events of Part I are the Prince's meetings with Rogožin, Aglaja and Nastas´ja in turn, the most important sections of Parts II, III and IV are respectively devoted to his relationships with each of them in the same sequence—with Rogožin in Part II, Aglaja in Part III and Nastas´ja in Part IV. To a significant degree, in short, the novel is constructed on the basis of the Prince's dialogues with the inconsistencies of his own personality as externalised in the figures of the other three members of the central quartet. And as the end approaches, we observe, in the words of Albert Guerard, “a conspicuous narrowing of the lens”43—a process that culminates in Part IV in the scene of the meeting between Nastas´ja and Aglaja, which opens with Rogožin's remark: “In the whole house there is no one now apart from the four of us” (p. 468). The four separate paths thus finally converge to form the single path that leads to destruction—to Nastas´ja's death, Rogožin's madness, the Prince's idiocy and Aglaja's flight.


  1. R. Lord, Dostoevsky: Essays and Perspectives, London 1970, p. 101.

  2. Ibid., p. 86.

  3. R. Hollander, “The Apocalyptic Framework of Dostoevsky's The Idiot”, Mosaic 7, no. 2, 1974, p. 126.

  4. E. Wasiolek (ed.), The Notebooks forThe Idiot”, Chicago & London 1967, pp. 4, 8-9.

  5. A. P. Skaftymov, “Tematičeskaja kompozicija romana ‘Idiot’”, N. L. Brodskij (ed.), Tvorčeskij put´ Dostoevskogo, Leningrad 1924, pp. 131-85.

  6. F. F. Seeley, “Aglaja Epančina”, Slavic and East European Journal 18, 1974, p. 1.

  7. D. D. Oblomievskij, “Knjaz' Myškin”, Dostoevskij: Materialy i issledovanija 2, Leningrad 1976, p. 287.

  8. Cf. E. Wasiolek, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction, Cambridge, Mass. 1964, p. 109.

  9. Cf. F. M. Dostoevskij, Pis'ma 2, edited and with commentary by A. S. Dolinin, Moskva & Leningrad 1928, p. 71.

  10. G. Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in Contrast, London 1959, p. 171.

  11. S. O. Lesser, “Saint and Sinner—Dostoevsky's ‘Idiot’”, Modern Fiction Studies 4, no. 3, 1958, p. 211.

  12. M. Krieger, “Dostoevsky's ‘Idiot’: The Curse of Saintliness”, in R. Wellek (ed.), Dostoevsky: A Collection of Critical Essays, New Jersey 1962, p. 48.

  13. Lord, pp. 81, 86.

  14. Steiner, p. 152.

  15. Cf. F. M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij 9, Leningrad 1974, p. 220. This edition of Dostoevskij's works is referred to hereafter as PSS.

  16. Cf. Myškin's remark to Ganja about Rogožin: “It seemed to me that there is a great deal of passion in him and even a kind of sick passion” (PSS 8, p. 28). All references to the final version of the novel are to this edition and are hereafter included in the text.

  17. R. Peace, Dostoevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels, Cambridge 1971, p. 85.

  18. Ibid., p. 94.

  19. E. I. Čigareva, “Rol´ romaničeskoj intrigi v romane F. M. Dostoevskogo ‘Idiot’”, Sbornik naučnych studenčeskich rabot. Po materialam naučnoj studenčeskoj konferencii, posvjaščennoj 250-letiju so dnja roždenija M. V. Lomonosova, mart 1961 g., Moskva 1962, p. 260.

  20. Cf. L. Grossman, Dostoevskij, Moskva 1962, p. 425.

  21. Peace, pp. 92-3.

  22. Cf., for example, the comment: “The Idiot, always cold-blooded, suddenly frightens the heroine with the force of his passion (strasti)” (PSS 9, p. 161).

  23. Cf. ibid., pp. 157, 192.

  24. A clear indication of Myškin's sensitivity to the Old Believers is his ability to recognise one instinctively in the portrait of Rogožin's father (p. 173).

  25. Cf. Peace, p. 86, and M. S. Al´tman, Dostoevskij: Po vecham imen, Saratov 1975, p. 72.

  26. Altman, p. 72.

  27. PSS 9, p. 161.

  28. Cf. K. Močul´skij, Dostoevskij: Žizn´ i tvorčestvo, Paris 1947, p. 280.

  29. Cf. Lesser, p. 217.

  30. Cf. Močul´skij, p. 281.

  31. M. Holquist, Dostoevsky and the Novel, Princeton 1977, pp. 114-15.

  32. Although Nastas´ja's father is described as “a retired officer of good noble family” (p. 35), her actual entitlement to the title is left somewhat vague.

  33. Cf. the two female landowners, relations of Pavliščev, with whom Myškin spends the period preceding his departure for Switzerland (p. 25).

  34. Cf. Močul´skij, pp. 308-9.

  35. In the first plan of the novel the Idiot was endowed not only with “powerful passions”, but also with a “boundless pride”. “It is from pride”, we read, “that he wishes to control and conquer himself” (PSS 9, p. 141).

  36. “You are so beautiful,” he remarks to her, “that one is afraid to look at you” (p. 66).

  37. V. Dal', Tolkovyj slovar ´živogo velikorusskogo jazyka 1, Moskva 1956, p. 520.

  38. The narrator, we note, is intent from the beginning on indicating the noble rank of General Epančin's daughters. “It is true,” he remarks in Part I, chapter 1, “that they were only Epančins, but on their mother's side they were of princely rank …” (p. 15).

  39. Cf. the signature “Your brother, Prince L. Myškin” beneath his letter to Aglaja in Part II, chapter 1 (p. 157).

  40. Lord, p. 89.

  41. Cf. the author's comment in the Notebooks: “Present the Prince as a sphinx” (PSS 9, p. 248).

  42. Lord, p. 95.

  43. A. J. Guerard, “On the Composition of Dostoevsky's The Idiot”, Mosaic 8, no. 1, 1974-75, p. 205.

Diana L. Burgin (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8711

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


The Idiot's statement on love, human and divine, hinges on the true perception of its hero, Prince Myškin, as a lover in every sense of the word. Yet, ironically, no aspect of Myškin's “problematic” character has created more critical controversy than the apparently ambiguous nature of his loving. While few readers and critics have doubted the Prince's unbounded (and therefore possibly suspect) capacity to love compassionately, like a true Christian, many have believed, and sought to prove him incapable of “normal” (sexual) love. Such readers conclude that he is an implausible, if not impossible lover. Others have suggested that Myškin is completely asexual, not fully-realized as a “human” character, at best a lover only in the symbolic sense, at worst an artistic failure.

Critical doubts about the Prince's manhood appear to go back to Vjačeslav Ivanov, who interpreted Myškin symbolically as “a spirit that assumes flesh [rather] than a man who rises to the spiritual,” and argued that the Prince's loving leads to suffering which “arises from the incompleteness of his incarnation.”1 Pursuing Ivanov's line of argument, Berdjaev went further and concluded that the Prince “has not got the sensibility of a healthy man; … his love is without flesh and blood, … and he loves Nastasja Filippovna with an excessive compassion that is itself destructive.”2 More recently, in her thought-provoking Freudian study of The Idiot, Elisabeth Dalton concurs with the implications of much earlier criticism in stating that “the Prince is asexual, … evidently impotent, … and even apparently without sexual feelings.”3 Rene Girard seems to summarize the majority opinion on Myškin when he concludes:

Prince Myškin is not without desires but his dreams pass far over the heads of the other characters in The Idiot. … The ‘normal’ young people are unable to decide between two conflicting opinions of him—they wonder whether he is an idiot or a consummate tactitian. … The author himself seems to have doubts. Myškin is not truly incarnate. The character remains problematic.4

A different interpretation of Myškin has been offered by Joseph Frank, who considers the Prince a well-rounded, completely “human” character and demonstrates convincingly that his love for Aglaja (if not for Nastasja Filippovna) shows him capable of normal sexual feelings for a woman: “He is … a man, not a supernatural being—a man who has himself fallen in love with a woman [Aglaja] as a creature of flesh and blood.”5 Frank believes that in The Idiot Dostoevskij juxtaposes Myškin's “two loves”: the normal “secular” and sexual love he has for Aglaja vs. the “eschatological, Christian, and compassionate” love he bears Nastasja Filippovna.

Frank's interpretation of Myškin is persuasive for a number of reasons. It avoids the pitfalls of the excessively symbolic and mystical approaches of Ivanov and Berdjaev which seem at odds with Dostoevskij's intention to create a truly beautiful man, a character which may indeed have symbolic significance, but which must be convincing in human terms, if only to provide a foundation for its symbolism. Frank's view also resolves the discrepancy between the asexuality alleged to Myškin by many critics and his impassioned love experiences with women in the novel. Finally, Frank's interpretation appreciates the tragedy of the Prince's failures in love without casting unwarranted suspicion on the essential goodness of the man. Critics who resort to maligning Myškin's character in an effort to explain his and others' suffering risk aligning themselves with the most morally suspect and banal characters in the novel. When carried to its logical extreme, this “blame-the-victim” mentality (epitomized by Radomskij's implied reading of the Prince's love stories) results in a kind of Manichean heresy that Myškin is really a demon in saint's clothing.6

Frank's assumption that the Prince is a man fully capable of loving women is the most fruitful approach to his “problematic” character. It alone offers a basis for explaining Myškin's active involvement in two complex and intense love triangles (Myškin-Nastasja-Rogožin; Nastasja-Myškin-Aglaja), both of which evolve from his desire for Nastasja Filippovna in Part I of the novel. Unlike Frank, I do not believe that Myškin's love for Nastasja is wholly a model of compassionate, non-sexual, Christian love. On the contrary, Nastasja Filippovna is the woman who first arouses Myškin's sexual feelings. Initially he desires and falls in love with her in much the same way, although without the same intensity, that he later is attracted to Aglaja.

In this study I shall analyze Myškin's role as lover in the novel in an attempt to clarify the nature of his initial love for Nastasja Filippovna and other sources of ambiguity in his loving; his sexuality; the relationship between his two loves; and the reasons for their failure. My ultimate aim is to suggest a new solution to the Myškin puzzle by showing that the source of the “problem” lies not within his character, but in the strange, almost manipulative way he is presented to the reader. To my mind the problem of Prince Myškin boils down to a problem of Dostoevskian narrative and the limitations of the novelistic genre as a vehicle of Dostoevskian truth.

His conclusions about Myškin notwithstanding, Girard's insights into triangular desire and internal mediation are extremely useful in analyzing the inner dynamics of Myškin's romantic entanglements and the relationship between them. The Nastasja-Myškin-Aglaja triangle, for example, reveals that the Prince's “dreams” of happiness, far from “passing far over the heads” of the two women, in fact, answer each one's deepest yearnings. Myškin is Nastasja's “Prince Charming,” the only man who can fulfill the dream she has lost faith in (“Haven't I dreamed of you myself? … You were quite right, I dreamed of you long ago” 203/144).7 At the same time, the Prince uniquely possesses the nobility of soul that Aglaja seeks in a man, although she finds it potentially embarrassing (“Never in my life have I met a man like him for noble simplicity and boundless trustfulness … and that is why I fell in love with him.” 611/471). While each of the women wants the Prince only for herself, Myškin wants and needs them both. He enters the novel as the externally mediated hero in search of beauty and truth, falls in love, is drawn into the snares of triangular desire foreign to his nature, and is ultimately victimized by it.

The more closely we examine Myškin's love relationships, the more convinced we become that the problematic nature of his loving does not lie in his incomplete manhood. Rather it develops from the ironic and ambiguous manner in which Myškin is presented as a lover by the narrator and perceived in this role by himself and the other characters in the novel. The Prince's discreet, yet triangularly interrelated loves, as well as the nature of his sexuality, are deliberately rendered strange through multilayered ironies, half-truths, misunderstandings, mishaps, purposeful and unconscious misinterpretations. Everyone contributes to the narrative confusion surrounding the Prince. The characters with whom he is involved are often “readers” of his love affairs. Aglaja, for example, offers a parodic reading of Myškin's suit of Nastasja Filippovna as itself a parody of Puškin's “Poor Knight.” Later, Radomskij gives an oral “psychological” analysis of both Myškin's loves in an effort to elucidate the contemporary “moral” of his experience. Although partially correct, these (and other) apparently convincing explanations of the Prince in fact miss the point. Like those readers who are “usually convinced of [their] own spontaneity,” Aglaja and Radomskij apply to the Prince “the meanings they already apply to the world.”8 This is particularly detrimental to the reputation of a man who, if he lacks anything, lacks worldliness.

Since there is not a single character in the novel, Myškin included, who sees the Prince impartially enough to be dependable as a voice of truth, and since even the narrator is more a hindrance than a help to understanding him, the reader must assume the often frustrating task of ferreting out the truth about Myškin that lies embedded in others' sometimes intelligent, often conflicting, but always only partially correct interpretations. The reader can, and I believe, should be guided in this task by the authorial caveat implied in the liar Ivolgin's ironic, yet true comment, “The truth … very often seems impossible,” as well as its unstated corollary that “the thought articulated is a lie.”9 In attempting to understand the Prince as lover, the reader must maintain a healthy suspiciousness of words, explanations, and innuendoes, and attune himself to the implied meanings of actions, gestures, and silence.


“Sex is not the only object of sexual passion.”10

Mistrust about the Prince as a true lover is shown by the doubts characters in the novel have about his sexual capacity. One of the first and most apparently “extraordinary” facts we learn about Myškin is that he is still a virgin.11 Realizing how strange he must seem in this regard, Myškin explains his lack of experience with “the ladies” by saying that he has been ill most of his life. He also cites his illness (epilepsy) as the reason he cannot marry: “I can't marry anyone, I'm not well” (62/32). Some critics, notably Dalton, have read into this statement an implicit acknowledgment of sexual inadequacy and have argued that it supports the idea that Myškin is asexual. One cannot deny that the Prince connects his epilepsy with his unmarriageability, but the link between the two does not necessarily imply a sexual problem. A 19th century epileptic could just as naturally believe himself unmarriageable because he feared or had been told that his disease was hereditary.12 More important, we know that the condition of semi-idiocy in which the Prince has spent most of his boyhood and adolescence has robbed him of the conventional experiences of growing up. We can assume that it has also deprived him of a normal social life and psychosexual development. Myškin's illness helps to explain his fear of marriage and his innocence of the world without in any way suggesting that it has deprived him of sexual desire.

The Prince's innocence causes a great deal of comment and concern in a society where it is an exception and experience the rule. Explanations of his virginity vary, but none of them should be accepted at face value because each character's interpretation reveals at least as much about his or her own attitudes to sexuality as it tells us about Myškin. Thus, Rogožin, a man imprisoned by his own lusts, interprets the Prince's virginity as a sign of God's grace: “You're a regular holy fool, Prince. And such as you God loves” (38/14). Mme Epančina, who tends to view all young men as potential husbands for her daughters, likes Myškin, but is disappointed by his apparent lack of interest in getting married. Therefore, she concludes that the Prince is “a good man, but an impossible bridegroom.” Her words prove both ironic and prophetic.

General Epančin gives the most vulgar explanation for Myškin's virginity. When the Prince finally asks for Aglaja's hand, Epančin is bewildered and makes it rather obvious that he thinks him impotent: “You see, my boy, it's not your money, … but—what I'm worried about is my daughter's happiness … I mean—are you capable of making her—er—as it were—happy?” (556/427). Clearly General Epančin's inferences reflect the surmise about the Prince in Petersburg society. But before leaping on his words as additional, if not final proof of Myškin's sexual incapacity, one must ask if Dostoevskij wants the conventional viewpoints expressed in the novel to represent the truth. Obviously he does not, but the narrator does little to make the author's intentions on this issue clear. He manipulates the reader's opinions on Myškin's virginity in such a way that s/he wants to agree with the perceptions of “ordinary” people whose other banalities s/he scorns. The real puzzle of the Prince's sexuality involves the question of why the reader is so tempted to side with General Epančin's reading of it at the expense of Myškin's.

On the surface the narrator confirms the other characters' doubts about Myškin as a normal lover. In Part III, chapter 3, for example, he offers the following commentary on the Prince's perception of his feelings for Aglaja:

If anyone had told him at that moment that he was in love, that he was passionately in love, he would have rejected the idea with surprise, and perhaps even with indignation … He would have been ashamed of such a thought! He would have thought it monstrous that anyone could be in love … with ‘a man like him.’


At first glance this passage appears to suggest that Myškin is unable to be in love because he is such a queer sort of man. A closer reading shows, however, that this is not the case at all. It is not that Myškin can't fall in love, but that he can't conceive of himself as a man in love or as a man who is desirable. In other words, Myškin's feelings for Aglaja (and hers for him) contradict his self-image. The passage conveys ironically the opposite of what it purports to say: with a man like the Prince no greater proof of his being in love exists than his rejection of the whole “shameful” idea. While appearing to confirm what proves to be untrue, the narrator at first misleads the reader, but his irony reveals an underlying truth illustrated throughout the novel: often a person's self-image contradicts his true self.

Unlike most “ordinary” people Myškin has little if any consciousness of his own sexuality. Consequently he manifests anxiety about his sexual feelings and tends to repress them. Part of his anxiety stems from his lack of experience, which in turn has resulted in at best a poorly developed image of himself as a lover in the sexual sense. The case of Nastasja Filippovna (who is apparently different from but basically similar to Myškin) also demonstrates how important experience is in developing a sexual self-image. Both Myškin and Nastasja are victims of conventional misinterpretations of their sexuality which they have internalized (Nastasja consciously and Myškin unconsciously). As Myškin perceives to the general consternation, Nastasja is far more innocent than her affair with Totskij leads her and other people to believe. Myškin, as the two women and the man who love and want him sense, is far more sensual than his innocence suggests. It is telling that while Myškin cannot recognize his true feelings for Aglaja, his “double” Rogožin can: “But haven't you, Prince, got into the clutches of just such a woman yourself? … I can see for myself now that it's true. Well, when have you talked like this before?” (402-3/303).

The psychological relationship between self-image and true self in The Idiot is analogous to the narrative relationship in the novel between interpretations of the Prince and the Prince himself, between reading and reality, words and silence. The former seem to belie the latter, especially with regard to Myškin's sexuality and his loving. If the reader would simply accept Myškin's virginity and resist interpreting it as some special sign, positive or negative, s/he would realize that Myškin is neither a holy fool who shuns the flesh, nor an “incomplete” man. He is what he says he is: a man who, for good reasons beyond his control, is a virgin. Therefore he seems and acts sexually young for his age. Both women know this is true although they resist the truth for different reasons. Nastasja values Myškin's innocence above all else, but hates him (or wants to hate him) for being a “belated” Prince Charming. Aglaja loves Myškin for his simplicity but is annoyed by his lack of social polish and adolescent mannerisms, for example, her irritation at his schoolboy expressions (IV/6/567).

Myškin expresses his sexuality indirectly through an appreciation of beauty in nature and particularly in women that is truly extraordinary. In his essay, The Sense of Beauty, Santayana describes the sexual impulses underlying the esthetic sensibility of what he calls the “modest and inexperienced mind,” a mind which bears a striking resemblance to Myškin's:

The whole sentimental side of our esthetic sensibility … is due to our sexual organization remotely stirred. … The color, the grace, the form, which become the stimuli of sexual passion … acquire, before they can fulfill that office, a certain intrinsic charm. … Not, of course, that any specifically sexual ideas are connected with these feelings; such ideas are absent in a modest and inexperienced mind even in the obviously sexual passions of love and jealousy.13

Dostoevskij shows that Myškin falls in love with Nastasja Filippovna by detailing his response to her portrait, i.e. to her beautiful image. The Prince's first impression of Nastasja's face is esthetic and sensual: “‘So this is Nastasja Filippovna,’ he murmured. ‘She's wonderfully beautifule,’ he added at once with ardor” (56/27). By the end of part one, chapter three, Myškin has become engrossed in Nastasja Filippovna's image. He conveys his impression to the uncomprehending Ganja and General Epančin (who, like the “ordinary people” they are, are primarily interested in whether he would “marry a woman like that”):

A remarkable face! And I'm sure her life has not been an ordinary one [sic!]. Her face looks cheerful, but she has suffered a lot, hasn't she? It's a proud face, a terribly proud face, but what I can't tell is whether she is kind-hearted or not. Oh, if she were! That would make everything right for her!


By now Nastasja's beauty has aroused Myškin's curiosity about her character. In wishing to understand her soul, in registering concern for her fate, he expresses his yearning for union with her. It is as if the Prince has, to use a Platonic image, “impregnated himself” with the image of his ideal beloved, seeking for her and himself “to be born into the beautiful.”14

Myškin's third and most profound reading of Nastasja Filippovna's face climaxes in a physical gesture expressing his desire for her—he kisses her portrait:

He seemed anxious to solve some mystery that was hidden in that face and that had struck him before … There was a sort of immense pride and scorn, almost hatred, in that face, and at the same time, also something trusting, something wonderfully goodnatured; this striking contrast seemed almost to arouse in him a feeling of compassion as he looked at it. That dazzling beauty! The prince gazed at it for a minute … looked around nervously, quickly put the portrait to his lips and kissed it.


This passage shows that Myškin's attraction to Nastasja Filippovna cannot in any sense be called merely compassionate. An intense and complex feeling, it encompasses awe, confusion, compassion for her ambivalence (it is the “striking contrast” that moves him to compassion), a desire to know her (to solve her mystery) and to embrace her. Nastasja's beauty attracts, confounds, challenges, and enthralls the Prince as it does many other, less worthy men—Totskij, Rogožin, General Epančin, even Ganja. It demands action and resolution. Rogožin's recognition of the Prince as his most potent rival confirms that they are both possessed by their passion for this woman. Whereas Rogožin's lust—devoid of compassion—illustrates a kind of demonic possession, Myškin's love recalls Plato's description of the best “… of all forms of divine possession, both for the subject himself and for his associate, … when he is touched with this madness, the man whose love is aroused by beauty in others is called a lover.”15

Although made to appear ambiguous to other characters, Prince Myškin's consternation at his own sexual responses, and inability to express them in a desire solely for sexual gratification, are viewed positively by Dostoevskij, who often associates sex with cruelty and the self-destructive desire to dominate.16 They are also psychologically credible in the light of Myškin's previous experience of love. Prior to Nastasja, the Prince's most profound emotional attachment was his relationship with Marie in Switzerland. That sexless and wholly compassionate love brought him “a different kind of happiness.” It is understandable that he would want to duplicate it, and tragic that he cannot.

Myškin's lack of experience in sex on one hand and his great understanding of love on the other are rare, but they appear even more extraordinary in the novel than they may be in life because they are exactly the reverse of the experience in sex and love of all the “ordinary” people whom he meets in Petersburg. While everyone else in this society wants to possess, own, and dominate the object of his or her desire, Myškin wants, and is able to love passionately. While everyone else wishes selfishly to gratify his or her ego, Myškin receives ego-gratification through realizing the other's happiness. Rather than deny sex, Myškin's compassionate heart strives to neutralize the cruelty in lust which seeks domination, not love. Rogožin's love for Nastasja Filippovna turns to hate precisely because it lacks the equilibrating force of compassion. That is why he needs the Prince and is torn, as Girard would say, by his metaphysical desire for him.

Myškin's idiosyncratic sexuality, his capacity to temper his desire with compassion, and most of all his profound will to be happy—all these things mark him as a most unconventionally novelistic, but at the same time very “real” lover. In a way Myškin is used as an ironic foil to his own truth. On the surface he appears too good a hero to be a true lover, whereas in reality he is too true a lover to be a good (novelistic) hero. The irony is directed at Myškin's readers, both within and outside of the novel, who, alienated from real life, mistakenly seek analogies for Myškin's loving in books, conventions, and social theories when his prototype is more discernible in real life.


At this moment I feel that I particularly need (apart from the absolutely extraordinary that is uniquely yours) something else which you alone of all the world can give me: a woman's love, a woman's. It is our future that I am thinking about: to share … thoughts, feelings, to be one soul, full of compassion—and all that is given only on one condition—marriage.

—Aleksandr Blok to Ljubov' Dmitrievna17

Blok's lines to Ljubov´ Dmitrievna provide one “real-life” echo of Prince Myškin's desire for his “beautiful lady,” Nastasja Filippovna, which culminates in his proposal to her at the end of part one. We have already noted how the Prince falls in love with the image of his ideal woman. Unsure of how to proceed after first meeting her at the Ivolgins, yet totally captivated by her, Myškin decides spontaneously to go to her birthday party uninvited. In his suit he behaves exactly like a young man in love for the first time. As he ascends the stairs to her apartment, the narrator notes that he is “greatly troubled in his mind,” and agitated by “another unsolved problem, a problem so important that [he] was even afraid to think of it, could not, indeed, dared not admit its existence, did not know how to formulate it and blushed and trembled at the very thought of it” (165-66/114). By not stating what this problem is the narrator again leaves Myškin's motives and behavior open to misinterpretation. If the reader already doubts the normalcy of Myškin's desires, that is, if s/he has been swayed by conventional opinion, s/he could read the Prince's agitation in this context as additional proof of his asexuality. On the other hand, the absence of sexual feeling would hardly cause a man such shame. It is, I think, far more likely in terms of what has actually transpired, that Myškin's anxiety stems from his having to cope with his unfamiliar, sexual feelings for Nastasja, feelings, moreover, which have led him to pursue her in spite of his conviction that he is unmarriageable and that another man, Rogožin, whom he likes very much, is madly in love with her.

The “unsolved problem” troubling Myškin is the narrator's way of expressing the Prince's inner awareness of the triangular situation his desire for Nastasja will involve him in. Although on one hand Myškin is “passionate” in Girard's sense of the term—“distinguished by his emotional autonomy, by the spontaneity of his desires, and by his absolute indifference to the opinions of others”—on the other he is vulnerable to triangular desire because he wants Nastasja as a beautiful woman, wants her more than his vaguely formulated ideal of beauty and compassionate love.18 “As soon as there is really desire, even in the passionate characters, we find the mediator. … In the birth of desire, the third person is always present.”19 The third person in Myškin's case is Rogožin, whom he has witnessed in action at the Ivolgins. In going to Nastasja's birthday party uninvited Myškin acts in a Rogožinesque way, and in proposing to her on the spot, in making her an offer that outdoes Rogožin's (spiritually, if not materialistically), he enters into direct competition for her favors. Thus Rogožin acquires the potential for replacing Myškin's externally mediating ideal of truth and beauty. At the same time the Prince triggers the destructive force of Rogožin's metaphysical desire for him. The difference between Myškin and conventional novelistic lovers is that he consciously fights against internal mediation. He attaches as much importance to not being Rogožin's rival as he does to winning Nastasja's love, but initially, the latter is his sole aim.

When he sees his beautiful lady, Myškin is “dazzled and fascinated” (170/118). He idolizes her and tells her so straight out: “Everything about you is perfection—one wouldn't wish to imagine you different—I wanted so much to come and see you” (170/118). At this point Nastasja Filippovna responds with her characteristic perversity: “‘So you think I'm a paragon of perfection, do you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘… This time you're mistaken. I'll remind you of it tonight.’” Heedless of her warning, and unaware that she has already come up with a plan to overcome this unforeseen obstacle to self-destruction, Myškin continues his suit. Nastasja mockingly tests his devotion: “‘Who'll take me without anything?’ [i.e. who will make the highest bid] ‘… The Prince will.’ ‘Is it true?’ ‘It is.’ ‘You'll take me without anything?’ ‘I will, Nastasja Filippovna.’” (195/138). Finally, Myškin declares his love and proposes to the “fallen woman”:

I think you'll be doing me an honor and not I you … What … are you ashamed of? … I love you, Nastasja Filippovna. I'm ready to die for you, Nastasja Filippovna. I won't let anyone say a bad word against you, Nastasja Filippovna!


It is hardly excessive compassion that makes Myškin's declaration of love for Nastasja so unusual. What strikes us is the passionate, youthful chivalry of his intentions and the truly obsessional force of his desire, heedless of the risks such a match entails for himself. His threefold repetition of her name leaves no doubt that Myškin's love is “particular” (Frank argues that it is not)—it is she, Nastasja Filippovna, whom he wants. Such passion, however, has become totally alien to St. Petersburg society where money and lust have priced chivalry and love out of the market. Alone among the guests, Nastasja Filippovna, herself an outcast and a dreamer, recognizes Myškin as the true lover, the “Prince Charming” of her dreams.

Tragically, Nastasja Filippovna's life, as Myškin could see, “has not been an easy one.” What he could not imagine is the degree to which she has already defended herself against shattered dreams and impossible truths by becoming ironic. It is precisely because Myškin can realize her happiness that she must destroy him. In rejecting Myškin Nastasja Filippovna blasphemes her true self in order to fulfill her image. She destroys herself, but, as it were, creates a novel which will ultimately demand the sacrifice of her unnovelistic hero. She commences “authorship” of the Prince's romantic future during the scandalous finale of part one by doing more than anyone to foster the impression that the Prince is a strange, unlikely suitor and to confirm our doubts about his capacity to fall in love. Her self-mocking and cruel indictment of the Prince as a kind, but silly child who “needs a nurse himself to look after him” (a perfect example of projection if ever there was one) encourages the reader's assessment of him as an undesirable lover. Nastasja Filippovna's consummate acting and irony seem so much more convincing than Myškin's reality and fairytale truth that it is difficult for the reader to view the Prince at this point apart from his novelistic preconceptions of the world. Her sarcastic exit-line, “Prince, you ought to marry Aglaja Epančina,” (202/143) sets Myškin up as the hero of a new triangle and foretells her victorious defeat in its resolution. Myškin probably misses the irony in Nastasja Filippovna's taunt, but he unconsciously absorbs her suggestion.

The next time we meet the Prince, he is no longer a man in love, but a rejected lover enduring an agony of pity for his lost beloved. The reader tends to forget that Myškin's feelings Nastasja did change from love to pity because his change-of-heart is not narrated directly. It is a crucial, but deliberately underplayed moment in the “off-stage” action between parts one and two, the month Myškin spends with Rogožin and Nastasja in Moscow. During that time as well the Prince suddenly “remembers” and turns to Aglaja for sisterly support. Eventually he falls in love with her, but his far more passive suit of his “second-most-beautiful lady” suggests a love on the rebound as Aglaja's wounded vanity appreciates to the full.


‘But she is beautiful, Prince, isn't she?’ ‘Extremely!’ the prince replied warmly, looking entranced at Aglaja, ‘Almost as beautiful as Nastasja Filippovna …’


The Prince was first attracted to Aglaja as to a younger sister. This, combined with Mme Epančina's maternal attitude towards him and her nervousness about his alleged idiocy, makes it difficult for any of the Epančins to view him as a prospective son-in-law. Aglaja, however, likes the Prince immediately and reveals her attraction with childlike perversity through her sarcastic attitude to him at the luncheon (see I/5). Her hostility increases when the Prince makes the faux pas of complimenting her by comparing her to his ideal beauty. Myškin tells the truth here (as he is wont to do) at the expense of Aglaja's vanity. She suffers the entirely understandable jealousy of a proud and pampered child-woman, accustomed to being first, who is the second choice of the man she desires.

From the fraternal “love-letter” he writes her initiating a new relationship to his “non-proposal” of marriage, every stage of Myškin's relationship with Aglaja seems more a parody of romantic love than the real thing, and Myškin seems always like the proverbial character from another opera. More important, although not so obvious, every critical moment in Myškin's second love is presided over, and perhaps even directed by Nastasja Filippovna's increasingly malignant will. The impression of Myškin as a fool is precisely the one she wants to create. Her motive is revenge and her tactics are demonic. While keeping Myškin in thrall to her now merciless beauty, Nastasja Filippovna seduces Aglaja into the trap of triangular desire.

Nastasja Filippovna plays up society's view of her as a fallen woman because at heart she conceives of herself as a fallen angel. She wants to be Myškin's one-and-only beloved, the innocent child whom she pictures in one of her love letters to Aglaja as the sole companion of a solitary and compassionate Christ. Deeply-rooted feelings of self-hate and unworthiness cause her to reject Myškin while yearning for him. Her ambivalence leads her to create an obstacle—another woman—and she projects her desire for Myškin onto this rival: “You are innocent, and in your innocence lies all your perfection. … What do you care for my passion for you? You are mine already now, I shall be all my life beside you … I shall be dead soon” (495/380, emphases mine, D.L.B.). To employ Girard's terminology, Nastasja Filippovna, the “fallen woman,” wants Aglaja, the innocent, as the mediatrix of her own desire for the Prince. Her success in getting Aglaja to play her game is proved by the degree to which the latter derides Myškin as a suitor. If in his spontaneous suit of Nastasja Myškin he would have truly fulfilled the chivalric role of Prince Charming, in his awkward courtship of Aglaja he emerges as a “poor knight,” or even a parody thereof. Like her mother's, Aglaja's reading of Myškin the lover is both ironic and prophetic. He is forced into the role with her that she perceived him to be playing in his quest for her rival's love.

The full extent of Nastasja's demonic, “authorial” power over Myškin and Aglaja is illustrated in the crucial rendezvous between them in the park (III/8). This scene initiates the tragic denouement of the novel's second major triangle which has been contrived and perpetuated by Nastasja herself. Prior to his meeting with Aglaja, Myškin has been up all night (at his birthday celebration!) witnessing Ippolit's self-laceration. He goes to the park and falls asleep, only to be tormented by visions of a more awesome martyrdom, incarnate in the Medusa-like face of his former beautiful lady. The situation does not bode well for a “new dawn” as both Aglaja and Myškin sense in their initial exchange:

‘Asleep! You were asleep!’ she cried with disdainful surprise. ‘It's you!’ murmured the prince, still not quite awake … ‘Why yes! I was to meet you here—’ ‘I'm afraid I fell asleep.’ ‘I saw you.’ ‘Did no one wake me except you? There was no one here except you, was there? I thought—I thought there was another woman here.’ ‘There was another woman here?’


Myškin's dream of Nastasja Filippovna is as real to him as Aglaja's actual presence. Yet Myškin takes steps to counter Nastasja's power over him. He loves Aglaja and wants to be happy with her; thus, in an attempt to soothe her jealousy and to exorcise the demon of Nastasja Filippovna, he speaks straightforwardly for the first and only time of his past love. He tries to convince Aglaja of the truth, that he no longer loves Nastasja, that his feelings for her changed long ago from love to pity:

Oh, I loved her, I loved her very much, but later … she guessed everything … That I was only sorry for her, (…) and that I no longer loved her.


Myškin goes on to confess his strong doubts about Nastasja's love for him: “You say she loves me, but is this love? Can there be such a love after what I've been through? No, it's something else, not love!” (475/363).

Myškin believes (rightly) that the generous child in Aglaja can accept his continuing pity for the ailing Nastasja, just as the children in Switzerland ultimately overcame their resentment and accepted his compassionate love for Marie. What he doesn't realize yet is the degree to which the mad woman's claim on his pity threatens Aglaja's “double”—the proud beauty who finds pleasure in self-laceration. This is the side of Aglaja (and Myškin certainly cannot be blamed for its existence) who resists her sympathy with the Prince's anxiety over the other woman, who refuses to comprehend why he has “come back for Nastasja's sake” if he no longer loves her, and who is unconsciously conspiring with her rival to bring about Nastasja's desired destruction, her own defeat, and the final victimization of Myškin.

After they have become engaged, Myškin tries once again to talk with Aglaja about Nastasja, but she refuses to listen:

‘You do look very gloomy sometimes, Aglaja. You never looked like that before. I know why it is …’ ‘Shut up! Shut up!’ ‘No, I'd better say it. I've said it already, but—that's not enough, because you didn't believe me. Between us two there still stands—one person—‘Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!’ Aglaja interrupted him …


So in the grip of internal mediation is Aglaja that she resists hearing anything that might make it impossible to act with the same perversity as her model and rival. At this point she wants to be the star of her own scandal, to infect the Prince with her own power of suggestion and negative prophecy. When the social debacle she has feared and predicted for Myškin has come to pass at their engagement party, Aglaja takes the offensive in her rivalry with Nastasja. She sets up a meeting with her rival to give Myškin one last chance. For her now, as for Nastasja Filippovna, he has to choose one or the other of them. Myškin dreads the meeting in which he senses Nastasja's evil power over him and Aglaja:

And again—‘that woman’! Why did it always seem to him that that woman would make an appearance at the very last moment and snap his life in two like a rotten thread? … If he had tried to forget her lately, it was solely because he was afraid of her. Well? Did he love that woman or did he hate her?


