The Last of the Myshkins: The Idiot, the Author, and the Read-Along

While most of my posts for #thelastofthemyshkins will be on my Instagram, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write a little bit more about The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s aim for the novel, and how I’m going to approach my second read of my second-favor novel. After all, there’s only so much that a social media post can hold (literally and figuratively).

I rarely, if ever, read introductions or afterwards: I prefer to form my own judgment about a story, and then usually—unfortunately—forget to go back and read those sections once I’ve finished. Thus, in case others are like me and to avoid too much hypocrisy, this post is going to be more of a quick orientation. And, in my opinion, the best way to get a feel for a story and what you should expect from it is to see what the author has (or had) to say.

The Idiot is dedicated to Sofia Alexandrovna, Dostoyevsky’s niece, and in a letter to her from January [13], 1868, he describes his aims for the novel and, more specifically, its central figure (emphasis added by me):

 “…The idea of the book is the old one which I always have so greatly liked; but it is so difficult that hitherto I never have had the courage to carry it out…The basic idea 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, not ours alone but foreigners also, who have sought to represent Absolute Beauty, were unequal to the task, for it is an infinitely difficult one. The beautiful is the ideal…There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ. That infinitely lovely figure is, as a matter of course, an infinite marvel (the whole Gospel of St. John is full of this thought: John sees the wonder of the Incarnation, the visible apparition of the Beautiful). I have gone too far in my explanation. I will only say further that of all the noble figures in Christian literature, I reckon Don Quixote as the most perfect. But Don Quixote is noble only by being at the same time comic. And Dickens’s Pickwickians (they were certainly much weaker than Don Quixote, but still it’s a powerful work) are comic, and this it is which gives them their great value. The reader feels sympathy and compassion with the Beautiful, derided and un-conscious of its own worth. The secret of humour consists precisely in this art of wakening the reader’s sympathy…I have not yet found anything similar to that, any-thing so positive, and therefore I fear that the book may be a “positive” failure. Single details will perhaps come out not badly. But I fear that the novel may be tiresome. It is to be very extensive…The novel is called ‘The Idiot,’ and is dedicated to you, Sofia Alexandrovna. My dear, I wish that the book may turn out worthy of that dedication.” 1

To summarize it in my own words, Dostoyevsky’s aim for The Idiot was to create a character who was perfect, beautiful (Christ-like), and noble (while being comic at the same time). This is such an interesting premise, isn’t it? I’ve never heard anyone describe Christ Himself as comic (and I wouldn’t, either), and yet the concept of others being unaware of the Beauty before them and even mocking it because they perceive it as something undesirable is true of Christ. The question, then, is how does that translate into metaphor and themes in literature? Having read The Idiot once already, I know how Dostoyevsky answered—but for those who are new to the story, keep this quote in mind as you progress through the story.

But that isn’t all that’s important to note about Dostoyevsky’s aims—in fact, I think it’s incredibly important to understand his views about Christianity in order to understand the “type” of Christ-like figure he wanted the Prince to be. First, Dostoyevsky was Eastern (Russian) Orthodox, a “branch” of Christian tradition that dates back to the early A.D. centuries. Many Westerners will see its similarities to Roman Catholicism due to the ornate churches, priests, orders of monks and nuns, prayers (including to saints), confession, sacraments, and iconography—and, to give a very generic overview of Church history, the Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodox were in communion with each other prior to a schism in the 11th century—but there are several theological differences between the two branches, including the doctrine of Original Sin, the role of the Pope/church structure, allowance for priests to marry, specific views of Mary (the mother of Jesus), and even the role of mysticism vs. rationality. Since this isn’t a theological post, I’ll leave it at that. What’s important to note is that Dostoyevsky was very anti-Catholic (and wasn’t too kind toward Lutheranism/Protestantism, either), and his criticisms of Catholicism were often interwoven into his criticisms (and dislike_ of Western Europe generally. Here are a few quotes from his letters to illustrate (emphasis added by me):

