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Amber Paulen

The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Idiot

13 October 2009


When over five years ago I first read The Idiot I was travelling from Rome through Tunisia. Needless to say, I barely remember much besides wide Russian terraces and some basic sense of what the name Prince Myshkin means. That’s it. I don’t recommend reading The Idiot on long journeys, neither do I recommend it during large transitions in life. This book feels so subtle that it should be read as quietly as Prince Myshkin often is.

Prince Myshkin, the name is fascinating I think; Russian names are fascinating, I think: Rogozhin, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya Ivanova Epanchin. Dostoevsky has never failed me yet, and with The Idiot finished these names have gained meaning twice over, names bound to my memory forever.

Comparisons are often made between the prince and Christ. I’m not really quite sure of my agreement or disagreement on this. I do know I feel that there is something in the prince that is decidedly not Christlike and something that most decidedly is.

A strong similarity is the prince’s timid piety which causes him to efface himself before “lesser” people repetitiously. Time and time again did I read on with a kind of morbid fascination as to what reactions would rise from his words and his person. More often than not there was some uprising of somebody, Aglaya or her mother, General Ivolgin or Lebedev, even Kolya was besides himself at times in misunderstanding. Offended, they downwardly shook their heads and mumbled, “What an idiot!”

The prince’s innocence, his quick trustfulness in people, his simple desire to be understood and to understand, his social awkwardness all allied with him and gained him many friendships, sometimes even unbeknownst to the friends themselves. There is much to like about the prince.

Yet there is something that blocks, in my mind, a complete and total resemblance between the prince and Christ. There is some kind of darkness lingering in Prince Myshkin; not the type of dark that likes to do wrong, not a brute baseness like Rogozhin or Ippolit, but dark the opposite of light. There is his fascination with capital punishment, but I don’t think that’s it. It certainly has nothing to do with sex—for that’s not even insinuating in passing about the prince. His falling sickness? I’m not sure but that there’s something that remains uneasy in me.

Herman Hesse wrote :

…as an Idiot and an epileptic who is at the same time an exceptionally clever man, he has a much closer and less obscure relationships with the Unconscious…. He has literally, once and more than once, stood on the magic borderland where everything is affirmed, where not only the remotest thought is true, but also the contrary of such thought.

One gets the feeling while reading The Idiot, that no matter how many friends Lev Nikoláevich makes there is always something that sets him apart from people, despite one of his purposes for returning to Russia being to be “among” them. Even if he is sitting among them, they talk about him. The prince lives opposites that are “equally true”; such a life—he even skips the forerunner of action: the idea—comes between him and other people. Us of the usual stock, normally see things one-sided, Prince Myshkin can see through things to their other side. A gift from his falling sickness.

Who cares if it’s an illness? Who cares that it’s an abnormal strain, if the result itself, if the moment of the sensation, remembered and examined in a healthy state, turns out to be the highest degree of harmony, beauty, gives a hitherto unheard-of and unknown feeling of fullness, measure, reconciliation, and an ecstatic, prayerful merging with the highest synthesis of life.

Unlike Jesus, Myshkin never speaks to his friends about his experiences but talks to them about round-about topics, like capital punishment and the state of high society. This “higher synthesis” of the prince has been realized in him almost by accident. And though it permeates his life in almost every way, no one ever takes him all that seriously: his idiocy; no one really rejoices in his truthfulness: he says too much that infuriates, too much stupidity.

That this novel could never be dubbed a love story is obvious when you’ve read it. Oddly I found that when I was summing up the ending for Simon, it nearly sounded like one. Not long after landing in Petersburg, the prince falls for the two most beautiful ladies in town. The first is Nastasya Filippovna, to whom he proposed on the first day. Nastasya is a woman of questionable origin, a kept woman and though no one goes far enough to call her a whore, there are plenty of insinuations. The Prince falls hard for her, as they say, after seeing her photo, though not in the usual passionate way (again: Rogozhin). The prince pities her. Pity is his love.

Nastasya fears his pity, fears the forgiveness in the prince’s proposal. How many times did she run between him and Rogozhin, always on the eve of a wedding?

The second woman in this pious young man’s life is Aglaya Epanchin, younger and more innocent. She goes through similar hysterics as Nastasya: I love him, I love him not. She’s confused, very confused at why she fell in love with a fool, was it love, a man who loved and may love still such a woman as Nastasya. Aglaya herself has some secrets and plenty of personality quirks which contribute to the general mess between them all.

These two women, besides both possessing the Dostoevsky trait for hysterics, could be opposites. Darkness and light. “So you want to love them both?” Evgeny Pavlych asks near the end. “Oh, yes, yes!” responds the prince, which undoubtably left the practical Evgeny flabbergasted. When in fact the prince saw everything so simply: one needs a light for the dark and dark for light. In that way Nastasya and the prince have more in common than I first assumed. For Nastasya also has her darkness, Rogozhin, and her light, the prince.

If I dare cut off the tail of The Idiot and separate it from its head, I would say the ending is brilliant. I’m not going to write anything of it, for there should be some surprises left and is in itself worth the whole story of Dostoevsky’s “positively beautiful man.” Beware reader: much of this book is written in long conversations, which may have been my downfall my first time through. All in all, The Idiot is as always genius Dostoevsky.



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