The Prince, in consciously recognizing that his pity for Nastasja is tinged with his own fear and perhaps even hatred, comes as close to blaming her for his unhappiness as it is possible for him to do. His dread and “double thoughts” prophesy his own doom. They also convince one that it is not Myškin's spirit of compassion but Nastasja Filippovna's “demon of irony” that is the destructive force behind his tragedy.20


Myškin's suffering is so great that the other characters and the reader seek some justification for it. Just as his extraordinary innocence was the subject of gossip and mistrust in part one, so, ironically, in part four his extraordinary loves for two women become the focus of talk and censure. Once again Myškin's loving is subjected to a reading (Radomskij's) that makes it appear almost the opposite of what it is. In offering a most plausible explanation of the Prince that turns out to be totally misleading, Dostoevskij is employing irony for his own “higher purposes.” He is testing the reader's faith in the Prince and in silence as a vehicle of truth.

Radomskij's attempt to explain the Prince and the meaning of his loves provides a classic example of probable logic that is truly impossible. On the surface the narrator appears to support Radomskij's view, describing it as “clear, sensible, psychologically insightful and positively eloquent” (623/481). The rub lies in Radomskij's eloquence, however. The more he talks, the more blatant become the incorrectness of his assumptions and the faultiness of his knowledge of the facts. In order to reveal the truth of his unconventional hero Dostoevskij undermines the validity of a conventional assessment of him by having its absurdity speak for itself. At the same time he demonstrates how easily words belie truth, and justifies Myškin's much distrusted silence.

The reader possesses the knowledge that discredits every one of Radomskij's arguments. He charges that Myškin's attraction to Nastasja was “a fantasy … the result of something conventionally democratic, some fascination of the woman question” (623/481). We know, however, that Myškin had no notions whatsoever about the woman question, that his politics are neither conventional, nor democratic, and that his understanding of Nastasja (of her ambivalence, suffering, mystery) was no fantasy—if anything it turned out to be too real. Radomskij says Nastasja's demonic beauty bewitched Myškin. Here he is partially correct (Nastasja's beauty did enthrall the Prince), but his view is nonetheless misleading: the demonic side of Nastasja's beauty caused him to fear her, it repelled him. Radomskij concludes that Myškin's passion for Nastasja was “nothing but an intellectual enthusiasm” for saving the “fallen woman.” Again he approaches the truth, but his lack of knowledge leads him astray. Myškin did want to save Nastasja, but not because he viewed her as a fallen woman. Rather, he wanted to save her from her own image of herself as a fallen woman. Thus he answers Radomskij by saying that the latter “does not know her.”

Radomskij's most serious accusation pertains to Myškin's alleged mistreatment of Aglaja. He says the Prince deliberately humiliated Aglaja and ignored her suffering by not running after her and staying behind to comfort Nastasja. The reader, who actually witnessed the scene, knows, or should know that when Aglaja ran out, Myškin's first impulse was to follow her. He was about to do so when Nastasja literally held him back by falling into a faint:

[Aglaja] ran out of the room followed by Rogožin, who went out to unbolt the front door for her. The prince too ran, but in the doorway he was clasped by a pair of hands. The distracted, distorted face of Nastasja Filippovna was staring at him, and her lips, which had turned blue, moved, asking: ‘After her? After her?’ She fell unconscious in his arms.


It is true that Myškin stayed to comfort Nastasja, but in doing so he was not making a conscious choice for her or rejecting Aglaja. He was acting spontaneously to help the one who needed him most. Myškin could not choose between the two women because for him there was no choice; his feelings for them are entirely different and mutually inclusive, he “knows whom he loves” (Aglaja) and whom “he must care for” (Nastasja). Moreover, only by not choosing, by “not realizing the force of the challenge” (615) issued him by the two women, can the Prince remain true to himself, to his conviction that love implies caring and the end of romantic love is not the end of a relationship. It is such nobility of soul that made Aglaja fall in love with the Prince and that identifies him as a true lover, but apparently, an impossible bridegroom.

The final indication that Radomskij has not fully understood the Prince comes from Myškin himself (whose comment, “in this one must know everything” draws our attention to Radomskij's lack of knowledge), and from the narrator whose note that Radomskij “went away with strange convictions” and more questions than answers undercuts the validity of his eloquent explanation. Radomskij began by telling the Prince that “[he'd] show him himself as in a looking-glass,” but his mirror returns a reflection of his own doubts: “And what was the meaning of the face he was so afraid of and loved so much? … And how can one love two persons at once? With two different kinds of love? … And what would become of him now?” (627/485). Radomskij's befuddlement underscores the limitations of his own “psychology” and implied reading. Its irony guides the reader to the truth expressed in the Prince's unarticulated inner thoughts, true convictions, and real but unnovelistic experience.

Ultimately, Myškin the true lover must be seen as both a sacrifice to and active champion of Dostoevskij's idea that words cannot convey truth. The Prince refuses to banalize his feelings and knowledge by talking about them. His reticence isolates him, causes him to be misunderstood, indeed, renders him idiotic; it creates frightful ambiguities which are turned against him with such a vengeance that they seem to defeat the purpose for which Myškin was created. Rather than indicate Dostoevskij's uncertainly about his hero, however, I would suggest that these ambiguities are designed deliberately to test the reader in an effort to certify only those believers in the Prince whose “hosannah [has been] tested in the crucible of doubt.”21 Like the declassé gentleman ironist who so torments Ivan Karamazov, the creator of The Idiot is a materialist “in the higher sense” who believes the ends justify the means. He tempts us to accept the conventional wisdom which puts the validity of his hero in doubt. Yet by separating truth from convention and novels he enhances its status as the supreme moral value. The very silence that helped to create Myškin's tragedy of worldly and wordy misunderstanding is used at the very end to reveal his transcendent Truth.

Exhausted by the ravages of his “secular” loves (Aglaja and Nastasja Filippovna), in which the Christian happiness he attained with Marie eludes him, Myškin returns to Rogožin, his rival in desire and potential brother in Christ, who now needs and wants him most: “Lev Nikolaevič, come along with me, old man; I want you” (648/500). This starkly ambivalent relationship issues the greatest challenge to the Prince to overcome the temptations of internal mediation, to return love for hate, to effect harmony amidst dissonance, that is, to love like Christ. Horrifying, eerie, and sinister as it is, the final embrace of Myškin and Rogožin in front of Nastasja Filippovna's corpse leaves, to my mind, an impression of peace and ineffable beauty. Crucial to this effect is the fact—and a fact of “fantastic reality” it may be—that the Prince's final encounter with two of his loves culminates in the achievement of a moment of earthly harmony. Before he lapses into total idiocy Myškin succeeds in binding his Christian brother to himself through a wordless gesture of love:

When Rogožin grew quiet … the prince bent over him gently, sat down beside him, and began looking at him closely with a violently beating heart, breathing heavily. … Now and again Rogožin began to mutter suddenly, loudly, harshly, and incoherently … ; then the prince stretched out his trembling hand and gently touched his head and his hair, stroking them and stroking his cheeks—he could do nothing more! … At last he lay down on the cushion, as though in utter exhaustion and despair, and pressed his face against Rogožin's pale and motionless face; tears flowed from his eyes on Rogožin's cheeks, but perhaps he no longer noticed his own tears and knew nothing about them …


The pulse of this final tableau moves from passion (“violently beating heart”) to compassion (“gently touched his head … and stroked his cheeks”) to cathartic union (“pressed his face against Rogožin's face”). Two become one and the self-gratifying and self-pitying “I” loses itself in the Other. The symbolism of the Prince's unambiguous gesture of love and compassion is Christian and archetypal: the Lamb, as it were, has lain down with the Lion; the Mother forgives the murderer of “her” child.22 The price of such universal harmony is indeed terrible, but its silent reality is more awe-inspiring still, and it is the Dostoevskian lover who leads us to this “impossible truth.” The narrative ambiguity, equivocation, and silence surrounding the meaning of the lover-hero isolates him and causes him to be misunderstood, but preserves the Truth, unsullied by imperfect expression, in a noisy, ironical, and novelistic world.


  1. Vjačeslav Ivanov, Freedom and the Tragic Life (New York: Noonday, 1960), 90, 91.

  2. Nicholas Berdyaev, Dostoevsky (New York: Meridian, 1957), 119.

  3. Elisabeth Dalton, Unconscious Structure In The Idiot. A Study in Literature and Psychoanalysis (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979).

  4. Rene Girard, Deceit, Desire and The Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1966), 164.

  5. Joseph Frank, “A Reading of the The Idiot,Southern Review 5, 2 (1959), 309, 327.

  6. See Murray Krieger, “Dostoevskij's ‘Idiot’: The Curse of Saintliness,” in Dostoevsky, A Collection of Critical Essays, Edited by Rene Wellek (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1962). Krieger bases his interpretation of Myškin on the implications of Radomskij's point of view within the novel (Part IV, Chapter 9) and thus fails to recognize the irony in that character's remarks (see pages 22-25 of this analysis).

  7. Quotations from The Idiot are given in the English translation of David Magarshack (New York: Penguin, 1977) and are indicated in the text by the first page number in the parentheses after the quotation. The second page number in the parentheses refers to the Russian text in Volume VIII of the ongoing Soviet edition of Dostoevskij's complete works, Polnoe sobranie sočinenij v tridcati tomax (Leningrad, 1978).

  8. Girard, 16.

  9. See Robin Feuer Miller, Dostoevsky and The Idiot: Author, Narrator, and Reader (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1981), 224.

  10. George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty (New York: Dover, 1955), 40.

  11. One of the ways in which Dostoevskij emphasizes important ideas in the verbal texture of his novels is through the simple and often striking repetition of one word-root. In Brat´ja Karamazovy, for example, the words “istuplenie,” “istuplennyj,” and “istuplenno” recur with noticeable frequency. In Idiot, where the contrast between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” people is constantly brought to the reader's attention, I have observed a similar kind of repetition with regard to the modifiers “črezvyčajno” and “črezvyčajnyj.” A rough count of these two forms in the first 24 chapters of the novel (I/1 through II/8) yields 102 occurrences in 230 pages of text (as per the Soviet edition). Certain sections of the narrative are saturated with a verbal emphasis on “extraordinariness”: in part one, chapter four, which relates Nastasja Filippovna's affair with Totskij, the two modifiers occur ten times.

  12. Descriptions of the causes and effects of epilepsy in a variety of encyclopedias, both contemporary and early twentieth century, do not mention impotence or sexual adequacy in connection with the disease. All accounts, however, take note of the hereditary aspect of epilepsy, although contemporary medical opinion seems to consider it of less account. Compare: “The influence of hereditary predisposition in epilepsy is very marked” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-11, Vol. IX, 691-92) and “Epilepsy is to a minor extent a heredo-familial disorder and medical advice should be sought as to the propriety of marriage and parenthood” (Chambers Encyclopedia, 1967, Vol. 5, 353).

  13. Santayana, 38, 39.

  14. See Plato, The Symposium: “Love is not for the beautiful, as you think … It is for begetting and birth in the beautiful” (translated by W. H. D. Rouse, in Great Dialogues Of Plato, Mentor Books, 1956, 101). The Platonic overtones of the treatment of love and beauty in The Idiot are sufficiently numerous and complex to deserve separate investigation. While a detailed exploration of them is outside the scope of this paper, I do make reference to some of the more obvious Platonic aspects of Myškin's role as a lover.

  15. See Plato, “Phaedrus,” Phaedrus and the Seventh and Eighth Letters, translated by Walter Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 1973), 56.

  16. Thus I disagree with Berdjaev's comment on page 115 that “Dostoevskij's human being was not androgynous, he was male.” If anything, Dostoevskij's too narrowly “male” heroes are victimized by a cruel lust that degrades their human capacity to love. For Dostoevskij real human love must transcend the selfish will to dominate; thus it is always based on compassion. Aside from Myškin and Aleša Karamazov, most of the true lovers and fully realized human beings in Dostoevskij are women. His model human being was Christ.

  17. Quoted by Avril Pyman, The Life Of Aleksandr Blok (Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), I, 121.

  18. Girard, 21.

  19. Girard, 19.

  20. The demon of irony (“demon ironii”) is the way Stepan Verxovenskij describes Stavrogin's form of possession in Besy (I/5/6).

  21. The words of the Devil to Ivan Karamazov: “… nado, čtoby ‘osanna’ … perexodila čerez gornilo somnenij …” (Brat´ja Karamazovy, kn 11, gl 9).

  22. Myškin and Rogožin's embrace brings to my mind Ivan Karamazov's impassioned words: “‘Ja xoču videt’ svoimi glazami, kak lan' ljažet podle l'va …’” (Brat´ja Karamazovy, kn 5, gl 4).

Dennis Patrick Slattery (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14783

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 understanding of fantasy. Dostoevsky uses fantasy as a metaphor for seeing the world in a particularly angelic way and as an attitude that seeks, at least from the perspective from which we see it, to imparadise the world.1 This attitude is embedded in the poet's narrative argument, primarily through Myshkin, but also through the voices of other characters with whom he comes in contact. Their own fantasies are aroused by the prince's presence. Thus, our movement is twofold: it aims first at discovering and then at recovering, through a close reading of the novel's specific images, the essentially fantastic character of Myshkin. For his fantastic vision of the temporal world may be spoken of initially as a division between head and heart, or between what in human experience is felt and what is thought. Initially full of, as one character describes it, “intellectual enthusiasm,”2 the prince is almost always deaf to the voice of his heart. Unguided by the heart's expression, Myshkin allows fantastic visions to replace the full imaginal awareness offered by thought and feeling combined.

The worlds which Dostoevsky renders in his novel are themselves fantastic: the world of Switzerland from whence the prince descends and to which he finally returns; the world of Petersburg, into which he enters; and the world of Pavlovsk, which becomes an image of an Arcadian escape to the country. Each geographic milieu deepens the reader's understanding of the prince, the culture he inhabits, and his consequent effects on people. The particular characteristics of each of these worlds enables the reader to understand the fantastic condition of each as a metaphor of possibility born into action. For out of the relation between the worlds of Switzerland and Petersburg, the garden and the city, the timeless and the temporal, develops a fuller understanding of Dostoevsky's mixture of fantasy and reality.

The initial action of the novel begins in the obscurity of a Petersburg fog:

At nine o'clock in the morning, towards the end of November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed. It was thawing, and so damp and foggy that dawn was slow in coming; it was difficult to distinguish anything out of the carriage windows ten paces to right or left of the track. Some of the passengers were returning from abroad, but the third-class compartments were most crowded, chiefly with people of humble rank, who had come a shorter distance on business. All of course were tired and chilled, their eyes were heavy after the night's journey, and all their faces were pale yellow to match the fog.

(p. 3)

What is described here is a community death-like and pale yellow, in a cloud, moving at great speed on the rails of a new technology, with little awareness of the world in which they journey. The day itself begins unusually, for the late November weather in Russia is bringing not snow, but a thaw, a premature forecast of spring. But it is a false spring. The space of this world is constricting, suffocating, like a coffin. Morning brings to the train's passengers not restfulness but greater fatigue. The entire scene is unsettling, projecting a sense of foreboding, of bad omen. Just as interesting, however, is the sense which the reader receives of being in-between two different worlds. For example, it is not yet dawn, nor is it yet light. It is the realm of shadow, of both darkness and light, of sleep and waking, of the realms of dreams and familiar life, of deathly yellow pallor and life. This metaphor of in-betweenness is both temporal and spatial. For the train is between Switzerland and Petersburg, in an almost invisible land of vagueness and obscurity, a space lacking identity, having narrow boundaries and a constricting horizon. The path of the train is a strait corridor between what will later be described as the expansive space of Swiss mountains, through which the prince roamed before his trip to Petersburg, and the more narrow avenues of the city.

Through the narrow passageway Myshkin and his travelling companions, Parfyon Rogozhin and Lebedev emerge into the heart of Russia. Already within this introductory passage the prince is glimpsed in a metaxis, in an in-between, in a region between what we shall discover to be a space occupied by a hyphen separating fantasy and reality, eternity and temporality, abstraction and concretion, horizonless space and a limiting world. Thus in the beginning we are given two worlds whose reconciliation will require the entire action of the novel. This opening metaphor will remain associated with Myshkin's world throughout the work, for it is between the lived world of fantasy and reality that he will be pulled.

Such, then, are the conditions in which Myshkin returns to Russia after an illness of four years. Moreover, as the novel goes on to indicate, he is only partially healed; his condition is between disease and health. From the panoramic pastoral landscape of mountains and valleys, infinite skies, over which for years he wandered like a romantic hero, Myshkin now descends into the light, pale yellow human world where vision is constricted and space is spare.

In the next paragraph, the prince is sharply contrasted in appearance with Rogozhin, a young man who sits across from him. The latter is primitive-looking, a short man with “curly black hair, small fiery eyes …, a broad flat nose and high cheek bones (p. 3). By contrast Myshkin is light and colorless, with a wispy dreamy appearance that reminds one of the puer-senex image,3 the young-old man, who is between youth and age, yet signifies both. He has “very fair thick hair, sunken cheeks, a thin, pointed white beard, large watery, blue eyes, and a countenance that allows some to recognize a victim of the falling sickness” (p. 4). Furthermore, both in dress and luggage Myshkin is unprepared for the cold Russian weather. It is as if he believes without question, and without regard for the calendar, that this premature thaw is the actual advent of spring. With his small bundle, his lack of a dwelling, and his inadequate clothing, Myshkin is not suited for either the climate or the world in general which he is entering.

He sits across from his double, Rogozhin, as the light begins to fill the railway car. In several ways, Rogozhin is already described as Myshkin's objective complement. Like the prince he has been ill and is only half recovered. Also like Myshkin, he is heir to a large fortune. And as his character is further revealed, Rogozhin is depicted as full of primitive, ungoverned passion and energy which sets in sharp relief the prince's submissive, passive attitude of unfailing pity. Thus passion and pity are meant to be seen as existing split off from one another in the world portrayed by Dostoevsky. Moreover, because of such a severance both are unhealthy. A central concern throughout the novel is the movement toward their reconciliation in the attitude of love. But in the beginning love is neither part of Myshkin's pity and compassion, nor is it part of Rogozhin's passion. The prime influence for this movement towards reconciling human passion with the more passive involvement of pity is Nastasya Filippovna.

Nastasya enters into the conversation between Rogozhin and Myshkin by way of Lebedev, a pimply-faced, servile buffoon who professes to interpret the Apocalypse. He brings up Nastasya and her background, offering his listeners a biographical note:

Nastasya Filippovna's name is Barashkov, and she's a lady, so to speak, of high position, and even a princess in her own way, and she is connected with a man called Totsky.

(p. 10)

She also shares a common history with Myshkin and Rogozhin, but her condition is closer to that of the prince. She is a princess who early in her education was tutored by a Swiss governess for four years, as the prince was tutored in Switzerland for four years. These subtle skeins of yarn leading from Nastasya to Myshkin are tenuous but no less intentional, for the relationship that will develop between them will build to a violent climax in Nastasya's murder and the prince's lapse into incurable idiocy.

This brief scene introduces the reader to all the elements of the prince's world. As Donald Fanger has written, it is comprised of mythic and grotesque aspects expressing the “most fantastic city in the world,” as Fanger quotes Dostoevsky. It abounds in anecdotes and gossip. The stories the prince tells and the interpretations he gives them fall on eager ears. He represents an intrusion of an older order in a city that has lost touch with its own identity. Fanger's appraisal of Dostoevsky's city as a fantastic milieu rests on a correct interpretation that the city and her people have been uprooted and demythologized. In addition, Dostoevsky “raised the chaotic city to the position of a symbol of the chaotic moral world of man, so that the contradictions of the second find their counterpart in the contrasts of the first.”4

Myshkin is the last existing member of his family. In fact, he appears to be more of a legend out of a medieval world than a modern Russian. When first meeting Myshkin, Lebedev puzzles over his name. His skepticism casts a shadow of unreality over the prince's existence:

“Prince Myshkin? … The surname is an historical name, it's certainly to be found in Karamzin's History … Indeed, there are no Prince Myshkins to be met anywhere. One never hears of them.”

(p. 8)

Naive, innocent of even the normal everyday knowledge of Petersburg, the prince travels into the modern world seeking someone whom he believes to be the last of his relations, Madame Lizaveta Yepanchin. By means of the Yepanchin household, which, as the reader soon sees, is itself a symbol of propriety, of mannered, genteel society, Myshkin enters more deeply into the bounds of human finitude. Through his involvement with what I shall refer to as the reality of Petersburg, one glimpses elements that comprise the fantasy of Prince Myshkin. But a reciprocal change occurs on the part of the community that Myshkin enters. For through his presence the prince stirs to the surface the fantasies of that proper and prosperous culture. His sustained presence serves to dissolve not only the surface pretense but also the decorum of the society, to reveal its underlying wishes, dreams, and fantasies—those excesses of self-preoccupation governed or kept in abeyance by custom, cultural beliefs, and communal integrity. By his very presence Prince Myshkin upsets the community's myth.

With the erosion of a shared myth, that body of ideas, beliefs, and values that sustain a culture and support it, the solidarity of even one of the best Petersburg families—the Yepanchins—is awry. Their home suggests the shared, open space of a whole society, yet it falls short of communal love. Madame Yepanchin, who loves to speak to any listener of her “pedigree,” represents the community's royalty and old family lineage. She is a Princess Myshkin, of “an ancient though by no means brilliant family” (p. 17). Her husband, General Yepanchin, brings to the family circle the world of business, while their daughters bear both the expression and the continuation of the arts: Alexandra is a painter, Adelaida a musician, and Aglaia, the youngest, is most closely related to literature, though all of the daughters read. In fact, people talk “with horror” of the number of books they have read (p. 17). Through the drawing rooms of the Yepanchins passes the commerce of Petersburg. Their home, then, is a reflection of the social reality into which Myshkin enters.

But the prince, unaccustomed to propriety or a code of behavior with its attendant order of schedules, routine, propriety, conduct, and manners—all the human forms of action that taken together constitute a civilized community—continually breaks with rather than conforms to established codes. His violations are at first subtle and ostensibly harmless, even charming, but nonetheless somewhat scandalous. He arrives at the Yepanchin home without warning, with the intention of befriending Madame Yepanchin, whom he believes to be another Myshkin. She is, but in ways that the prince does not suspect. Lebedev earlier had speculated that the relation between Myshkin and Lizaveta Yepanchin might be more owing to “an excess of imagination” (p. 9) on the part of the prince than on historical accuracy. His speculation will later be shown to be true. Now, as Myshkin enters the Yepanchin household, Dostoevsky again uses a spatial metaphor consistent with the space in which he has surrounded the prince, beginning with the constricted space of the third-class railroad car. In this first section, above all, the space the prince inhabits sets up an entire world from which Myshkin will struggle to free himself throughout the novel. It is therefore worth close attention at least initially.

Upon his arrival, for example, the door servant conducts Myshkin into “a little anteroom leading to the reception room (p. 11). Instead of waiting in the reception room, as is customary, Myshkin asks to remain in the small chamber with the now surprised servant. Aware of the protocol governing host and guests, the puzzled servant rebukes him:

“You have no business to be here, you ought to be sitting in the reception room, for you are a sort of visitor, in other words, a guest.”

(p. 19)

Myshkin, however, chooses to ignore the space reserved for the guest. His action confuses the servant by disrupting the customary manner in which guests are received. It is through naiveté, and not rudeness, however, that Myshkin violates the code of the guest by remaining where, as a guest, he does not belong. He is socially out of place. For a society to function predictably, a socially agreed upon and determined spatial order must govern the common actions of everyday life. Codes of conduct keep a member of a society from disrupting the lives of the rest of its members through an infinite number of minor infractions. The prince's transgression is small, admittedly, but no less important, for it expresses an entire relationship which he is creating with the world. By remaining in the small antechamber he begins his reign of disorder within Petersburg. This little vignette of uncommon behavior already foreshadows the upheaval of an entire community by his presence. Further, Myshkin's violation is compounded and brought into clearer relief with his request to smoke. His petition all but undoes the giddy servant:

“Smoke?” repeated the servant, glancing at him with scornful surprise as though he could hardly believe his ears. “Smoke? No you can't here; you ought to be ashamed to think of such a thing. He He. A queer business.”

(p. 19)

Here, as will occur many times throughout the novel, the reader discerns that with the advent of Myshkin's presence, right order and decorum are momentarily suspended. His intervention challenges order and propriety. It also challenges, even at times mocks, the normal and ordinary manners of the people. One begins to understand fantasy as somewhat iconoclastic, calling into question or ridicule what is traditionally accepted without question. Fantasy may go so far as to insist on the breakdown of order and restriction temporarily, to promote a fuller play of all possibilities without being limited by any standards of decorum or any particular habit of mind. Fantasy, like carnival or festivity,5 may foster the breakdown of order and restriction. Unlike these other expressions, however, fantasy of the sort which Dostoevsky is rendering does not seek a merely temporary holiday from restraint; it proposes an entirely different vantage point, one that is liberated from time and space, private rather than communal. It is less a respite than it is an escape from the shared ground of the human order.6 One begins to suspect that, for Dostoevsky, it is only within the human world of social conversation that a relationship with the world is revealed. As part of his artistic strategy, he continually constructs the foreground for social interaction by building on the spatiotemporal dimensions of human life as a way of consciously ordering social awareness. He continues this thematic development in the scene with the lackey.

When Myshkin rises to take off his cloak in the small antechamber, the reader's attention is immediately drawn to his waistcoat, where hangs a chain, “and attached to the chain was a silver Geneva watch” (p. 20). Soon after this moment, when Myshkin meets General Yepanchin, he responds to the latter's concern for his schedule by stating: “I have plenty of time, my time is entirely my own” (p. 26). The implication here is that the time by which Myshkin lives is a private time. The time of his Geneva watch suggests a foreign temporality, as do his clothes and his small bundle. He is, as it were, out of keeping with the time of Petersburg. Temporally the prince remains on Swiss time, which, we must recall, is the time of his disease, of his idiocy, and of his romantic dreaming. As he sinks deeper into the world of Petersburg, however, he attempts to bring his Swiss time to the city to superimpose it upon the shared temporality of the everyday world about him. This counterpoint with a normal time scheme is an essential element in fantasy. For this reason special attention must be given to the tales which Myshkin relates in this first and most cohesive section of the novel. Understandably, almost every story the prince tells in Part One of the narrative makes use of the themes of temporality and death. These anecdotes contain as well foreshadowings of Nastasya's death by Rogozhin's knife. Hence, although this study will not be devoted exclusively to the spatio-temporal dimensions of Myshkin's world, nevertheless they are important determinants of the meaning of the novel and are established clearly in this first section. For as the most prolific teller of tales in the novel, Myshkin reveals as much about his own world as he does of that which he is describing. His tales are finally images of himself. In addition, he implies the action of the entire work in his tales; almost always they demand to be read as allegories of the novel's larger action.7 Consider, for example, his first story—about his witnessing an execution—which he tells to the Yepanchin servant.

Myshkin maintains that a man who is put to death for murdering another person suffers far more than he who is killed by brigands. He reasons that in an ordinary murder the victim will never lose hope of escaping, even to the very moment when his throat is actually slit. Death by execution, on the contrary, involves another quality, certainty, a dimension lacking in the first case. One foreboding of what will soon become a reality, Myshkin maintains, is a more terrible anguish precisely because it is certain. The thematic thrust of this story is less that of justice, however, than it is of lived temporality. As a story it speaks directly of Myshkin's growing discomfort with the world. This point will become clearer when I consider the stories of execution he later recounts to Madame Yepanchin and her daughters. Presently, however, Myshkin offers two distinct ways in which a man may live the future in the present.

First of all, under the threat of death by brigands, one may continue to hope. This specifically human activity is denied the man who knows for certain that he will die by legal execution. Hope is a possibility for the former man because his future remains uncertain; it is filled with a possibility, or even many possibilities. For example, he may escape, or he may be only severely wounded and left to die, or he may cleverly outwit his foes or prevail upon their mercy, or he may in fact be killed. The point to be made is that the future remains polyvalent, open, uncertain, filled with potentials; with such a future hope is possible. The ambiguity of what is not yet, but may be, is the foundation for hope, as well as, perhaps, for faith. The temporal dimension of the not-yet present seems to put one in closer contact with what is. In other words, the uncertainty of the future, of that dimension toward which a person moves and which simultaneously moves towards him, secures him in the present, through hope. By hoping he can more faithfully imagine what possibilities the future holds for him because of his faithfulness to what presently is, namely, the threat of brigands. He is aware of his own present reality such that he can hope for future possibilities that are intimately related to the world in which he is presently engaged. Fundamentally it is an imperfect, incomplete world in which he hopes. In one way, then, we could say that hope imagines the future. To hope requires that one imagine possibilities in the future through a fidelity to what is actually present. To live time in this manner is to live time with a sense of proportion and continuity. In fact, to live time within this attitude begins to approach living time imaginatively, for it begins with and moves through what is real in order to see and hope for what is possible.8

In contrast, the man who is to be killed by legal execution lives temporality differently. His world is much narrower than that of the man attacked by brigands; it is also closer to Myshkin's own world. The man who is to be executed lives time with no hope. Certainty of what will be replaces a hope of what might be. Such a man experiences a death of time. Time dies for him because his relationship to the future is univocal. There exists only certainty in the future and it is a morbid certainty. Myshkin's own words to the servant confirm this idea through a morbid fantasy:

The chief and worst pain may not be in the bodily suffering but in one's knowing for certain that in an hour and then in ten minutes and then in half a minute and then now, at the very moment, the soul will leave the body and that one will cease to be a man and that that's certain: the worst part of it is, is that it's certain.

(p. 24)

Myshkin ends his preoccupation with this certainty of death by adding that “all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain” (p. 24).

For one thing, the prince here offers us in miniature two fundamental ways of living time or of imagining life: the man who hopes, and the man who is filled with foreboding and despair. The former has a future filled with promise, the latter a future of absolute certainty. For him hope is not possible. He knows what will be and this knowledge fills him with anguish and fear. He fears the future in its absolute nature as it moves toward him. Thus, while he lives in fear and dread, the first man lives in hope. It is not their conditions that are different; both are threatened by death. But it is their respective attitudes in relation to their conditions that leave one man hoping and the other fearing. Through hope the one can imagine the possibility of escape, whereas he who is to be executed by law knows only the certainty of death. Imagining for him is not possible.

This distinction leads to another important consideration in relation to Myshkin's initial narrations. How is lived space related to these two modes of lived time? One might begin to answer the question in the following way: the man who hopes imaginatively toward the future can act. Our best example of this type of man is Father Zossima and later Alexey Karamazov. In the face of uncertainty, active love allows both these men to imagine themselves into the future. They are set off from the man who waits in fearful certainty to be executed, he who submits passively to the fate of the future. It would seem that to hope is to act, just as to imagine is to take action in the present towards the future. He who hopes moves within the boundaries, the restrictions, and the contours of the present towards the future in action. His hope is to escape, to make that possibility a reality, but only as it is in line with the present reality of his situation, namely, the attack by brigands. He moves towards the possibilities of his future in a way that is not open to the man who knows for certain that he will soon die. In his case there is no move towards the future. He remains submissive, passive, as the future comes rushing towards him in a way not unlike the speeding train from Warsaw to Petersburg. This man can only wait with foreboding for the brooding certainty of the future to race into the present. The air of the present is still and waits for the rumbling of the future to draw near. This man's future is absolute and certain. It freezes him. He cannot move in time. Time only can move and it moves threateningly toward him. No ambiguity exists; thus no hope or imagination is possible. His fear would seem to negate the imaginal. His future is in one way perfect because it is already complete. But it is frightening. Therefore, he sits and waits in fear; he can do nothing more.

I have dwelt at some length on this first story of Myshkin's because I believe there is a strong analogy between this second man and Myshkin. Like the man who can predict the future with certainty, the prince will with increasing frequency both foretell and forebode the future. But throughout it all he will remain submissive, showing a kind of pseudoacceptance. Janko Lavrin in fact claims that Myshkin never shows a backbone or a will of his own; he is constantly swayed “either by the impulses of his over-sensitive heart, or else by childlike, even childish trustfulness.”9 Mysykin's power is, superficially, a kind of prophetic quality, but because it has not been understood by most critics within the total temporal world of the prince, it has led some mistakenly to consider it as further proof of Myshkin's Christ-likeness. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, for example, believes that Myshkin's “pitying love, understanding all, pardons all,”10 while Vyacheslav Ivanov claims that Prince Myshkin “has a sunshine clear, divinely illuminated eye for all that is visible.”11 Maurice Friedman, however, looks more closely at the prince and observes that while “Myshkin's intuitions are correct, his merely conscious mind is wrong. … He reverts often to periods of abstract intellectuality in which he tries to shame himself.”12 Examples of Myshkin's prophetic power occur with utmost subtlety throughout the entire work. As carefully placed progressions of effect, these less significant references to the prince and temporality nevertheless build to form an important piece of his puzzling character.

One such instance occurs again in this same scene with the Yepanchin servant. Here the servant illustrates his uneasiness over Myshkin's foreign manners:

“Are you really … from abroad?” he asked, almost in spite of himself, and was confused.

He had been about to ask, “Are you really Prince Myshkin?”

“Yes, I have only just come from the station. I think you were going to ask, ‘am I really Prince Myshkin’ but you didn't ask out of politeness.”

“Hm!” grunted the astounded lackey.

(p. 18)

Shortly thereafter, the prince is presented to General Yepanchin, who tells him that he has little time for new acquaintances. The prince's response cuts through the general's thoughts: “‘That's just what I expected … that you would look for some special object in my visit,’” (p. 26) and almost immediately thereafter follows this confession:

“And would you believe it, General, although I know nothing of practical life, nor of the customs here, nor of the way people live here, yet I felt sure that this was how it was bound to be. Well, perhaps that's how it should be.”

(p. 27)

Myshkin's gentle, naive rebuke, filled with its certainty of how the future would turn out, completely disarms the general, who invites him to stay and meet his wife.

What is important for this study in these exchanges is their illustration of the prince's growing certainty about his own future in a way similar to that of the man who is to be executed. Myshkin has apparently thought out beforehand how he will present himself and what response he will elicit. His world is already planned and ordered. He knows how things will be because his world is crafted in such a way as to yield particular responses. But his certainty breeds a feeling of sterility, a lack of joy and enthusiasm in life, that grows as Myshkin is gripped more forcefully by this strange world of Petersburg.

Now that he has set in motion one of the primary themes of the novel, Dostoevsky will continue to introduce variations on his spatio-temporal melody, always with the idiot as his central instrument. In addition, Myshkin's innocence is developed further when, having befriended General Yepanchin, who has offered his help, the prince happily boasts of his skill as a calligrapher. Eager for an example of his work, the general gives him some pens and enjoins the prince: “‘Write at that little table’” (p. 29). In this scene Dostoevsky brilliantly juxtaposes two dimensions of lived space to carry forward his theme. He balances the tight, constricted space Myshkin inhabits in the world with the larger, more expansive space of Switzerland. The latter is the space of Myshkin's private world, a world more adapted to a child, a space he will yearn for and attempt to reconstruct in this world. All of this, I believe, is in preparation for the stories which he is soon to relate to the Yepanchin daughters and Lizaveta. Dostoevsky accomplishes this juxtaposition by placing on the wall of the Yepanchins' study a picture of a Swiss landscape which Myshkin immediately recognizes. What adds to the development of Myshkin's own portrait at this point is the childlike manner in which he delights at General Yepanchin's plethora of writing materials. He responds to them with enthusiasm immediately before he reacts to the Swiss landscape:

“You've got such splendid writing materials, and what numbers of pens and pencils, and what splendid thick paper … And what a jolly study!”

