In Dostoevsky's works, the writer, characters, and readers are suffering

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Last fall, I took a class on Dostoevsky. I loved it, and him so much that I did not hesitate to share with my friends snippets from his book. My friends were consistently unimpressed. They simply didn’t understand why a statement such as “I am a fool with a heart but no brains, and you are a fool with brains but no heart; and we’re both unhappy, and we both suffer” is worth sharing. Now that I’m off the Dostoevskian bubble for a bit, I kind of see why. Extraordinary things rarely happen in Dostoevsky’s works: there are hardly any great voyages or adventures. The events are often banal though with far reaching effects. In my completely unbiased opinion, I think it’s hard to see the genius of Dostoevsky’s works from snippets; you have to read the whole thing. It’s not a pyramid scheme I swear.

     After reading and analyzing most of his major works, I have a theory on why I like Dostoevsky so much. Dostoevsky was a psychologist and a humorous one at that. His characters—from Golyadkin in The Double to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Myshkin in The Idiot and the Karamazov brothers in The Brothers Karamazov—showcase the roots of their anguish in the delusions that ensnare them. Furthermore, his works as a collective often explore a societal problem and offer remedy to a more ‘just’ society. Crime and Punishment delves into the coexistence of good and evil within individuals, advocating for community sobornost amidst moral dilemmas; The Brothers Karamazov underscores the importance of righteous upbringing of children; The Idiot, we shall see shortly, cautions against losing one’s humanity in the pursuit of holiness and goodness. There’s always something about his novels that draws me to a place that is so similar yet so different from my own reality. While many people do not regard The Idiot as highly as the other Dostoevsky works, I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Part II. Holquist put it best when he defined The Idiot as a gospel story in reverse – instead of an eternal, omniscient God disguising as a man, The Idiot is a story of a limited and imperfect man, a holy fool, reaching for divinity but not only failing to achieve it, but also failing everyone around him. In her article “Lice in the Iron Cap: Holy Foolishness in Perspective,” Svitlana Kobets explores this concept in a bit more detail: “Holy foolishness for Christ’s sake is a peculiar form of Eastern Orthodox asceticism … holy fools feign madness in order to provide the public with spiritual guidance yet shun praise for their saintliness and attract abuse in imitation of the suffering Christ” (Kobets, 15). Myshkin’s idiocy, when interpreted in this lens, begins to make sense.

     On his arrival in St. Petersburg, Myshkin announces his relation to Madame Yepanchin:

“If you stretch a point I am a relative, but so distant it doesn’t really matter … I tell you all this to reassure you, because I see you are still worried: announce ‘Prince Myshkin’ and that in itself will make plain the reason for my visit. If I am received–very well; if not–that could be just as well … The prince’s conversation seemed to be perfectly natural, but this very naturalness made it all the more absurd in the present situation” (Dostoevsky, 19)

     The Prince’s manner of speech reveals a lack of concern for social conventions and hierarchy. He openly shares his thoughts and intentions with a servant, treating him as an equal rather than an inferior. This disregard for social status and his transparent sincerity reflect the seedlings of a fool, who is detached from worldly values, judgments, and consequences. The servant thereafter concludes, “either the prince was simply a poor fool with no ambition; because an intelligent prince, with any ambition, would not have sat in the antechamber discussing his affairs with a servant” (Dostoevsky, 20). Because of the holy fool’s intrinsic ambiguity, Myshkin is sometimes mistreated for his idiocy, though he is often aware of it. “Just now while I was waiting,” Myshkin admits to the General, “ your servant suspected that I had come to you for money” (Dostoevsky, 27). His ineptness in Russian society is oftentimes tied with the awkwardness of trying to reintegrate into a culture that is ‘foreign to him’ given that he spent five long years in Switzerland for the treatment of Epilepsy. It’s this ineptness that allows the people around him to listen to his long rambles (Dostoevsky’s own preaching). For instance, still at the Yepanchins, the Prince provides his first sermon of the book:

Killing someone for having murdered is a punishment infinitely more terrible than a murder by bandits. Whoever is murdered by bandits, knifed at night in the woods or somewhere like that, inevitably hopes until the very last moment that he will manage to save himself. There have been cases of people with their throats already slit still hoping, or running away, or pleading. But here all final hope, with which it is ten times easier to die, is removed for certain; here there is a sentence, and in the very fact that there is certainly no escape from it all the horrible suffering lies, and there is no suffering on earth greater than this. (Dostoevsky, 23)

The prince’s insightful reflections here exude extreme compassion, forgiveness, and empathy that are central to the Christian doctrine and the example of Christ. From early on, we get a sense that Myshkin is concerned about the criminal, the less fortunate who certainly have no escape, and therefore his Christ-like humanity. Dostoevsky paints a clear picture on Myshkin’s values foreshadowing Nastassya’s death, and depending on your interpretation, portrays the Prince as a hero who admirably approximates the Goodness of Christ, or a failed Christ who cannot redeem those around him.

