In writing about Crime and Punishment, I quoted Virginia Woolf’s criticism of Dostoyevsky’s style: “We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, the tutors of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the tops of their voices about their most private affairs.”
That quote was running through my head as I read The Idiot, as it may apply to that novel more than any other of Dostoyevsky’s writings.
When you describe a Dostoyevsky novel, it generally will sound like it contains a great deal of action. But that can be misleading. There’s typically a decent amount of action, yes, but it’s spread over 500 or 700 or 1,000 pages, where really the bulk of what’s described is stuff going on inside the characters’ heads or in the parlor rooms of the nobility, where indeed people seem unable to constrain themselves from the most emotional of shouting matches, accusations, confessions, etc.
That seems to be especially true of The Idiot. There’s a great deal of psychological speculation and of speechmaking, but it’s more the exception than the rule that anyone actually does anything.
The psychology and the verbal confrontations are well done in The Idiot, as you’d expect from Dostoyevsky, but the slowness of the plot and the scarcity of action does get a bit tiresome over the course of hundreds of pages. That keeps me from putting it at the very top of my list of favorite Dostoyevsky books, but the fascinating central character keeps it from dropping below the second tier.
That central character is Prince Myshkin.
The title “Prince” isn’t as impressive as it sounds. Some Russians who were quite low ranked in the nobility had that title based on something that had happened far back in their family history. The prince is indeed about as low ranked as you can be and still be in the nobility.
The prince is in his 20s. He has just returned from abroad (Switzerland), where he was receiving treatment of some kind—he is an epileptic, and has a childlike quality that is taken by some for some kind of mental disability.
He has no money to speak of (though he soon gets a decent-sized inheritance), but seemingly few worries about anything as mundane as that. With nowhere else to go (to quote The Odd Couple), he shows up unannounced at the home of the Yepanchin family, because he thinks they may be distantly related to him. The rest of the novel is about his interaction with this family and various people directly or indirectly connected to them.
The Yepanchins consist of a dignified old general father, an entertainingly scatterbrained and assertive mother, and three young adult daughters, the youngest of which is a great beauty named Aglaya. They are at times frustrated by and disapproving of the prince’s oddness, at times make fun of him, and at times are enamored with him.
When the prince arrives, General Yepanchin is in the midst of a certain bit of intrigue designed to help a rich friend of his named Totsky. Totsky, it seems, has gotten himself into something of a bind.
Totsky had taken pity on a young orphaned girl named Nastassya Filippovna and become her benefactor, sending her off to receive a top quality education. For years he sent her money and took care of her, but rarely saw her. When they do cross paths again, she has grown into an extraordinary beauty. Totsky allows things to drift into what is apparently a sexual involvement, though Dostoyevsky talks around it. The worshipful and grateful Nastassya Filippovna goes along with this quite willingly, though given that she is 15 or 16 when it commences, whether her consent “counts” depends on how old you think someone has to be to be able to meaningfully agree to sex.
The affair lasts a few months before the ambivalent Totsky breaks it off, though he continues to take care of her financially. Not long after that, she moves close to him and announces an intention to disrupt his life in any way she can, whether as revenge for his taking advantage of her, or as revenge for his breaking off their involvement when she was still in love with him, or some combination thereof.
In order to placate her and hopefully get her to leave him alone, Totsky attempts to buy her off with money and a potential groom—Ganya, the assistant of General Yepanchin. Ganya knows if he goes along with the plan his career will be guaranteed and he’ll be handsomely compensated, but he’s conflicted about allowing himself to be bought in that way, especially since he’s in love with Aglaya.
Nastassya Filippovna, as a result of the sometimes traumatic life she’s led, including her underage relationship with her father figure Totsky, is a tortured soul, regarded by some, including the prince, as literally insane. Her words and behavior can be erratic and irrational. She soon decides she’s not even that mad at Totsky anymore and probably won’t make more trouble for him, in part because she’s at least somewhat convinced she was indeed old enough to be responsible for her choices and deserves whatever disgrace there is in being a “kept woman.”
She has no particular interest in marrying Ganya, but she keeps that option open for as long as she can. Meanwhile she is being pursued by another young suitor named Rogozhin, who has just inherited a great deal of money. Rogozhin is one of those passionate, wild man Dostoyevsky characters—all about impulse, all about appetite, all about partying day and night—and he is madly in love with Nastassya Filippovna.
Whereas marrying Ganya would put her on the road to an at least superficially “respectable” future, Rogozhin represents to her a life of debauchery, an embrace of her “fallen” status. Her guilt inclines her toward choosing Rogozhin.