(p. 29)

Then, almost immediately, he sees the picture:

“I know that landscape, it's a view of a place in Switzerland. I am sure the artist painted it from nature, and I'm certain I've seen the place—it's in the Canton of Uri …”

(p. 29)

With masterful craft Dostoevsky draws Myshkin's world suddenly together: his childlikeness, his certainty, the world of the Yepanchins and the world of Switzerland. In innocent delight, seated at a little writing table too small for him, and beneath the picture of the expansive Swiss landscape, Myshkin copies the handwriting and signature of a medieval monk, Abbot Pafnuty. He will remain in this artfully rendered spatial interplay of two worlds until he is introduced to Madame Yepanchin and her three daughters.

Thus far, then, Myshkin has moved from the cramped quarters of the railroad car to the small anteroom of the Yepanchins' home. Now he is introduced to the general's wife, after occupying the cramped space of the little writing desk. Again the spatial surroundings will remain tight and restricted. For shortly after Myshkin is introduced to Madame Yepanchin, she suggests that the prince, she, and her three daughters retire, as she explains, “to my little drawing room where we all meet when alone and each does her work. Alexandra plays the piano, Adelaida paints, and Aglaia does nothing” (p. 32). Here he will enter into the feminine world of the Muses, into the space of art and beauty, elements that are at the origin of Myshkin's fantasy that beauty alone will save the world. This fantasy is given its first expression in the stories he is about to relate to these sisters, representatives of three graces in the culture.13

First, however, Myshkin's somewhat doubtful relative wishes to have a better look at her foreign relation “who has fits.” On first meeting him she commands: “‘Sit here prince, here on this easychair opposite me; no, here. Move into the sun, nearer the light, so that I may see you’” (p. 53). Lizaveta's words carry a double meaning; first, through them Myshkin comes into the light, clear space of the social world; second, her words introduce a quest that Lizaveta alone will undergo throughout the novel, namely, to see the prince. For almost without exception it is Liaveta who finally begins to see and to understand Myshkin less as an incarnate man who descends full of good will and innocence into the society than as a daimon, or as a metaphor for fantasy itself, as well as an embodiment of a particular fantasy, that of the child and of innocence, of man before the fall in the garden. In this sense Lizaveta discovers the pre-Christian, primitive force that exaggerates the already existing groundlessness of an age which has lost the sense of the earth, of its tradition, and its God. She will finally become aware of him not as a public Christ, but as a private, diseased element that discourages a sense of commonality, since he has no awareness of sin, of man's fallen nature, with its hope in the promise of a risen Christ. Embedded in all of this, as we shall learn from his story of Marie, is the prince's fundamental misunderstanding of human love as it both participates in man's finiteness and implicates the love of God. He, however, having dropped out of eternity, out of a world that he has created for himself in Switzerland, is not prepared to accept the imperfections with which the common world of man is laden. The “dynamics of collision,”14 to borrow Georg Lukacs's phrase, includes the absolute quality of perfection suddenly tested by the weightiness and sluggishness of a more human, temporal world in which man can only hope for final perfection. Certainly Dostoevsky was aware of the strain inherent in such a collision when he wrote to his niece, Sofia:

The basic idea [of The Idiot] is the representation of a truly perfect and noble man. And this is more difficult than anything else in the world, particularly nowadays. All writers … who have sought to represent Absolute Beauty, were unequal to the task, for it is an infinitely difficult one. The beautiful is the ideal; but ideals, with us as in civilized Europe, have long been wavering. There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ.15

We must question at the end of this exploration into the significance of Prince Myshkin and his effects on the community of Petersburg, whether Dostoevsky did succeed in creating perfection or if, as R. P. Blackmur suggests, “Dostoevsky's intellectual ideas were overturned by his fidelity to the imagination.”16

So far, then, we have learned something about Myshkin's reaction to the shared, public world of men. What is yet to be shown is the prince's memory of Switzerland's climate. Here within the narrow space of the little drawing room, Myshkin recalls his former world, one which he has no desire, it would seem, to relinquish.

We should recall here those tired-looking, yellowed faces of the people on that morning Warsaw-to-Petersburg train as Myshkin begins to re-create his illness and recuperation in Switzerland. He relates his impressions to the Yepanchins:

“I soon began to get well. Then every day became precious to me, and more precious as time went on, so that I began to notice it. I used to go to bed very happy and get up happier still. But it would be hard to say why.

(p. 57)

The follows immediately a description of the setting and of his wanderings in the Swiss mountains:

“There was a waterfall there, a small one; it came down from a great height, such a thin thread, almost perpendicular—foaming, white and noisy. Though it fell from a great height it didn't seem so high; it was a third of a mile off, but it only looked about fifty paces away. I used to like listening to the sound of it at night. At such moments I was sometimes overcome with great restlessness; sometimes too at midday I wandered on the mountains, and stood alone halfway up a mountain surrounded by great ancient resinous pine trees; on the crest of the rock an old medieval castle in ruins; our little village far, far below, scarcely visible; bright sunshine, blue sky, and the terrible stillness. At such times I felt something was calling me away, and I kept fancying that if I walked straight on, far, far away and reached that line where sky and earth meet, there I should find the key to the mystery, there I should see a new life a thousand times richer and more turbulent than ours. I dreamt of some great town like Naples, full of palaces, noise, uproar, life. And I dreamt of all sorts of things, indeed. But afterwards I fancied one might find a wealth of life even in prison.

(pp. 57-58)

In this last sentence are echoes of another character who in disposition is not unlike Prince Myshkin. As Richard II waits for death in Pomfret castle, he too begins to fantasy a whole world:

I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world: And for because the world is populous And here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out. My brain I'll prove the female to my soul, My soul the father; and these two beget A generation of still-breeding thoughts, And these same thoughts people this little world, In humours like the people of this world, For no thought is contented.17

Both these figures share one common quality. Both ignore the shared world of men for an idea of the world which they find more attractive. Through an excess of fantasy Richard loses his kingdom and his life, even as Myshkin loses all contact with the human community.

As yet Myshkin has not been in any serious conflict with the world of Petersburg. He believes at this point that though he is unaccustomed to the climate, the customs, and the social interplays with men, this new world is not greatly removed from the landscape of mountains, rainbows, and waterfalls from whence he has only now descended. His initial comparison of these two worlds, therefore, finds them basically similar. Juxtaposed against his old world is the prison-like world in which he presently finds himself, one, however, that may also offer him a wealth of life, as he says. Indeed, the spaces Myshkin has occupied up to now have been closed, with confined, restricted boundaries. The motive behind his comparison, however, leads one to believe that for him, the old, ordered, perfect world is easily accessible within this new, less-perfect world of man. His wish is to reconstruct the old and familiar within the new and unfamiliar. He does not yet realize how incompatible his two worlds will become, for his past burns bright in his memory. Aglaia Yepanchin, however, pulls him quickly out of his visionary fantasy and back to the reality of the drawing room:

“That last edifying reflection I read when I was twelve in my reader” said Aglaia.

to which Adelaida seconds: “‘That's all philosophy’” (p. 60).

For the first time since entering Petersburg, Myshkin's own idea of the world meets, in a “dynamics of collision,” the common world. His dream finds unfriendly opposition from reality. Throughout the remainder of the novel, Myshkin will slowly collapse the space between his vision of an innocent paradise and the temporal, purgatorial world on earth. Later he will decide that dream and reality are but the same, that what is fantastic is actually reality, and that the real is the ground of fantasy.18 For the present, however, I wish to pursue the beginnings of this tension between Myshkin's dream and the Yepanchins' reality.

Earlier we noted Myshkin's description of that eternal point where earth and sky meet. An illusory line, it defies habitation. Nonetheless, although non-existent, it promises the prince a solution to the mystery of life. To reach this line is to eliminate the ambiguity of life and to dwell in the charity of Apollonian certainty. Aglaia, however, breaks the charm of Myshkin's fantasy, and between these two the incompatibility of dream with reality emerges and is carried forward in the stories of the criminals destined to be executed. Again these stories are allegorical counterpoints to the main action of the narrative. What we shall learn from these anecdotes of the prince will carry us back to his discourse on capital punishment—which doubles as an expression of Myshkin's own limited relation to the world—and forward to his relationship with Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin.

There is another dimension to these two stories of men who are preparing to be executed which may help to clarify the character of Myshkin as a force promoting fantasy. That is, the first story he tells—of a man about to be shot, but reprieved at the last moment—is real. It is, in other words, a remembered experience of a man whom the prince met, as he says, a year earlier. The second story, however, involving a man facing the guillotine, is imagined. The two narrations serve to contrast two worlds, one given, the other constructed through fantasy. Myshkin's keen interest in the first man's story is significant; he hold a particular fascination for the prince. Speaking of the moments immediately before the execution, Myshkin tells the Yepanchin women:

“I was always eager to listen when he recalled his sensations at that time, and several times I questioned him about it. He remembered it all with extraordinary distinctness and used to say that he would never forget those minutes.

(p. 58)

According to Myshkin's account, the condemned man is led to the execution post with only minutes to live. But those five minutes, he later tells Myshkin, “seemed an infinite time, a vast wealth” (p. 59). We notice that those five minutes contain an aura of infinity only because the man lives with “the fullest conviction” that he will certainly die. His fear of death, his foreboding of what the future harbors, brings him to fantasize on the infiniteness of his last five minutes. In other words, he seeks the infinite by denying the temporal reality of those five minutes. But it is a violation of human temporality, constructed in order to allow for an escape from the certainty of the future. This fantasy increases in proportion to time's continual passing. When, for instance, only two minutes remain to him, the man finds and fixes his gaze on a nearby church's “gilt cupola” which glitters in the bright sunshine:

“He remembered that he stared very persistently at that cupola and the light flashing from it; he could not tear himself away from the rays. It seemed to him that those rays were his new nature and that in three minutes he would somehow merge with them.”

(p. 59)

Notice for a moment the similarity between this narration and the one earlier of the prince's experience in the Swiss mountains. In the earlier description there was the bright sunshine and the glittering rays. They shine, however, on a thin waterfall, on a sliver of light rather than on a church. Most important, though, is that both descriptions deal with a desire to merge with eternity, to break from the normal limits of human temporality. And both are early images, still incomplete, of Myshkin's vision of light and sense of timelessness immediately preceding his epileptic fits. Myshkin's desire was to merge with the line on the horizon wherein earth and sky meet, just as the condemned man fantasizes merging with the sun's rays. Both descriptions are fantastic; both are visions of unearthly worlds that erase or subordinate the concrete, specific quality of earthly reality. Both, finally, hint at angelic visions of beauty and harmony impossible within human time. The realization of both images is possible only outside the spatio-temporal unity as the field for human action. The condemned man's fantasy goads him on to consider how he would live if he were suddenly reprieved:

“What if I could go back to life—what eternity! And it would be all mine! I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one.”

Myshkin suddenly ceased speaking: everyone expected him to go on and draw some conclusion.

“Have you finished?” asked Aglaia.

“What? Yes,” said Myshkin, rousing himself from momentary dreaminess.

(p. 59)

Again, Aglaia pulls the prince back to earth. She will not be seduced by these ethereal flights of fantasy, at least not yet. More interesting in their exchange, however, is the fact that the man of whom Myshkin speaks is granted a reprieve. The world as it exists in its finiteness, its impurity and its ambivalence, is given back to him. The prince does not seem pleased with this development, for as he has been fully agreeable to the above fantasy, he does not warm to the reprieved man's later observation that one cannot live time as if it were eternal, nor can he be conscious of every passing moment. Temporality and eternity are not mutually exclusive, but neither are they identical or simultaneous. When Adalaida asks Myshkin if his friend were then able to live his “infinite life,” as he has planned, the prince answers:

“Oh no, he told me himself. I asked him about that too. He didn't live like that at all; he wasted many, many minutes.”

“Well, there you have a test,” concludes Alexandra. “So it seems impossible really to live ‘counting each moment.’ There must be a reason why it's impossible.”

“Yes, for some reason it is impossible,” repeated Myshkin. “I thought so myself … and yet somehow I can't believe it …”

(p. 60)

To be involved or enmeshed in human life is to be in human time. Human experience would seem to follow the contours of time's profile. To attempt to be fully conscious of each passing moment, however, is to lift one's self out of any significant involvement with human life. It is to hover above full participation with the world. Myshkin's own use of his calligraphic skills places him in just such a relationship with life. In speaking of time's unfolding, Merleau-Ponty suggests that time in its unity of past-present-future “needs a synthesis continually fresh, and any idea that all time can be brought to completion involves the negation of time.”19 Myshkin's growing conviction, however, is that by escaping time, by changing the structure of lived temporality in this world, he may reach a timeless order and a spaceless dimension where earth and sky meet. Almost as if to refute his idea, Merleau-Ponty says of this view: “The feeling for eternity is a hypocritical one, for eternity feeds on time. Eternity is a time that belongs to dreaming; dream refers back to waking life from which it borrows all its structures.”20

These insights help to express more clearly Myshkin's confused dialectic between dream and reality, between time and eternity. He willingly embraces the reprieved man's fantasy while denying this same man's later negation of that fantasy. In so doing he would seem to deny reality. His acceptance of the world is measured not by the shared spatio-temporal structures of the public world, but by how faithfully it follows the contours of his own fantastic vision. He seeks absolute immutability within relative change. For all of his innocence, the naive prince shows a disrespect for the world as it is given. As an alternative he proposes to improve on it by means of beauty in art. His final execution story, the third in the execution trilogy, moves his intentions closer to the surface.

In this last story Myshkin tells of a man who is to be guillotined. Unlike the narration we have just discussed, this final tale is based on how Myshkin imagines it to be. The man is taken from his prison cell and out through the streets of the town to the scaffold. The prince offers this fantastic observation:

“I think that he too must have thought he had an endless time left to live, while he was being driven through the town. He must have thought on the way, ‘There's a long time left, three streets more. I shall pass along this one, then along the next, then there's that one left where there's a baker on the right … It'll be a long time before we get to the baker's”. … So it must have been.

(p. 62)

Along with his description Myshkin offers the following reflection:

“I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one's eyes and wait, come what may …”

(p. 63)

His final reflection here already begins to prepare us for his own immobile, submissive condition in the garden later. The garden as an alter-image to that of the city is like Switzerland, a spatial metaphor for a fantasy of innocence, of eternity. It offers detachment from the world of public action. We shall return to this image shortly. The description above, however, offers a paradigm of the theme. It is a compendium for the spatio-temporal dimension under consideration, and I believe it works in the following way: the doomed man feels the future move threateningly to greet him. He seeks to create an infinite amount of time and space between himself and his certain future by fantasizing these dimensions out of proportion. His wish is to constrict his own sense of proportion to these structures on which rests human life, structures that have their own proportionate form. Myshkin's own fantasy intrudes itself now with a frenzy, heightened only by its somewhat gruesomely comic end:

“And only fancy, it's still disputed whether, when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off! What an idea! And what if it knows it for five seconds!”

(p. 63)

After his fantastic speculation Myshkin appears less innocent to the reader than before. He delights in his own fantasy with more vigor than he shows in his fear of the present. To stop time, to create a semblance of eternity, he almost shouts his command to Adelaida to paint this man kissing the crucifix greedily only moments before his death. By doing so Myshkin attempts to stop the certainty of the future through craft, and now, through art. One suspects that for the prince, art, in its expression of beauty, may be a way to circumvent the process of change that is at the root of the temporal world. He wishes to stop action, to halt the burden of time in his world. For him, art can serve precisely this function. Adalaida's painting will freeze human life in time and space, and make it bearable for Myshkin.

Finally, in a comic reply to the prince's high fantasy and rather morbid frenzy, one of the Yepanchin daughters snaps Myshkin out of his fantastic speculation:

“And now tell us about when you were in love,” said Adelaida.

Myshkin looked at her with astonishment.

(p. 63)

His ecstatic, frenzied vision is jolted by the violent intrusion of the common world. And from his fantasies on death Myshkin prepares to relate his experience with the peasant girl Marie, an experience in which infinite pity substitutes for the richer, yet more imperfect response of human love. Another dimension of Myshkin's world unfolds in this story, at once a composite of his misunderstanding of human love as well as a description of his greater closeness to the world of childhood than to the adult world. In his narration the reader is made aware of Myshkin's angelic view of human life, one in which, as an image, the child is seen as superior in understanding, awareness, and wisdom.

In addition, the story is important for another reason. For the figure of Marie in Switzerland finds its allegorical fulfillment in Nastasya Filippovna, in the same manner that the previous stories on death are eventually resolved to bring about a change in Myshkin through Nastasya's death. Thus, in a brilliant narrative maneuver, Dostoevsky unfolds Myshkin's past and future simultaneously. This same maneuver Dante uses with equal force in the Commedia. But whereas Dante describes the state of souls after death to reveal a person's history in life, Dostoevsky has Prince Myshkin relate his past with Marie in order to anticipate his future end with Nastasya. And just as Beatrice serves as a controlling image for the pilgrim Dante, so too does Nastasya, even in her physical absence, draw Myshkin the wanderer towards human love. The bond between Marie and Nastasya is strengthened when the prince privately kisses Nastasya's portrait almost immediately after he tells his story of Marie.

He first recounts his intimacy with the child's world in Switzerland. Children, he believes, are able to understand everything in life:

“Nothing should be concealed from children on the pretext that they are too little and that it is too early for them to understand … Grown-up people do not know that a child can give good advice even in the most difficult cases.”

(p. 67)

For Myshkin children are equal to adults in their ability to understand. For him they are perfect creatures for whom all is possible. He testifies that he and the children were the only ones who truly understand Marie, a young girl who, having run away with a “French commercial traveller” and having been cast off by him, returns to the town only to be brutally rejected and punished. While the community condemns her, Myshkin and his following of forty children take pity on her and “save” her from the callous treatment of the town. Because of his pity, Myshkin believes, Marie finally dies happy and at peace. We should not be too eager, however, to accept the prince's interpretation of this important remembered experience as the only one, much less as the most accurate one. Rather, Myshkin's interpretation is an ironic admission of his misunderstanding of sin, with its attendant guilt and shame, an attitude he will carry into his relation with Nastasya. Marie's shadow in the past falls across the face of Nastasya in the future. Contrary to Myshkin's fantasy, Marie would not seem to be quite as innocent as he would wish us or the Yepanchin household to believe. In fact, the problem of understanding innocence is at the source of the prince's interpretation of both Marie and the children.21 For neither the prince nor the children understand the code of a community, nor do they allow Marie to be penitent. Unknowingly they strive to deny her the guilt and punishment for her sin. The community offers her expiation. Its members, however cruel, know that retribution is the only way for a person to be reinstated into the family of society. Equally ironic, in the very act of denying Marie her shame and guilt for her violation of the communal code, Myshkin and the children become part of the penance Marie must bear until she is overcome by consumption and dies, much as Nastasya must suffer the burden of innocence through the prince until she finally rushes to her own death at Rogozhin's hand. In her suffering and death Marie brings into sharp relief the world of the childlike prince with his attitude more akin to the flawless beauty of man's original parents in Eden before their fall into imperfection and time. His stay in Russia becomes an education into the purgatorial world of the human community that should recognize man's fallenness. He increasingly denies the latter world, however, in order to save the appearance of an untainted innocence.

After her fall into sin, Marie returns to the community hungry and in rags, having been abandoned by her lover. She is treated harshly by the town and by her mother, an invalid to whose swollen legs Marie ministers even while suffering the old woman's abuses. The conflict, however, is between Myshkin's own fantasy of innocence which he forces on Marie, and the girl's need for penance and for re-acceptance into the community. The prince does not understand that retribution is necessary; Marie is not guiltless. He remains unaware of the violation which she had committed against the moral code, a communal form that helps to sustain society by fostering within it an experience of unity that Marie knows herself to be guilty of violating. She accepts her punishment in silence, realizing that, harsh though it is, the society that executes that punishment is just.

When the drunken men throw Marie money on Sundays, after her mother has died and she has been chastised publicly in church, Myshkin and his following of enchanted children do not recognize this action as one of the ways in which the town supports her. It is not idle entertainment on the part of the men, but a way, however crude, of caring for the girl. The prince fails likewise to see the cowherd's act of giving Marie her bread and cheese as a gesture of charity and kindness. After she has begun to reinstate herself in the community by tending his flock, Marie's suffering, however, is made almost unbearable by Myshkin and the children's constant declaration of her innocence. Through their ignorance they and not the townspeople are unjust in wishing Marie to deny her wrong. Myshkin describes his meeting with Marie beside a row of hedges outside the town:

“Then I gave her eight francs and told her to take care of it, because I would have no more. Then I kissed her and said that she must not think I had any evil intent, and that I kissed her not because I was in love with her, but because I was very sorry for her, and that I had never, from the beginning, thought of her as guilty, but only as unhappy. I wanted very much to comfort her at once, and to persuade her that she shouldn't consider herself below every one, but I think she didn't understand.”

(p. 69)

Marie's reaction to Myshkin's innocent intentions is interesting. Myshkin says that after his declaration “she hardly spoke and stood before me with downcast eyes and looked horribly abashed. When I had finished she kissed my hand …” (p. 71). Marie exhibits patience and gratitude toward the prince even in her suffering. It would be more accurate to say that here Marie forgives Myshkin his innocence rather than his forgiving her her sins. For she wishes to accept her guilt, her own willingness to be seduced by the flesh. She has no intention of promoting herself as a victim of the traveller, neither does she wish to be pitied or comforted. The prince's pity is degrading because it is offered without love. On the other hand, severe though their treatment is, the townspeople love Marie, even as they seek justice. Furthermore, just as Myshkin is, as Yermilov observes, “incapable of offering Nastasya an earthly human love,”22 so there he is without the human capability of giving Marie a love which accepts her humanness, her fallen nature. Human love, it would seem, cannot coexist with perfection; rather it rests precisely on man's imperfection and his need for grace and love from God. But whereas Christ accepted the flesh in love, Myshkin denies it. His discarnate love allows him only to reach the level of purity, a pale substitute for embodied love. His pity and his innocence allow him to remain abstracted from the world; in such an attitude he escapes all the attendant pains of being human.

Marie, however, accepts both the finiteness and the pain of her human nature and embraces the burden of her guilt.23 In a way she refuses to relinquish her guilt in order to preserve her integrity. Myshkin's kiss of pity only deepens her suffering at his hands. Later, when she tries to be alone with her sin approaching death, the children and the prince seek her out on the tiny ledge where she has apparently hoped to escape their cries of innocence.

Finally, when consumption begins to destroy her, the community comes to her aid. They accept her once more, and the women of the town attend her in her illness. She has paid for her sins and is once more re-integrated into the community. She is not pitied but loved and is cared for in the same manner as was her mother. But the children besiege her even at the moment of her death; beating around her windows like birds, they allow her no peace in her dying moments. Nevertheless Myshkin believes that, thanks to them, “she forgot her bitter troubles; they brought her, as it were, forgiveness, for up to the very end she looked upon herself as a great sinner” (p. 71).

Marie manages to preserve the condition of her human failings against the frequent offers of exculpation and pity. But in his recounting of her story Myshkin has shown himself to be relentless in his compassion uninformed by love. He attempts to restore Marie to her unfallen condition rather than to love her in her sinfulness. While Marie repents and suffers for her sins, she nevertheless hopes, an action which is contrary to the prince's denial of the flesh and of sin and repentance. It is she who sufferingly forgives him his impossible ideal. We must remember Marie when we encounter Nastasya, for this tortured woman's circumstances have their parallel in this central tale of Myshkin's. Something of love's wholeness is absent in the hearts of both her “lovers,” Myshkin and Rogozhin, and through them, in the entire community of Petersburg of which they are exaggerated reflections.24 In her madness Nastasya is aware of this lack and dies because of this knowledge.

Dostoevsky, however, does not depict the human community in an entirely hopeless light. In the small Swiss village, when Marie dies, the pastor no longer condemns her, and the adults carry the coffin in the funeral procession to her grave. The ceremony marking her death is a communal rite, as is Nastasya's wedding when she appears on the steps of her boarding house and is praised by the entire town. In death and in love the community is able to come together in shared ritual. We should notice too, that in Marie's funeral the children try to carry her coffin, but its weight is overwhelming. They are not adequate as bearers of death, and, in another sense, they are not adequate to understanding the implications of sin and man's finiteness. Before leaving this story I would only add one further observation concerning its significance. In his narration Myshkin is unaware of his own naive attitude towards Marie's guilt. The Yepanchins never even question his interpretation. But in his own private interpretation he is related to the Petersburg society, to use Ortega's excellent metaphor in speaking of Quixote, as the watery vapors of a mirage are related to the parched earth that gives it expression.25 The dry land, hungry for water, offers up to the seer the fantasy of water, producing thereby an illusion of precisely the element it lacks. This image, offering a suggestive form of fantastic realism, is an expression of Myshkin's own relation to the modern world in which he finds himself. He is a distorted or illusory image of fulfillment for what the arid land needs and desires. For through his naive interpretation of Marie, Myshkin does illustrate the need of a person to make reparation for a sin against the community and its moral code. When the law has been violated, suffering and contrition must mend the moral rift in the fabric of the town. In his short-sighted, childlike interpretation of Marie's experience and of the community's reaction, Myshkin unknowingly points out the truth of a culture's relation to its members. Furthermore, it points out the weakness of the flesh and the necessary hope for forgiveness. Here is the underlying truth of the prince's story though he remains unaware of it. His fantasy image of unfallen man—of man as an innocent child, and of children as innocent adults—still portrays a truthful relationship of man to community and to God. Paradoxically, as the prince denies Marie's guilt, he simultaneously affirms it to his audience, for he is a keen observer. His effects are almost always hidden from himself.

We might here begin to understand Dostoevsky's vision of human life, one which, if we use Dante's terms, sets the world neither in heaven nor in hell, but in purgatory. Its unfolding is always a combination of fantasy and reality, a mixture which is best expressed through the play of allegory. Through his own fantastic presence, Prince Myshkin gives expression to the true condition of the society which he enters and disrupts. He is like the stone thrown into the clear pool which brings up from its depths the mud and silt resting at the bottom.

The kiss which Myshkin gives to the portrait of Nastasya almost immediately after relating his story of Marie poetically confirms the relationship between Nastasya and Marie. In addition, both the stories told earlier, and now in the Marie narrative, the themes of love and death occur through which the prince will journey as he rouses the entire society and leads them towards Rogozhin's room and Nastasya's dead body. The portrait is an image of beauty which Myshkin seems at once to desire and to blame himself for desiring because of the “compassion” which it arouses in him. He gazes at it alone, as he did with Marie before kissing her:

Her dazzling beauty was almost unbearable—the beauty of a pale face, almost sunken cheeks and glowing eyes—a strange beauty! Myshkin gazed at it for a moment, then suddenly, looked around him, hurriedly raised the portrait to his lips and kissed it. When he walked into the drawing-room a minute later, his face was perfectly calm.

(p. 79)

Even this brief description indicates that in appearance Nastasya is a combination of both Rogozhin and Myshkin. She has the prince's sunken cheeks and pale face, but Rogozhin's glowing eyes. Her situation is similar to Marie's, with the French commercial traveller replaced by Totsky, a wealthy middle-aged merchant who saw to Nastasya's education. For four years she was tutored by a “respectable and cultivated Swiss governess” (p. 41). Later she became her benefactor's concubine and finally denounced him and her actions as his harlot. Like Marie, Nastasya seeks not exculpation so much as an opportunity to repent. Instead she is treated in one of three ways: as an object of merchandise by Ganya and General Yepanchin, as an erotic object by Rogozhin and Totsky, or by Myshkin as a victim of life's circumstances, as innocence soiled unwillingly, hence not responsible for her actions. Her world of Petersburg is a mercantile one which reduces everything human to profit or passion. Compared to the world of Marie's village it is a community in decay. In the families of the Yepanchins, the Ivolgins, and the Lebedevs, no solidarity or unity is to be found. The heads of families have no authority; General Yepanchin lusts after Nastasya; General Ivolgin lives in reverie, confusing his past with newspaper accounts of experiences he has read. He mixes dreams with actual past occurrences and is encouraged by Myshkin to accept these fantasies as real. The women struggle to maintain the home, but relations between man and woman are strained, one-sided, and unsteady. Individual causes replace a common love; marriages are joyless, lacking gaiety, imagination and free-spiritedness.26

The community as a whole is described as a huddled crowd or anonymous persons:

It was still thawing [when General Ivolgin and Myshkin later seek out Nastasya's house]. A warm, muggy depressing wind whistled up and down the streets. … Crowds of wet and dejected people wandered along the sidewalks. There were drunks among them.”

(p. 118)

As the novel progresses, the atmosphere becomes more charged with intrigues and plots against individuals or groups amidst a carnival-grotesque setting. People appear out of balance, in need of reasserting individual responsibility for their actions. It is in this world of desperation and dreams, but of little love, that Nastasya seeks penitential suffering for her sins. For her, however, there is no sense of communitas, of a code, or of an opportunity to suffer as is possible in Marie's village. Myshkin's description of the village points out what is absent in Petersburg. The elders of Petersburg chase fantastic schemes, for they have not the wisdom gained from their own histories. Often they are ruled by the children who are filled with individual opinion but with little experience and learning. General Ivolgin, the Yepanchins, Lebedev are all depicted as childish, governed often by passion and fancy, divorced from the earth, from the wisdom of the soil, starved for excitement, seeing themselves as respectable, right-minded and incapable of error.

When Aglaia Yepanchin exclaims, after Myshkin relates his stories to them, that “the prince is a democrat” (p. 82), she indicts an entire epoch. The prince is that indicted age's most fantastic witness, for it has produced him. When he enters the community full of visions of paradisal harmony, he believes that only one duty is expected of him: “‘I will be kind and compassionate to all that I meet … nothing more can be expected of me’” (p. 112).27 How well is he able to sustain his idea of compassion and beauty when he meets in embodied form the ideal of beauty and perfection in Nastasya Filippovna? For now Myshkin is about to re-live, but this time in the temporal world with Nastasya, his relation with Marie. Complete human love which originates in the world of things, and through them ascends to a higher love of the spirit, is here divorced. C. S. Lewis's distinction between several kinds of human love helps reveal Rogozhin's passion for Nastasya. He writes in The Four Loves:

“Love which leads to cruel perjured unions, suicide pacts, and murder may well be Eros in all his splendor; heartbreakingly sincere; ready for every sacrifice but renunciation.”

A few pages later Lewis adds what may be a partial answer to the identity of both Myshkin and Rogozhin: “Eros, honored without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon” (p. 154).28

In their first encounter at the home of General Ivolgin, Myshkin sees in Nastasya his earlier portrait of Marie combined with the demonic gaze of Rogozhin. The image of his ideal takes on the embodied form of woman as it expresses the passionate eroticism of Rogozhin. The prince admits to her:

“And you were just as I had imagined you. … I feel as though I had seen you somewhere too.”


“I feel as though I had seen your eyes somewhere … but that's impossible. That's nonsense … I've never been here before. Perhaps in a dream. …”

(p. 100)

To which the buffoon Ferdyshchenko responds:

“Bravo prince! Yes, I take back my ‘se non e vero! But it's all his innocence,” he added regretfully.”

(p. 100)

Certainly Nastasya is the incarnate form of his dream image of perfection and of beauty, as he will tell her explicitly at her party. But almost as if to deny the prince his dream image, his Dulcinea, Rogozhin suddenly bursts through the door surrounded by his underworld retinue of fighters, drunks, fops and military men, including “a fat man and a giant” (p. 106); in short, an entire army of carnival characters who together exhibit a cross section of the world. His eyes and his insolent manner are like those of Nastasya. And yet, when the prince, after having protected Varya Ivolgin from her brother's slap and having been subsequently struck himself by Ganya for interfering, turns on Nastasya and asks of her flippant behavior:

“Aren't you ashamed? Surely you are not what you are pretending to be now? It isn't possible!” cried Myshkin, suddenly with deep and heartfelt reproach.

(p. 110)

She responds with a slow smile:

“I really am not like this, he guessed right,” she said in a rapid eager whisper, flushing hotly; and turning around, she walked out so quickly that no one had time to realize what she had come back for.

(p. 110)

In her paradoxical behavior and complex motives, Nastasya is frequently—and justly characterized as “a riddle.”

Here in this scene as in several others throughout the narrative, Myshkin has spoken the truth. He has intuited a quality of Nastasya's ambivalent soul hidden from others. Ganya's words are appropriate here, for he tells the prince after they have been reconciled: “‘You notice what other people never see’” (p. 112). Perhaps fantasy has a quality of seeing without knowing. Myshkin never reflects on what he sees, or intuits, and therefore does not come to a new understanding of his experiences. Below the surface of Nastasya's insolent behavior, inviting scorn and rejection, is a yearning for acceptance, which the prince glimpses. Everyone else has come to accept as real and normal the unpredictable, often cruel, behavior of this hardened woman who delights in surrounding herself, like Rogozhin, with a host of fantastic characters who live on the edge of the community. Myshkin intuits her fantastic behavior as a mask hiding another possibility, namely, that of a woman yearning for love and understanding. But most importantly, she desires an opportunity to suffer contrition for her life as Totsky's concubine and as Rogozhin's kept woman.

Yet even in his recognition of this dimension in Nastasya's soul, the prince moves to the other extreme and imposes his own fantasy of perfection and beauty on the fallen woman. He refuses to accept her in her sinfulness. He loves the perfect expression of beauty expressed in the photograph while he denies the incarnate concrete person of Nastasya who is capable of cruelty and sin. He therefore offers to her his own naive innocence as a way of rejecting her guilt; but she, like Marie, cannot accept his interpretation of her. Is she not then forced to hold both Myshkin and Rogozhin at bay? The reality of Rogozhin, the image of absolute brute force and of passion, is too much alive in her. Her life is a drama between two absolute ways of being in the world: between Rogozhin as her image of lust and lost faith, and Myshkin as her image of innocence, and paradisal harmony. We might speak of Myshkin and Rogozhin as two possible forms human love may take: one which totalizes the flesh and the other which totalizes the spirit.29 Together they hold promise of finding a love proportionate and balanced. Separated they represent absolute tendencies of love as either excessive or distorted in their expression. As such both represent a source of sin and despair, as Dante describes disproportionate love in the Inferno.

Nastasya suffers intensely because she incorporates into her life both contending forms of love in human experience; in fact, the narrator makes clear her intention when he observes that

“She showed a savage mingling of two tastes, a capacity for being satisfied and putting up with things and means of which one would have supposed that a well-bred and refined person would not admit the existence.”

(p. 125)

She is the elegant lady surrounded by buffoons, clowns and a varied assortment of the ill-bred dregs of the culture. Her two tastes, I believe, are those two qualities embodied in the characters of Myshkin and Rogozhin. Between them they battle, one in complete submissiveness, the other in exuberant activity, for the soul of beauty.

When he enters into the celebration at her birthday party, the prince is dazzled and charmed by Nastasya's beauty; to him she is all beauty, for he carries in his head an image of perfection and sees her by means of his ideal. Enraptured, he confesses to her:

“Everything is perfection in you … even your being thin and pale. … One would not like to imagine you different …”

(p. 129)

Nastasya, knowing differently, playfully responds:

“It's true what they say, that you are a strange man. So you look upon me as perfection, do you?”


“Though you are first rate at guessing, you are mistaken. I'll remind you of that tonight …”

(p. 129)

And later, after several of the members have pretended to describe their most heinous sins in a public confession that passes itself off as a game, Myshkin again presses in on Nastasya as if to persuade her, against her will, of her own perfection and purity:

“I am going to marry an honest woman, Nastasya Pilippovna, not Rogozhin's woman,” said Myshkin.

“Do you mean that I am an honest woman?”


“Oh, this … comes out of novels! This is old-fashioned nonsense, prince darling; nowadays the world has grown clever. … And how can you get married? You want a nurse to look after you!”

(pp. 148-49)

Myshkin's persistent plea following the passage reveals more about his feelings toward Nastasya. He wants her to accept his fantasy of innocence:

“I know nothing, Nastasya Filippovna. I've seen nothing of life. … I am nothing, and you have suffered and have come out of that hell pure and that is a great deal.”

(p. 149)

He goes on to attribute to her feverish illness her desire to run off with Rogozhin so that he will be free to accept his image of her as “perfect,” “honest,” “pure,” and devoid of any need to atone for her own history. Like her sister in Switzerland, however, Nastasya wants to live with her sins, to be loved with them, and to be absolved through suffering. Like the grotesque constellation of characters surrounding her, she wishes to be an outcast, a marked woman, an object of ridicule whose soul is in as deplorable a spiritual condition as are the bodies and the social lives of those who surround and follow her as disciples. They are “objective correlatives” of her spiritual condition.