     Myshkin carries a cross for others, by first taking a blow intended for Ganya’s sister. “Forgetting himself completely he aimed a blow at his sister with all his strength,” we are told of Ganya’s wrath, “But instantly another hand caught Ganya’s” (Dostoevsky, 120). The Prince’s intervention to protect Varya is the first instance of Christ-like emphasis of self-sacrifice for the sake of others—particularly those who are at risk. By physically positioning himself between Varya and her attacker, the Prince acts as a shield, willing to endure harm to protect another. The other time the Prince sacrifices himself for others, is when he has to choose between Aglaya and Nastassya. Though Myshkin’s (romantic, or not) happiness is tied up with Aglaya, his compassion and desire to save Nastassya is a far stronger force. “God knows, Aglaya, that I would give my life to bring peace back to her and make her happy” (Dostoevsky, 455) Myshkin confesses to Aglaya. To which Aglaya responds, “Then sacrifice yourself – that would suit you so well! You’re such a great philanthropist” (Dostoevsky, 455). This conversation echoes Myshkin’s tendency for Christ’s willingness to suffer for the sake of humanity’s redemption.

     It certainly wouldn’t be Dostoevsky’s, who himself experienced epilepsy, novel without a protagonist being epileptic. Epilepsy is what sets Myshkin apart from Christ. On the one hand, Elizabeth Dalton posits, “epilepsy is the sacred disease of shamans and prophets, who are said to experience ecstasies and visions during the “aura” preceding the fit: thus the seizure can also be seen as a representation of the violent descent of divine power”. This would explain the epileptic fit Myshkin experienced, and escaped Roghozin’s murder attempt in addition to the good aura he was feeling beforehand: “His mind and heart were flooded with extraordinary light; all torment, all doubt, all anxieties were relieved at once resolved in a kind of lofty calm, full of serene, harmonious joy and hope” (Dostoevsky, 216). It’s also consistent with Simmon’s analysis that Dostoevsky believed that the abnormal state of mind associated with epilepsy might possibly be the gateway to supernormal experiences. On the other hand, epilepsy is also what separates Myshkin from the other men in every way: it is weakness, illness, idiocy. “Frequent attacks of his illness made him almost an idiot” (Dostoevsky, 28), the narrator informs us. Myshkin’s epilepsy represents the inner tension between the darkest forces in the ‘Russian’ soul with radiant images of great spiritual beauty; between the peaceful spirit world Myshkin yearns to live in and the everyday reality he finds himself in. Myshkin himself admits it, “You must take what I say now as the words of an invalid … in society I feel — superfluous …. My gestures are not right, I have no sense of measure, my words don’t correspond with my thoughts, but only degrade them” (Dostoevsky, 357).

     Myshkin’s goodness rests on a denial of basic instinctual human feelings, lusts and hatreds. It’s an extension of his holy foolishness, moral masochism and asceticism. His fatal flaw is chasing utopia in the strictness of the word. He has an excess of goodness, a sense of reality so different that hardly helps him in accomplishing some minor wins, but causes him, and everyone around him, to fail. For instance, his behavior in handling the Burdovsky affair is so meek that it outrages everyone present. He is so lenient in his judgment of Hippolite that even the kindly Prince S. chides him for his lack of realism. In the beginning of the novel he speaks of how he brought peace and ultimate happiness to the wronged and despised Marie. He achieved his idyllic victory by, as Lesser put it, “influencing the hearts of children, and the woman he helps is herself child-like” (Lesser, 213). Dostoevsky is asserting that his kind of holy foolishness is only compatible with children, not the real world. It is, however, such an admirable quality. So much so that perhaps we tend to side with Myshkin over the other characters who think he is an idiot, but–in Dostoevsky’s opinion–when we remove ourselves from the ideal world, we know the futility of pure goodness and the stupidity of naive generosity. In that case, then Myshkin is an idiot.

     In the love triangle among Myshkin, Nastassya, and Aglaya, Dostoevsky poses the danger of completely repressing our instinctual needs. By deliberately and publicly denouncing Aglaya in favor of Nastassya, the prince broadcasts his radicalism by loving a fallen woman, instead of being with one whom he truly loves. This is akin to Jesus’ compassion to Mary Magdalene. At the same time, Myshkin’s handling of the situation couldn’t be more different from Jesus. I agree with Maurice Freedman on his analysis of Romano Guardini comparison of Myshkin’s relation with Nastassya with that of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, “Jesus’ relation to Mary is one of active love without personal involvement: he accepts her and does not judge her for what she has done, but at the same time he places a demand upon her and expects from her a new way of life” (Friedman, 380). Myshkin accepts her for who she has been, is, and will be and does not free himself from the reins of Nastassya. In the end, he is incapable of satisfying either of the women with whom he becomes involved with. In place of Jesus’ active love, Myshkin suffers greatly from her demonic beauty. Nastassya is murdered, and Aglaya marries the shady Pole instead whose nobility of soul proves too great for her impressionable character to resist.

