Literature

Literary Summary: Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is another great work by one of Russia’s preeminent authors. The work draws on the Russian folklore archetype of the holy fool, a trope also found in Christianity. Prince Myshkin is the holy fool.

Returning to Russia after having been away in Switzerland for many years battling epilepsy, Myshkin’s appearance acts as a literary device for the incarnation of the holy fool: Jesus Christ (again, a trope found in Christian literature—see Tertullian or Erasmus, for example; even Saint Paul and the “foolishness of Christ.”). His appearance causes a change in Russia. Terrible sinners, mostly aristocrats, but not exclusively so, begin to confess their crimes. Myskin’s presence offers them, through his foolish aloofness and kindness, a path out of their sins.

Myshkin falls in love with a harlot woman, Nastasya. Nastasya was a concubine to an aristocrat since 16 and is now a sexually profligate young woman despite her radiant beauty. She craves love but doesn’t know love. Rogózhin, a member of the new moneyed merchant class, lusts after her.

Within The Idiot, Dostoevsky includes a lot of class commentary: the aristocrats are sinful in their pride and power and must be brought low in humility for redemption. The new moneyed merchant class, though not prideful, often fall prey to lust and use their money to acquire their dark desires (per Rogózhin). The poor, represented by Nastasya, though guilty of their own sins, so to speak, are nevertheless deserving our sympathy.

Myshkin takes foolish sympathy to Nastasya. He offers her every chance to escape her hell with him. There is no rhyme or reason, no “rationality” to Myshkin’s love of Nastasya. Nastasya initially refuses marriage (read the symbolism of Christ marrying the Bride/Church). He persists. He gives her more chances to be redeemed. She eventually accepts but then abandons Myshkin on the altar and flees with Rogózhin whose lusts eventually kill her. Nastasya is killed by a knife through the heart: symbolizing the death of the heart by lust.

The Idiot is Dostoevsky’s great work on how foolish kindness is a path to redemption. This is not contradictory to his suffering as the path to redemption in Crime and Punishment. There are different paths to redemption. In The Idiot, Dostoevsky offers the view of how foolish compassion (embodied by Myshkin) is available for our redemption if we accept it. If we do not, however, we will end up like Nastasya.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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