But Myshkin's cries of innocence drive her more forcefully into the arms of Rogozhin, the embodiment of her sordid sexual past with Totsky. She screams her public confession during the party: “I am a shameless hussy” (p. 156). She battles the image of the unfallen garden that Myshkin's innocence holds before her. His innocence is more frightening a force than Rogozhin's unchecked passion, for while the latter does at least recognize the reality of sin, Myshkin wishes to deny it altogether.

We leave this first section of the novel and Nastasya's lavish apartment, but not without admiring her “huge statue of Venus” (p. 144) standing in one corner. Certainly Nastasya, like Venus, is worshipped by all levels of the community for her love and beauty. Wherever Nastasya appears, crowds pursue her, surround her and desire her. She is the personification of beauty, of regeneration, and of artistic form. But, in her condition in Petersburg society, she is flawed, wounded and desecrated. Mythology tells us that in one of her forms Venus is the patron of prostitutes. We wonder if it is within this belief that Nastasya, who calls herself Totsky's kept woman, has this statue of Venus in her apartment. On one level myths are true narrative expositions of a culture's beliefs, their animating principle. They offer one a reflection of the state of a community's corporate soul. Is it then, that Venus, in the person of Nastasya Filippovna, while expressing beauty, fails to promise fulfillment of human love and regeneration? She appears as a truncated goddess, split off from her other attributes. As an image of love she lacks wholeness. This is the condition of Myshkin and Rogozhin as well as of most of the other persons in the novel. Together they offer a powerful image of a community shattered, fragmented and unloving; it is an ego-centered culture ready to believe whatever for the moment is most pleasing in its effects. The prince, entering into the culture, laden with kindness and compassion, ready to offer forgiveness without question, creates a carnivalistic stir wherever he settles, almost as if to promote the fantasies quivering just below the surface of a superficial and strained decorum. He seems to promise life without guilt. But even with this attitude, he succeeds in raising to the surface and to articulation what is most often left buried secretly in the heart. The education between the prince and the community, moreover, is never one-sided. While he inadvertently exposes the truths of characters, he also feels the effects of this paradoxical world on himself. Nowhere is his education so intense—except in his relationship with Nastasya—as it is with Rogozhin. The second portion of the novel examines this relationship and Myshkin's own musings on his illness, which he feels reawakening within himself. The second section is important for another reason. The citizens of Petersburg will collectively leave the city and move to their summer cottages in the Arcadian resort of Pavlovsk. Collectively they move closer to the ideal image of Switzerland, of which Pavlovsk is an earthly shadow. Here Myshkin's seductive visions of innocence will begin to acquire greater strength.


  1. I refer the reader to the essay by Allen Tate, “The Angelic Imagination,” and especially to his observation that man “becomes an angel” when both his intellect and will divorce themselves from “the human scale.” In Essays of Four Decades (Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1968), p. 411.

  2. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Constance Garnett, rev. Avrahm Yarmolinsky (New York: Heritage Edition, 1955), p. 468. Henceforward citations from this edition will be indicated by page numbers in the text.

  3. Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series, XXXVI (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 98-101.

  4. Donald Fanger, Dostoevsky and Romantic Realism: A Study of Dostoevsky in Relation to Balzac, Dickens, and Gogol (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 211. Fanger describes in some detail the fantastic nature of a city that has lost its grasp of reality. Its people are “the declassed gentry, the petty government officials, and the urban intelligentsia, struggling, helpless and without roots, to find their way in the chaos of the indifferent city.” What he calls the “myth of Petersburg,” developed first by Gogol, became for Dostoevsky an instrument not merely for satire but for an explanation of a new order of reality (pp. 131-34). “Is not my fantastic ‘Idiot’ the very dailiest truth?” asks Dostoevsky. “Precisely such characters must exist in those strata of our society which have divorced themselves from the soil—which actually are becoming fantastic” (Letters, p. 167).

  5. See especially Chapter IV of M. Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, and C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959).

  6. One should refer to J. R. R. Tolkein's discussion of fantasy as recovery, escape, and consolation, in Tree and Leaf (London: Urwin Books, 1969).

  7. Despite his admirable close reading of The Idiot, George Steiner finds this series of stories puzzling: “Dostoevsky's motives in presenting these successive stories are somewhat obscure” (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism [New York: Dutton Co., 1971], p. 157). I want to show that these stories are far from vague addenda to the action of the whole work.

  8. William Lynch, Images of Hope [Baltimore: Helicon, 1965]. For Father Lynch, to hope is to be part of a community (p. 2). Myshkin's fantasies remove him from the people. He lives in isolation.

  9. Janko Lavrin, Dostoevsky: A Study (New York: Russell and Russell, 1969), p. 87.

  10. Avrahm Yarmolinsky, Dostoevsky: His Life and Art, 2nd ed. (New York: Criterion Books, 1957), p. 257.

  11. Vyacheslav Ivanov, A Study in Dostoevsky: Freedom and the Tragic Life (New York: Noonday Press, 1971), p. 91.

  12. Maurice Friedman, Problematic Rebel, rev. ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 223.

  13. Aglaia is the name of one of the graces in Greek mythology: Richard Peace, Dostoevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971), p. 80.

  14. Georg Lukacs, Studies in European Realism, trans. Edith Bone (London: Hillway Publishing Co., 1950), p. 70.

  15. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky to His Family and Friends, trans. Ethel Colburn Mayne (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 142.

  16. R. P. Blackmur, “A Rage of Goodness: The Idiot of Dostoevsky,” in The Critical Performance, ed. Stanley Hyman (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 245.

  17. William Shakespeare, Richard II, V, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (New York: Scott, Foresman, 1961).

  18. On another level is a sustained exploration of Dostoevsky's aesthetic theory of “fantastic realism” in The Idiot. The Myshkin-Petersburg conflict is the primary metaphor for such an exploration. Consider for a moment the poet's observation in a letter to Nikolay Strachov in which he attempts to express the paradox of his theory: “I have my own idea about art, and it is this: What most people regard as fantastic and lacking in universality, I hold to be the inmost essence of truth. Arid observation of everyday trivialities I have long ceased to regard as realism—it is quite the reverse. … But is not my fantastic ‘Idiot’ the very dailiest truth? Precisely such characters must exist in those strata of our society which have divorced themselves from the soil—which actually are becoming fantastic” (Letters, p. 167.)

  19. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (New York: The Humanities Press, 1962), p. 415.

  20. Ibid., p. 423.

  21. I am indebted to Louise Cowan, Professor of Literature at the University of Dallas and the director of this dissertation, for her interpretation of this passage in particular, as I am also for her general interpretation of Myshkin.

  22. V. Yermilov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. J. Katzer (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, n.d.), p. 212.

  23. This is a recurrent conviction in Dostoevsky's canon, that man prefers to consider himself guilty rather than to give up his sense of having freely determined his own situation.

  24. Speculating on the prince as a kind of metaphor for the entire community of nineteenth century Russia and, as well, I think, of the West generally, Dostoevsky writes in his notebook: “The main problem: the Idiot's character. Develop it. Here lies the idea of the novel. How Russia is reflected.” (NB, p. 203 [italics are mine]).

  25. Ortega, Meditations on Quixote, trans. Evelyn Rugg and Diego Marin (New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1961), p. 139. Ortega goes on to compare Christ to Quixote, as Dostoevsky earlier had done. Dostoevsky adds to the comparison his perfect prince. Ortega refers to Don Quixote as a “sad parody of a more divine and serene Christ: he is a Gothic Christ, torn by modern anguish; a ridiculous Christ of our own neighborhood, created by a sorrowful imagination which lost its innocence and its will and is striving to replace them” (p. 51).

  26. Dostoevsky's vision of the entire culture is implied in the way he expresses the condition of the family. He writes elsewhere that “the family is the most sacred thing of man on earth, for by means of this law of nature man attains his goal through development. “The Unpublished Dostoevsky: Diaries and Notebooks, vol. 1: 1860-65, ed. Carl R. Brother (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 76.

  27. See Fanger's exploration of the man with the kind heart, who in the man-made enclosure of the city, dissolves into a dreamer (Romantic-Realism, pp. 139-48).

  28. C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Farrar-Strauss Co., 1955), p. 151.

  29. Ivanov claims that all of Dostoevsky's work builds on three levels: that of plot or narrative level, the psychological level and the metaphysical level. The last level is “the supreme tragic realm because time stands still. On this third level the setting is the soul of man where God and Satan meet to do battle for its possession.” Vyacheslav Ivanov, “On Dostoevsky,” Russian Critical Essays, ed. S. Konovalov (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 5 (my translation). I believe Myshkin and Rogozhin are something of a parody of this battle, yet Nastasya's soul is nonetheless at stake. Dostoevsky, however, is not tragic, but comic because he sees the world and the soul in terms of grace.

Janet G. Tucker (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7175

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 realisation of a Christlike figure and left him at that.2 His slipperiness is compounded by the concomitant presence in critical writing of a “‘legendary’ Myshkin [who is] largely the creation of a group of commentators writing in the 1880s, the chief and long-discredited culprit being De Vogüé.”3 But considering Myshkin solely or even primarily in these terms strips both hero and novel of significant gradations of complexity crucial to understanding both.

Myshkin complicates the novel because he embodies the tension between the spirit world and everyday reality, between the non-rational (or, even, anti-rational) realm of Russian culture and the alien domain of Western ‘civilisation’, between the attempt to achieve good but instead bringing about a tragic end. The common factor at work here, integrating this tension to the plot, is Myshkin's overwhelming desire to manipulate the fates of the other characters. It is a desire which, as demonstrated below, appears to be derived from a sense of his own moral certainty in an uncertain world. While this exploitation is not intrinsically evil, it ensues from his rebellion in the name of good, his desire to embed the domain of the spirit within the physical world and unavoidably alter that world without a sufficient regard for consequences. As a result, Myshkin controls or attempts to control, however humbly, the outcomes of the various plot lines of the novel. His necessarily limited (human) vision circumscribes not only his fellow characters, but the work as a whole. Myshkin's attempts to engineer their fates smack of hubris (however good his intentions might be) and inevitably send them crashing into calamity.

Why has Dostoevsky undercut Myshkin? Perhaps it is because of the impossibility of creating a perfect man as opposed to the image of Christ, whom we see, for example, in The Brothers Karamazov. As Ermilova has observed, “Dostoevsky believed in the possibility of earthly harmony, of earthly prosperity. But only with Christ.”4 Dostoevsky weakens Myshkin not only through epilepsy (to be touched on below), an obvious device here, but also through failure. Dostoevsky may well have constructed a character with built-in negatives to produce dialogic tension in what is in many ways a static work, certainly one containing a static hero, and to underscore the complexities of the novel. The shiftiness of his narrator fits in here as well.5

Characters in Dostoevsky's other works are typically much more clear cut, more readily defined. Unlike Myshkin, such individuals as Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazovv obviously represent strains of evil in the respective works, however complicated their motives and actions might be by conscience or outside forces. Alternatively, Alyosha and Father Zosima play an active role for good in The Brothers Karamazov, echoing but not supplanting Christ by loving even the unlovable in the form of Alyosha's father, Fyodor (Theodore, ‘beloved of God’). Yet Myshkin is hard to pin down, and this elusiveness is compounded by his periodic departures under mysterious circumstances. Dostoevsky typically associates this element of mystery with such negative or compromised characters as Svidrigailov or Stavrogin, who are eventually marginalised (and end as suicides) by the time we reach the conclusions of their respective novels. And while Myshkin is still alive at the end of the work, he has descended once more into idiocy: “But he no longer understood anything, asked about nothing, and didn't recognise the people who had come in and surrounded him.”6 His elusiveness permeates the work as a whole and colours it. “None of Dostoevsky's [other] novels,” notes Robert Lord, “contains quite so many contradictions, anomalies and conundrums. …”7 The present essay is an attempt to define Myshkin in such a way as to resolve, at least in part, his cruxes in the novel itself and in the critical writing dealing with it. By reconsidering Myshkin as a multi-dimensional figure considerably more complex than previously thought, we can thus expand our understanding and appreciation of the novel in which he plays the central role.

Myshkin is not only complex himself; he repeatedly complicates the intricately interwoven lives of his fellow characters, even retaining in the process flashes of the independent, meddlesome character first glimpsed in the ‘Notebooks’.8 It is well known from Dostoevsky's ‘Notebooks’ that Myshkin, in spite of Dostoevsky's urgent desire to resolve, simultaneously, a literary and philosophical dilemma in his creation of ‘the positively beautiful man’, did not begin his novelistic existence as the seemingly well-intentioned individual of the final version of the novel. In Dostoevsky's initial incarnation of Myshkin from the ‘Notebooks’ he is, as noted by Robin Feuer Miller, “hypocritical, proud, vengeful.”9 At this early stage, he is more closely akin to Dostoevsky's proud rebels—Raskol´nikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov—than to Sonia Marmeladova, Alyosha Karamazov or the image of Christ as seen in Ivan Karamazov's ‘Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’ from The Brothers Karamazov. (The evolution of Anna Karenina from the unappealing protagonist of the earlier drafts to the great heroine with whom Tolstoy himself became smitten is strikingly similar.)

Indeed, the Dostoevskian character who most closely embodies this sort of metamorphosis is Father Zosima. Significantly, both characters are asexual in their respective works, Zosima because of age and calling, Myshkin as a result of disease. Myshkin's inability to function sexually juxtaposes him to the sensualists Rogozhin and Totsky, Nastasya Filippovna's seducer whose actions predating the time frame of the novel shape her future and the larger plot (VIII:35-37). This contrast, which establishes the central tension in the novel over the fate of Nastasya Filippovna, is crucial. (Nor should we overlook the nexus between sexuality and power/domination which we encounter in such characters as Stavrogin, Svidrigailov and Rogozhin.) In the period just before his death, Zosima recalls the days of his youth before entering the monastery, a period marked by his great pride and at times violent anger, both traits associated with such rebellious characters as Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov. Yet, having overcome his earlier limitations (which, it is important to note, predate the action of The Brothers Karamazov). Zosima functions in the novel as a wise and a good man. Myshkin's own evolution, on the other hand, has already taken place in the early drafts or, rather, has begun in the drafts and culminated only in the final version. He is static by the time we encounter him. As Miller notes, the “portrayal of an Idiot who was evil but … finally repented would have given the novel a linear shape … [but] a constant character … creates waves around himself which intersect to make a circular pattern.”10 Dostoevsky appears to identify this constancy or lack of development—synonymous with perfection—only with Christ, and it is Myshkin's very uniformity that causes him to create the ‘waves’ which disturb the environment of the novel. (Perhaps Christ in Ivan's ‘Grand Inquisitor’ is silent because of his intrinsic perfection, following the poet Fyodor Tiutchev's dictum that ‘the uttered thought is a lie’.) Dostoevsky then undermines this perfection manifested in Myshkin as a state to which no mere person may aspire.

Furthermore, those characters in Dostoevsky's works who have achieved peace with God have typically had to endure spiritual searching, temptation, or suffering—this is certainly the case with Father Zosima, Alyosha, Mitya Karamazov, Sonia Marmeladova. Yet Myshkin's suffering (principally physical, from his epilepsy, but also psychological pain as related to Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya) does not encompass the same experiences, nor the same sort of spiritual journey.

Although Dostoevsky has transformed the proud, hypocritical and vengeful nature of Myshkin in his original incarnation into the warmth and (apparent) humility that mark the finalised version of this character, Myshkin's perpetual meddling in the lives of his fellows and his attempts to reshape the world they inhabit echoes the pride of the original version. While such characters as Father Zosima and Sonia Marmeladova can also be said to ‘meddle’, their actions never impact negatively in the way Myshkin's do. Their passivity may be the key here. Were Myshkin to avoid significant action and/or reaction, he and the women he is instrumental in affecting could stay out of trouble. It is also important to remember Joseph Frank's comment that the purpose of the Incarnation of Christ “was precisely to exercise such an awakening and quickening function: Christ was sent by God not to give mankind the peace of absolution but to stir it to struggle against the law of personality.”11 Is this, in part, Dostoevsky's intention in The Idiot? Yet Myshkin's aspirations not to follow Christ meekly smack instead of pride, a leftover from his earlier incarnation and a central trait of such rebels as Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov.

We might recall here that two of Dostoevsky's villains, Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, also seem to have acted from at least partially selfless motives in their attempts to ‘stir mankind to struggle against the law of personality’. Even given that their motivations were suspect, they apparently disapproved of a world fated to endure suffering (unless this disapproval was merely an excuse for their actions). Both endeavoured—through direct action in the case of Raskolnikov, more subtly in the case of Ivan—to take God's place and remake that world. Their great flaw lay in trying to create paradise on earth, in attempting to appropriate God's/Christ's role. Both attempted to refashion society in such a way that it would more clearly coincide with their own image of perfection. They dared to restructure society even though, with their necessarily limited human view (Euclidean in Ivan Karamazov's case), they were unable to comprehend God's infinite plan and instead chose by default to revolt against it. Myshkin's actions relative to both Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya could well constitute an analogous restructuring on a smaller scale.

Yet, in spite of being a Christlike figure, Myshkin's most striking trait (as noted above) is his uncanny ability to set off shock waves among his fellow characters, the ‘waves’ that Miller notes. This trait surfaces at the very start, when Myshkin conducts an inappropriate conversation with the Yepanchins' servant. It is unseemly for Myshkin's choice of interlocutor, for the setting, and for the topic: he discusses capital punishment, specifically the execution he witnessed in the West, in Switzerland (VIII:19-21). Myshkin continues with this conversation when he encounters the four Yepanchin women, three sisters and their mother, for the first time. Miller observes that Myshkin, far from being a naïve narrator, “displays a constant concern for order, for strategy.” As a narrator, continues Miller, “[he] can even use the truth deceptively … he deliberately recasts the content of his narratives … to avoid and mislead Ganya. Myshkin shows himself to be a wily narrator who turns on and off the effects of his words at will.”12 Myshkin's references to death and execution, while inappropriate within this social context, are entirely opportune in the plot of the novel itself. These references frame the work by foreshadowing Nastasya Filippovna's death at the end (rather like the Latin inscription linked with Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy's ‘Death of Ivan Ilyich’). The knife, to be discussed below, plays, of course, the same role.

Even nature is out of harmony here, for Myshkin has come to Russia “[a]t the end of November, during a thaw, at about nine in the morning” when “the Petersburg-Warsaw train was steaming into Petersburg at full speed” (VIII:5). Spatial and temporal uncertainty coincide here. The (inexact) time of arrival, combined with foggy conditions (“it was difficult to make out much of anything from the windows of the train car”) reinforces this sense of uncertainty and inappropriateness which extends to Myshkin's very cloak, a Swiss garment out of place for the Petersburg climate (VIII:5-6). That Dostoevsky flings him into Petersburg on the Warsaw train, which is rushing along at full speed, underscores his link with apocalypse13 and sudden disaster and, at the very least, undermines his bond with Christ. (Dostoevsky reinforces this connection between Myshkin and discord at the beginning of the novel, in the conversations about capital punishment.) As Bethea acutely observes, “The Idiot is the first of Dostoevsky's novels … in which the railroad assumes a significant role … the train … was … viewed with anxiety and scepticism by those of a more conservative type …,”14 among whom we may surely include Dostoevsky. Although the route between Warsaw and Petersburg was part of the regular run, it is an intriguing choice for Dostoevsky. The train brings Myshkin, Rogozhin and Lebedev from a corrupt (Catholic, Western) Slavic capital to an artificial, Russian one and emphasises the link between Petersburg and the West.

It is, most notably, the train that enables Myshkin to make his sudden appearances and disappearances throughout. Taken together with Myshkin's long years spent deracinated in Switzerland—the small Western state which Dostoevsky considered to be at a polar extreme physically and culturally from Russia (as we see from his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions)—Myshkin's comings and goings underscore his uprootedness.

Myshkin's epilepsy functions initially as the cause of his earlier abandonment of his homeland, in turn a facet of a psychic homelessness connected with shifting states of consciousness.15 Nor should we forget that Dostoevsky conceived and wrote The Idiot while in the West and that his long sojourn away from Russia surely exacerbated his jingoism.16 This homelessness is the common affliction of many of Dostoevsky's protagonists from Makar Devushkin in Dostoevsky's very first work, Poor Folk, to Ivan Karamazov in his last novel, The Brothers Karamazov.17 Homelessness and wandering circumscribe and define, to greater or lesser degrees, such villains as Svidrigailov, Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov. Abrupt arrivals and departures do not serve merely to enhance the shock value of Myshkin's inappropriate conversations and actions, even though these actions appear to stem from the most disinterested of motives. These sudden arrivals and departures are also temporal and spatial equivalents of both elusiveness and of ‘stepping over the threshold’ that we see in, for example, Crime and Punishment. It is a part of the larger nexus of defiance against God's dicta that defines Dostoevsky's criminals—Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, Ivan Karamazov—and, most significantly, is counterposed to the sense of belonging to a larger community, to the sobornost´ that was crucial for Dostoevsky, indeed, for Russian conservatives generally in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Myshkin is unable to settle in anywhere. The only ‘home’ he inhabits is by its nature temporary—a summer house in the vicinity of Petersburg. An unheated house of course would have to be vacated at the end of the brief summer season. Here, the incipient abrupt departure is built into the very location, and it is, significantly, associated with Petersburg, Dostoevsky's ‘deracinated’ city. Homelessness ultimately couples Myshkin with Dostoevsky's Underground Man and with the ‘superfluous man’ who drifted through much of nineteenth-century Russian literature, surviving even into the twentieth century.

Separation from Russian society is typically associated in Dostoevsky's work with a concomitant and disastrous isolation from Russian Orthodoxy. Even though Myshkin is not guilty of this most heinous Dostoevskian flaw, his homelessness, especially when considered with a childhood and youth spent in Switzerland, can be seen as a related and dangerous trait. Myshkin's ‘idiocy’, his ineptness in Russian society, is perhaps tied in with the awkwardness of trying to function in a culture ‘foreign’ to him because of long years abroad. Since he spent his childhood as an emigré in Switzerland, Myshkin has always been deracinated, has always had to live in a ‘foreign’ country.

Myshkin's temporal and spatial awkwardness are compounded by the fact that he, as noted above, seems unwittingly to contribute to the terrific disasters and ultimately tragic destinies that mark the lives of two of the most important characters in The Idiot, Aglaya Yepanchina and Nastasya Filippovna.18 Myshkin's interference in the lives of Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna arouses their misplaced romantic/sexual reactions (and Nastasya Filippovna's hopes for an impossible deliverance from her tragic fate).19 Romantic love, eros, is dangerous. Father Zosima is associated with romantic love only in his earliest adult years, before he becomes a monk, and Alyosha deflects and redeems Grushenka's excessive sexuality, an underlying cause of the extreme tension between Mitya and his father Fyodor. Myshkin appears to confuse or, at the very least allows others to confuse Christian and erotic love, agape and eros, here. That Myshkin's intentions appear to be good does not protect others or save them from the wreckage he makes of their lives (and his), as he intrudes into their world.

We recall that, in The Idiot, Dostoevsky set out to depict a ‘positively beautiful man’ in the tradition of Don Quixote and Mr. Pickwick, yet devoid of the humorous elements limiting his earlier prototypes.20 Hence, Dostoevsky attempts through Myshkin to link goodness with the Russian (specifically, Russian Orthodox) theme. In spite of his time spent in Switzerland and his perpetual ramblings (on the train), Myshkin possesses Russian traits that at least partially offset his limitations. Perhaps the predominance of Orthodoxy, so important in the Dostoevskian context, precludes the humorous subtext that informs Dostoevsky's Western models (and, indeed, Dostoevsky frequently presents humorous characters/buffoons who lack a religious dimension, Marmeladov being a case in point). “‘I've managed,’ states Myshkin confidently to General Yepanchin, ‘to read a lot of Russian books.’ ‘Russian books? … do you know [Russian] grammar and can you write without making any mistakes?’” (VIII:29). What Dostoevsky is emphasising here is not merely Myshkin's literacy but Russian literacy, the unsevered and unseverable tie with the culture he left behind when, because of his disease, Myshkin was taken to Switzerland. Perhaps Myshkin feels truly comfortable only with this facet of Russian society, one removed from the world of normal discourse and, as will be seen below, one distanced chronologically.

When Myshkin declares that his penmanship is excellent and he can copy texts well, he takes his example from Russian religious life, significantly, from the period predating Peter the Great and his Westernizing reforms. His choice, “The Humble Pafnuty has applied his hand here” (VIII:29), associates Myshkin with the Russian iurodivy or holy fool (who could be humble or aggressive by turns), connects him with Russian Orthodoxy and links him with the pre-Petrine tradition of a Russia not yet exposed to modern Western influences.

In this context, Orthodoxy defines and denotes Russian culture. Within the environment of General Yepanchin's home, the emphasis is on the profane world of societal rank (“Madame General,” the narrator informs us, “was jealous of her lineage” [VIII:44]) and the social manoeuvring attendant upon marrying off three eligible daughters. Myshkin's selection, like his chosen topic of conversation, is both unusual and out of place. This passage underscores the awkwardness present in the early scenes: Myshkin's arrival by train and his conversations about executions in the West (also conducted at the Yepanchins').

In this early exchange at the Yepanchins', Myshkin first notes his exposure to the sublime in the form of a waterfall, a central component of Romanticism which associates him, by extension, with the Romantic hero (typically, a rebel). “We had a small waterfall there, which fell from the mountain heights and was such a tiny thread, almost perpendicular” (VIII:50). This memory reminds Myshkin in turn of his great restlessness (linked once again with the train) and leads directly to his encounter with the condemned man who kisses the cross before execution. Again, religion intrudes and underscores death. The passage as a whole follows directly upon Myshkin's recollection of the political prisoner condemned to death (but pardoned) who planned to husband his last five minutes of life and link them with insight into the infinite (VIII:50-52), thereby echoing the waterfall. The tie with the author himself, already suggested by Myshkin's epilepsy, is stressed by the presence of the condemned man and Dostoevsky's own near execution. Here, Myshkin's complexity echoes Dostoevsky's.

While copying a text in and of itself does not literally constitute narration, Myshkin's choice of Pafnuty is a segment of a text that injects a jarring note into his discourse at the Yepanchins' and represents a counterpoint to the tales of the executed criminal and the seduced girl Marie. Together, they form a thematic whole by suggesting a world beyond the everyday socially-oriented reality of the Yepanchins. Scandalous elements in the tale about Marie plus the literal square (of execution) enable us to link these scenes with the carnival or public square. According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky creates scandal by bringing the world of the carnival square inside (here, into the Yepanchins' drawing room).21 Significantly Myshkin, like Ivan Karamazov, attempts to dominate this scene through discourse, to take over the narration. The very activity of narration itself shapes events as well as providing the elements that constitute the novel. One senses here a certain tension between Dostoevsky's narrator and Myshkin, ‘fighting’ for control of the narrative and of the plot as well. Perhaps the apparent weakness of The Idiot is not really a deficiency at all, but rather results from Myshkin's inability to direct the plot effectively and underscores man's limited capacity for mastering fate.

Bakhtin designates Myshkin as the “carrier of the penetrative word, that is, a word capable of actively and confidently interfering in the interior dialogue of the other person, helping that person to find his own voice.” Myshkin's jarring or inopportune comments can have the same ‘penetrative’ effect and can even interfere in the other characters' interior monologues, as well as affecting their course of action. As Bakhtin remarks further, “the internal dialogism of [Myshkin's] discourse is just as great and anxiety-ridden as that of the other characters.”22 Nor is this ‘dialogue’ only verbal; it can also be expressed as a physical action. Myshkin's repeated grabbing at the knife in Rozoghin's presence, a gesture that hints at its future use as the murder weapon, is surely an example of such ‘dialogic’ action in the novel. Surely a knife can be considered a ‘penetrative object’ and as such is a non-verbal equivalent to the ‘penetrative word’. “While talking, the prince in his absent-mindedness again seized the very same knife, in his hands, from the table, and again Rogozhin pulled it out of his hands and threw it on the table. It was a simple kind of knife, with a horn handle, one that didn't fold up, with a blade about seven inches long and of corresponding width” (VIII:180). This ‘penetrative gesture’ foreshadows Rogozhin's use of the knife later when he kills Nastasya Filippovna. Myshkin is saved from Rogozhin's knife only by his epileptic fit, which is at once deus ex machina and a symbol of his other-worldliness. Myshkin's epilepsy does not merely weaken him, rendering him good but not perfect and recalling Dostoevsky's own terrible affliction, but also serves as a means of injecting mutability and an evolutionary element into what would otherwise be a static character. It is not entirely a negative marker in this context. Alternatively, epilepsy could also function as a ‘threshold’, which Myshkin could overstep at any point.

Epilepsy (‘the falling sickness’) resurfaces in Dostoevsky's work, significantly, in Smerdyakov of The Brothers Karamazov. Associated here with evil, it plays an important role (in providing Smerdyakov with an alibi for the murder of his father Fyodor). For Myshkin, epilepsy is a two-edged sword. As Harriet Murav notes, epilepsy was considered at once the “manifestation of a demonic force” and “a moment of divine revelation.”23 By the time The Idiot was published, in 1868-69, epilepsy had come to be seen as a medical condition. Yet Dostoevsky persisted in linking the disease with the demonic, and in fact “demonic motifs are introduced into the description of … Myshkin's first epileptic attack. …”24 Here, the three crucial motifs of Rogozhin's eyes, his knife, and Myshkin's seizure are all brought in. Together, they underscore the satanic element of the fit and undercut Myshkin himself, not with mere weakness, but with a weakness specifically connected to evil.

As in Myshkin's initial conversation with the Yepanchin women about the great issues of charity, sexuality, crime and execution (coupled there with the Russian theme in the form of Pafnuty's brief text and the issue of Myshkin's ability, as narrator, to assume control over the text), and his final, frenzied performance that culminates in his second fit at the end, epilepsy also underscores larger motifs. These themes take the form of death, demonism, and the dominance of the anti- or non-rational world. And throughout, Myshkin is centrally important as a figure who is identified with anti-rational ecstasy, death and the Russian theme in sacred and profane manifestations involving, perhaps, overtones of evil.

Sometimes Myshkin asserts his dominance (always suspect in Dostoevsky) by prompting, fills in a sentence, makes a suggestion, as in this brief exchange with Keller: “‘[S]econdly … secondly,’ [Keller] was confused. ‘Maybe you wanted to borrow money?’ The prince prompted, very seriously and simply, even somewhat timidly. …” (VIII:258). Here we see Dostoevsky's narrator intruding through Myshkin into the text and providing his own commentary with an observation about Keller's ‘confusion’, with the narrator himself furnishing the ‘penetrative word’. This reference to money, most notably to Myshkin as a character powerful enough to be able to loan it out, separates him from both Alyosha and Father Zosima and links him instead with the complex theme of money/dominance/sexuality running through The Idiot.

Myshkin demonstrates his desire to wrest control of the text away from the narrator by speaking for the other characters. As noted above, sometimes he finishes their thoughts for them, sometimes reduces them to silence. Thus, when Nastasya Filippovna enters at the Ivolgins' and her presence has an overwhelming effect on Ganya, the prince attempts to help him. “‘Have a drink of water,’ he whispered to Ganya. ‘And don't look like that …’ It was evident that he uttered this without any special intention, but his words had an extraordinary effect. It seemed that all of Ganya's malice was suddenly directed against the prince” (VIII:88). In this scene, where Myshkin acts as a catalyst in order to bring out, however inadvertently, the worst in the other characters, he functions in direct contrast to Sonia Marmeladova or Alyosha Karamazov.

Robert Lord contends that “[t]he one character who can see through [Myshkin's] mask—and says so—is Aglaya. … During the earlier part of the novel, Aglaya seems to be a kind of written-in commentary on the real Myshkin.”25 Aglaya can be perceived as an additional narrational voice, one not only built into the plot but in fact (and here, unlike Dostoevsky's narrator in The Devils) complicating the outcome of the novel. This narratorial shift toward Myshkin complicates his otherwise static character and provides a counterpoint to his own attempts to take over the narration. That the narrator is cagey, a trait exemplified by his alternately positive and negative attitudes toward Myshkin, endows the latter with still greater complexity, and Aglaya's narrative intrusion compounds the situation. The introduction of a different narrative perspective provides Myshkin with at least some of the overtones of such bifurcated characters as Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov, particularly when the narrator hints at the discredited motives not present in either Father Zosima or Alyosha.

Copying a written record, as noted above, gives Myshkin power over the language in the novel and underscores his own role as a narrator. Moreover, the very act of reproducing a line from a manuscript links Myshkin with Russian monastic tradition, with its profane echo in Gogol's Akaky Akakievich.26 Myshkin's unsuitable clothing also connects him with Akaky, tying him in not only with Akaky's initial bumbling humility but also, perhaps, with his subsequent rebellion at the end of ‘The Overcoat’, rebellion which initially has a linguistic dimension—terrible cursing and oaths—out of place in the context in which they occur. (Compare with Myshkin's final scene at the Yepanchins', discussed below.) Surely Akaky, too, utters ‘penetrative words’, directed against the ‘Important Person’ but spoken in the presence of his landlady.

Myshkin's copying and the resultant link with traditional Russian culture not only underscores his self-identification with Orthodoxy but also points ahead to a crucial scene late in the novel—the Yepanchins' party, celebrating his and Aglaya's projected but aborted marriage. Here Myshkin defends Russianness and rails against Western influences, conflating socialism with Catholicism in a lengthy diatribe inappropriate for this setting. His unsuitable behaviour recalls not only Akaky's last scenes but also the Underground Man's resentful pacing at Zverkov's going-away party and is linked with the scandal and defiance typically associated with Dostoevsky's rebels. “Socialism is really the result of Catholicism and the Catholic essence” (VIII:451), Myshkin declares penetratively (echoing Dostoevsky himself) at the Yepanchins' party, addressing a most inappropriate interlocutor, the worldly Ivan Petrovich. Myshkin mouths Dostoevsky's own views, but his self-destruction (encapsulated in the shattered vase, symbolising the intrusion of the public square, of scandal, into the drawing room) sabotages his efforts. He displays traits associated with the holy fool here as well, functioning as a closing frame to the Pafnuty text. “The holy fool,” states Murav, “is a site of resistance to the ‘age of vitalism and science. …’”27 Myshkin continues to pursue and hammer home his point, becoming less and less coherent and eventually concluding with his final idiocy, which coincides with Nastasya Filoppovna's murder (VIII:451-53).

Death, especially violent death, coincides with violent behaviour at the very beginning of the work, with both emerging as important themes. Right from the start, Dostoevsky links disorder and death with Myshkin: scandal and death associated with Marie, the condemned prisoner's death, the pardoned prisoner. With Nastasya Filippovna, Rozoghin and Myshkin form an unstable triangle linked with death very early in the novel. In addition, Myshkin employs abrupt contrasts between the children's early abusive (violent) behaviour toward Marie and their later charity to her subsequent to his work among them (in the story he recounts to the Yepanchins), between the condemned prisoner's criminal act (typically representing pride and dominance, albeit here of an abused innocent) and his avid kissing of the cross (symbolising submission of Christ and to God in the story about the execution [VIII:54-56]). While Alyosha behaves similarly with children in The Brothers Karamazov and children are central figures in that novel, his actions are related at first-hand by the narrator. In contrast, it is Myshkin who recounts his tale of Marie and the children to the Yepanchins, thus serving here as the narrator himself and assuming the narrator's power. His actions suggest a miracle and push him to center stage, perhaps for Aglaya's benefit. Dostoevsky may be hinting here at Myshkin's pride, a pride retained from earlier drafts.

Marie's tale of a woman seduced, abandoned and scorned by society both encapsulates the larger nexus of Nastasya Filippovna-Totsky-Rogozhin-Myshkin, the plot central to the novel as a whole and, to a certain extent, reverses it; Myshkin's role as a manipulator of fate, plus the aura of disease, plays a role here too. At this point and in this tale, Myshkin not only narrates but also determines the action, a triumph for himself. The (interpolated) tale about Marie constitutes a parable about the orchestration of human attitudes and behaviour. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky integrates Alyosha's guidance of the children with the larger plot lines of the novel, but no such synthesis occurs in The Idiot. Myshkin's successful orchestration of a small control group only leads to tragedy and disintegration when he attempts to apply it to the overwhelming forces at work in the larger sphere of the novel.