     Myshkin’s holy foolishness is the cause of the tragic end of the novel. His inability to accurately appraise himself, others, and his surroundings plays a critical role in the unfolding of the eventual events that followed him, Rogozhin and Nastassya. Rogozhin is Myshkin’s double. Though they both enter the narrative at the same time and are both in the love triangle involving Nastassya, there are some interesting differences between them. Rogozhin is a purely sensual man, the prince is a sensual, moral, and ideological masochist. The prince is more calm and composed, at the expense of expressing his true emotions, Rogozhin isn’t. The prince doesn’t subscribe in property relations, even when he inherits money, it is never a true presence with him. Rogozhin, on the other hand, is connected with material objects. Diamonds and notes in the house he and his mother lives in, he buys off Nastassya for 100,000 roubles. Throughout the rest of the book, Dostoevsky pingpongs Nastassya between them. Nastassya constantly oscillates between Roghozin’s deeply passionate yet destructive love that would kill her and Myshkin’s pure, redemptive love that would free her from torment. In Part II of the novel, the relationship between the prince and Rogozhin reaches a pivotal moment as they confront their feelings for Nastassya and reach an ‘agreement.’ Rogozhin candidly reveals that Nastassya’s decision to marry him is influenced by her belief that he might kill her, despite her true love being for Myshkin. She fears marrying Myshkin would only ruin his life. As the prince prepares to leave, he picks up a knife from Rogozhin’s table and recounts a tale of a man who murdered his best friend over a trivial possession, seeking divine forgiveness post-act. This moment reveals Myshkin’s awareness of Rogozhin’s murderous intentions towards him and his own suppressed, darker thoughts of possibly killing Rogozhin. Rogozhin, perhaps aware of Myshkin’s instinct, insists that he and Myshkin exchange crosses, ultimately linking their fates. He then embraces Myshkin and says that Nastassya belongs to the prince; he gives Nastassya to Myshkin.

     Contrary to his agreement with Rogozhin, Myshkin is driven by an overwhelming urge to visit Nastassya in St. Petersburg, reassuring himself about the purity of his intentions. Yet, his inner turmoil betrays a deep-seated hostility towards Rogozhin, fueled by his own desires for Nastassya. This internal conflict mirrors Rogozhin, though Myshkin lacks the capacity to manage these emotions effectively. Despite being aware of Rogozhin’s murderous intent towards him and harboring his own dark contemplations, Myshkin fails to grasp the gravity of their situation or consider the consequences of their actions. Myshkin cannot find it in his heart to reproach Rogozhin for the attempt on his life nor the plot to murder Nastassya. The narrative culminates in tragedy, with Nastassya Filippovna’s murder at the hands of Rogozhin, who descends into madness and faces penal servitude in Siberia. Myshkin himself —unable to reproach himself for his inability to protect Nastassya leading to her death— descends into a state of unremitting idiocy. The narrative’s tragic end could have potentially been averted if the prince possessed a clearer understanding of himself and those around him. Myshkin’s inability to recognize and admit his true feelings and motivations led directly to the irreversible outcomes that befell each character.

     While I don’t believe that these interpretations of The Idiot are the fully truthful and only ways of reading and interpreting The Idiot, they are the ones that got me thinking slightly differently. I have two important takeaways. One, the ending of The Idiot is a cautionary tale on holy foolishness and blind kindness. Perhaps admirable, the pursuit of absolute kindness should be accompanied by self-awareness and a capacity to appraise people and situations accurately enough to thread one’s way safely through the world. It is impossible and naive to accept everyone and everything. As we have seen through Myshkin, there’s a level beyond which kindness is stupid, immoral, and even cruel. Two The Idiot reconciles the ideal world and the real one, affirming the shortfalls of humanity in the face of pursuing Christlike utopia. Myshkin’s anti-rationalism dooms him in the novel. He is an important reminder of the dangers of striving for and imagining life in an ideal world, rather than striving for an imagined ideal but navigating one’s way there while grounded in every day’s reality. This seems to be the way we can effectively bring change, either in ourselves or others.

Unlike in Jane Austen's works, I relate to the side characters In Dostoevsky's works who are always suffering

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  1. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, et al. The Idiot. Signet Classics, 2010.
  2. Lesser, Simon O. “Saint and Sinner – Dostoevsky’s Idiot” Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, 1958, pp. 211–24. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Mar. 2024.
  3. Kobets, Svitlana. (2011). Lice in the iron cap: Holy foolishness in perspective.
  4. Friedman, Maurice “Prince Myshkin – Idiot Saint.” CrossCurrents, vol. 13, no. 3, 1963, pp. 372–82. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Mar. 2024.