“…I am not quite sure that Danilevsky will dwell with sufficient emphasis upon what is the inmost essence, and the ultimate destiny, of the Russian nation: namely, that Russia must reveal to the world her own Russian Christ, whom as yet the -peoples know not, and who is rooted in our native Orthodox faith. There lies, as I believe, the inmost essence of our vast impending contribution to civilization, whereby we shall awaken the European peoples; there lies the inmost core of our exuberant and intense existence that is to be…Men write and write, and overlook the principal point. In Western Europe the peoples have lost Christ (Catholicism is to blame), and therefore Western Europe is tottering to its fall…” 1

“…(In Germany I was above all struck by the stupidity of the people: they are infinitely stupid, they are immeasurably stupid.) Yet with us — even Nicolay Nicolayevich Strahov, a man of high intellect, even he does not want to understand the truth: The Germans,’ he says, ‘ have invented gun-powder.’ But it is their life that settled it for them! And we at that very time were forming ourselves into a great nation, we checked Asia for ever, we bore an infinity of sufferings, we managed to endure it all, we did not lose our Russian idea, which will renew the world, but we strengthened it; finally, we endured the German, and yet after all our people is immeasurably higher, nobler, more honest, more naive, abler; full of a different idea, the highest Christian idea, which is not even understood by Europe with her moribund Catholicism and her stupidly self-contradictory Lutheranism.2

“…there is laid down the idea not only of a great state, but of a whole new world, which is destined to renew Christianity by the pan-Slav, pan-Orthodox idea and to introduce a new idea to mankind. Then comes the disintegration of the West, a disintegration which will occur when the Pope distorts Christ finally and thereby begets atheism in the defiled humanity of the West…” 2

This last quote, I think, summarizes his ideas best—and speaks to his thematic intentions in regards to The Idiot:

The whole destiny of Russia lies in Orthodoxy, in the light from the East, which will suddenly shine forth to Western humanity, which has become blinded and has lost Christ. The cause of the whole misfortune of Europe, everything, everything without excep-tion, has been that they gained the Church of Rome and lost Christ, and then they decided that they would do without Christ.” 2

Whether I or you or anyone agrees with his vehemence against Western Europe and Catholicism, it’s important to keep in mind the author’s beliefs as you read through The Idiot. I’d read The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and a collection of his letters before I first read TI, and so I already knew how his views of Christianity would influence the set-up of characters and plot events. Dostoyevsky often has his characters serve doubly: first as individuals, and secondly as embodiment of ideals or parts of Russian (or European) society. The influence of Western Europe in Russian was of great importance to him, which you’ll see as you read. Keep this in mind and ask yourself “what sort of Christ or Christianity is Prince Myshkin embodying?” as you go along. In fact, try to deduce what all of the characters represent—as mentioned in my read-along announcement, TI is rich with layers of meaning for us to discover.

So, with these things in mind, how am I going to approach the read-along? If you couldn’t guess already, my main focus is going to be theme and symbolism. What do each of the characters represent, and what do their interactions and ultimate fates say about Dostoyevsky’s views of the society in which he lived? What was he criticizing and what was he praising? How do those things relate to Christianity? What other topics are interwoven into the story (I’ll give you a hint—pay attention to the idea of materialism vs. spirituality)? How are things like setting used to further the theme(s)? What can we glean from the story in the 21st century?

However, if you aren’t so inclined toward themes, there’s still so much character analysis and even plot analysis for you to engage in as you read. What do you think of the main characters and their choices? Do you find them sympathetic, confusing, annoying, amusing? Do you think the Prince is a good Christ figure in the story? Some have described the plot of The Idiot as being chaotic; others have described it as dragging on for long periods of time. Would you agree? Could such sections have been a deliberate choice, or perhaps influenced by other factors (a very interesting research topic, if you’re inclined—looked up Dostoyevsky’s life at the time he wrote TI)? What are the story’s strengths and what are its weaknesses? Regardless of your approach, I’m eager to hear your thoughts as we go along! Here’s to a wonderful read-along.

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