The focus on execution, specifically beheading, links this particular execution with the head-smashings of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. It also serves as a social leveller (containing overtones of rebellious behaviour), with Myshkin and the servant now able to communicate on the same level. Myshkin's apparent social rebellion, his unawareness of or inability to consider social norms, can be traced at least in part to his long sojourn abroad and to his sheltered upbringing there. But Myshkin's awkwardness in a domestic setting, as elsewhere in Dostoevsky (in The Devils, for example) functions as a marker for rebellion in the larger society. This rebellion is particularly important for a writer like Dostoevsky, for whom the domestic setting, exemplified by the drawing room and, in The Brothers Karamazov, by the monastery, is equivalent to the arena or the ‘public square’. It is here that the great metaphysical struggle between good and evil is played out. Myshkin's repeated efforts in these interior scenes to ‘save’ Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna, to engineer fate, represent on at least one level a refusal to accept God's greater plan and constitute instead a form of metaphysical revolt. In a letter to his favourite niece Sofya Ivanovna, Dostoevsky maintained that “a perfect accomplishment of the Christian ideal of love could be realized only in the afterlife of immortality, not in this world.”28 That Myshkin attempts to reshape the world according to his own vision, appearing to act from the noblest of motives, nevertheless creates havoc.

The passivity typically associated with the good man, who in Russian tradition should be anchored in the routines of monastery life with the world coming to him (Father Zosima, for example), is absent here. Instead, Myshkin bounces around the secular world (central to the novel) as an active force for change. Myshkin's desire to control narration and the outcome contrasts with his limited ability to determine the action. His is the same sort of dissatisfaction that Raskolnikov exhibited in his dream about the beaten horse and that Ivan recounted to Alyosha in his tales about tormented children, which Dostoevsky gleaned faithfully from the newspapers. That both Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov rebel in the name of protecting the weak is particularly significant in the present context. These shock waves radiate from dominant episodes in the novel involving sexuality and marriage (ultimately the domain where the life/death struggle is played out) on the one hand and death on the other. As noted previously, such episodes affect two of the most significant characters: Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna. Both Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna are in the running to become Myshkin's bride. Their rivalry is played out in scenes of jealousy and passion that will be echoed later by Dmitry, Fyodor and Ivan Karamazov, Grushenka and Katerina in The Brothers Karamazov.

Aglaya's and Myshkin's ‘betrothal’ party culminates, as noted above, in Myshkin's inappropriate (for this company) monologue about the superiority of Russian culture (certainly not a negative concept to the jingoist Dostoevsky and perhaps not truly a sign of weakness). Myshkin's inevitable destruction of the Chinese vase at once represents his fragile social position, his lack of social awareness and hence rebellion against social norms, and his inability to function. This breakage, too, is a form of ‘stepping across the threshold’ discussed earlier, here the threshold of propriety that denotes the ability to function within accepted societal norms. The party should have marked the (public) high point of his relationship with Aglaya, one marred by uncertainty and jealousy. And while Aglaya does not, of course, literally ‘die’, her sudden marriage at the end to a Catholic Pole, and a fake nobleman at that, would surely be equivalent to death in Dostoevsky's Orthodox, Russian-centred universe. The daughter of a ‘king’ (literally, a general), she seemed destined to marry a true prince (Myshkin), not a false one. Myshkin's failure has instead engineered this tragic outcome.

The sisters all have names beginning with the same letter (Aleksandra, Adelaida, Aglaya), with Aglaya, the youngest, the most beautiful. They are sufficiently alike to seem to constitute three different facets of the same person, suggesting Russian oral culture with its pre-Western associations (echoing thereby the sentence from Pafnuty). Myshkin's special bond with all three, but particularly with Aglaya, underscores this Russian motif in The Idiot (along with the references to Pafnuty at the beginning and to Russian Orthodoxy [juxtaposed to Catholicism] at the end), all of which are linked to the Yepanchins. Hence, Myshkin's relationship with the sisters, along with his interpolated tales from the West, is related to the larger theme of Russianness, conflating Orthodoxy and anti-Western sentiment for Dostoevsky. The whole forms a nexus that, along with the train, is related to the underlying ethical questions central to Myshkin and to the novel in general. That Aglaya was considered (readily, by her sisters) the most beautiful of the three marks her as the grand prize—again, in the context of Russian folk tales—and hence extends her fall to her entire family, perhaps to this entire stratum of Russian society.

The abrupt but foiled elopement of Myshkin and Nastasya Filippovna sets the stage for Nastasya's final scene with Rogozhin. It falls hard upon Myshkin's and Aglaya's bungled betrothal and ends in another ‘shattering’—this time Rogozhin's murder of Nastasya Filippovna. If the early tale of Marie that Myshkin recounts to the Yepanchin family constitutes an opening frame for the novel as a whole, then this is the closing frame, a bifurcated one which encompasses Myshkin's final disgrace at the Yepanchins' and Nastasya Filippovna's death, public and private variants of each other. The death bed scene with the murdered Nastasya Filippovna, Rogozhin and Myshkin is not only strikingly familiar to readers, but was, moreover, an episode of enormous power that pleased Dostoevsky tremendously.29 This scene is foreshadowed in Myshkin's initial reaction to Nastasya Filippovna's portrait and his unfortunate proclivity for pointing out knives to Rogozhin (note my comment above on the ‘penetrative gesture’).30

Bethea maintains that the leader of an apocalyptic cult sets himself up as one of “God's chosen agents for hastening the plot”31; the reader senses that God singles out such individuals. But, notes Bethea further, “only [God] knows when the plot which he supervises is to be fulfilled.”32 Myshkin would certainly seem to fit this pattern of the apocalyptic leader. His machinations, his attempts to control fate and engineer ‘perfection’, lead to the death of one character (Nastasya Filippovna), the tragic elopement of another (Aglaya), the fall of a third (Rogozhin) and the final idiocy of the hero himself. It is also important to remember that Rogozhin is fully capable of violent behaviour, even murder, yet he lacks the moral and intellectual stature we commonly associate with Dostoevsky's great villains. Myshkin possesses that status. As Bethea observes, “they [Rogozhin and Myshkin] are, as it were, metaphysical Siamese twins. …”33 Myshkin possesses neither the dramatic appearance of Rogozhin and Stavrogin nor the flair of Dostoevsky's more obvious rebels, Raskolnikov, Stavrogin and Ivan Karamazov. Yet Myshkin, through his attempts to manipulate narration and control events, by his hazardous involvement in the lives of others and in light of the tragedies he causes, ultimately proves as dangerous as his fellows.


  1. Robert Lord, Dostoevsky: Essays and Perspectives, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970, 81. I would like to thank Professor Sandra Sherman of the University of Arkansas for her very helpful suggestions. Obviously, all errors and lapses of judgement are my own!

  2. See, for example, Edward Wasiolek, Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction, Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1964, 103-104; Malcolm V. Jones, Dostoevsky: The Novel of Discord, London: Paul Elek, 1976, 97, 100, 106.

  3. Lord, Dostoevsky, 81-82.

  4. G.G. Ermilova, Taina kniazia Myshkina, Ivanovo: Ivanovo State University, 1993, 77.

  5. See Robin Feuer Miller, Dostoevsky and ‘The Idiot’, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

  6. F.M. Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, Leningrad, 1972-1990; vol. 8, 1973, 507. Further references will be in the text.

  7. Lord, Dostoevsky, 81.

  8. Pss, ‘Idiot. Podgotovi tel'nye materialy’, 1975, vol. 9, 140-288. See also Robert Lord who observes, “even in the actual novel Prince Myshkin, far from passively accepting a slap on the face, glares at the culprit with ‘a strange, wild and reproachful look in his eyes’” (Lord, Dostoevsky, 83).

  9. Miller, Dostoevsky, 47. The Idiot of the ‘Notebooks’ “… feels contempt for others and for himself. …” “[H]e acts like a despot to [Mignon]. …” “Perhaps the Idiot will kill. …” Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for ‘The Idiot’, ed. by Edward Wasiolek, trans. Katharine Strelsky, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967, 13, 43, 48-49. Here we have, partially conflated, Myshkin and Rogozhin. The importance of the Idiot's relations with women (central to all of Dostoevsky's great novels) surfaces early on. See also op. cit., Pss, vol. 9.

  10. Miller, Dostoevsky, 51.

  11. Joseph Frank, Dostoevskv: The Stir of Liberation. 1860-1865, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986, 308.

  12. Miller, Dostoevsky, 172-173. In Dostoevsky, Miller presents a masterful analysis of the narrator.

  13. For a penetrating discussion of the bond between the train and the apocalypse in The Idiot, see David M. Bethea, The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989, 62-104.

  14. Bethea, The Shape of Apocalypse, 73, 76.

  15. Does the epilepsy function as a deus ex machina here, comparable to Anna Karenina's own fatal flaw of falling in love? That epilepsy is falling sickness in Russian underscores the component of descent or a rapid plunge. And the train, of course, is common to both.

  16. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years 1865-1871, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, 226-227.

  17. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, 171-171. Bakhtin refers to B.M. Engelhardt's analysis of Dostoevsky's heroes as “déclassé member[s] of the intelligentsia, cut off from cultural tradition, from the soil and the earth … representative[s] of an ‘accidental tribe’.” Bakhtin, Problems, 22.

  18. Perhaps Aglaya's marriage to a Pole functions as a parody of a tragic end.

  19. It is extremely rare for a ‘superfluous man’ to have a fulfilling romantic relationship with a woman. Even though Raskolnikov and Sonia seem to have developed a tie in the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, it is not necessarily convincing.

  20. Miller, Dostoevsky, 17. It is well known that Dostoevsky considered Mr. Pickwick to be a comic portrayal of an ideal Christian character. See Frank, Dostoevskvy: The Miraculous Years, 202.

  21. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 128-129. Does Nastasya Filippovna bring a hint of Petersburg's Haymarket Square (associated with prostitution) to otherwise respectable drawing rooms, including her own?

  22. Ibid., 242. Emphasis in original.

  23. Harriet Murav, Holy Foolishness, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, 75.

  24. Ibid., 77.

  25. Lord, Dostoevsky, 83.

  26. See John Schillinger, “Gogol's ‘The Overcoat’ as a Travesty of Hagiography,” Slavic and East European Journal, XVI:1 (Spring, 1971), 36-41.

  27. Murav, Holy Foolishness,8.

  28. As cited in Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 254.

  29. Miller, Dostoevsky, 42.

  30. It is interesting that a knife, for stabbing, would have been the weapon of choice in The Idiot, rather than the bludgeoning instruments used in both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. That Rogozhin stabs Nastasya Filippovna in the heart instead of crushing her head may also be significant. Perhaps Dostoevsky preferred a wound that would not disfigure its victim, and the fatal blows of his other novels may be tied in with the destructive force of human reason, with the chickens, so to speak, coming home to roost.

  31. Bethea, The Shape of Apocalypse, 146.

  32. Ibid., 147.

  33. Ibid., 80.

Liza Knapp (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8109

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.]


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 appears to emphasize his characters' identities—who they are. (Plot—what the characters end up doing—becomes less crucial.) The names a person acquires at birth and the family she is born into seem to give that person a ready-made identity or, rather, a set of expectations about life. These are expectations, not fixed determinations.

Dostoevsky was a master at playing on the expectations his characters' names and their family structures create. Dostoevsky's nameplay often adds a symbolic level to the reader's understanding of a given character's identity. When Dostoevsky gives a character a meaningful name, he does so in order to evoke a set of questions about this character, not to define him or create an allegory or fixed correspondence. On a broader level, Dostoevsky rejected the notion of the “genetic” family, based entirely on blood and name, in favor of the “accidental” family, a structure where chance and love bind.1 In this sphere as well, Dostoevsky creates a tension between what seems predetermined and what is not.

The meanings and associations that inhere in the names of the major characters of the novel are discussed below.2 The characters are grouped by family, but, given that Dostoevsky deals in “accidental” family units, the groupings become fluid.

The case of Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin is especially complex. As a “prince” he belongs to an old aristocratic line, but in his case one that now has little wealth or power. His last name is said in the novel to be found in Nikolai Karamzin's History of Russia, a fact that lends the aura of historical authority. And yet its Russian root is the same as that for “mouse.” Hence it is associated with meekness and lack of power. His first name, Lev, means “lion.” Lev combined with Myshkin makes an oxymoronic menagerie of lion and mouse—suggesting a fable with a moral, on the order of Aesop's “The Lion and the Mouse.” His patronymic Nikolaevich (son of Nikolai, meaning “victory over the people” in Greek) further suggests that he was born with heroic expectations. But as an orphan, Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin was left on his own to interpret his legacy without the biological parents to whom he owes the names.

The combination “Lev Nikolaevich” also belongs to Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, whose War and Peace had already started to be published in serial form. As Dostoevsky wrote his major novels, he was quite aware of Tolstoy's presence as a writer. It has been the fate of the two authors to be compared constantly to one another. Dostoevsky was forever gauging himself against Tolstoy and, of course, trying to outdo him. The fact that Nikolai Strakhov, Dostoevsky's old friend, later became increasingly devoted to Tolstoy served to divide rather than bring together the two writers.

Myshkin is an orphan and an “idiot” (the original Greek word ἰδιώτης ranging in meaning from private person—someone who stands apart from social structures—to an ill-informed man). Yet in the course of the novel, he discovers and develops various kinds of familial relationships with many of the families or individuals in the novel. As the orphaned outsider Myshkin affiliates himself with various families, we see Dostoevsky challenging the notion that family is exclusively a genetic unit.

After the death of his parents, Myshkin had been under the guardianship of Nikolai Andreevich Pavlishchev (evoking Russian pavlin, “peacock”). Pavlishchev eventually entrusted Myshkin to the medical care of the Swiss doctor Schneider (from German schneiden, “to cut”). To what extent are these men responsible for Myshkin? Are they surrogate fathers? Do they fail Myshkin? What does fatherhood mean? Dostoevsky seems to be searching for new definitions here.

When a relative of his mother's dies, Myshkin inherits money. Again Dostoevsky asks what “family” means—Myshkin gets money from a distant relative he never knew simply because of a genetic relation. Further, Dostoevsky dramatizes the undeniable role that financial interdependence plays in binding families together. (Certainly money was central in Dostoevsky's relations with various family members.) The subplot involving “Pavlishchev's Son” further highlights the question of paternity (or relatedness in general) and what it means: a group of young nihilists try to con Myshkin out of part of his inheritance when one of them, Antip Burdovsky, claims (falsely, it turns out) to be the illegitimate son of Pavlishchev. (“Burdovsky,” incidentally, has the same root as the Russian word for the slops that pigs eat. It suggests swinishness and, possibly, in an ironic twist, Dostoevsky's beloved parable of the Prodigal Son: the son, having demanded his inheritance of his father, squanders it and ends up sharing the swine's food, before returning, repentant, to his father.) The rationale for Burdovsky's claim is that Myshkin was getting money from Pavlishchev in the past that, by natural rights, should have gone to Pavlishchev's biological son. Now that Myshkin has money, he is duty-bound to reimburse Pavlishchev's biological son. The irony here is that these nihilists are touting family values simply in an attempt to take advantage of Myshkin and to make money.

Myshkin is distantly related to Lizaveta Prokofyevna Epanchin, who was a princess Myshkin (that is, from an old aristocratic family) before her marriage to Ivan Fyodorovich Epanchin, who advanced from humble origins to the rank of general. They have three unmarried daughters: Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya. The Epanchin parents have just recently abandoned their system of not pushing their daughters into marriage as they realize that Alexandra has “suddenly and almost unexpectedly” turned twenty-five. Aglaya, later in the novel, rebels against being married off.

The Epanchin daughters' names all begin with the letter A and have Greek etymologies. The three sisters have been likened to the Three Graces. “Alexandra” comes from the Greek for “defend,” “Adelaida” comes from the Greek for “obscure” (she is a painter who ends up marrying Prince Shch.—for whom a cipher-like initial takes the place of a name, a detail that makes him a good match for “obscure” Adelaida). “Aglaya” comes from the Greek, meaning “radiance.” The symbolism of light becomes important later in the novel when Myshkin's love for her brings him the promise of a “new, radiant life.” But, by the end of the novel, she has associated herself with the forces of darkness rather than life by cutting herself off from her family, marrying a Pole, and becoming a Catholic—in the Dostoevskian system these actions suggest that she has turned away from the light and is not living up to the promise of her name. A possible link has been suggested between her name and Blanche (from the French for “white”), for whose sake Marguerite forfeits her happiness in La Dame aux camélias (by Dumas the Younger).

When Myshkin first arrives with his bundle on the Epanchins' doorstep, the General wants to send him away. In his initial conversation with Myshkin, he reveals his fears that Myshkin has come to sponge off of his relatives. Myshkin, however, disarms him. Eventually Epanchin relents and introduces him to the women of the family, his blood relations, who feel naturally drawn to him. Here Dostoevsky seems in fact to be suggesting that affinities are sometimes genetically determined.

The Epanchin family is often cited as one of the few families in Dostoevsky's fiction where the nuclear family is intact (two parents and their shared offspring live under the same roof) and relatively happy. We are told that Epanchin never regretted his early marriage, that he “respected his wife and sometimes feared her to such an extent that he even loved her.” If examined more carefully, this intact family may not be so perfect even at the beginning of the novel: Epanchin, for example, buys Nastasya Filippovna expensive pearls for her birthday (which she returns, telling him: “Take these pearls and give them to your wife”), and he has developed a scheme for marrying Alexandra off to Totsky.

Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky is a womanizer in his fifties. He has been, since the death of her parents, the guardian—and surrogate father—of Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov. (Her mother died in a fire; her shaken father died soon thereafter; her sister died of whooping cough while under Totsky's care.) Totsky kept her living with various caretakers and eventually a Swiss governess in a country place called Otradnoe (a name shared with the Rostovs' beloved estate in War and Peace). The name of that estate, approximately “felicity” in Russian, evokes a pastoral idyll. But here when Nastasya was still quite young, Totsky seduced her. Thus the Totsky-Barashkov “accidental” grouping becomes a perversion of family and demonstrates the possibly disastrous outcome of the demise of a genetic family.

When the action of the novel begins, Totsky is trying to marry Nastasya Filippovna to Gavrily (Ganya) Ivolgin, Epanchin's secretary, so that he, Totsky, can marry Alexandra Epanchin without being encumbered by Nastasya Filippovna. This plan to marry off Nastasya Filippovna is presented from Totsky's point of view as an attempt to regenerate and “resurrect” this fallen woman through “love and family” life (8:40-41). Here again, family values are touted, but with false motives.

Nastasya Filippovna would rather free herself from all connections to Totsky, who has been supporting her. Here again we see the interaction of family relations and financial dependence. On her birthday she declares: “I am the nameday girl and on my own for the first time in my whole life.”3 She declares that she will let Myshkin decide her fate, refuses to marry Ganya Ivolgin, and then runs off with Rogozhin.

Perhaps Dostoevsky intended Nastasya Filippovna's birthday celebration, the culmination of the first part of the novel, to contrast with the nameday celebration at the Rostovs' that occurs early in War and Peace, in a section Dostoevsky would have read before he wrote his opening to The Idiot. Tolstoy had used his party scene to show his Rostovs in all their glory; for Dostoevsky, these Rostovs are the “genetic” family par excellence. Even their name in Russian evokes the notion of biological growth. The celebration in War and Peace honors two generations of Rostov women named Natalya (meaning “birth”). It celebrates generational continuity and clan loyalty. On any number of levels, Dostoevsky opposes Nastasya Filippovna's birthday celebration to the nameday celebration for the two Natalya Rostovs, using the contrast to suggest, among other things, the very different set of familial circumstances from which these two heroines, Natasha Rostov and Nastasya Filippovna, spring.

All three of Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov's names have rich symbolism. Her last name, “Barashkov,” comes from the Russian word for “lamb” and possibly evokes all of the Gospel sheep and Old Testament sacrificial lambs. Her patronymic, from the Greek for “lover of horses,” evokes the horses of Revelation, which become a subject of discussion between her and Lebedev and others in the novel. Her first name, in its long form “Anastasiia,” comes from the Greek word for “resurrection.” (Its meaning is thus opposed to that of Natalya, meaning “birth.”) The name “Anastasiia” is linked to the idea of the resurrection of the dead, which also becomes a topic of debate later in the novel. (Ippolit argues that looking at Holbein's painting of the dead Christ, it is impossible to believe that Christ was resurrected.) As a fallen woman, Nastasya is metaphorically “dead.” When Myshkin comes offering the hope of rehabilitation and regeneration, Dostoevsky presents this in the text and in the Notebooks as a “resurrection.” Thus he suggests that the drama of Nastasya is whether or not the potential in her name will be realized. As it happens, she ends up murdered rather than resurrected or rehabilitated through Myshkin's love. The scene at which Rogozhin and Myshkin hold vigil over her murdered body evokes the death of Christ where the Marys held vigil. Jesus' shroud has been replaced by sturdy American oilcloth, and the ointment the Marys brought with them has been replaced by the “Zhdanov liquid” that Rogozhin uses, along with the oilcloth, to counter the smell of decay. “How can you call this [the Anastasiia under the oilcloth] Resurrection?” is the question this tableau poses.

Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, like Nastasya Filippovna, has a richly evocative name. His first name comes from the Greek word meaning “virgin.” This name would seem not to fit, since Rogozhin represents a dark erotic force. Again, as with the first name “Anastasiia,” the name goes counter to the reality but still evokes some sense of an ideal image of the person that has been violated. The last name “Rogozhin” comes from rogozha, the Russian word for “bast” or “bast mat,” by metaphorical extension, something a bit shoddy. Curiously, the word is used in a proverb that invokes another family of The Idiot: “ne k rozhe rogozha, ne k litsu epancha” (a mat's not for the mug, a cloak's not for the face).4 Dostoevsky may also have based the name “Rogozhin” on the name of a cemetery in Moscow associated with the Old Believers.

Rogozhin's family is from the merchant class and linked to Russian sectarianism.5 Rogozhin's father has died, leaving him money; again money and heritage are interconnected. Rogozhin's family lives in a creepy old house in Saint Petersburg that is windowless, with thick walls. There in her separate quarters Rogozhin's mother reads the Chet'i-Minei, a compendium of devotional literature, including saints' lives, arranged according to the calendar. In Rogozhin's quarters, Myshkin and Ippolit view the copy of Hans Holbein's Dead Christ. It is there that Myshkin notices a garden knife Rogozhin is using to cut the pages of a book.

Rogozhin and Myshkin become “brothers” when they exchange crosses, an act that blurs the boundary between victimizer and victim. Rogozhin also at one point makes an attempt to murder Myshkin, stopped only when Myshkin has an epileptic attack. Yet Myshkin's devotion to his “brother” Rogozhin continues, surviving the attempted murder, the rivalry for Nastasya Filippovna, and even the murder of Nastasya Filippovna. At the price of his own sanity, perhaps, Myshkin stays with Rogozhin, stroking his cheek and caring for him after Nastasya Filippovna's death.

Myshkin met Gavrily (Ganya) Ivolgin, the older son of the Ivolgin family, at the Epanchins and comes to them as their boarder, thus entering their family life. By showing the Ivolgins forced by finances to take in boarders, Dostoevsky again shows the boundaries of the family being redefined in response to external factors. Myshkin joins Ferdyshchenko (whose name hints at German Pferd, “horse”) as a boarder. General Ivolgin, the head of this household, has gone to seed and remains obsessed with Napoleon, whom he claims to have served in his childhood during the siege of Moscow. A “Napoleon complex” may have been part of his patrimony to his son Ganya: when Ganya is first introduced at the Epanchins, he is said to have a “small, Napoleonic beard” (8:21). But the “Napoleonic beard” in question was a beard like that of Napoleon III, Napoleon's nephew who was the emperor of France at the time of the novel. Thus Ganya's Napoleonicism is a shoddier or diminished version of his father's. And Dostoevsky is suggesting that here, contrary to Darwin's theory, the sons (and nephews) are not an improvement over the fathers.

Ganya, describing to Myshkin his scheme to get rich, shares his dream of how in the future people will say, “Behold, Ivolgin, King of the Jews,” in imitation of the inscription on Jesus' cross. In addition, Dostoevsky draws here on Heinrich Heine's depiction of James Rothschild as the “King of the Jews.” Alexander Herzen, in his Past and Thoughts, likewise had used the term “King of the Jews” for Rothschild in the context of a discussion of how money brings power and independence.6 Dostoevsky thus presents Ganya as involved in an imitation of the wrong “King of the Jews.” (Myshkin, on the other hand, imitates the correct King of the Jews.)

Dostoevsky uses Ganya as an example of an “ordinary” person who wants desperately to be extraordinary. Ganya, along with his sister Varya (short for “Varvara,” from Greek, “foreigner, barbarian”) and the man she marries, Ivan Petrovich Ptitsyn (Russian ptitsa, “bird”), are the subject of the long discourse on “ordinary” people with which part 4 of the novel begins.

The adolescent Kolya (short for “Nikolai”) Ivolgin develops a close relationship with Myshkin. He nurses Myshkin after his epileptic attack, defends and protects Myshkin from the group of young nihilists, and seems to act under the influence of Myshkin when he helps the dying Ippolit.

Myshkin is first introduced to Ippolit Terentiev, a boy dying of consumption, when General Ivolgin takes Myshkin to visit Ippolit's mother, Ivolgin's mistress. Ippolit later turns up as part of the band of nihilists who try to extract money from Myshkin. He reads his “Confession” at Prince Myshkin's birthday party at the Lebedev dacha. Ippolit eventually moves out to Pavlovsk, where he is cared for by Mrs. Ivolgin and Kolya.

The name “Ippolit,” meaning “looser of horses,” may relate to the Horses of the Apocalypse that are discussed in the novel.7 The fact that he and Nastasya Filippovna both have names containing the Greek root meaning “horse” links these two characters. Both show an active interest in the Apocalypse. Both are dead by the end of the novel.

Dostoevsky's Ippolit may be related to Flaubert's Hippolyte in Madame Bovary.8 Hippolyte is the clubfooted youth whom Charles Bovary operates on, at Emma's urging. This newfangled operation was to have made Charles a famous doctor, bringing glory to their banal life. Charles, however, bungles the operation, making it necessary to amputate the whole leg. Both Hippolyte in Madame Bovary and Ippolit in The Idiot, living in their prematurely defective young bodies, must forgive (or envy) the happiness of other people, whose healthy bodies allow them perhaps to forget the mortality of their own flesh.

One of Dostoevsky's more “transparent” names is Kislorodov (from Russian kislorod, “oxygen”), Ippolit's materialist friend who informs him with scientific certainty that he will die.

The Lebedevs are another family who become increasingly important to the ideology and symbolism of the novel. Their last name is from the Russian word for “swan.” It evokes the idea of a swan song, in keeping with Lukian Timofeich Lebedev's role as herald of the Apocalypse. He interprets the Apocalypse and declares the “railroad age” and all it represents to be the sign of the coming end. He rejects modernism in all its manifestations and yearns for a “binding idea” (more simply, faith that would inspire human life).

This family has suffered the recent death of Lebedev's wife. The grieving and drinking widower Lukian Timofeich is devoted to her memory. The now motherless children are a son, Konstantin, and a grown daughter, Vera (“faith” in Russian), who always appears carrying Lyubov (meaning “love”), her baby sister, to whom she becomes a surrogate mother. Also living in the Lebedev household is the son of Lebedev's dead sister. His name is Vladimir Doktorenko. In response to the death of Lebedev's sister, this family has welcomed into its midst Doktorenko (despite their obvious antipathy for his nihilist politics and manners). After the death of Lebedev's wife and sister, roles in the Lebedev family have been redefined (sister becomes mother, nephew becomes son). In the Lebedevs, Dostoevsky provides us with another example of a family forced by circumstances to constitute itself anew. It becomes a positive version of the “accidental family” that Dostoevsky felt was so crucial to the survival of Russian society.

Joseph Frank suggests that there is a similarity between Dostoevsky's attitude toward his stepson, Pasha (Pavel Isaev), and Lebedev's attitude toward his nephew Doktorenko: the common denominator is loyalty to and tolerance of the young men, entrusted to them by a dying loved one, despite an increasing antipathy toward the lives these young men lead.9

When Lebedev introduces his nephew to Myshkin, he says: “And so this is the actual murderer of the Zhemarin family.” When Myshkin is befuddled, Lebedev elaborates: “That is, allegorically speaking, this is the future second murderer of the Zhemarin family, if there ever is such a thing” (8:161). (Frank points out that Dostoevsky saw in Pasha the makings of Raskolnikov or Gorsky, the man who murdered the Zhemarins.)10 According to the news reports of this murder, the youth Gorsky, a Polish Catholic by birth, murdered in cold blood six members of the Zhemarin household, where he tutored one of the children. He had fashioned a special murder weapon for the crime. During his trial, Gorsky admitted to being an atheist. For Dostoevsky this murder was further evidence that nihilist and atheist ideology lead to crime. As his remark about Pasha suggests, Dostoevsky in fact saw a connection between Raskolnikov and Gorsky, although probably Dostoevsky would have considered Gorsky, with his Polish Catholic heritage, not as redeemable as Raskolnikov. The Zhemarin murder crops up at various points in the novel. Myshkin distinguishes between the cold-blooded, calculating murderer of the Zhemarins and a murderer such as Rogozhin or the Russian peasant who coveted his friend's watch and, no longer able to control himself, crossed himself, asked God's forgiveness in the name of Christ, knifed his friend, and took the watch (8:183).

The Lebedev family becomes peripherally more involved in the central drama of the novel because Myshkin moves into their dacha in Pavlovsk after his epileptic attack in part 2. (In this way Myshkin enters the life of yet another family.) There are hints of some sympathy developing between Vera Lebedev and Myshkin. Some readers have suggested that Myshkin, caught between Aglaya and Nastasya Filippovna, overlooks Vera.

At the end of the novel, an attachment, by letter, develops between Vera and Evgeny Pavlovich Radomsky (whose name evokes the Polish city of Radom). Radomsky has been dubbed the raisonneur of the novel.


Below are discussed some of the literary works and one painting that figure in The Idiot.11 Although all authors do this to some extent, Dostoevsky has been particularly known and studied for the ways in which he “copies, imitates, quotes, uses, parodies, or reacts in other ways” to various materials.12

In many of the cases discussed below, the texts actually appear as props in the novel. For example, Lebedev quotes “To be or not to be …”; a copy of Holbein's Dead Christ hangs on Rogozhin's wall. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky explores how his heroes read and shows that some of them are at risk of developing “le bovarysme.” Dostoevsky and his reading public may not yet have known the term, but they did know the disease. (And Dostoevsky had just finished reading Madame Bovary, the first case history.) “Le bovarysme” consists of “imitating hero[in]es of novels,” even to the point of destroying one's life.13 “Le bovarysme” and imitatio Christi are very different, but they share the imitation of a model. Each of these very different types of imitation, of course, can be practiced in many different ways and to varying degrees. What is important is how the imitation differs from the original.


Dostoevsky first read a description of Hans Holbein's (1497-1543) painting Christ in the Tomb in Nikolai Karamzin's Letters of a Russian Traveler, where Karamzin notes that in Holbein's Christ “there is nothing divine, but as a dead man he is portrayed extremely naturalistically.” Karamzin reports that the work was painted from an actual corpse.

Dostoevsky saw this painting in Basel on August 11/23, 1867, just before settling in Geneva. His wife describes their visit to the museum in both her diary and her reminiscences (composed years after), with some differences in the story she tells. For example, in her (later) reminiscences, she reports that she was worried that Dostoevsky would have an epileptic attack from seeing the picture; earlier in her diary, she had reported being worried that Dostoevsky would be fined for standing up on a chair in order to see the painting better (“because they give you fines for everything here”).

In her diary description, she notes that, whereas Christ is ordinarily painted with his face expressing suffering, the body usually “is not at all tortured or distorted, as in reality. Here [in Holbein's painting], however, he is presented with an emaciated body, the bones and ribs visible, the hands and feet pierced with wounds, swollen and quite blue, the way they are on a corpse that has already begun to decay. The face also was horribly tortured, with half-closed eyes, but that already see nothing and express nothing. The nose, mouth, and chin had turned blue; all in all it resembled an actual corpse to such a degree that I really thought I was not going to be able to convince myself to stay in the same room with it. Maybe it was strikingly true, but, it was not at all aesthetic and really it aroused in me only repulsion and a certain horror; Fedya was quite taken with the picture, however.”14 In Anna Grigoryevna's expectation that there should be an aesthetic component to art, rather than just a depiction of naturalistic reality, she echoes some of the aesthetic views expressed in Dostoevsky's writings.15

Within The Idiot, this painting serves as the antithesis to the Gospels (another important subtext). Whereas the Gospels proclaim the “good news” that Christ is risen, this painting depicts the bad news that Christ did not rise. As is the case with whoever hears the Gospels, the viewer can choose how to respond to the “news” the painting proclaims. A copy of this painting hangs in Rogozhin's house, where Myshkin and Ippolit both see it. Ippolit takes its news as truth.


When Dostoevsky faced his own death on December 22, 1849, he compared his experience to that described in Victor Hugo's novel Le Dernier jour d'un condamné à mort (The last day of a man condemned to death). This gripping work is part treatise against capital punishment, part epistemological and narrative experiment: it is the “diary” of a man describing his last hours up until his head is chopped off by the guillotine. In Myshkin's descriptions of the execution he witnessed in France, echoes of Hugo's work can be seen. In general, Dostoevsky considered Hugo (especially as the author of this work) to be one of his precursors in developing an innovative type of realism that embraces a fantastic realm.


Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris was published in Russian translation in the Dostoevsky brothers' journal in 1862. In introducing the novel, Dostoevsky identifies Victor Hugo as the first to embody “the fundamental idea of all of the art of the nineteenth century.” That idea, according to Dostoevsky, is “a Christian and highly moral” one, consisting of “the restoration of a ruined man” and of “the justification of the pariahs of society, humiliated and rejected by all” (20:28-29). Dostoevsky refers to Notre Dame's protagonist Quasimodo in the Notebooks to The Idiot. No overt references to Notre Dame have been discerned within The Idiot, but its presence is felt nonetheless. One of the questions Hugo poses in his novel is whether the faith that built cathedrals such as Notre Dame is possible in the modern world, which began, according to Hugo, with the invention of the printing press. (Further, in the plot of the novel, one of his characters asks whether it is possible for a mother whose child has died to still have faith in God; this theme was of personal concern to Dostoevsky, who had lost his daughter.)

Fundamental to Hugo's novel is the Cathedral of Notre Dame itself. Dostoevsky extends Hugo's vision by exploring the ways in which indeed in a post-printing press world, faith is challenged: as already seen, focal to The Idiot is the copy of Holbein's Christ in the Tomb that hangs in Rogozhin's house. This painting (a symbol of how faith is undermined in the modern age) is symbolically juxtaposed to the Cathedral of Notre Dame (a symbol of the faith of the Middle Ages) in multiple ways: one is the work of an individual, graphically depicting a dead male God; the other is the collective work of thousands, symbolically honoring a living female intermediary between man and God.


The whole petit jeu played at Nastasya Filippovna's birthday party, whereby confession becomes a game and is devoid of all repentance, is meant to recall Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, where Rousseau engages in sordid confessions but seems to feel little remorse for all he has done. Ferdyshchenko, when he takes his turn at the petit jeu, tells a story of a theft he committed but for which a servant girl was blamed; the incident is a borrowing from Rousseau's Confessions.16


Fyodor Tyutchev was the superior of Dostoevsky's close friend Maikov in the censorship department at the time Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot. In a famous line of this influential poem of eighteen lines, the poet declares “the word spoken out” to be “a lie.” The soul is “a whole world” unto itself; therefore there is no point in attempting to reach out to another. The poet gives the advice to “be silent” in the face of the impossibility of expressing in words what is in the heart and in the face of the impossibility of another ever understanding.

