Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

My Dostoevsky infatuation continues, this time with the second of his major novels, written while he was on the run from creditors, living in Switzerland with his second wife. The Idiot is the only one of Dostoevsky’s novels written while he was abroad, and perhaps the least fully planned out: it was published serially in a Russian periodical, between 1868 and 1869, and much of its structure – subplots that go nowhere, or that ultimately seem utterly superfluous to the main storyline – testifies to the urgency with which Dostoevsky dashed off whole sections of the book. But if its narrative structure is uncharacteristically chaotic, its thematic substructure derives from ideas Dostoevsky spent decades fleshing out. Having already described the psychology of human guilt in Crime And Punishment, Dostoevsky tacked in the opposite direction, choosing to portray an entirely innocent man – “a positively beautiful man,” as he famously put it in a letter to a friend – and how such a man would be received in the Russia of his time.

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin is Dostoevsky’s protagonist, a kind of holy fool – hence the title – only lately returned to Russia from Switzerland after undergoing treatment for epilepsy. His name itself, as our translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky inform us, is something of a contradiction, “compounded of “lion” (lev) and “mouse” (mysh),” and we witness early on the confusing impact he has on Russian society. He arrives in Saint Petersburg penniless, but nonetheless descended of nobility, and the combination of his candour and innocence, as well as the forthrightness with which he speaks about his illness and his penury, lead most of the book’s characters to misjudge him as an “idiot,” a simpleton. In the opening scene, for example, on a train carriage towards Saint Petersburg, Myshkin strikes up a conversation with two young men around his age, one of whom is boasting about an inheritance he is about to receive, when the conversation turns to the topic most discussed between young men, then and now: “And are you a great fancier of the female sex, Prince? Tell me beforehand!” The prince’s reply instantly marks him as an oddball: “N-n-no! I’m … maybe you don’t know, but because of my inborn illness, I don’t know women at all.” Men with even a minimum of social savvy know better than to confess any deficiency regarding the fairer sex, but the prince is utterly without guile. In the very next scene, he calls upon General Epanchin, whose wife he is distantly related to, in the hopes of finding employment, but he is made to wait in the drawing room, where he commits the first – and mildest – of his many social faux pas, by engaging their servant in an extended conversation.

It would seem that the prince’s conversation was the most simple; but the simpler it was, the more absurd it became in the present case, and the experienced valet could not help feeling something that was perfectly proper between servant and servant, but perfectly improper between a guest and a servant. And since servants are much more intelligent than their masters commonly think, it occurred to the valet that there was one of two things here: either the prince was some sort of moocher and had certainly come to beg for money, or the prince was simply a little fool and had no ambitions, because a clever prince with ambitions would not have sat in the anteroom and discussed his affairs with a lackey […].

Every character the prince encounters will have a similar reaction, and most reach the same conclusion this servant does: that the prince is mentally deficient in some way. But of course a third possibility exists, impossible though it may be for the servant to envision it: that the prince has no ulterior motives, that he presents himself as he is, and that the social laws that necessitate dividing people into classes – servant and master, say – are alien or even repugnant to him.

However, two characters – both, as it happens, beautiful young women –have a positive reaction to the prince, glimpsing something of his nobility of spirit. They are Aglaya Ivanovna, the youngest daughter of the aforementioned General Epanchin, and one of the most desired of St. Petersburg’s marriageable young women, and Nastasya Filippovna, reputedly even more beautiful than Aglaya, but a “fallen woman” in the eyes of society. Nastasya was orphaned at the age of 7 and subsequently groomed and sexually abused by her guardian from the age of 16, and it is this reputation as having been disgraced, together with her volatile temper, that mark her as a pariah to the wider Russian society. Both women are attracted to the prince’s innocence, and much of the plot’s momentum derives from the push-pull love triangle emerging between them, but it should be said that this is not a love story in the traditional, romantic sense. The prince is hopelessly innocent, and therefore utterly devoid of sexual charisma – in this, he is the very antithesis of the Byronic hero, whose overwhelming passions make him irresistible to women. Dostoevsky’s innocent man confounds not only Russian society but Russian women.

If, in plot, The Idiot resembles a love story, its thematic quarry is far darker, for this book functions as an extended meditation on human mortality, and it seems to me as serious and full a treatment of this subject as Hamlet. Admirers of Dostoevsky well know that the most consequential event of his life came in December of 1849, when he was hauled before a firing squad on charges of treason and sedition, and literally made to face his impending death. At the last possible moment, after he had hugged his co-conspirators and mentally prepared himself to face his doom, the executioners’ hands were stayed, and his life was restored to him. Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky’s most autobiographical character, recounts to us a thought he had while watching the execution of a man in France. “It’s a good thing there’s not much suffering,” his interlocutor observes, in reference to the use of the guillotine, to which the Prince replies, in a passage that can only have been written from the most hard-won personal experience:

