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Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Idiot (1868)

 

By Vladimir Nabokov

In The Idiot we have the Dostoevskian positive type. He is Prince Myshkin, endowed with the kindness and the capacity to forgive possessed before him by Christ alone. Myshkin is sensitive to a weird degree: he feels everything that is going on inside other people, even when these people are miles away. Such is his great spiritual wisdom, his sympathy and understanding for the sufferings of others. Prince Myshkin is purity itself, sincerity, frankness; and these qualities inevitably bring him into painful conflicts with our conventional artificial world. He is loved by everyone who knows him; his wouldbe murderer Rogozhin, who is passionately in love with the heroine Nastasya Filipovna, and is jealous of Myshkin, winds up with admitting Myshkin into the house where he has just murdered Nastasya, and seeks under the protection of Myshkin’s spiritual purity to reconcile himself to life and to appease the storm of passions in his own soul. Yet Myshkin is also a half-imbecile. Since his early childhood he has been a backward child, unable to speak until he was six, a victim of epilepsy, constantly threatened with complete degeneration of the brain unless he leads a quiet relaxed life. (Degeneration of the brain eventually overtakes him in the wake of the events described in the novel.)

Unfit to marry anyway, as the author takes care to make clear, Myshkin is nevertheless torn between two women. One is Aglaia, the innocently pure, beautiful, sincere young girl, unreconciled to the world or rather to her lot as daughter of a wealthy family destined to marry a successful and attractive young man and “live happily ever after.” What exactly it is that Aglaia wants, she does not know herself; but she is supposed to be different from her sisters and family, “crazy” in the benevolent Dostoevskian sense of the word (he very much prefers crazy people to the normal ones), in a word a personality with a “quest” of her own, thus with a God’s spark in her soul. Myshkin (and to a certain extent Aglaia’s mother) are the only people who understand her; while her intuitive and naive mother is only worried by her daughter’s unusualness, Myshkin feels with Aglaia the hidden anxiety of her soul. With the obscure urge to save and protect her by blazing for her a spiritual path in life, Myshkin agrees to Aglaia’s desire to marry him. But then the complication begins: there is also in the book the demoniac, proud, wretched, betrayed, mysterious, adorable, and, in spite of her degradation, incorruptibly pure Nastasya Filipovna, one of those completely unacceptable, unreal, irritating characters with which Dostoevski’s novels teem. This abstract woman indulges in the superlative type of feeling: there are no limits either to her kindliness or to her wickedness. She is the victim of an elderly playboy who, after having made her his mistress and enjoyed her company for several years, has decided to marry a decent woman. He blandly decides to marry Nastasya Filipovna off to his secretary.

All the men around Nastasya know that at bottom she is a decent girl herself; her lover is alone to blame for her irregular position. This does not prevent her fiance (who is by the way very much in love with her) from despising her as a “fallen” woman and Aglaia’s family from being profoundly shocked when they discover that Aglaia has established some clandestine communication with Nastasya. In fact, it does not prevent Nastasya from despising herself for her

“degradation” and from deciding to take it out on herself by turning into an actual “kept woman.” Myshkin alone, like Christ, sees no fault in Nastasya for what is happening to her and redeems her with his profound admiration and respect. (Here again is a hidden paraphrase of the story of Christ and of the fallen woman.) At this point I shall quote a very apt remark by Mirsky about Dostoevski: “His Christianity … is of a very doubtful kind. … It was a more or less superficial spiritual formation which it is dangerous to identify with real Christianity.” If we add to this that he kept throwing his weight about as a true interpreter of Orthodox Christianity, and that for the untying of every psychological or psychopathic knot he inevitably leads us to Christ, or rather to his own interpretation of Christ, and to the holy Orthodox Church, we shall better understand the truly irritating side of Dostoevski as “philosopher.”

But to come back to the story. Myshkin at once realizes that of the two women who claim him, Nastasya needs him more, being the more unfortunate. So he quietly leaves Aglaia to save Nastasya. Then Nastasya and he try to outdo each other in generosity, she trying desperately to release him in order that he can be happy with Aglaia, he not releasing her so that she would not “perish” (a favorite word of Dostoevski’s). But when Aglaia upsets the apple cart by deliberately insulting Nastasya in her own house (going there on purpose), Nastasya sees no further reason for sacrificing herself for her rival’s sake and decides to carry off Myshkin to Moscow. At the last moment the hysterical woman changes her mind again, feeling incapable of allowing him to “perish” through her, and runs away, almost from the very altar, with Rogozhin, a young merchant who squanders upon her the inheritance to which he has just succeeded. Myshkin follows them to Moscow. The next period of their life and doings is cunningly covered with a veil of mystery. Dostoevski never betrays to the reader what exactly happened in Moscow, only keeps dropping here and there significant and mysterious hints. Some great spiritual sufferings are endured by both men because of Nastasya, who is growing more and more insane, and Rogozhin becomes Myshkin’s brother in Christ by exchanging crosses with him. We are given to understand that he does this to save himself from the temptation of murdering Myshkin out of jealousy.

Well, eventually Rogozhin, being the most normal of the three, cannot bear it any longer and kills Nastasya. Dostoevski furnishes him with extenuating circumstances: Rogozhin while committing his crime was running a high fever. He spends some time in a hospital and then is sentenced to Siberia, that storeroom for Dostoevski’s discarded waxworks. Myshkin, after spending the night in the company of Rogozhin by the side of the murdered Nastasya, suffers a final relapse into insanity and returns to the asylum in Switzerland where he had spent his youth and where he ought to have stayed all along. All this crazy hash is interspersed with dialogues destined to depict the respective points of view of different circles of society upon such questions as capital punishment or the great mission of the Russian nation. The characters never say anything without either paling, or flushing, or staggering on their feet. The religious aspects are nauseating in their tastelessness. The author relies completely on definitions without bothering to support them with proofs: e.g., Nastasya, who is, we are told, a paragon of reserve and distinction and refinement of manner, behaves occasionally like a furious badtempered hussy.

But the plot itself is ably developed with many ingenious devices used to prolong the suspense. Some of these devices appear to me, when compared to Tolstoy’s methods, like blows of a club instead of the light touch of an artist’s fingers, but there are many critics who would not agree with this view.

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