Echoes of this poem may be found in Ippolit's declarations before he reads his confession that “in every brilliant or new human idea, or simply even in every serious human idea, arising in somebody's head, there always remains something that simply cannot be communicated to other people, even if you were to write whole volumes and explicate it for thirty-five years” (8:328). The possible applications of this poem to Dostoevsky's thinking are very rich.


La Dame aux camélias was a novel (1848), rewritten as a play (1852), by Alexandre Dumas the Younger. This work comes up directly in the petit jeu played at Nastasya Filippovna's birthday party, where each player is invited to relate the worst thing he has done in his life. Totsky tells a story that involves camellias, which were the rage because of the popularity of the novel. In Dumas's novel, Marguérite Gautier is asked by her lover to sacrifice her happiness with him and renounce him so that his sister, Blanche, can make a socially acceptable marriage that could not take place if her brother were associated with a “fallen” woman like Marguérite. Nastasya Filippovna is being asked, similarly, to remove herself so that Totsky can marry Alexandra. Later on, Nastasya Filippovna must again get out of the way if Myshkin is to marry Aglaya (who plays the role of Blanche).


While he was on his way to prison in Siberia in 1849, Dostoevsky was given a copy of the New Testament by the Decembrist wives, who had followed their exiled husbands and settled there a quarter of a century before. He kept this copy throughout the rest of his life and marked passages as he read. Dostoevsky's marginalia from his copy of the New Testament have been published in English translation, providing clues as to how Dostoevsky responded to what he read.17

The Gospels function as an important subtext throughout The Idiot, especially since Myshkin was modeled, in some way or another, on Christ.18 Radomsky accuses Myshkin of being even more lenient on Nastasya Filippovna than Christ was in forgiving the woman taken in adultery.

Relevant to the discussion of the crucifixion in Ippolit's confession are the passages discussing the Resurrection of Jesus. The discussion in Saint Paul, the locus classicus for the holy fool (notably 1 Cor. 4:9-10), is relevant to Myshkin, termed a holy fool early in the novel. The Revelation of Saint John is also the subject of much discussion, with Lebedev and Nastasya Filippovna interpreting it.


In Vie de Jésus Ernest Renan attempted to apply “cold analysis” to his subject matter. In general, Renan denied Christ's divinity and set forth rational, scientific explanations for what have been perceived as miracles. Although there are crucial differences between Dostoevsky's Jesus and Renan's (divinity, for example), it is still probable that some traits of Renan's Jesus worked their way into the depiction of Myshkin.19 This work is frequently mentioned in Dostoevsky's writings.

The Idiot could be regarded as the reverse of Vie de Jésus: Renan depicts Jesus in Jesus' own time and setting but from a modern, scientific perspective, while Dostoevsky depicts a Jesus-like man in a contemporary, modern time and setting, but from a New Testament perspective.


Alexander Pushkin's poem is read in the novel by Aglaya to poke fun at Myshkin. Apparently Aglaya identifies Myshkin with the poor knight. Of interest here is not so much the extent to which Myshkin does or does not fit, but that the poem poses certain questions relevant to Myshkin and the enigma of who he is.

This poem is known in two versions. Aglaya reads the version that omits a stanza in which the “poor knight” travels to Geneva, where he sees Mary, the Mother of God, at the cross. This stanza explains that the knight devotes himself to the Virgin Mary, eschewing earthly women. This particular stanza was the subject of discussion in an 1866 article in The Contemporary that Dostoevsky may have read (9:403). The author of the article took the view that ideal devotion, such as that fitting for the Virgin Mary, is inappropriate when applied to fleshly women.

Aglaya alters the poem she reads: blasphemously, she substitutes Nastasya Filippovna's initials NFB for AMD—standing for “Ave, Mater Dei” (Hail, Mother of God). By modifying the poem, she tries to make it apply more directly to Myshkin and tease him about his devotion to Nastasya Filippovna. When Aglaya substitutes initials, she creates questions, among them the question of how much Aglaya herself understands of this whole process. The poem is like one of the “meaningful” names Dostoevsky applies to his characters. Though the reader may yearn for a neat allegorical interpretation, Aglaya's play with initials creates a kind of chaos out of which some new and perhaps very partial truth emerges about the situation and/or character at hand.


When Myshkin arrives on his birthday back at the Lebedev dacha, Lebedev, Ippolit, and many others greet him. Myshkin is informed by Lebedev that they have been discussing “To be or not to be” (8:305). (This opening to Hamlet's most famous speech is also quoted in the Notebooks [9:380].) Lebedev says, “It's a contemporary topic, very contemporary! Questions and answers.” Ippolit, who reads his confession, which is supposed to culminate in his own suicide, would like to imitate Hamlet and become a tragic hero.


Mentions of Pickwick both in his letter to his niece (Letter 332, January 1/13, 1868, in Primary Sources) and in the Notebooks for the novel reveal that Dostoevsky regarded Pickwick as one of the few literary incarnations of “positively good men.” But Pickwick, like Don Quixote, aroused sympathy in the reader because he was comical. And Dostoevsky wanted Myshkin to be more innocent than comical.

Still, some aspects of Pickwick have been traced in the unfunny Myshkin, notably his “deficient sense of reality.”20


Podkolyosin, the hero of Nikolai Gogol's play Getting Married (or, Marriage), is discussed at length in the digression with which part 4 opens. The narrator is remarking about the difficulties of presenting “ordinary” people in an interesting way. At issue is the typicality of the hero of Gogol's play, who jumps out of the window at his wedding. The narrator admits that, while few grooms actually jump out of the window (and in this regard, his “typicality” has been exaggerated), many people still identify with him and did even before Podkolyosin existed. Here, as elsewhere, Dostoevsky is schooling his readers not to seek a perfect fit and to pay attention to differences as well as similarities.

The subject matter of Gogol's play is in fact quite relevant. Myshkin is a somewhat unlikely groom, like Gogol's groom in that respect; furthermore, like Gogol's play, The Idiot is about getting married—or rather planning on getting married and then not getting married (there are lots of marriages that fall through at various points along the way to the altar); the ultimate example is when Nastasya Filippovna flees at the very last moment.


Madame Bovary appears directly in The Idiot as Nastasya Filippovna's reading material in the last days of her life. (On how Dostoevsky came to read this book, see my “Introduction to The Idiot, Part I.”) Nastasya Filippovna, accused of having been damaged by too much reading (a trait she shares with Aglaya) proves to be the ultimate victim of “le bovarysme,” for she dies after/from reading Madame Bovary. She accepts death, in imitation of Emma.

The scene from Madame Bovary in which Charles, Homais, and the priest hold vigil over Emma's corpse anticipates the scene in The Idiot in which Rogozhin and Myshkin hold vigil over Nastasya Filippovna's corpse.21 Furthermore, iron, associated in The Idiot with the Apocalypse and the “railroad/iron road age,”22 is likewise a recurrent, sinister motif in Madame Bovary. When Emma, in a crucial scene, becomes lost in thought outside the convent where she spent some time as a girl, she is brought back from her reverie by the sound of iron clanging. On another occasion, at a restaurant with Léon, Emma's maternal thoughts are interrupted as “a cart full of long strips of iron passed, casting against the walls of the houses a deafening metallic vibration.” Iron is also associated with French hell (enfer). And Flaubert at one point likens language to a laminoir, a machine that flattens metal; within the novel even a curling iron takes on sinister associations by emitting a disturbing smell.

Thus iron is a symbol of industrialization and modernity in Madame Bovary, as it is also in The Idiot. But the symbol could also be a borrowing from Don Quixote (discussed below), an acknowledged subtext of both Madame Bovary and The Idiot. On a more profound level, the three texts could be said to share an interest in the possibility of nonrational knowledge.23


In his letter to his niece in which he describes the idea of The Idiot as being “to depict a positively beautiful man,” Dostoevsky cites Don Quixote as an example of a previous attempt. But Dostoevsky argued that he wanted to avoid the comicality of Don Quixote, used to evoke sympathy in the reader.

Don Quixote, made topical in Russian literature by Turgenev's essay “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” was one of Dostoevsky's beloved heroes. In a detailed discussion in his Diary of a Writer for September 1877, Dostoevsky lauds Don Quixote's positive qualities, but then goes on to note that “not seldom (alas, so often)” all these good qualities fail to achieve any results, because, despite all the gifts, one gift is lacking: “the genius” for guiding and directing all this power onto a course of action that is “not fantastic and mad” but “a true path, for the benefit of mankind.”

Aglaya, on receiving a letter from Myshkin, written from the heart of Russia, places it in a book, her copy of Don Quixote. Aglaya marvels at how fitting this book was for a letter from Myshkin. And indeed, Myshkin has many of the same qualities and behaves like Don Quixote. For example, Don Quixote treats some prostitutes he meets as maidens, restoring to them a measure of dignity, for which they mock him. The dynamic between Myshkin and Nastasya Filippovna is a tragic imitation of the comic scene from Don Quixote.

It will be remembered that Don Quixote declared his quest and dream to bring back the Age of Gold to replace the Age of Iron in which he found himself living. These associations come into play when Lebedev announces that the railroad—or rather, that which the railroad stands for as an image—was a sign of an age that lacks a binding idea, a sign of the Apocalypse.24


The action of the novel is mostly divided between Saint Petersburg, the great imperial capital city built by Peter the Great, and Pavlovsk, one of its satellites, where the Epanchins, the Lebedevs, and Ivolgins spend the summer months in dachas. Switzerland figures in Myshkin's tales of his past and in the very end of the novel, which finds Myshkin back in his Swiss asylum. In the mysterious six-month hiatus between part 1 and part 2, Myshkin was in Moscow and elsewhere in the heart of Russia, getting to know the Russian people, as well as Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin.

Parts 1 and 2 both begin with Prince Myshkin arriving by train in Saint Petersburg. There is a long tradition of Russian literature, including that of Pushkin and Gogol, that comments on Saint Petersburg, on the drama of the individual man confronting the legacy of Peter (modernity, Westernization). When Myshkin returns in part 2 to Saint Petersburg during White Nights, after having been in the heart and bowels of Russia, perhaps he better understands the violation of the Russian way of life that Saint Petersburg represents. Peter's city threatens the individual in his pursuit of happiness: Evgeny, the hero of Pushkin's Bronze Horseman, meekly pursues happiness in the form of his beloved, only to end up mad, pursued through a flooded city by the Bronze Horseman himself. As Sidney Monas suggests in his discussion of The Idiot as a “Petersburg tale,”25 Myshkin the idiot becomes another victim of Saint Petersburg. Possibly one can see in the novel Dostoevsky's veiled criticism of the tsarist regime. The novel also contains Dostoevsky's criticism of social change, of the new generation of opportunists.

Pavlovsk, with its trees and hedgehogs, provides a contrast to the urban Saint Petersburg. (Dostoevsky was familiar with Pavlovsk; Dostoevsky's brother's family and Maikov's family spent summer months there.) And yet it turns out to be not simply the setting of a pastoral idyll. The social atmosphere of Pavlovsk seems more vicious and petty than that of Petersburg society. Gossip develops great momentum in the artificial atmosphere of the summer resort.

Pavlovsk was also the terminus of the first railroad in Russia. Because concerts were often held in stations26—Dostoevsky and his wife also, during their stay in Germany, attended concerts at various German train stations—the railroad is curiously linked to music. The Dionysian combination of trains and music that comes out at the end of the novel later becomes a modernist theme, further explored by Osip Mandelshtam (in his “Concert at the Train Station”).27

Although the uniqueness of Dostoevsky's novelistic realm is often emphasized, it should always be remembered that Dostoevsky consistently responds to and develops the various cultural associations of the raw material—names, places, and texts—that he uses. Although his novels may sometimes seem unconventional, Dostoevsky actively engages traditions. This introduction has been intended as an overview of some of the associations and traditions Dostoevsky works with in The Idiot.

The critical essays that follow explore different aspects of the novel and have been chosen not only for the information they offer but for the way in which they suggest to the reader new approaches to the novel. Robin Feuer Miller's essay on the Notebooks of the novel documents and interprets how The Idiot evolved in Dostoevsky's mind. David Bethea's essay shows the intricate relationship between narrative and Dostoevsky's perception of time and history, with particular attention to the theme of apocalypse. Nina Pelikan Straus reads the novel through the prism of feminist theory and challenges readers to approach the novel actively and critically. Liza Knapp's essay suggests ways in which, far from being the “failure” many have held it to be, The Idiot embodies Dostoevsky's most sacred beliefs.


  1. Gary Rosenshield also sees chaos in the family to be one of the manifestations of chaos in this novel. “All the families in Idiot—noble and commoner alike—are in disarray, although, to be sure, every disintegrating family is disintegrating in its own way.” “Chaos, Apocalypse, the Laws of Nature: Autonomy and ‘Unity’ in Dostoevskii's Idiot,Slavic Review 50 (1991): 880.

  2. In addition to the notes to the edition of Dostoevsky's works (F. M. Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Pss), ed. V. G. Bazanov et al. [Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90]), I have drawn on the following: Charles E. Passage, Character Names in Dostoevsky's Fiction (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982), and Ervin C. Brody, “Meaning and Symbolism in the Names of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and The Idiot,Names: Journal of the American Name Society 27 (1979): 117-40.

  3. Although it is actually her birthday, Nastasya applies the term to a woman celebrating her nameday, the day honoring the saint whose name she bears. For Orthodox Russians, nameday celebrations were more important than birthday celebrations. Russian has no word for “birthday girl,” hence it was natural for Nastasya to borrow the ready-made term for “nameday girl.” However, given the meaning of her name (resurrection), this term reminds us that Nastasya's birthday is potentially a rebirth-day or resurrection day for her. At least that is what she is attempting to make it.

  4. Vladimir Dal', Tolkovyi slovar' zhivogo velikorusskogo iazyka Vladimira Dalia, 4th ed., ed. I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay (Saint Petersburg and Moscow: M. O. Vol'f, 1912), s.v. “rogozha.”

  5. William Comer, “Rogozhin and the ‘Castrates’: Russian Religious Traditions in Dostoevsky's The Idiot,Slavic and East European Journal 40 (1996): 85-99.

  6. For further discussion, see the commentary in 9:399-400.

  7. See David M. Bethea's essay, this volume.

  8. I am grateful to Anne Hruska for this suggestion.

  9. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), 295.

  10. Ibid., 295.

  11. For information about the subtexts of the novel, I have drawn on the commentary for the novel (9:334-469) in Pss. Victor Terras includes discussion of “The Literary Subtext” in “The Idiot.An Interpretation (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 36-40.

  12. For discussion of how Dostoevsky transformed his reading into his own works, see Robert Belknap, The Genesis ofThe Brothers Karamazov: The Aesthetics, Ideology, and Psychology of Making a Text (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990). The list of ways in which Dostoevsky uses the texts of others in his own is taken from page 1 of Belknap's book.

  13. On “le bovarysme,” see I. I. Lapshin, Estetika Dostoevskogo (Berlin: Obelisk, 1923), 55.

  14. A. G. Dostoevskaia, Dnevnik 1867 goda, ed. S. V. Zhitomirskaia (Moscow: Nauka, 1993), 234.

  15. For discussion of Dostoevsky's understanding of this painting, see Robert Louis Jackson, Dostoevsky's Quest for Form: A Study of His Philosophy of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 65-70. For commentary on the painting, see Julia Kristeva, “Holbein's Dead Christ,” Zone 3 (1989): 238-69.

  16. For a full discussion of the role of Rousseau's Confessions in the petit jeu and novel, see Robin Feuer Miller, Dostoevsky andThe Idiot.Author, Narrator, and Reader (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 178-82.

  17. Geir Kjetsaa, Dostoevsky and His New Testament (Oslo: Solum, 1984).

  18. See my “Myshkin Through a Murky Glass, Guessingly” in this volume.

  19. G. G. Ermilova, Taina kniazia Myshkina: O romane DostoevskogoIdiot” (Ivanovo: Ivanovskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 1993); Natalie Nikolaevna Minihan, “O vliianii Evangeliia na zamysel i na osnovnye literaturnye istochniki romana ‘Idiot,’” (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1989).

  20. For discussion of multiple sources in Dickens for characters in The Idiot, see N. M. Lary, Dostoevsky and Dickens: A Study of Literary Influence (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 51-105. For a briefer discussion, see Michael Futrell, “Dostoevskii and Dickens,” in Dostoevskii and Britain, ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow (Oxford: Berg, 1995), 83-122.

  21. Miller, Dostoevsky andThe Idiot,” 157-58.

  22. See Bethea's essay, this volume.

  23. Anthony J. Cascardi, The Bounds of Reason: Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Flaubert (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).

  24. See especially Bethea's essay, this volume.

  25. On Petersburg and The Idiot, see Sidney Monas, “Across the Threshold: The Idiot as a Petersburg Tale,” in New Essays on Dostoyevsky, ed. Malcolm Jones and Garth Terry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 67-93.

  26. See Stephen Baehr, “The Troika and the Train: Dialogues between Tradition and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature,” in Issues in Russian Literature before 1917: Proceedings from the III International Congress on Soviet and East European Studies, ed. Douglas Clayton (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989), 85-106.

  27. O. Ronen, An Approach to Mandel'štam (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1983).

Nina Pelikan Straus (essay date 1998)

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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 1860s transform relationships between male characters and female characters who embody “new woman” heroinisms. If Sonya and Dunya do not immediately redeem Raskolnikov, and if Liza cannot entirely change the underground man's dedication to spite, their feminine powers are nevertheless acknowledged. If Polina does not bring Alexei toward love and self-knowledge, she at least exercises the wit to escape from his sadistic ambivalence. Up until The Idiot, several of Dostoevsky's principal women characters embody a polyphonic and quasi-feminist consciousness that his heroes in part assimilate.

With his apparently favorite hero, “Prince Christ” Myshkin, Dostoevsky breaks this narrative pattern. In the denouement (for which the whole novel was written, as Dostoevsky informed his niece),1 Myshkin is represented as having assimilated and imitated everything but having understood nothing. Despite Nastasya Filippovna's extraordinary capacity for self-dramatizations of women's sufferings and Aglaya's talk of women's emancipation, Myshkin remains at the end of the novel as he was at the beginning. Caryl Emerson argues that Myshkin is the most “monologic” of Dostoevsky's characters,2 and one who monologizes others. In this chapter I suggest that this monologism is related to Dostoevsky's displacement of “the woman question” to an “answer” in anachronistic Christianity. Myshkin is offered as a solution for the second sex's problems in Russian society, as an alternative model for masculinity, as an antitype to male violence toward women personified by Rogozhin, and as an antidote to Western patriarchal rationality and secularism. Myshkin is a salve for women's psychological self-degradation, a Christ without a sword who is ready to take on more than one woman as his Magdalene. Dostoevsky's “idiot” fascinates us because he embodies tremendous confusion about gender and sexuality linked to ideas about faith and religion.

As his biographers note, Dostoevsky's period of unrest came to an end shortly after he married Anna Snitkina, and this fact (as well as his desperate need for money) influenced his writing of The Idiot. His letters indicate that he soon came to love his wife and to anticipate children with her. The Idiot registers the “split consciousness” regarding women that Dostoevsky explored in his heroes earlier, but the split is not internalized as it was in Raskolnikov. Rather, it is externalized through the “good” Myshkin and “bad” Rogozhin. Dostoevsky's need to imagine and present to his reading public an “altogether good man” was perhaps prompted by the future he faced as Snitkina's husband and the father of their children. His decision to become a better sort of man himself, felt so deeply as he stood by the bier of his first wife,3 perhaps motivated his wish to create a hero intent on saving women, rather than one whom women attempt to save. But the novel also expresses large literary-nationalistic ambitions beyond these biographically motivated impulses, and these ambitions account for the novel's chaotically narrated, structurally alogical elements.

What is possible or impossible in terms of future relations between men and women is the central problem of The Idiot, at least in its most coherent section, part 1. Yet Dostoevsky does not describe the novel in these terms, even though his first notes for the novel record anecdotes about girls and women, nor does part 2 develop the focus initiated in part 1. In The Idiot, the tale, the teller, and what is told have unusually labile narrative relations to one another. Discourse that appears initially as polyphony later verges on cacophony, with Myshkin's character remaining oddly monologic throughout. In part 1, for example, the reader may experience a pleasurable sense of collaboration with the author's irony, sharing with him a secret hidden from other characters or even readers: that Myshkin only appears to be an idiot but has come into the world to save women like the beleaguered and proud Nastasya. But this impression does not hold its focus. By part 2 the centrality of Myshkin's relation to Nastasya is dispersed by various subplots. The narration becomes increasingly allusive and paradoxical, intimating that readers are about to witness the modernized crucifixion of a Russian Christ figure but must simultaneously participate voyeuristically in the murder of a beautiful woman. The connections between sex and religion are part of the novel's often discussed “mystery.”

Mystery and obscurity are part of the total effect, as is the rivalry/brotherhood between “Prince Christ” and Rogozhin. Perhaps, as Harriet Murav puts it, Dostoevsky cannot imagine an ultimate goodness that does not involve beholding “the spectacle of our own folly.”4 Folly and intelligence, Christian and phallic metaphors are so compounded in The Idiot, however, that a feminist reader may suspect she is confronting a series of particularly masculinist confusions. Among them is the author's representation of his hallucinated wish to save women “through Christ,” subverted by a perhaps unconsciously dramatized apprehension of the ways Christianity makes that wish impossible to fulfill.

The novel remains the site of contested and perhaps inevitable misreadings that center around the notion of idiocy, the holy and sometimes not-so-holy foolishness Myshkin continually exhibits. Contemporary traditionalists like David Bethea who find “danger in reading Dostoevsky through Western eyes” emphasize Dostoevsky's apocalyptic vision and interpret Nastasya's death as a “tragic composite of the two temporalities.”5 Bethea does not imagine how apocalypse could be a danger to Dostoevsky himself. What might the novelist not have created if The Idiot had met with success? Fortunately for late twentieth-century readers, the book appears in much criticism as the most puzzling and least popular of Dostoevsky's “great” works. Even Russians at the time of the novel's publication in 1868 greeted Dostoevsky's religious intentions with skepticism. There were nineteenth-century Russians who asked how one could “value” Dostoevsky's version of “this truth” and wondered “who is interested in these pathological sensations, besides epileptics?”6

Interpretations of the “mystery” of Prince Myshkin reveal opposing kinds of responses, one of which moves toward Slavophilism and the other toward the at present un-Russian deconstructions of psychoanalytic and feminist theory. Recently some readers have described the “feminization” of Myshkin's character, although they have not pursued “the woman question” as the heart of Myshkin's trouble.7 Why Dostoevsky reserves a whole chapter for the expression of Evgeny Pavlovich's idea that Myshkin is obsessed with democracy and the woman question is the piece of the puzzle analyzed later in this chapter.

The puzzle involves the way the novel connects a universalist, supposedly timeless subject, the advent of a “Prince Christ” into decaying Russia, with the timely theme of bringing Myshkin into contact with adventurous young women and changing sexual mores. Modernist negotiations between men and women are framed so that Myshkin's intended innocence and “holy” sickness (epilepsy) subordinate issues of sexuality and women's liberation to transcendent and final liberations “in Christ.” Two ideals of liberation seduce the novel's women, and part of their quest is to decide how opposed they are: that is, whether, as Aglaya first supposes, Myshkin could be a good husband for an emancipated woman; or, as Nastasya at first imagines, Myshkin could be her savior. “Myshkin” develops as a symbol of fantastic investments through which women like Nastasya are seduced into hoping that the dangers their sexuality provokes in men will evaporate. The attempted erasure of sexual desire as part of the “love” Myshkin incarnates for both Nastasya and Aglaya is a symptom of Dostoevsky's experiment with eliminating eros and substituting caritas as the force that binds men and women together. But Myshkin's nonparticipation in sexual reality also functions as the obscurity around which all problems in the novel circulate. Moving in and out between the sacralized, desexualized heaven that is Myshkin's idea of love—which turns out to be a hell of its own—the women characters of The Idiot experience a suspension of the traditional orders of male-female relations.

Nastasya's attraction to Myshkin represents a feminist delusion that she could escape into the nonpatriarchal, nonviolent shelter of presexual innocence. He appears to embody her potential emancipation. Her delusion signals Dostoevsky's attempt to imagine a third sex that is not quite a man, a human being who loves women but not the way men in Russian society generally do. As a dream figure whose attitude to women contrasts significantly with Dostoevsky's other male figures, excepting Alyosha Karamazov, Myshkin appears as a man whom an emancipated woman might love. Yet, when Nastasya Filippovna accepts his marriage offer, the result is her death by Rogozhin's knife.

Commentaries on the novel are drawn to the murder scene that ends the novel, and I also approach its woman question by discussing its ending first. I note that Dostoevsky positions Myshkin and Rogozhin near Nastasya's dead body as if the two male characters were meant to interpret the meaning of the scene they are in. This peculiar writing-reading situation, where readers and characters meet together in a final scene that is also a stalemate, indicates how the problem of interpreting the meaning of the dead woman only begins when the novel ends. The Idiot conflates what is first and last, backward and forward, what is external and internal, what is idiotic and wise, salvational and destructive, feminine and masculine, even dead and alive. Myshkin is still breathing in the novel's last scene, but he has reverted to a stupefaction that is not exactly “life.” It should surprise no reader that at Nastasya's deathbed neither Myshkin nor Rogozhin can interpret what they have done; without Aglaya's or Nastasya's voices, they have no quasi-feminist discourse and thus no explanation available to them. The last picture in the novel's is of the dead Nastasya and the half-dead Myshkin caught in the vise of Russian culture's absolutist polarities—Christianity and sexual liberation—and resurrected by neither.

French feminism's insight that language veers toward incomprehensibility and away from the logic of (arguably male-dominated) “reason” when longings for some New Order are attempted may account for impasses in The Idiot. The novel appears utopian and unreasonable; it exhibits a flight from masculinity; it dramatizes the exaltation in depression that Suslova marked in Dostoevsky's personal temperament; it subverts its own raison d'être by compromising the patriarchal-Christian salvational structure in which Dostoevsky believes. Overtly, “Prince Christ” is the savior whom nobody recognizes and who dies to this world because he is too good for it. Covertly, Myshkin is a cultural sponge whose capacity for absorbing pain and evil sacralizes passivity. The novel thus appears to appropriate the “feminine” myth of the mater dolorosa so that the last scene is a pietà with the genders reversed. This fantasy not only disturbs canonical renderings of Golgotha, but insists upon a surrealist version that is arguably “feminist” in its semiotics because it undermines Jesus Christ's gender role and puts the woman, Nastasya, on the cross.

Provoked by Dostoevsky's comments about the novel's meaning, a feminist reader might be tempted to read this last scene in terms offered by the French feminist Julia Kristeva. Kristeva builds upon Jacques Lacan's theory of the “phallocentric symbolic order” that represents the sense of “the feminine” or “woman” and thus lays claim to “transcendental subjectivity.” Kristeva argues

that there are feminine forms of signification which cannot be contained by the rational thetic structure of the symbolic order and which therefore threaten its sovereignty and have been relegated to the margins of discourse. … [Yet for Kristeva] the feminine is a mode of language, open to male and female writers.8

Clare Cavanagh's claim that Kristeva's theory articulates an immature, and in Russian-Soviet terms, an ahistorical poetics is persuasive.9 But if Dostoevsky cannot be consigned to a “feminine mode of language,” as he invents the sublime passivity of desexualized Myshkin whose mission is to save women, what description of language suits the discourses of The Idiot? The novel's failure to deliver a savior plus the regressively “feminine” dimensions of Myshkin's character are an open target for psychoanalytically minded interpreters. But suggestions that the novel exhibits a pathological structure go only part of the way: the structure reflects a pathology in Russian society that links femininity, even sacralized femininity, with degradation. Myshkin embodies holiness because he is foolish and he is exalted because he is degraded. But while the figure of the holy fool runs through Russian literature as a whole, Dostoevsky's male and female versions of it have very different functions. Female holy fools, such as Sonya of Crime and Punishment and Maria Lebyadkina of The Possessed, expose men to what men most deeply deny. Dostoevsky associates Myshkin with “the lower body of Russian culture”10 that may embody ideas about women, birth, and sexuality, but unlike Dostoevsky's female holy fools, Myshkin can do nothing for the women he encounters. Instead, through “Prince Christ,” Dostoevsky marks the place where Christianity and sexual relations destroy each other.

Some psychoanalytic commentators have focused on the relation of Myshkin's “pathology” to the author's, reducing the fiction to autobiography in a way both insightful and incomplete. With reference to the fact that Dostoevsky's mother died when he was seventeen, Elizabeth Dalton argues that “Nastasya represents for Myshkin the abused mother, and his identification with her in her masochism is so strong that he can do nothing to prevent her from being destroyed.”11 What also matters as we reread the sadomasochistic, guilt-laden sign language of the novel's last frame, with Myshkin and Rogozhin embracing as they lie near Nastasya's dead body, is that images of nineteenth-century Christian suffering have shifted for Dostoevsky from the masculine to the feminine spheres: from Christ and his Father to the Mother and Son, with the son left paralyzed by the shift.

Dostoevsky's intensely religious impulse, represented by Myshkin's wish to transform his mother country and reconcile “all things,” finds its expression through a carnal hermeneutics, a staging of bodies intended to speak more, or differently, than words. This staging is configured throughout the text by many moments of speechless gesture and “marginalized” or even incoherent phrases that make Kristeva's remarks about a “feminine mode of language” less implausible. Dostoevsky first foreshadows the final death-stupefaction scene in part 1, when Nastasya is struck dumb (the characters say she has become insane) by Myshkin's marriage proposal. The foreshadowing continues each time Myshkin is stricken after his epileptic seizures, and on the several occasions when he is able to do nothing but repeat the words of others like a stuck record. Freud remarks in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that repetitions occur when the patient cannot remember what is repressed, and that what he cannot remember is most essential to his cure.12 Dostoevsky's repetitive discourse throughout The Idiot is the condition of the novel's theme, a condition that parallels Myshkin's psychic structure expressed most obviously in the least readable sections of part 2. Repetition, like ritual, produces the novel's trance-like effect, but it also symbolizes Dostoevsky's attempt to work through anxiety about men's and women's relations in a transitional and quickly changing society.

Readers invariably note the part played in the novel by the print of Holbein's Dead Christ, with its extremely realistic portrayal of a body from a morgue. Myshkin and Rogozhin are bound by this deadly Christ image as they are bound by their “love” for Nastasya, and perhaps as Dostoevsky was bound imaginatively by composite fantasies of dead wife, dead mother, and the symbolically dead “new” woman (perhaps Suslova) he once loved. “I've seen this [Holbein Christ] painting abroad and I can't forget it,” says Myshkin to Rogozhin, noting that it's a painting “that might make some people lose their faith” (I 238). The resemblance between the positioning of the Holbein Christ (with feet pointed toward the viewer's face) and the description of Nastasya's dead body with its “tip of a bare foot” protruding from the sheet reinforces the effect, suggesting exactly how faith is lost. Lying upon the bed murdered, it is Nastasya and not Myshkin who now resembles Christ, a figure de-feminized, de-eroticized, and neutered. “All that could be seen was that a human figure lay stretched out at full length” (I 623). The reduction of her once desirable body to this kto-to, literally a “something” deprived of gender, may strike readers cognizant of the history of death and eros in many nineteenth-century novels as an aberration. Instead of the sexual arousal that haunts Thomas Hardy's description of the beautiful hanged body of Tess Durbeyfield, in contrast to the sexual innuendos of Flaubert's Emma Bovary's death (with dark blood like menstrual fluid coming from her mouth), and in particular contrast to Tolstoy's description of Anna Karenina's feminine gestures as she, “with a light movement,” plunges under the train to her death13—Dostoevsky's female corpse is depicted as altogether sexless. The Nastasya whose “beauty” has acted so demoniacally upon men throughout the novel, providing them with the opportunities for rivalry, madness, and murder, now appears to be de-fetishized. Her transfiguration in death is the opportunity for Myshkin's and Rogozhin's final male bonding, revealing how she has served as “traffic” between them.14 Her absent femininity suggests a point where the concepts of “good” and “bad” men, the sacred and profane, the personal and the (sexual) political, cancel each other out.

In contrast to this moment of revelation, the living, desirable, fetishized body of Nastasya has appeared as the primum mobile of the novel's beginning and middle text. Nastasya has been the main reason for Prince Christ's being in time, the main opportunity for his experiment with redeeming the world. Fantasies about “the feminine” thus frame Dostoevsky's notion of the exact time of Christ's symbolic second coming. Descriptions of physically expressed apocalyptic human emotions also parody symptoms of female hysteria connected to certain ideas about how woman's organs influence their emotions. Simone de Beauvoir's theory of genderized binary oppositions—the way femininity is mythologized as immanence and masculinity as transcendence—throws light on the disturbing compound Dostoevsky invents in The Idiot. In this most strained of his novels, to understand Christ is to become immersed in something like feminine hysteria, feminine “weakness,” and feminine lack of control. It is to imitate a passive succumbing to a violating, entering God-force, a Spirit that penetrates, possesses, and epilepsizes. The passage in The Idiot that articulates this fantasy is often quoted:

Thinking about the [epileptic] moment afterward … he often told himself that all these gleams and flashes of superior self-awareness and, hence, of a “higher state of being” were nothing other than sickness. … And yet he came finally to an extremely paradoxical conclusion. … “What does it matter if it is abnormal intensity, if the result … turns out to be the height of harmony and beauty … of reconciliation, an ecstatic and prayerlike union in the highest synthesis of life?”

Myshkin concludes that “one might give one's whole life for such a moment!” (I 245-46). The fusion of orgiastic madness with religious ecstasy, of entry into the “demoniacal beauty” of Nastasya as into the frenzy of the “epileptic” moment, is completely symbolized only in the still life of the denouement. Here Christ's body and Nastasya's become one, echoing the gender fusion Nastasya experiences when she enters psychologically into Myshkin's idiocy also coded as a “higher” level of consciousness. Nastasya's quest is for a terminal experience—like epilepsy and like dying—that would cancel her former degraded identity as Totsky's whore: “I always imagined someone like you,” Nastasya tells Myshkin just before she throws Rogozhin's hundred thousand rubles into the fire, “kind, honest, and good, and so stupid he would suddenly appear and say, ‘You are not to blame, Nastasya Filippovna, and I adore you!’” (I 192).

What Myshkin is for Nastasya, epilepsy is for Myshkin: a flight into completion and ultimate suspension of the all-too-human and ambivalent self. In both cases these flights involve extraordinary states: the one a brain seizure, racking the whole body; the other a penetration into disembodied other consciousness. When Myshkin declares himself willing to marry her, Nastasya appears to lose her mind:

She continued to sit there and for some time gazed at everyone with a strange, wondering expression, as if she could not understand what had happened and was trying to make sense of it. Then she suddenly turned to the prince and glared at him with a menacing frown, but for only a moment. …

Nastasya's temptation, to identify herself as somebody worthy of “pure” love, is dramatized as a loss of reason that links her consciousness to Myshkin's. If initially, in her role as a “fallen woman,” she is capable of irony, a realistic assessment of men's motivations concerning her and even a dangerous playfulness with them, her “pure” self is expressed as a lapse into silence. If Myshkin's epilepsy is a surrogate for Nastasya's erotic passion, her madness is a displaced form of the Idiot's eventual insensibility. Her “insane” physical movements carry the text's style, constricting or enlarging its coherence. Only when she inspires love in Myshkin does his emotional life begin. Only her death certifies that the meaning of The Idiot has concluded. Her bodily responses are clues to be intensely watched and interpreted, signaled by the most important scene in part 1 in which men are assembled to watch her every move and to interpret her choices. As the text's visual fetish, she performs its eruptions, gaps, and closures:

perhaps she had imagined for an instant that it was all a joke, a deception; but the sight of the prince's face told her at once that it was not. She reflected a moment, then smiled again, as if she herself did not really know what she was smiling at.

(I 187)

Nastasya's body does things and she says things that “she herself did not really know.” Writing to Aglaya, Nastasya coaxes her to marry Myshkin, but also declares that she is in love with Aglaya, that “every day she looks for an occasion to see [her], even from a distance” (I 454). As Myshkin's Heraclitean flux, Nastasya embodies a ceaseless movement. She is his reminder that he cannot escape from a “fallen” world symbolized by a woman's sex-exploited, “fallen” history that he has come to redeem. This is a rather large prospect for an epileptic who has no theory as to why women are so often subjected and degraded in the first place. In this sense Dostoevsky comes close to writing a tragic comedy, but as I suggested earlier, no consistent tone or choice of literary genre sustains his discourse.