You know what? You’ve just observed that, and everybody makes the same observation as you, and this machine, the guillotine, was invented for that. But a thought occurred to me then: what if it’s even worse? To you it seems ridiculous, to you it seems wild, but with some imagination even a thought like that can pop into your head. Think: if there’s torture, for instance, then there’s suffering, wounds, bodily pain, and it means that all that distracts you from inner torment, so that you only suffer from the wounds until you die. And yet the chief, the strongest pain may not be in the wounds, but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second – your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man, and it’s for certain – the main thing is that it’s for certain. […] A man killed by robbers, stabbed at night, in the forest or however, certainly still hopes he’ll be saved till the very last minute. There have been examples when a man’s throat has already been cut, and he still hopes, or flees, or pleads. But here all this last hope, which makes it ten times easier to die, is taken away for certain; here there’s the sentence, and the whole torment lies in the certainty that there’s no escape, and there’s no greater torment in the world than that. Take a soldier, put him right in front of a cannon during a battle, and shoot at him, and he’ll still keep hoping, but read that same soldier a sentence for certain, and he’ll lose his mind or start weeping. Who ever said human nature could bear it without going mad?

This passage occurs so early on in the novel, and seemingly out of nowhere, that an inattentive reader might underestimate its thematic importance, but make no mistake: this is Dostoevsky laying out the stakes, not only for the condemned man, who has the sentence read to him, but for all of us, though we live and breathe, for we too are sentenced to die.

One poor character, the consumptive young man Ippolit, has been sentenced to die, told by his doctors that the tuberculosis ravaging his body will kill him in a period of weeks or perhaps months, and Dostoevsky’s psychological portrait of this man – fearful of death, bitter and resentful of his fate, and determined to exercise his own free will by taking his life before the disease can kill him – seems to me as nuanced and accurate a study of nihilism as I have yet encountered. At a party, in full hearing of his friends, he announces his intention to take his own life, and masterfully preempts their objections:

First of all, there is a strange thought here: who, in the name of what right, in the name of what motive, would now take it into his head to dispute my right to these two or three weeks of my term? What court has any business here? Who precisely needs that I should not only be sentenced, but should graciously keep to the term of sentence? If, in the bloom of health and strength, I were to make an attempt on my life, which “could be useful to my neighbor,” and so on, then I could understand that morality might reproach me, out of old habit, for having dealt with my life arbitrarily, or whatever. But now, now, when the term of the sentence has been read out to me? What sort of morality needs, on top of your life, also your last gasp, with which you give up the last atom of life, listening to the consolations of the prince, who is bound to go as far in his Christian reasoning as the happy thought that, essentially, it’s even better that you’re dying. (Christians like him always get to that idea: it’s their favorite hobbyhorse.) […] What do I need your nature for, your Pavlosk park, your sunrises and sunsets, your blue sky, and your all-contented faces, when this whole banquet, which has no end, began by counting me alone as superfluous?

This, in miniature, is the argument made in favor of the “right to die,” of euthanasia, and note how, then and now, it is Christianity – “Christian reasoning” – that provides the sole opposition, insisting that your life is not yours to give. “If it had been in my power not to be born,” Ippolit shouts, “I probably would not have accepted existence on such derisive conditions. But I still have the power to die, though I’m giving back what’s already numbered. No great power, no great rebellion either.” This is Hamlet’s spite, and the spite of everyone who takes their own life, or contemplates doing so, and who can blame them?

Against Ippolit’s moral reasoning, against his dreaded nihilism and the death sentence that mocks his life, Dostoevsky raises a distinctly Christian banner. Again and again throughout the novel, various characters will allude to a famous painting, The Body of the Dead Christ by Hans Holbein, depicting Christ in the tomb, in horrifying detail:

Lifeless eyes, necrotizing flesh, and the horrible suffering evident in his facial expression testify not to Christ’s immortality or the imminence of his resurrection, but the fearful possibility that he was indeed mortal, that his death – and therefore his sacrifice – were for nought. Dostoevsky himself saw the painting and found it a profound challenge to his faith. Ippolit concurs: “It is as though this painting were the means by which this idea of a dark, brazen and senseless eternal force, to which everything is subordinate, is expressed…” That force, of course, is death, and we may pause here to recall your attention to the earlier passage about the condemned man, for if Christ is indeed dead, then he was executed, and faced the same dreadful dilemma as Ippolit and Dostoevsky. “A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” says the prince. At the novel’s conclusion, the prince will be brought literally face to face with death, forced to confront the “senseless eternal force” head on, and the encounter deprives him not of his faith but of his sanity.

In Dostoevsky’s first sincere effort at tackling nihilism, and at giving it its fullest representation, he leaves us in doubt. The Idiot, Richard Pevear tells us, is built on an “eschatological sense of time,” the “desolate time of Holy Saturday, when Christ is buried, the disciples are scattered and – worse than that – abandoned.” Dostoevsky cannot, at this stage of his artistic, moral and spiritual evolution, offer us hope or reassurance or even consolation. Instead he evokes for us the nullifying power of the void, takes us into the nihilistic abyss itself, and forces us to confront what we spend our lives denying. In this respect, he is like the hangman or the executioner, demonstrating how precious life is by way of a death sentence.