Ideas versus Ideals:
Dostoevsky's The Idiot
By Emily Burns Morgan
First, a quick summary of the plot (of course, if you’ve ever read Dostoevsky you will know that I am necessarily leaving out many subplots, speeches, and, in this particular case, digressions, enjoyable though they may be): Prince Myshkin is an epileptic who has spent the majority of his life in treatment in Switzerland. Somewhat recovered, the book opens with him on a train returning to his native Russia; the reader is not told exactly why he’s going back to Russia, but it seems natural enough that he wants to return to his homeland (also, not everything has gone ideally for him in Switzerland; his befriending of a “fallen” woman there led to his being further cast out from local village culture). On the train, Myshkin meets two of the narrative’s main characters, a wily functionary called Lebedev and a merchant, Rogozhin, who has recently inherited a large sum of money. Rogozhin will end up as both the prince’s friend and his rival for the affections of Nastassya Filippovna, an unmarried, “kept” woman. The three men discuss this woman, with whom Rogozhin is obsessed. Arriving in St. Petersburg, the prince meets Ganya, who is also considering marrying Nastassya Filippovna. Ganya asks the prince whether he, personally, would marry “such a woman.” The prince replies that he “can’t marry anyone” as he is “an invalid.”
The illness is worth commenting on. At first, people assume that the prince is of less than average intelligence, i.e. an “idiot,” because he suffers from epileptic fits. It’s true that he is very “simple” in a sense; he only speaks the truth, for example, and clearly wears his heart on his sleeve. Like Jesus Christ, to whom he has so often been compared, Prince Myshkin is willing to aid even those he knows are swindling him. Rather than suffering primarily from epilepsy, the prince seems to be afflicted with extreme compassion. But perhaps these are related; some cultures believe that epilepsy is a kind of divine sight, and not an illness at all. Certainly the prince is more religious than any of the other characters. He is a Christian, and not afraid to speak passionately on this subject, though it becomes obvious that doing so is not fashionable in the society in which he finds himself.
In many ways the prince is far more intellectually and spiritually advanced than anyone else in the book (or in real life), but in others he is decidedly at a disadvantage. He is caught up to the point of obsession with big ethical questions, and though he can understand and forgive the petty self-interest of others, he is unable, it seems, to look out for himself similarly. He gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, allowing others to take advantage of him despite recognizing what’s occurring. In a sense, the book might be considered an exploration of whether or not truly emulating Christ is in fact an effective method of creating positive social change. Can one be holy, or only a holy fool? Dostoevsky seems to admire the prince, and yet raises serious questions about his efficacy as a savior-figure.
Can one be holy, or only a holy fool? Detail from a portrait of Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872.
The situation that most evidently tests the strength of the prince’s attitude is his intimacy with Nastassya Filippovna, the “seduced,” and therefore shamed, woman. It’s clear from very early on that the relationship between these two characters will be an important one. Not only does he hear about her on the train before even disembarking on Russian soil, but when he is at the home of General Yepanchin on the hope of meeting that man’s wife, who is Myshkin’s only living, albeit distant, relative in Russia, the prince is shown a portrait of Nastassya Filippovna by Ganya, the general’s assistant. The prince becomes somewhat obsessed, though troubled, by her image; he proclaims Nastassya Filippovna beautiful, but cannot tell by looking at her face whether or not she is “a good person.” Ganya, who is considering marrying her for the money offered by her benefactor (and seducer), is actually in love with the general’s youngest daughter, Aglaya, as the prince will later become himself. The prince succeeds in making the acquaintance of the general’s wife, Lizaveta Prokofyevnya. He then accepts an offer to rent a room nearby with Ganya’s family.