While Myshkin's identity as a redeemer is associated with his ability to remain statically monologic, to merely observe and witness, Nastasya's identity is marked by her compulsion to keep moving. She takes flight toward and away from Myshkin, toward and away from Rogozhin's “knife,” toward and away from her “good” and “bad woman” identities, and toward and away from hatred and love of Aglaya. As such, the text imitates a kind of tragic carnival of the feminine body, a movement both toward and away from archetypal images of women that duplicate Dostoevsky's construction of Myshkin as an archetypal saint moving upward and a diseased idiot moving downward in desacralized history. Part of the tragicomedy of Myshkin's failed (sexual) masculinity is that he imitates the various stereotypically coded feminine rhythms—hysteria, indecision, marginality, undecidability, and self-degradation—that are Nastasya's forte. Through Nastasya's fainting, running back and forth, flashing of eyes, through the “two spots of color … on [her] cheeks” (I 163), and her suffering eyes, Myshkin is “pierced” into a resemblance of life. What binds him to women is the physical experience of being pierced or stabbed by excess of feeling. Confronted with Nastasya, he “speaks in a trembling voice” (I 182); in front of Aglaya even his “lips tremble” (I 454). He laughs hysterically and inappropriately when he hears how a man burns his finger in a candle at Aglaya's provocation, then “bursts into tears” (I 593). After the furious scene between Aglaya and Nastasya, he is found “stroking” Nastasya's head and face “with both hands as if she were a little child … laugh[ing] when she laughed and ready to cry when she cried” (I 589).

The relation of Myshkin's holy foolishness to socially constructed femininity is dramatized by his inability to make up his mind (or as his not having a mind to make up). What Michael Holquist calls the novel's “failure to express the holy”15 is linked to Myshkin's disintegrative bodily and speech rhythms, to a holy foolishness that saves no one, and to the way feminine hysteria and the Prince's epilepsy move along the same discursive continuum in the novel. This brings us to the question of why, at this point in Dostoevsky's artistic career, he was compelled to imagine such a continuum: to create a text whose rhetoric seems to imitate a male's imagining of the movements of a woman's body, perhaps a Suslovian body desired and betrayed. Myshkin's epilepsy appears as a pathological equivalent of, if not exactly orgasm, as Elizabeth Dalton suggests, then the climactic emotional frenzies to which “fallen,” “passionate,” or “new” women are supposedly driven. Like mythologies of femininity that embrace the idea of “woman” as “the body” or “nature,” a “tempest” or a “swamp of feeling,”16The Idiot deploys its repertoire of gestures to suggest that “Prince Christ” can embody the transfiguring “Beyond” only by figuring himself as female.

Is Dostoevsky hinting that the true Christ is anima, a female soul? Are we to understand Myshkin as suffused not with his Father's spirit but with Sophia (divine wisdom)? Dostoevsky insists on epilepsy as the transcendental marker, but that marker is also associated with Nastasya's being driven into epileptic-like frenzies and stupors as she is objectified by Rogozhin as a female commodity. Epilepsy may be the symbol of the Son's connection to his eternal Father, but it is also the sign of Myshkin's hysterical identity with degraded femininity. No attachment to the Father can ensure his efficacy in this world; yet his feminized soul does not ensure his transcendence into the other world either.

Nastasya's and Myshkin's identities are further analogized by violent physical experiences and through the trope of penetration. Dostoevsky brings together strange ideas about woman's biological vulnerability and fantasies about Christ's experience of embodiment so that Christian and feminine subjectivities are allied through the trope of knives and piercing. While Nastasya's madness is linked to her fear of being penetrated by Rogozhin's knife, the movement of the image of the knife structures the text itself. The image of a knife floats within Rogozhin's, Nastasya's, and the Idiot's consciousness. The knife floats “outside” too, in the shopwindow Myshkin sees, and throughout the surrealist atmosphere of the novel that penetrates the reader's consciousness. The Russian verb pronzat' (to pierce) is repeated throughout the text in various ways, forming a leitmotif that connects the piercing of Christ by soldiers to the “piercing” eyes following Myshkin in his hallucination, to the way Nastasya's face “had pierced [Myshkin's] heart forever” (I 588), and to Rogozhin's knife piercing Nastasya's body. The “piercing” the characters experience is part of The Idiot's narrative coding of sex and violence as the crucifixion of the Spirit, closely allied to fantasies about the phallus and its destructive potentials.

Christ the male warrior, whose emblem is the sword and not the plowshare, is completely absent from Dostoevsky's conceptualization, as is Christ the church organizer absent from Ivan Karamazov's conception of Jesus in The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor: The Idiot foreshadows The Legend's analysis of the problem of Christian (feminine) gentleness as politically impotent, in contrast to tyrannical (male) aggressiveness as ecclesiastical power incarnated in the patriarchal Inquisitor himself. If Rogozhin plays the part of inquisitor-prosecutor in The Idiot, Myshkin plays the part of Jesus, with the “new woman” Nastasya caught between them, her tragically ambivalent position foreshadowing “the new man” Ivan's intellectual struggles.

In other ways too The Idiot reads like a rehearsal for themes more successfully realized in Dostoevsky's later work. But the novel remains particularly interesting in terms of the woman question because it displays in its own narrative structure a confusion about one part's relation to another, about orders and hierarchies, and about subordinations and dominations that have gendered connotations. It is significant that part 4, in which Myshkin becomes the erotic-spiritual fetish literally “fought over” by Nastasya and Aglaya, is a narrative inversion of part 1, in which Nastasya is surrounded by men and is offered the choice between Myshkin and Rogozhin. In the scandalous scene of part 4, women who were pursued by men become a man's pursuer, and the man who once pursued women becomes the object of female rivalry. In this world of shifting gender roles that leads toward the wedding day and Nastasya's death, Myshkin plays out with Nastasya and Aglaya the role that Nastasya played out earlier with Rogozhin and Myshkin. Instead of men's rubles thrown into the fire, we have letters between the female rivals (that Myshkin hopes will disappear). Instead of Rogozhin exultantly running off with Nastasya, we have a scene in which Aglaya runs out after watching Myshkin run after Nastasya. The gender reversals inscribed in these scenes, the fact that Nastasya chooses the “wrong” man (Rogozhin) in the first scene and Myshkin chooses the “wrong” woman (Nastasya) in the last, suggests that choice, sexual and otherwise, is completely de-centered in this novel.

While part 1 (chapters 13-16) dramatizes a fantasy in which all the men desire and literally “play for” Nastasya with money and promises, part 4 (chapter 8) expresses a man's desire to be fought over by two beautiful women and to win reconciliation with his “world” through love of both of them. What Myshkin discovers, however, is that women cannot be pulled into his synthesis, nor can they accept traditional ideals of Christian reconciliation. Neither Aglaya nor Nastasya serves the patriarchal religious fantasy, even if they are the objects of it and the test cases for Dostoevsky's version of it. Nastasya and Aglaya together, like Grushenka and Katerina Ivanovna in The Brothers Karamazov, appear to incarnate forces for dispersal and negation of much that is sanctioned by masculine versions of religious goodness. In The Idiot neither woman allows herself to be a vehicle for Myshkin's choice between the two different ideas he believes they represent.

What Mochulsky describes as Myshkin's struggle with an “idea of beauty … embodied in the two images of his heroines, Nastasya and Aglaya,”17 involves a choice between a “new” woman and a “fallen” woman. That both images of women are “beautiful,” that both draw Myshkin toward the split that paralyzes him, has been persuasively described by Louis Breger.18 While Aglaya offers Myshkin the sort of risk that would bring him into a new world of emancipated men and women, Nastasya bonds him to the Christian allegory of forgiveness for sexual sins that throws him back to the past. But Myshkin cannot and does not choose between these versions of the world, between past and future. Nor is he, ultimately, the only object of their quarrel. The scene between Nastasya and Aglaya suggests a quarrel that is also about the identity of “woman,” for which “Myshkin” is an excuse. It is a quarrel between feminism and traditionalism that Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka will also experience in the chapter called “Lacerations in the Drawing Room” in The Brothers Karamazov.

Like Katerina Ivanovna, Aglaya symbolizes ideas about feminine freedom and modernity and naive self-expansion. Olga Matich argues that “Nastasya's incipient and inclusive revolt against the female role … characterizes the behavior of her rival Aglaya, whose portrayal is clearly influenced by political considerations.” Aglaya reads banned books, wants to become a teacher, and desires a relationship with a man that will defy social conventions. She chooses the “idiot” Myshkin, whom Matich describes as “a man with female attributes” as she describes Aglaya and Nastasya as “nascently masculinized women.”19 While Nastasya's fallen identity is reinforced by the way she succumbs to both Myshkin and Rogozhin, Aglaya acts upon feminist impulses and flies from men's intimidations. Her hope, like Nastasya's initial but undermined fantasy, is that Prince Christ will understand her desire for freedom.

“I've been thinking about it over a long time [she tells Myshkin], and I've finally chosen you. … I don't want them to laugh at me at home. I don't want to be taken for a little fool, I don't want to be teased. I realized all this at once and I refused Evgeny Pavlovich point-blank because I don't want them always marrying me off! … I want to run away from home, and I've chosen you to help me!”

(I 448)

Myshkin's ambivalent repudiation of Aglaya, dramatized as a symptom of his infinite “pity” for Nastasya, is the sign that he cannot go forward with the woman question. He reaches an impasse like the Gambler's forgetting of Polina, and like Raskolnikov's fall into “oblivion” after he kills the female pawnbroker. Myshkin's way out is to vow that he wants to love both women. But as Evgeny Pavlovich rightly observes, this may be an excuse for his loving neither, an intuition that drives both women to enact their disgust with Myshkin's passivity by attacking each other:

Finally Aglaya looked firmly straight into Nastasya Filippovna's eyes and at once read clearly all the malice gathering in her rival's look. Woman understood woman. … “Ah! So then you have come to ‘fight’ me? Just imagine, I thought you were—cleverer.”

They looked at each other no longer concealing their malice. One was the woman who had been writing such incredible letters to the other. And here all that had vanished into thin air at their first encounter and their first words. … However extravagant the other was with her disturbed mind and her sick soul no predetermined intention of hers could, it seemed, stand against the venomous, purely feminine contempt of her rival. The prince felt certain that Nastasya Filippovna would not mention the letters herself …—and he would have given half his life if Aglaya would not mention them either.

(I 582-83)

Positioned precisely between the two women in a way that mirrors the way Nastasya is positioned between her “rivals” Myshkin and Rogozhin, Myshkin's “goodness” appears as a failure of self-recognition and a failure to recognize the larger subject of the women's quarrel. The narrator speaks of “purely feminine contempt” much as Losnitsky in Suslova's The Stranger and Her Lover speaks of “perfectly feminine traits.” But the narrator cannot control the feminist theme Dostoevsky has set in motion or the reader's reaction to Myshkin's inability to respond to it.

Dostoevsky's strong impulse to create a thoroughly “good” man who will appeal to women's love, as if in penance for his narcissistic rebel figures, operates at last to reveal certain delusions that his other novels have obscured. While Raskolnikov can at least control Sonya to the extent that she is addicted to bringing him to God, Myshkin has no control over either Nastasya or Aglaya as the novel draws to its close. The wish for a termination of the deepest conflicts about women leads to the most intense rendition of confused masculine consciousness that Dostoevsky has yet imagined. While his “kind” and “good” Prince Christ appears initially as a penitential fantasy, by the end “a pattern of sadistic feeling shapes all the principle erotic relationships in The Idiot.20 The act of writing through the idea of a “pure” male holiness to discover the sadistic component in patriarchal constructions of “the holy” is a purgation for Dostoevsky: it released him toward the critiques of patriarchy and Übermensch culture to be inscribed in his last and greatest works The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov. In The Idiot Dostoevsky dissolves the sublimity he first constructs, leaving in its wake questions about the “purely feminine” and about masculine motivations for Evgeny Pavlovich to decipher.

Evgeny Pavlovich's voice interrupts the narrative precisely the way Porfiry's intercedes in Raskolnikov's rationalizing thought processes in Crime and Punishment. Piercing an increasingly muddy metaphysics, Evgeny's voice articulates a skeptical modern perspective. As various convincing interpretations for Myshkin's behavior are being offered in the narration, Evgeny ushers the woman question to the forefront of the conversation. The question of why and how Myshkin became involved with Nastasya is at last addressed.

“You must admit, Prince” [says Evgeny] “that in your relations with Nastasya Filippovna there was from the very start something conventionally democratic (I put it this way for the sake of brevity), the fascination, so to speak, of the ‘woman question’ (to put it still more briefly).”

In part 4, chapter 10, Evgeny Pavlovich is described as “sensibly and clearly, and we repeat, with extraordinary psychological insight,” drawing for Myshkin “a vivid picture of all the prince's past relations with Nastasya Filippovna.” This man “rose to positive eloquence,” the narrator tells us, when he asserts that “there were lies between [the man and the woman] and whatever begins with lies must end with lies, for that is a law of nature.” Arguing that “the fundamental cause of all that has happened is … [Myshkin's] innate experience,” Evgeny argues that Myshkin's relations with women were grounded in nothing but “intellectual convictions.”

“For you see I knew all about the curious and scandalous scene that took place at Nastasya Filippovna's when Rogozhin brought his money. If you like I shall give you a systematic analysis of yourself, I shall show you yourself in a mirror.”

Evgeny's mirror shows Myshkin a naive but benignly ambitious young man who has read too many books, who has “longed for Russia as for a land which is unknown but full of promise,” but who is finally “seized” in the “heat of enthusiasm” with the idea of saving some women. Evgeny's rational enlightenment discourse, with its denigration of enthusiasm and seizures, glances ironically toward Myshkin's own valuation of his epilepsy as a sign of spiritual depths. Evgeny's conviction that “everything is perfectly clear” is a bit suspect, however, considering that his own motivation to analyze Myshkin comes from his disappointment at Aglaya's refusing him. He is nevertheless persuasive in describing how, after meeting the “fantastic, demonical beauty,” Nastasya, Myshkin

seized the opportunity to declare publicly the magnanimous notion that [he], a prince and a man whose life is pure, does not consider a woman dishonored who has been put to shame not through her own fault but through the fault of a revolting aristocratic libertine.

Shifting the blame to the revolting Totsky is the smallest part of Evgeny's analysis. The point he wishes to emphasize, and with which Myshkin agrees, is that Myshkin's own feeling may not be “genuine.” Evgeny reveals to Myshkin that the Prince himself cannot tell the difference between “intellectual” and “genuine” feelings, between a “fascination (so to speak)” with “the woman question” and a genuine commitment actually to improve the concrete life of a particular woman.

“The point is, was this the truth, was your feeling genuine, was it a natural feeling or merely intellectual enthusiasm? In the temple a woman was forgiven, but do you think she was told that she had done well, that she was deserving of all honor and respect?”

Evgeny moves swiftly through difficult questions about the motives of the woman “chosen,” the idea of a man like Myshkin choosing a woman to save, and the problem of men's relations with women in general. He may need to degrade Myshkin to console himself, but Myshkin has no response to Evgeny's interpretation except to repeat, “Yes, yes, you are right. Oh, I do feel I am to blame!” Unable to resist or answer Evgeny's skepticism, he can work up no self-transformative dialogical energy that would enable him, as it enables Raskolnikov, to break through to more authentic relations with women. Myshkin ratifies, in effect, Evgeny's diagnosis that his trouble has been some sort of “bad faith” regarding them: what Dalton calls the Prince's passive-aggressive psychology and lack of “genuine” or “natural” feeling.

Myshkin's identity as a failed savior devoted to the beautiful image but not to the efficacy or dialogic potential of Christ suggests that Dostoevsky might be moving at this late point in his novel toward the redemptive laughter of carnival described by Bakhtin. There is much in The Idiot to suggest “the reversal of the hierarchic levels,” the toppling of official authority, even some parody of official religion and the figure of Christ himself. But this potentially modernist element is aborted by certain blockings of the “as yet unpredetermined new word.” What Bakhtin claims Dostoevsky to be incapable of, a “monosemantic seriousness,”21 shows up in The Idiot as a defense against the revelation that there is nothing funny about Christianity's inability to save women. If any sort of liberation is expressed in the novel, it is achieved at the expense of the author's monologic Christian ideology. The “articulate” Evgeny Pavlovich voices a dangerously modern clearance in his novel: a moment when the text's official myth of Myshkin's identity collapses and no laughter emerges.

Evgeny suggests that Myshkin has exploited the role of savior for his own regressive and delusive purposes. He has “seized the opportunity to declare publicly” his “magnanimous notion” that fallen women should be forgiven and exalted. Myshkin's acts of “love” have been a public spectacle, Evgeny intimates, and Myshkin has misunderstood his relation to the woman question. Playing an inquisitorial role that is markedly like Porfiry's, Evgeny elicits a response from Myshkin (“you are right”) that echoes Raskolnikov's admission that he is “no Napoleon.” What binds the profane hero of Crime and Punishment to the sacred hero of The Idiot is the “fall” from a superman status.

Bound by conflict, burdened by a traditionalist Christian mythology that strangles men rather than channels them toward new possibilities with women, Myshkin allows Evgeny to destroy his illusions just as surely as he allows Rogozhin to destroy Nastasya. Shadowing the last chapters that lead to Myshkin's ultimate stupor is a covert idea that connects feminist to religious utopian thinking: If the true Christ came to Russia, his mission would be to allow women to save themselves from the masculinist erotic culture that confuses love either with the phallic knife or the castrated phallus.

In The Idiot, the narrator's flights, loops, plunges into intertextual interpretation, obscurity, and paradox suggest what Bakhtin calls an “internally dialogic dissociation.” Dostoevsky is in love with the freedoms released by the rhetoric of idiocy and the poetics of epilepsy. But this same discourse involves him in regressive Christian delusions of grandeur that the figure of Myshkin cannot realize. Myshkin's relation to “the feminine” serves mainly to defend him against his unresolved feelings about masculine power. Explaining himself to Evgeny Pavlovich, Myshkin says: “If only Aglaya knew, if she knew everything—I mean absolutely everything. For in this matter, you have to know everything about another person, when we have to, when that other person is at fault.” This incoherent statement, which the Prince knows is incoherent, ends in further mystification. “There's something here I can't explain to you,” he insists, even when Evgeny insists that “most likely, you never loved either one of them” (I 599-600). Between the Prince's idea that there is “something here” that cannot be explained and Evgeny's notion that women are the clue to Myshkin's whole identity, the suppressed “feminine” emerges as the “mystery” of the novel. This mysterious “something” may be related to what Mochulsky and Robert Hingley have described as the germ from which The Idiot grew:

An entirely different figure [from Myshkin] had obsessed Dostoevsky from the beginning: a tempestuous woman with a huge sense of grievance, the eventual Nastasya Filippovna. Somehow this image arose out of a real-life court case involving a teen-age Moscow girl, Olga Umetskaya, who had four times set fire to her family home after being savagely misused by her neglectful and sadistic parents.

Hingley concludes that finally “there is far more of Miss Suslova in the finished Nastasya Filippovna” than Umetskaya; and he suggests Anna Korvin-Krukovskaya as the model for Aglaya.22 But the connection Hingley makes between feminine imagery and the early notes for The Idiot is more interesting than finding the exact biographical sources for Dostoevsky's women characters. More suggestive is the link between images of abused femininity and the idea of a feminized male savior figure. The close identification of Myshkin with women points the late-twentieth-century reader to the transformations in the novel that are now becoming more obvious to us,23 for “it is impossible to dissociate the questions of art, style and truth from the question of women”: “One can no longer seek her, no more than one could search for woman's femininity or female sexuality. And she is certainly not to be found in any of the familiar modes of concept or knowledge. Yet it is impossible to resist looking for her.”24

In The Idiot two of Dostoevsky's favorite personas, the idiot-saint and the sexist criminal, cannot help looking for Nastasya. Bakhtin notes that Nastasya is “reduced to a search for herself and for her own undivided voice beneath the two voices that have made their home in her.”25 But two male voices may not be enough to create even one woman's identity. Dostoevsky's male characters continue this quest in The Eternal Husband, a short novel that replicates as it revises those scenes of male rivalry and knife/razor play that haunt The Idiot. The Eternal Husband returns to the psychological realism of Notes from the Underground and The Gambler in which modernist uncertainty, men's impulses to tyrannize women, and questions about otherness predominate. As a corrective to The Idiot's finally exploded fantasy that an asexual Prince Christ could save the world, The Eternal Husband offers mocking youthful feminist voices convinced that only authentic respect for women's sexuality can transform the future.


  1. “Almost the whole novel,” Dostoevsky informed his niece in a letter, “was thought and written for the sake of the denouement.” See 28.2:318; October 26/November 7, 1868.

  2. Caryl Emerson, “Problems with Baxtin's Poetics,” Slavic and East European Journal 32 (1988): 503-25.

  3. See Dostoevsky's letters and his various biographers' descriptions of this event.

  4. Harriet Murav, Holy Foolishness: Dostoevsky's Novels and the Poetics of Cultural Critique (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 174.

  5. David M. Bethea, The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 101.

  6. See Murav's description of Dostoevsky's dissatisfactions with the novel and her analysis of the “two tendencies”—including Burenin's as cited above (Holy Foolishness, pp. 73-74).

  7. See, for example, the commentaries of Konstantin Mochulsky (Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, trans. and introd. Michael A. Minihan [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967]), and Tamira Pachmuss (F. M. Dostoevsky: Dualism and Synthesis of the Human Soul [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963]) supporting the religious interpretation in contrast to the more skeptical commentaries of Richard Peace (Dostoevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971]) and Michael Holquist (Dostoevsky and the Novel [reprint; Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1986]).

  8. Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 69.

  9. Clare Cavanagh argues in “Pseudo-Revolution in Poetic Language: Julia Kristeva and the Russian Avant-Garde,” Slavic Review 52 (1993): 283-97, that in Julia Kristeva's work the “‘Symbolic Order,’ the ‘Father’ or the ‘Law’ … all seem to mean simply society as such with no regard as to whether the particular ‘society’ is democratic or tyrannical” (29).

  10. Murav, Holy Foolishness, 6.

  11. Elizabeth Dalton, Unconscious Structure inThe Idiot”: A Study in Literature and Psychoanalysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 173.

  12. Sigmud Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, vol. 18 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1955), part 3.

  13. The description of Anna's last moment conforms to a stereotyped vision of femininity, including the accoutrement of the “red hand-bag” that is flung aside before she jumps. See Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Joel Carmichael (New York: Bantam, 1960, 1988), 816.

  14. Again, I refer the reader to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's discussion, in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), of women as intermediate objects or “traffic” between men who cannot otherwise establish their (homosexual or homosocial) bonds.

  15. Holquist, Dostoevsky and the Novel, 196ff.

  16. See the chapter “Myths,” in Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley (New York: Knopf, 1952).

  17. Mochulsky, Dostoevsky, 380.

  18. See Louis Breger's chapter on The Idiot in Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst (New York: New York University Press, 1989).

  19. Olga Matich, “The Idiot: A Feminist Reading,” in Dostoevsky and the Human Condition After a Century, ed. Alexej Ugrinsky, Frank S. Lambasa, and Valija K. Ozolins (New York: Greenwood, 1986), 55-56.

  20. Dalton, Unconscious Structure, 97.

  21. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson, introd. Wayne C. Booth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 165-66. Also see Bakhtin's discussion of the carnivalesque in Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 303.

  22. Ronald Hingley, Dostoevsky: His Life and Work (New York: Scribner, 1978), 414ff.

  23. In the early 1990s, two male-authored feminist novels received much attention: Norman Rush's Mating (New York: Random House, 1991) and Peter Haug's Smilla's Sense of Snow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993). Both novels, though authored by men, explore feminist questions and are narrated by women's voices.

  24. Jacques Derrida, “Becoming Woman,” Semiotexte 3 (1978): 130.

  25. Bakhtin, Problems, 235.

Quotations are from The Idiot, trans. Henry and Olga Carlisle (New York, NAL, 1962). Cited in text as I.

Dennis Patrick Slattery (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9847

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 Freud in his clinical observations outlined in “Dostoevsky and Parricide.”2 Freud's analytic reading was for years taken as the definitive authority on family violence. In that essay Freud argues (wrongly, subsequent critics have almost unanimously agreed) that Dostoevsky's illness was not physiological but the consequence of hysterical reactions brought on by wanting his father dead and feeling guilt when his father was murdered. Freud used the term hystero-epilepsy to describe Dostoevsky's condition, although other sources more generally agree that the novelist was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy.

There is a vast literature of medical and Freudian analyses of Dostoevsky's epilepsy.3 Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, however, offers a richer and fuller way of understanding the action of this troubling novel through his idea of archetypes, which he calls autonomous complexes and describes as akin to “instinctual behavior.” Archetypes can appear not only in the psyche but also in the community. When an archetype appears, it tends to give birth to its opposite: “When a situation occurs that corresponds to a given archetype, that archetype becomes activated and a compulsiveness appears which, like an instinctual drive, gains its way against all reason and produces a conflict of pathological dimensions.”4 One of the most potent archetypes is that of The Double. It sets up an opposition between two forces, from which a third force is born, but at great cost. In Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, this process is figuratively represented by Prince Myshkin and his “dark double,” Parfyon Rogozhin. The beautiful Nastasya Filippovna is the victim of this tension of opposites. This interplay becomes for Dostoevsky a means not only for exploring the dual nature of epilepsy but also of Russia itself.

In this essay I want to offer a somewhat unconventional way of speaking about epilepsy, its “location” in mind and body, and its relation to the creative process. I shall treat Dostoevsky's illness not strictly in terms of how it is projected onto characters or in terms of the writer's medical and psychological history but also in terms of what we might learn about the multifaceted character of the illness as a biological phenomenon, a cultural construction, and a mythic structure that provided the writer with an epistemological paradigm.

Let us begin, then, by considering what we might see differently if, rather than saying Dostoevsky “had” temporal lobe epilepsy, we were to say that epilepsy “had” Dostoevsky. Let us grant the disease some autonomy as a creative force that may at times even take on a character of its own. Part of the trouble in speaking about disease in conventional ways is that we get caught in too narrow a focus on so-called symptoms, yet few would dispute that diseases, though grounded in physiology, are also culturally shaped and adapted to the mythos prevailing at a particular place and time. As mythic constructions, they may serve to articulate particular ideas, values, and notions about the mysterious relationship between psyche and soma.

In his insightful article, “Body and Psyche,” Robert Stein treats symptoms of illness from an archetypal perspective and suggests that “the cause” of an illness “is an unknown third force, a power which transcends soma and psyche,” a function of something beyond the individual body and soul.5 In this work he plays out James Hillman's claim that the task of archetypal psychology is to give back to things “their animated faces.”6 Things, within the imagination of archetypal psychology, are not inanimate, not inert objects, but have their own life, which may be obscured under the gaze of objective science. Hillman is suggesting that things be allowed to speak on their own terms, rather than being assigned a voice. If this perspective on “things” has truth value, then we might consider how epilepsy may reveal not simply its characteristics but its character and developmental potential in a fictional narrative.

If we think of epilepsy as an archetypal presence in The Idiot, we might begin to see with greater clarity the face of this illness and the way it structures the consciousnesses of Prince Myshkin and Parfyon Rogozhin. In this novel epilepsy, manifested in character, climate, culture, cadence, and plot structure, develops a certain habitus or habit of being that produces its own language and images. The fiction lies in the disease rather than the disease in the fiction and thus provides the motive or intention that gives shape to fictive time and space. The disease sets the beat of the narrative pulse and takes on a voice of its own in the story that is told. The disease has its own story to tell.

When sociologist Ronald Frankenberg explores what he calls sickness as cultural performance, he suggests that “[c]hronic disease, whether continual or … spasmodic, leads clearly to a different and perhaps more complicated way of being sick. It requires a different, longer-lasting and more demanding cultural performance.”7 Each disease, he says, has its own behavior and is acted out by the patient through its own metaphorical language and style. I would agree that sickness as cultural performance “lends itself to a sociology of sickness that is not reduced to the individual, the biological or the merely textual.”8 I would also add that it may not be fully understood through biography but that it contains a mythopoetic dimension, i.e., a formed expression of some values, beliefs, and destinies living within a people. Disease itself is part of that myth to which Dostoevsky gives form through his own illness, one that includes both the imaginative power of the artist and the autonomy of the illness. Both of these forces begin in the body and in the relation of the flesh to the world. The body is the first and originary metaphor that incites the creative act and is the origin of myth itself.9

Joseph Campbell and J. Sansonese are just two scholars of myth who locate its origins in the body. As Sansonese writes, “Myth describes a systematic exploration of the human body.”10 The myth embedded in the diseased body may therefore be a greater influence on Dostoevsky's writing than the more intentional aspects of his craft. Within the body, healthy or ill, myths germinate and are articulated. This disease is a response, or a symptom in its dual expression, to something Dostoevsky diagnosed as ill in the Petersburg community. In The Idiot the disease enters in the figures of Myshkin and Rogozhin to break open what has become fixed and dead. The novel reveals a world that is petty, obsessed with economics and social success, full of self-interest, and with an absence of authentic love and a disregard for the ancient myth of Mother Russia herself. It is a community demythologized and in need of an act of remembering to return it to its sacred roots.


Having left Russia four years earlier to recuperate in a Swiss village because of his epilepsy, Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin, with the help of his doctor, Schneider, returns to Petersburg feeling that he is now cured. Parfyon Rogozhin also enters Russia again after an absence of several months, having suffered from delirium, diagnosed as brain fever. Now, with his father's recent death, he returns to Petersburg ready to inherit millions of rubles. The two men meet on the train and strike up a conversation, which soon turns to a woman, Nastasya Filippovna, whom Rogozhin loves and plans to marry. A young businessman, Ganya Ivolgin, is also desirous of courting Nastasya and hopes to win her hand, along with large sums of money. He is supported in his suit by General Yepanchin (the man who will invite Myshkin into his home) because the old man also sees a possibility for taking Nastasya as his own mistress. For years she was the kept woman of a wealthy landowner, Totsky, whom she now rebukes publicly.

Taken together, the diseases of Myshkin and Rogozhin—epilepsy and brain fever—show, respectively, both body and mind afflicted. In The Idiot epilepsy acquires a complex, rich poetic voice in its split nature. Dostoevsky reveals in Myshkin and Rogozhin the defining actions of the disease: the breakdown; the fragmentation of consciousness; the falling sickness, in the seizure; the disintegration of a sense of self; and the moment of complete harmony that categorizes the so-called ecstatic aura, an ecstasy and timelessness that precede unconsciousness and depression, a fall into the underworld and despair. Epilepsy appears in the novel as a tension of extreme opposites. On the one hand is Myshkin's dreamy innocence, his vision of a golden age of timelessness, a retrieval of paradise before the fall. It is countered by the rapacious, instinctual, erotic, and excessive acquisitiveness of Rogozhin, who projects the animal lust of human nature into the novel. These two forces in our mortal nature have become split from one another. Jung reminds us that when an archetype splits, its fragments move quickly to pathology. Any sense of balance or proportion is then lost. On the other hand, for Jung there is no soul-making in the absence of this tension of opposites.

Moreover, it is impossible to separate the Prince and Rogozhin in their respective illnesses from the disease of the society into which they tumble headlong on the Warsaw-Petersburg train. Dostoevsky felt that Petersburg was also split, with Russian intellectuals living too much within their ideas and the heart of the Russian folk being ignored or left to the superstitions of religion and faith. Yet he was not willing to give up his dream of beauty and harmony in the Russian soul. Thus, epilepsy is a root metaphor as well as a physical and psychological condition. The disease of epilepsy, the desires of the two characters, and the culture of Petersburg all reflect this oppositional duality of two ideologies competing for ascendancy.

Dostoevsky constantly scrutinized his disease and was alternately fascinated and repulsed by it. He was attracted to it for its “ecstatic aura,” that instant just before the convulsions and the unconsciousness that attended the seizure. Physician Norman Geschwind recounts in “Dostoevsky's Epilepsy” how Dostoevsky could feel the onset of an attack. It would be preceded by “an indescribable sense of well-being that might be present for a few moments.” Others watching the beginning of the seizure would look at the author and see him glowing “with the most transcendent inspiration, after which there were a cry, a fall, and a major convulsion with frothing at the mouth and frequent injuries.” After the attack, Dostoevsky would experience intense depression and guilt, “which might last for several days.”11 In Clinical Psychiatry Eliot Slater and Martin Roth write that “[i]n the fit itself, whether major or minor, complete abrogation of consciousness is expected by the clinician.” Wanting to fall asleep after, amnesia, headache, confusion, explosions of irritability, all may be consequences of the attack. In petit mal seizures, the most subtle of those associated with epilepsy, attacks are of short duration and have no “premonitory symptoms. The subject loses consciousness entirely and remains immobile; he does not hear or see; he is completely ‘absent’ from his surroundings. … His glance is fixed and vague; his face pale … if he was speaking, he becomes mute.”12

It is, as Dostoevsky presents it in The Idiot, a disease of verticality, of extremes of high and low, conjuring images of lofty Swiss mountains and plunging waterfalls, and of depressingly deep falls into underworld darkness. That it is called the falling sickness tells us its direction, the movement of the body as it pulls the individual having the seizure to the ground in a violent and uncontrollable release of energy. The falling sickness becomes in the novel an extended metaphor for the first fall, for the fall from innocence out of the garden, as Prince Myshkin falls into Petersburg and for Nastasya Filippovna, to whom the Prince is attracted from the time he sees her photograph—and who, in turn, will feel from the first time she meets Myshkin that she has known him in a dream as one who would come to rescue her from the greedy men who wish to possess her.


Writing The Idiot may have enacted a ritual of healing for Dostoevsky. As one of the most profound psychological novelists, he shares with Russell Lockhart the belief that there is a close relationship between psyche and disease and that the pollution of illness finds its way into the psyche's images, often in the form of wounds, dreams, and fantasies, and certainly in the active disease.13 Lockhart senses that to penetrate the psyche is to stir up what has been buried, repressed, undesired. Said another way, within the confines of the novel, to portray an angelic, albeit diseased figure like Myshkin is to stir up the dark chthonic figure of Rogozhin at the same time.

It is his illness that provides Dostoevsky the lens through which he imagines the Prince and Rogozhin. This split in the Russian psyche continually eluded him through eight writings of the novel until finally he had to admit, in February 1869, “I am dissatisfied with my novel. I did not express a tenth of what I wanted to express. … I still love the idea even though I was not able to bring it off” (Notebooks, 233). The idea that he loved and wished to give expression to was the creation of a perfectly good man; yet in the creation, as in the dynamics of epilepsy itself, a vision of ecstasy and harmony, is followed by stupefaction, unconsciousness, and darkness.

The novel's central action takes place in the social settings of Petersburg society and at Pavlovsk Park, where the Yepanchins have a summer home. It revolves around Nastasya alternately choosing first the Prince and then Rogozhin as her future husband. Even before meeting Nastasya, however, Myshkin sees her portrait in the house of the Yepanchin family. He is arrested by her beauty and moved to kiss her image. The safe, fixed, and timeless quality of the photograph appeals to Myshkin, but he is troubled when he finally meets Nastasya in all of her complexity, including her unpredictable fiery nature. It is in the timeless and stable qualities of the photograph that Myshkin is best able to deal with the real, sensate world. Myshkin's relation to the photograph is closely related to how the first instance of his disease also relates him to a world that is not shared by others: it is a private, almost hermetically sealed world that attracts him. If we consider for a moment that the original Greek meaning for idiot is one who lives in a private world, then the image of Idiot has little to do with intelligence and more to do with a style of inhabiting the world. Such is the trade-off Dostoevsky came to understand, I believe, in his desire to promote a universal harmony.

Myshkin's diseased, epileptic nature was not originally a part of the novel. His epilepsy was not added until the eighth plan: “The Prince is downright ill, a yurodivyi” (Notebooks, p. 203). That Rogozhin or the diseased quality of Myshkin does not emerge until this juncture suggests that as Dostoevsky worked and reworked the plot, his own disease, lying dormant for a time, begins to surface again in his life. It surfaces as well to give direction and shape to the novel, for only when Rogozhin is created, becoming an independent character split from the Prince, does the Prince, in his epileptic condition, embody a kind of absolute innocence and goodness. The disease, in other words, enters the creative workshop to guide the novel closer to its finished form.