But then the prince throws his hat into the ring, announcing that he too wishes to marry Nastassya Filippovna. He’s basically asexual, so he doesn’t react to her as a highly desirable being the way most men would, but he also certainly doesn’t condemn her in some morally judgmental way as many people in society do. He sees her as someone suffering terribly and he wants to marry her to devote his life to “saving” her.
Nastassya Filippovna goes back and forth multiple times between Rogozhin and the prince—Ganya has seemingly dropped to a distant third as a prospect—never quite making that final step of marrying either of them. She is reluctant to choose the prince, because she’s convinced marrying “damaged goods” like herself would only destroy him and his reputation, and she sees him as a simple but good person that she doesn’t want to harm.
Partly through the manipulation of Nastassya Filippovna, who wants him to be happy and have a chance at a normal life rather than be weighed down by her, the prince marrying Aglaya becomes a realistic possibility. The prince isn’t any more interested in Aglaya in a sexual or romantic way than he is in Nastassya Filippovna, but he’s at least open to marrying her as he’s come to admire her greatly (for some reason—she sounds like the kind of immature, flighty, inconsistent type that you can convince yourself is deep and intriguing only if you’re hot for her). She gives constant mixed signals about her feelings about such a prospect.
There are plenty of other characters who move in and out of the story—some quite entertaining (mostly as rogues) and some not so much—but mostly it’s about how these young people are or aren’t going to couple up, whether the unstable and damaged ones among them will do something crazy or violent, and whether the prince’s extraordinary good-heartedness and benevolence toward all can somehow forestall anything too disastrous.
Reading The Idiot, I find that what I’m most focused on is trying to figure out just what sort of person the prince is.
He’s the “idiot” of the title, but I take it that’s not a very exact translation from Russian. He’s not intended to be an “idiot” in the common sense of an extremely stupid person.
I suppose he’s closer to the “holy fool” type, but he doesn’t fit that perfectly either, at least as I understand the term. I think of a “holy fool” as being saintly, and either a simpleton or at least withdrawn from the world in some significant sense. But, again, the prince isn’t particularly unintelligent, and he’s not off in some monastery or drifting through the story with an oblivious grin refraining from engaging with others because he’s perpetually contemplating Christ or whatever.
He’s closer to a “holy fool” than to an “idiot,” but I don’t think the former term fully captures him.
I think the prince is someone who is at least reasonably intelligent, but who doesn’t strike people that way at first because he hasn’t focused that intelligence in the pragmatic way that almost all “normal” people have.
His focus is on moral matters, but not so much in the sense of abstract piety or otherworldly spirituality as in the sense of applied ethics. He cares deeply about the choices that real flesh and blood people make, and how they make each other happy or miserable. Related to that, he is very sensitive to others, and very psychologically insightful into them.
He doesn’t notice or respond to a lot of things that most people do, but he notices, and concerns himself with, the good and bad people do and the way they suffer.
He is sincere to an extreme, and doesn’t play games or say things he doesn’t mean, but he picks up on the games other people are playing. He sees through all that to what is good about the person, or what would be good about them if they could understand their potential as he does.
He has almost no ego; he invariably takes it in good spirits when people laugh at him, and laughs along with them at his folly.
He is childlike, as people often note about him, and he spots and admires childlike qualities when he sees them in others.
His nature, indeed, puts him very much in tune with children. I appreciated one passage in particular where he manifests certain values that very much reflect my own when it comes to kids:
I’ve always been struck by how poorly grown-ups know children, how poorly even mothers and fathers know their own children. Nothing should be hidden from children on the pretext that they are little and it’s too soon for them to know. What a sad and unfortunate idea! And how quick the children notice it when their fathers consider them too little to understand anything, while they in fact understand everything. Grown-ups don’t realize that a child can give extremely serious advice even about difficult matters. My Lord, when that pretty little bird of a child looks at you, so happy and confiding, aren’t you ashamed to deceive it?
He’s an extremely likable guy, because there’s such a basic goodness and decency about him. Some of the characters might have some ambivalence about how well suited he is for certain roles—like whether you’d want him marrying into your family—but almost everyone in the book gravitates to him as someone who will care about them and see the good in them.
In spite of consistently seeing things from a moral point of view, he doesn’t come across as holier than thou. He doesn’t have that unflappable serenity that one might expect in a saint. He has plenty of self-doubt, often lacks confidence, and can be indecisive.
Indeed, there’s a sense that the gap between what the adult world could be and what people have in fact made of it saddens him enough that it may overwhelm him. He feels others’ pain, maybe too much.
The prince is one of Dostoyevsky’s most memorable characters, and while I didn’t love The Idiot as much as some of Dostoyevsky’s works, I appreciated getting to know the prince and trying to understand him (which I’ve managed to do only partly).