Soon after Myshkin settles into life in Petersburg among this cast, there is a scene at Nastassya Filippovna’s in which Rogozhin, attempting to outbid Ganya, offers Nastassya 100,000 rubles to marry him instead. Nastassya Filippovna alternates between hysterical laughter and bitter anger at these antics. Throughout the book she continues to oscillate between the impulse to save herself—by marrying the caring, compassionate Prince Myshkin, who out of “pity” also offers to marry her—or destroy herself by marrying Rogozhin, who loves and hates her with equal passion. The prince predicts several times that Rogozhin is likely to kill Nastassya Filippovna a week after marrying her. She seems aware of this danger and is in part drawn to Rogozhin for precisely that reason. The conflict suggests that, for some people, the forces of life and death are equally powerful.
Stairway in the Dostoevsky Metro Station, Moscow, Russia.
In fact, Nastassya Filippovna does agree to marry the prince, but at the last second flees with Rogozhin. To comfort himself, the prince agrees to spend the summer in the nearby town of Pavlovsk, along with all of the other characters. It is here that he falls thoroughly in love with Aglaya Yepanchin. Aglaya is young and innocent, but also odd and hot-headed. She rivals Nastasya Fillipovna for dramatic emotions but is, somewhat comically, less worldly. The prince wants to marry both women—Aglaya for love, Nastassya out of compassion. Eventually the contest comes to a head and, forced to choose, he instinctually turns away from Aglaya towards Nastassya, thereby ruining his chances with the younger woman. One of the major questions this novel asks is what matters more: how people act, or the reasons for their actions? Both Ganya and Rogozhin are willing to marry the “fallen” woman, Nastassya Filippovna, but neither one’s motive is “pure.” Meanwhile, the prince admits several times that he doesn’t love Nastassya Filippovna any more than Ganya does, but only pities her. Whereas Ganya would marry her for money, the prince would do so to supposedly help her, and in so doing would make a martyr of himself, since he would be forfeiting, apparently without a second thought, his own happiness with the woman he does love.
The rumor that goes around towards the end of the book that the prince is only marrying Nastassya Filippovna as a political statement seems closest to the truth. He says himself that he thinks she’s insane; if that’s the case, then it seems unlikely that he will ever be able to make her happy: her pull towards death, towards Rogozhin, is too strong. In other words, the societal forces which have caused this woman to “fall” and then to be persecuted for having “fallen” are too great for Myshkin’s efforts to combat—perhaps not so much because of his tactics, but rather his motivations. And is he really doing the right thing anyway, considering that in temporarily keeping Nastassya Filippovna from destruction, he only succeeds in bringing it closer to Aglaya?
It seems fairly clear that the author of this book is not in favor of shunning women for sexual relationships—at least not if men are to be forgiven in the same circumstances. Kolya, a friend of the prince, says the following about an affair between his father and the mother of another young man, Hippolite: “Anyway, I wasn’t as ashamed as he, because in my case it’s my father and in his case it’s his mother, and there is a difference, after all, because there’s no dishonor for the masculine sex in situations like that. Of course it might be only a prejudice that one sex is more privileged than another in such cases. Hippolite is a splendid fellow, but he’s a slave to certain ideas.” Is not the prince, in his own way, also a “slave to certain ideas”? Or perhaps his enthrallment is even worse, in that he is following ideals, rather than ideas. Ideas can change as new information becomes apparent; ideals are static. One might argue that in a world changing as rapidly as the one depicted in The Idiot, or in our own, ideas are more useful than ideals because they can be modified, or abandoned, as study and experience dictates.
The fact that this novel is not as “tight,” that it is not “centered” around a single “binding idea,” as are Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, points to the modernity of the book and its concerns, according to Rosenshield. The forces and inquiries that are modernizing Russia carry with them both beneficial and detrimental effects—on the one hand people have become more greedy; on the other hand they are, if not willing to change immediately, at least ready to discuss the “woman’s question.” How to maneuver within this changing “decentered universe” is unclear; but if The Idiot is any indication, a more malleable, if less noble, mind than that of Prince Myshkin will be required.
Emily Burns Morgan is a writer, editor, and professor in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Raleigh Review, Willamette Week, and The Montreal Review, among other publications.