Myshkin is impotent owing to his disease but believes himself capable of loving the young beauty, whom other men both lust after and fear. Between the Prince's unrelenting compassion and Rogozhin's ferocious passion for her, Nastasya is driven to the brink of madness, and finally murdered by Rogozhin. Throughout the various shifting drafts of the novel, Dostoevsky seems to stay with this one unrelenting idea, described in his fourth plan: absolute innocence coupled with a murderous desire. Of the Prince, Dostoevsky writes in the eighth revision, “His way of looking at the world: he forgives everything, sees reasons for everything, does not recognize that any sin is unforgivable, and excuses everything” (Notebooks, p. 168). It is the absoluteness of this epileptic or distorted Christian ideal, namely, that all is forgiven, even when it is not sought or desired by those who offend, that makes Myshkin a figure of Dostoevsky's affliction.


In addition to Dostoevsky's mythic uses of epilepsy, The Idiot also represents the physical characteristics of the disease. Early on he depicts two important sensations associated with the disease: “the fiery eyes” and “deathly pallor” of Rogozhin; and the “large, blue and intent” eyes of Myshkin that, in their gentle heavy appearance “allow those who study his face to see in them the affliction of “the falling sickness.”14 It is also an illness that accelerates, beginning with a moment of calm and a feeling of harmony and balance, then accelerates into a condition of stupefaction. The train's own motion at the novel's beginning captures this second part of the illness: “At nine o'clock in the morning, towards the end of November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed” (p. 4, my emphasis). On this speeding train, “two passengers had, since daybreak, been sitting opposite one another by the window” (p. 23). Eplepsy has not only its own time dimension but also its own climate and geography: the climate is excessively warm for this time of year; the yellow fog prevents passengers from seeing anything on either side of the train; and a general sense of drowsy stupefaction pervades the faces of all on board.

Unprepared for the Russian climate in November, Myshkin wears an inadequate cloak, one that while “quite suitable and satisfactory in Italy turned out not quite appropriate for Russia” (p. 3). This quality of unsuitability is carried out in his physiology. His body shows the traces of his illness that lie dormant: “His eyes were large, blue and intent; there was something gentle, though heavy in their expression, something of that strange look which allows some people to recognize … a victim of the falling sickness” (p. 3). How different from Rogozhin's appearance: a man “with almost black curly hair and small, grey, but fiery eyes … a broad and flat nose and high cheekbones” and who wears a “malicious smile” (p. 3). In contrast to Myshkin, he wears “a full, black, lambskin-lined overcoat, and had not felt the cold at night” (p. 3). His nature is more sensual, more instinctive. He exudes the high energy of an animal. The contrasting pair reflect the two moments of temporal lobe epilepsy, though how Dostoevsky develops these two attitudes or dispositions in the novel is best understood by looking closely at the Prince's own stories, which he recounts when he first enters Petersburg society through the doors of the Yepanchins' drawing room. Myshkin's initial five stories allow us to begin to understand epilepsy as a style of seeing.

Having nowhere to stay and seemingly at a loss as to what his role in society is, the Prince finds the Yepanchin household, believing that he and the General's wife, Lizaveta Prokofeyvna, are related in some obscure way. She believes that she is the last of the Princess Myshkins and is only too delighted to welcome to her home one of her own family names. Alexandra, the eldest daughter, followed by Adelaïda, Aglaia, and their mother gather in the drawing room in order to listen to the Prince's stories. They are wary of his presence because they have been told he is occasionally subject to fits. They coax him to offer his first impressions of Switzerland.

He begins with a vivid and detailed description of his illness, recalling Switzerland primarily as the landscape of his affliction and eventually of his cure. He tells them how, on being taken from Russia at the height of his seizures, he would easily sink into complete stupefaction. His memory failed him though his mind worked, but “‘the logical flow of thought seemed broken. I couldn't connect more than two or three consecutive ideas. … I was all the while lost in wonder and uneasiness … and everything seemed strange’” (p. 55). Such a state of consciousness is not unusual among epileptics.15

The central image in this first story is of the waterfall that Myshkin recalls passing often and gazing down upon when he hiked aimlessly in the mountains of Switzerland. As an image, it captures something of his sporadic restlessness. He tells how it appeared to him from a great height, “‘such a thin thread, almost perpendicular—foaming, white and noisy. Though it fell from a great height it didn't seem so high’” (p. 57), but when he would listen to it at night, it provoked in him a great restlessness. On these walks he also experienced “‘bright sunshine, blue sky, and the terrible stillness’” (my emphasis):

“At such times I felt something calling me away, and I kept fancying that if I walked straight on, far, far away and reached that line where sky and earth meet, there I should find the key to the mystery, there I should see a new life a thousand times richer and more turbulent than ours. … But afterward I fancied one might find a wealth of life even in prison.”

(P. 58)

This descriptive, self-reflective story offers a potent and enigmatic metaphor for the moment before the epileptic seizure. It could be called an epileptic vision or a vision of epilepsy itself. The foamy, white, and noisy waterfall, suffering its own form of falling sickness following the terrible stillness, as well as the Prince's fantasy of locating that unreal horizontal line where earth and sky appear to meet, are both the parts of the seizure and the impulse towards a perfect harmony of the eternal and human orders that Myshkin will continually seek in an accelerated way in Petersburg.

Myshkin believes that living within such a heightened, though diseased, consciousness is possible, though Aglaia, who later falls in love with him, is quick to scrutinize the Prince and remind him she has read somewhere in a reader exactly what he professes are his own reflections. In the story, Switzerland becomes an emblem for a timeless, natural state of existence that is analogous to the garden before the fall, a safe refuge and one for which Myshkin will eventually find an analogy in Pavlovsk Park, a vacation retreat that allows him to recapture some semblance of his Swiss life before Petersburg. It is a garden evocative of the soul's longing for harmony and a retreat the Prince seeks out more often as he intrudes more deeply into Russian society.

Myshkin's second story deals with a man he met who was a prisoner and who also had fits. But he has scarcely begun that story, when he changes suddenly into another narrative, of a man about to be executed and who had only five minutes to live. Skipping from one narrative to another reveals part of Myshkin's epileptic manner of consciousness, in which the epileptic will often struggle to concentrate on a line of thought. There exists in the epileptic a scattered presence at times, a dreamy state in which connections between events or stories are absent. The story reflects what in epilepsy has been called the twilight state.16 Part of this state is a seeming dream-like and even absent-minded condition that reflects an impulse towards eternity. Myshkin shows a remarkable, even obsessive preoccupation with details, focusing on the trivial, the mundane, and fixing on them in an exaggerated way. All of these qualities represent an epileptic mode of experiencing the world that Myshkin will embrace more frequently and intensely as he discovers that his own efforts to dispense universal forgiveness to those he confronts in the city and at Pavlovsk prove futile.17

The man in Myshkin's account is being led to the post to be executed. He is wrapped like other prisoners in a white “‘death-gown.’” White hoods are pulled over their eyes so that they should not see the guns as they face their deaths. A prisoner acquaintance tells him that “‘those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth’” (p. 59) and that there was enough time to live several lives in that interval. Now we can compare the waterfall's bright aura to the gleaming light in this tale: “‘Not far off there was a church, and the gilt cupola was glittering in the bright sunshine’” (p. 59). The prisoner stares for a time at “‘the light flashing from it; he could not tear himself away from the rays. It seemed to him that those rays were his new nature and that in three minutes he would somehow merge with them’” (p. 59). He begins to fantasize what would happen if he were pardoned: would he then live many eternities in time? “‘He said that this idea turned into such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly’” (p. 59, my emphasis).

In this moment of pitched excitement around the story, he suddenly falls silent, as if unconscious. It is as if narrating the story has taken over Myshkin and that the storytelling has begun to mimic his illness. The story of the prisoner's release from time within time is the story of the ecstatic moment of harmony and balance experienced by the epileptic prior to the darkness and stupefaction that follows this paradisal moment:

Myshkin suddenly ceased speaking; every one expected him to go on and draw some conclusion.

“Have you finished?” asked Aglaia.

“What? Yes,” said Myshkin, rousing himself from a momentary dreaminess.”

(P. 59)

We witness what appears to be a petit mal seizure in this little dialogue. The memories of his past stories seem to be forces powerful enough to bring on his epilepsy. Here Myshkin's imagination replicates disease in story, and the story becomes an enactment of the disease. Dostoevsky certainly experienced something like this when, in writing The Idiot and revising it eight times, his own illness manifested itself in recurrent seizures, becoming a forceful factor in the creative process.18 In addition, the story borders uneasily on incoherence as it imitates in language, symbol, and action the epileptic seizure brought on by the light of the cupola and the feeling that eternity is possible in time. It is a manifesto of a Romantic fantasy that understands human being as pure and unfettered if one can only avoid the ambiguous and passionate nature of life.

The Prince's third narrative to the Yepanchin women involves an execution Myshkin witnessed of a man taken suddenly from his prison cell to the scaffold at five a.m. The Prince fantasizes that this prisoner must also have thought he had an endless time left to live while being driven through the town. Myshkin relates how the priest accompanying the condemned man, in order to calm his fears of impending death, “‘with a rapid movement hastily put the cross to his lips … [and] kept putting it to his lips every minute. And every time the cross touched his lips, he opened his eyes and seemed … to come to life again’” (p. 63).

Immediately thereafter a description of Myshkin's own disease dominates the narrative:

“It's strange that people rarely faint at these last moments. On the contrary, the brain is extraordinarily lively and must be working at a tremendous rate—at a tremendous rate, like a machine at full speed. … And only think that it must be like that up to the last quarter of a second, when his head lies on the block and he waits and … knows and suddenly hears above him the clang of the iron!”

(P. 63)

At this point Adelaïda begins to sense that the Prince's stories are metaphors for his malady as well as descriptions of events. She therefore questions him with extreme astuteness. “‘[A]nd now explain the picture of this execution,’” she suggests. “‘Can you tell me how you imagine it to yourself?’” Responding to his fevered request that she draw the face of the prisoner at a precise moment, she asks him, “‘How is one to draw the face? Is it to be only the face? What sort of a face is it?’” (p. 61, my emphasis). The Prince, growing more animated, suggests enthusiastically that she paint “‘the man greedily putting forward his blue lips and looking—and aware of everything. The cross and the head—that's the picture’” (p. 63). He adds then, “‘the priest's face and the executioner's, his two attendants and a few heads and eyes below might be painted in the background. … That's the picture!’” (p. 63).

No bodies are to appear in his fantasy of the painting, only heads and eyes. What is present is a moment frozen in time and artfully rendered, as are his own stories. I believe we are meant to recall at this juncture the photograph of Nastasya showing only her portrait. That the heads without bodies attract the Prince suggests that for him the body is absent. His disease moves him between the poles of conscious ecstasy and unconscious darkness. Rogozhin's passion, his erotic energy full of animal vitality, will murder Nastasya, but not without the complicity of Myshkin's dreaminess. Furthermore, such a timeless quality of life that arrests its foreboding nature and splits head from body is not just a description of the heightened instant of awareness just before the onset of death but epilepsy translated into an attitude toward life itself. It is a sentimental if not innocent relation to life that wants to keep at bay the suffering that attends living life in time, life that contains the passions and instincts and uncontrolled energy of Rogozhin as well as the dreamy quality of innocence that we see in Myshkin.

A brief digression is useful here. Another figure that comes into similar focus is, in Rogozhin's home, a copy of Hans Holbein's shocking painting of Christ. In this painting the dead Redeemer is taken from the cross in all of his bloodied, mortal, and deathly pallor. Myshkin asserts, “‘Why, that picture might make some people lose their faith,’” to which Rogozhin responds, “‘That's what it is doing’” (pp. 199-200). This picture serves as the opposite image to the portrait of beautiful Nastasya. The two images are indeed two figures of epilepsy itself embodied in Myshkin and Rogozhin, one of absolute beauty and purity, and the other of wounded defilement. The wounded body of Christ also anticipates the wounded Nastasya's corpse at the end of the novel: both are sacrificial victims.

In his stories, Myshkin builds to a climax that mirrors the epileptic seizure, with somewhat distorted focus and emphasis that suggests something about what one might call the epileptic personality. He spends much time narrating the minutest details to the Yepanchins as the story builds to an ecstatic aura.19 The description of the man who begins to lose all motor power on the scaffold and who is then offered the cross to kiss just before being guillotined anticipates in several of its details Myshkin and Rogozhin's final condition as they huddle defenseless and broken by the dead body of Nastasya at the end of the novel. We notice, too, that the speed and acceleration of the mind of the prisoner has analogies with the speeding train into Petersburg, the roar of the foamy waterfall, and the description of the instant before the epileptic attack, which Myshkin will relate shortly. Each story reiterates the idea that one thinks “‘he had an endless time. … So it must have been’” (p. 63).

Myshkin's own epileptic imagination now begins to work at full throttle as it accelerates into the narrative with images that reflect the epileptic attack. For example, he says of the prisoner that “‘[h]is legs must have grown weak and wooden,’” followed quickly by his own fantasy that “‘if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—[or a guillotine!] one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one's eyes and wait, come what may’” (p. 63), which approximates the description of Myshkin's behavior, culminating in the paralysis of his own legs at the end of the novel. Myshkin's stories narrate the future that he will live out through his dark double, Rogozhin, and the woman Myshkin has felt such great pity for. Finally, Myshkin descends from his animated and even frothy telling: he “ceased speaking and looked at them all” (p. 63). We may infer that he has just had a seizure, a full fit narratively rendered. Dostoevsky has given us the disease in description, the seizure in story.

Myshkin's last story, which deserves fuller discussion than I can give it here, recounts the Prince's involvement with children and with the young Marie in Switzerland, who created a scandal in the small village by running off with a salesman who deserted her. She returns in shame to the community and is punished harshly by the code of the village members even while Myshkin and the children try to console her and convince her that she has done nothing wrong. This story anticipates Myshkin's innocent but deadly involvement with Nastasya.

Taken together, Myshkin's five stories share a vision of reality that suggests one can step out of time into a realm of universal harmony, especially at moments of extreme crisis in one's life. They also suggest that forgiveness, given unequivocally in order to promote such a harmony, is possible.


The description of the two “sides” of epilepsy offers a context for understanding both Myshkin and Rogozhin and, through them, what may be the malady of this community. Dostoevsky wrote about the process of creating the novel, “The main problem: the Idiot's character. Develop it. Here lies the idea of the novel. How Russia is reflected.20 Such a reading is given additional voice in the novel through the Prince's changed emotional state when he leaves Petersburg for a short time. Mishkin leaves the society with news of an unexpected inheritance. When he returns six months later, the novel's tone changes considerably. It assumes an atmosphere of constant foreboding, a word the Prince himself uses with increasing frequency. An ominous quality of impending disaster pervades the narrative and is reflected in the climate. As he reflects more deeply on the nature of his disease, thunderclouds begin to gather and loom menacingly on the horizon. The disease gathers more force and takes center stage as Myshkin begins to recall its effects with greater clarity. The epileptic fit itself, with its ancillary moment of ecstasy, is even more prominently foregrounded.

Myshkin travels to the Balance Hotel, there to be assaulted with a garden knife by Rogozhin in a chiaroscuro atmosphere that mimics the psychic terrain of epileptic seizures. That same knife will later rest on a table in Rogozhin's house, and will finally find the heart of Nastasya Filippovna. This knife is ostensibly bought for digging in the earth that links Nastasya in death to the violated earth, Mother Russia herself, which the folk refer to as Mother Moist Earth. It also reveals something of the dark and fallen nature of the garden that Myshkin has come to Petersburg to reclaim in its innocence; the garden is tainted, however much Myshkin believes he can purify it with pity.21

Dostoevsky's effectiveness as a writer rests in large measure in his ability to reveal how psyche inhabits not just the individual character but also the world in its particularities. Climate is one of these specifications. As it was in the beginning of the novel, the air is again exceptionally warm as Myshkin visits the garden before proceeding to the Balance Hotel. The air is described as “exquisite … bright, still and hot” (p. 206), all major characteristics of the epileptic consciousness embodied in Myshkin just before the epileptic seizure that sends him down into unconsciousness. Myshkin's behavior is increasingly epileptic in its mechanical, distracted, absentminded, disjointed, staccato, morbid unconscious, aimless, wandering qualities. Now, where he once desired social interaction, he seeks solitude above all. Further, the boundary between what is real and what is fantastic for him breaks down, becomes confused, as it did in the story he told the Yepanchins of an execution he witnessed. Sentience spills over into his environment: “Did that shop really exist with the goods in its window?” he wonders. “He certainly felt specially ill that day” (p. 207). The metaphorical, symbolic qualities of his illness assume new significance as he reflects on the darkness in his soul suddenly being “illuminated by a radiant light” (p. 206). His emotions waver between feeling ecstatic, feeling wretched and full of self-loathing, and feeling overcome by an enormous foreboding as the storm looms on the horizon of the hot, still day.

His rekindled musing over his illness is the fullest reflection on the disease Dostoevsky offers in any of his works. Myshkin relives his seizures in his own mind by recalling their dual nature. His musings occur when he is “sitting on a seat under a tree in the Summer Garden. … The Garden was empty; a shadow passed over the setting sun for an instant” (p. 209). The chiaroscuro effect is itself like a mini-epileptic image: “There was always one instant just before the epileptic fit … when suddenly in the midst of sadness, spiritual darkness and oppression, his brain seemed momentarily to catch fire, and in an extraordinary rush all his vital forces were at their highest tension” (p. 207). The consciousness of life was “multiplied” and exaggerated in an instant of “extraordinary light” (p. 208) that banishes temporarily all his negative feelings. Harmony, joy, and beauty replace disjuncture, doubts, and oppression. This is the moment, he muses, for which one might pay with his whole life, so exquisite is its feeling of exhilaration.

But then the shadow of the ecstasy enters almost instantly and forcefully as the shadow of a cloud passes over the sun. He is made to recognize that this “highest form of being … must be reckoned the lowest,” for the “quickening of consciousness of self” (p. 208) was always followed by a darkness and convulsion into oblivion. What is often not quoted in the discussion of Myshkin's description of his seizures are the next lines:

He did not insist on the dialectical part of his argument, however. Stupefaction, spiritual darkness, idiocy stood before him as the clear consequence of these “supreme moments”. … There was undoubtedly a mistake in his conclusion—that is, in his estimate of that moment, but the actuality of the sensation somewhat perplexed him. What was he to make of that actuality?

(P. 208)

He recalls saying to Rogozhin when they used to meet in Moscow during the Prince's six months' absence from Petersburg, “‘[A]t that moment I seem somehow to understand the extraordinary saying that there shall be no more time’” (p. 208). Now all of these musings, in memory, in the sensation conjured by Myshkin, occur while he is solitary and confused: “It was sultry and there was a feeling in the air like a remote foreboding of a thunderstorm. … His mind and memory seemed to fasten upon every external object about him, and he found pleasure in it” (p. 208).

A thickly contrived allegory spreads itself out here, including the garden before the fall and its corresponding fallen nature. The narrator's description of him reminds us of the attitude of the prisoner on his way to the scaffold as Myshkin imagined it. Myshkin's feeling of foreboding is not unwarranted, for the knife of Rogozhin awaits shortly to execute him at the Balance Hotel.

The Prince has begun, after only a few months in Russia, to recognize more profoundly the two impulses in the human soul that comprise the two impulses in epilepsy. He senses its verticality: extreme heights of euphoria and deep caverns of depression. It promises to take one to great heights of harmony and beauty, reflected in the myth of the Golden Age, where innocence and joy prevail—a lyric garden of love and community out of time. But there is also the garden after the fall, where the darkness of the human soul has its expression. The disease of epilepsy is used by Dostoevsky, therefore, as an emblem of two moral extremes of the soul: innocence and violence; compassion and unbounded destructive passion; and the safe stasis of eternity and the rushing ambiguity of temporality.

What Rogozhin learns he must fear is that perhaps the Prince's pity is stronger than his love of Nastasya. It terrifies and enrages Rogozhin that he might lose Nastasya's love to the innocence of the Prince. The important element to observe in the development of the novel is how the disease seeps into all corners of the world of Petersburg and Pavlovsk, offering analogies with weather, place, social situation, philosophic condition, and cultural impulse. How clearly Dostoevsky develops this interrelatedness as Prince Myshkin meanders toward the Balance Hotel: “Perhaps his epileptic condition was growing more and more acute. The storm was certainly gathering, though slowly. It was beginning to thunder far away. The air had become very sultry” (p. 209).

Symptoms of psyche become more manifest as Myshkin begins to duplicate the qualities of the characters in his earlier stories. For example, like the prisoners he describes, he too begins to stare “with painfully strained attention at every object that met his eye” (p. 209). His thoughts grow more disconnected, less focused. His reflections fix on how “the soul of another is a dark place, and the Russian soul is a dark place” (p. 210), as his thoughts return to his ostensible friendship with Rogozhin. Yes, he convinces himself, “perhaps he would even have a fit that day. All this darkness was due to that. … Now the darkness was dispelled, the demon had been driven away, doubt did not exist, there was joy in his heart!” (p. 211). The disease's onset always promises a feeling of harmony and the dissolution of evil and of darkness in the soul. It is as if Myshkin wants to embrace the harmonious side of his illness and deny or dispel the darkness, the stupefaction that attends it.

Physiologically he begins to transform as he approaches the hotel. Signs of his disease begin to appear on his face: he “looked quite different now. … An extraordinary change had come over him again in an instant. He walked along, pale, weak, suffering, agitated” (p. 212). Feeling “ignoble” (p. 121), depressed, and self-repulsive, Myshkin's musings on his interior moral condition branch out to include the nature of the Russian soul. His disease serves as an objective correlative for it.

The vortex that forms at the Balance Hotel gains momentum and turns violent: the thunder clouds gathering; the agitated and heated knife of Rogozhin seeking the Prince's flesh; and the epileptic fit itself that ushers in the Prince's scream of denial of Rogozhin's actions followed by his own lapse into complete unconsciousness. Dostoevsky's genius for creating a panoply of effect is nowhere more poignantly evident than at this moment in the novel: “The gateway, which was always dark, was particularly dark at that moment; the storm-cloud had crept over the sky and engulfed the evening light, and at the very moment that the prince approached the house it burst and there was a downpour” (p. 214). Almost immediately after, Myshkin begins his ascent up the staircase, reminiscent of his walks up the Swiss mountains with the waterfall foaming below. There he confronts Rogozhin hiding in a niche in the wall and turns him to the light because “he wanted to see his face more clearly” (p. 217). Brilliant light flashes from Rogozhin's eyes and from the gleaming knife that penetrates the darkness. Myshkin cries out that he “‘do[esn't] believe it’” and feels at the same instant that “suddenly something seemed to break open before him; intense inner light flooded his soul. … Then his consciousness was instantly extinguished and complete darkness followed” (p. 217). The irony of his illness is that its convulsive vibrations terrify Rogozhin, who drops the knife and flees as the Prince falls unconscious to the stone steps.


In the final scene, Rogozhin brings the Prince back to his darkened room to show him Nastasya's dead body, pierced by the same garden knife that both men handled earlier when it rested on the coffee table of Rogozhin's home. Here in the dark room a horrid stillness prevails and an agonizing darkness awaits the light of day. Again, the presence of epilepsy's two moments—exceeding light followed by stupefaction, unconsciousness, and darkness—play out here, but in reverse. Now darkness waits for the light. Moreover, at this juncture we discern how the whole novel has the structure of an epileptic seizure, from Myshkin's initial stories to the embodied reality of Petersburg, to the still and alternating conscious-unconscious conditions of the Prince and Rogozhin. Rogozhin babbles with a minimum of coherence as the Prince holds him. Rogozhin's brain fever has recurred, and Myshkin's body, especially his legs, seem paralyzed.

Repeating the scene that opened the novel, both figures together comprise the body/mind diseased with the third figure, Nastasya, essentially between them—this time not in words but in the figure of her corpse. Both men are sitting on the floor with Nastasya's body stretched out on the bed. Her murdered body is now “covered over from head to foot with a white sheet but the limbs were vaguely defined,” and “a bare foot peeped out from under the sheet; it seemed as though it has been carved out of marble and it was horridly still” (p. 551). Long silences punctuate the time between the two men as they draw closer together, as if they wish to become the one character Dostoevsky himself sketched out in the first drafts of the novel.

As they rest by what both wished to possess and have participated in destroying, they evoke the two poles of the epileptic seizure, with its sudden moments of extremely clear perception and violent outbursts. Myshkin attempts to soothe Rogozhin as he flares up in uncontrollable spasms that terrify the Prince; there are also moments when Rogozhin lapses into unconsciousness and Myshkin reaches out and soothes him while his own terror causes his heart “to beat violently and his breath to come in gasps. … Myshkin looked and waited; time was passing, it began to get light” (p. 554). In both the first and last scenes, light emerges from darkness to illuminate their condition and may be seen as a reversal of the movement of an epileptic seizure wherein the light is first—blinding and peaceful—after which the victim falls into darkness and unconsciousness, and often into a depression of self-loathing.

The image of Myshkin's tears is also important insofar as they recall the Swiss waterfall in his story. In this last scene, resting a bit above Rogozhin, whom he cradles in his arms, Myshkin “put his face close to the pale and rigid face of Rogozhin; tears flowed from his eyes on to Rogozhin's cheeks, but perhaps he did not notice then his own tears and was quite unaware of them” (p. 557). When the three figures are discovered later that morning, their description duplicates the moments of epilepsy's onset and diminution: “They found the murderer completely unconscious and raving. The prince was sitting beside him motionless on the bedding. … But by now he could understand no questions he was asked and did not recognise the people surrounding him” (p. 557).

Here, the two aspects of the epileptic seizure unite into one effect: constant motion and absolute stillness; acceleration of activity and absolute stasis. And as Rogozhin suffered from brain fever and Myshkin the falling sickness, now they bring together in one diseased ensemble head and body, fantasy and the deathly reality, whose unification cost the violated Nastasya her life. In this last scene, epilepsy's performance intensifies: now Myshkin's “legs seemed suddenly to fail him” and “his heart ache[s] with infinite anguish” (p. 554); Rogozhin, on the other hand, “raves” and “screams” in delirium. His disease is now voiced while Myshkin's results in bodily paralysis. Both recline on the floor, stricken by their respective performances of the illness. Not just crosses have they exchanged, as they do earlier in their first meeting at Rogozhin's house, but the symptoms of the disease as well. The ecstatic aura of the illness's onset, just before its vertical plunge into unconsciousness and despair, is gone. Only the stupefaction and mechanical motion of one man towards the other, done in an absentminded, even unconscious manner, remains.

Out of this diseased duality, where beauty itself has been victimized and finally destroyed or turned to marble, like the statue of Venus in Nastasya's apartment, emerges a new consciousness. Epilepsy's force has turned consciousness inward. Something has broken down, begun to move again as the words of Lizaveta's indictment illustrate: “‘We've had enough of following your whims; it's time to be reasonable. And all this, all these foreign countries, and this whole Europe of yours is all a fantasy, and all of us abroad are only a fantasy … remember my words, you'll see it for yourself!’” (p. 560). We recall Jung's own insight about this breaking down and out of what has become fixated: “Only when all props and crutches are broken, and no cover from the rear offers even the slightest hope of security, does it become possible for us to experience an archetype that up till then had lain hidden behind the meaningful nonsense played out by the anima. This is the archetype of meaning, just as the anima is the archetype of life itself.”22

In the disease is the discovery of what is needed and what is to be purged. It has dismantled the props and crutches that Jung saw as blocking a deeper level of consciousness. Epilepsy has judged Petersburg and found it wanting. Epilepsy's presence promises the possibility of reestablishing some values that Dostoevsky felt had been lost in the Russian soul: the people's collective myth that offers them coherence, a relationship to the earth and to their sacred tradition; less obsession with capitalism and a world motivated by self-interest; a muting of a rage for individualism with no regard for the larger collective good; less idolizing of Western intellectualism that divides the head from the heart, intellect from the social and religious body of Russia rooted deeply in the black soil of the Motherland; and the retrieval of a grounded vision that allows one to view and judge the present through the authority of a larger tradition that includes an incarnated, imaginal way of knowing.

Perhaps Dostoevsky did in fact wish to create a perfectly good man, patterning him as he did the Prince after Christ and Quixote, but disease speaks through and within this goodness in a different voice. Perhaps while having the intention of creating “perfect” goodness, Dostoevsky was smitten by the sobering voice of his own disease. And in that illness of the Prince—which reveals not just the shifting cultural relations but also the people's relation to their origins and to the originary myth that gives them a coherence and formed identity—began to materialize the first symptoms of a cure.


  1. Eve LaPlante begins her book, Seized (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), with a quote from William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience as its epigram. For interested readers, she explores Kierkegaard's story, “Repetition,” which “contains passages about states of ecstasy moving to horror,” similar to the seizures described in The Idiot (p. 97).

  2. Sigmund Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” in J. Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of Complete Psychological Works, vol. 21 (London: Hogarth Press, 1961), 177-94. Freud was convinced that Dostoevsky's epilepsy originated in hysteria rather than physiology and had its origin in Dostoevsky's own feelings of guilt after his father's death, some say by being murdered. The best treatment of Freud's argument I found is Jean-Paul C. J. Selten's fine article, “Freud and Dostoevsky,” Psychoanalytic Review 80, no. 3 (fall 1993): 441-55. Believing that professional jealousy was behind Freud's diagnosis, Selten suggests that “Freud seizes upon vague rumors and doubtful sources to support the hypothesis that Dostoevsky's illness deteriorated in reaction to his father's death” (p. 449).

  3. The medical discussion of Dostoevsky's illness is too vast for this essay. I will mention a few articles that one might want to consult. Temporal lobe epilepsy is discussed very well in Selten's article mentioned above. Other worthy discussions include Norman Geschwind, “Dostoievsky's Epilepsy,” in Dietrich Blumer, ed., Psychiatric Aspects of Epilepsy (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1984), 330-31. Also, Howard Morgan finds that epilepsy in The Idiot molded Dostoevsky's “ethical conceptions” (“Dostoevsky's Epilepsy: A Case Report and Comparison,” Surgical Neurology 33 [1990]:413-16, quotation p. 414). Henri Gastaut believes that “Dostoevsky's genius was entirely his own … and that it was developed and sustained in spite of, and not because of, his epilepsy” (“Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoevsky's Involuntary Contribution to the Symptomatology and Prognosis of Epilepsy,” Epilepsia 19 [1978]: 186-201, quotation p. 198). His discussion of the “ecstatic aura” is particularly detailed. Louis Breger offers an entire chapter on “Epilepsy” and discusses in depth the epileptic personality (Dostoevsky: The Author as Psychoanalyst [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1989], 237-52). P. H. A. Voskuil offers a detailed description of the seizures Dostoevsky experienced after 1850, as well as an interesting observation Dostoevsky has about his own illness: “‘A sickness does not shame one’” (“The Epilepsy of Fyodor Mikhailovitch Dostoevsky [1821-1881],” Epilepsia 24 [1983]: 658-67, quotation p. 665). L. G. Kiloh offers a different interpretation in stating that “[t]here is further evidence offering support for the diagnosis of limbic epilepsy” (“The Epilepsy of Dostoevsky,” Psychiatric Developments 1 [1986]: 31-44, quotation p. 35).

  4. Carl Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series 20 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), 9:44, 48.

  5. Robert M. Stein, “Body and Psyche: An Archetypal View of Psychosomatic Phenomena,” in James Hillman, ed., Spring: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought (1976): 66-80, quotation p. 68. In an earlier article, I implicated the god Pan as embodied in the two contradictory tendencies of Prince Myshkin's dreaminess and Parfyon Rogozhin's rapaciousness. Together, their disruption of the Petersburg community is akin to panic that terrorizes others (“Pan, Myth and Fantasy in Dostoevskii's The Idiot,Canadian American Slavic Studies 17, no. 3 [fall 1983]: 384-401, esp. p. 386).

  6. James Hillman, “Anima Mundi: The Return of the Soul to the World,” Spring (1982): 87. See also Carl G. Jung, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry,” in The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Bollingen Series 20 (New York: Pantheon Books), 67.

  7. Ronald Frankenberg, “Sickness as Cultural Performance: Drama, Trajectory, and Pilgrimage Root Metaphors and the Making Social of Disease,” International Journal of Health Services 16 (4 November 1986): 603-25, quotation p. 624. His essay offers a fine critique of the shortcomings of Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and convincingly opens the discussion regarding disease as social construction. We want to promote the other side of this argument by suggesting that social construction may be constructed by the gestures of disease.

  8. Ibid., 625.

  9. Joseph Campbell ends his rich discussion of myth, ritual and culture with the observation that the body is the originary locus for mythology. There exists a deep correlation between biology and mythology (The Hero with a Thousand Faces [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973], 382ff).

  10. J. Nigro Sansonese, The Body of Myth: Mythology, Shamanic Trance, and the Sacred Geography of the Body (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1994), 37. Sansonese fills in the origins of such a way of imagining by citing the ancient Greeks, who, “with other ancient peoples, considered epilepsy to be a divine gift rather than a disease” (p. 169). He suggests later that epilepsy has affinities with yoga in that in seizures of epilepsy, one “suffers a kind of uncontrolled trance” (p. 211), while yoga's trance is controlled.

  11. Geschwind, p. 328.

  12. Eliot Slater and Martin Roth, Clinical Psychiatry, 3d ed. (London: Cassell and Collier Macmillan, 1977), 456, 457. This text gives the most exhaustive symptomatology and personality profile of epilepsy I found.

  13. Russell A. Lockhart offers a provocative reading of cancer in his essay “Cancer in Myth and Dream,” in Words as Eggs: Psyche in Language and Clinic (Dallas, Tx.: Spring Publications, 1983), 58. He believes that “Gods work their will in and through dreams—not only in healing but in creating sickness as well” (p. 59). Disease and divinity have an intimacy that needs to be acknowledged. In the same volume, and in response to Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, Lockhart challenges her conclusions about metaphor's absence in illness in “Metaphor as Illness” (pp. 209ff).

    It should be pointed out that in the early drafts of The Idiot, Myshkin and Rogozhin were originally one character. In the first draft, Dostoevsky asserts that “The Idiot's passions are violent, he has a burning need of love, a boundless pride and … he means to dominate himself, conquer himself” (Edward Wasiolek, ed., The Notebooks for The Idiot [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1967], 31). Subsequent quotations are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  14. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot: A Novel In Four Parts, trans. Constance Garnett, rev. and ed. Avrahm Yarmolinsky (New York: The Heritage Press, 1956), 3. Subsequent citations are taken from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  15. Epileptic attacks can be accompanied by “preserved memory and with almost undisturbed clearness of consciousness” along with “confusion” and “[e]xplosions of irritability and anger” (Slater and Roth, 456).

  16. Ibid., 465.

  17. Epileptics can oscillate between extreme absent-mindedness, wandering off, amnesia, derealization, as well as acute preoccupation with trivial and mundane objects and situations (ibid., 460).

  18. Wasiolek notes that Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot “between fits of gambling and fits of epilepsy, when there was no money and very little hope. … He wrote it [as] the atonement for the crushing guilt he felt for his self-destructive passions” (Notebooks, 1). While this may be true, it puts all of the creative energy in Dostoevsky, and none in the illness.

  19. Some physicians have questioned even the reality of this aura, which is characterized by intense feelings of joy, love, harmony, even mystical sensations. The best discussion is in Gastaut, esp. p. 198.

  20. I have argued elsewhere that contrary to popular and fairly uniform readings of Myshkin as a character in the tradition of the Russian Holy Fool, an emblem of Christ, he is rather the opposite, a parody, or a mirage of what is really needed to be revived in the Russian soul. I agree with Madame Yepanchin's assessment of how he is “not what is wanted” (The Idiot: Dostoevsky's Fantastic Prince [New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1984], 212).

  21. In the same section, Dostoevsky hones in on Myshkin's malady: “The Prince is downright ill, a yurodivyi (Notebooks, 203).

  22. Jung, Archetypes, 32.

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The Idiot