Literary Criticism Essays For Idiots

The Idiot Fyodor Dostoevsky

The following entry presents criticism of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot (1868). See also Dostoevsky Short Story Criticism and Notes from the Underground Criticism.

In The Idiot Dostoevsky attempted to portray what he termed a “positively good man” in the character of Prince Myshkin. Endowed with Christ-like spiritual attributes and professing a childlike, innocent belief in the possibility of achieving heaven on earth, Myshkin obliviously enters a Russian society corroded by avariciousness, moral corruption, and spiritual desolation. The ensuing action presents a starkly apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of how inconsequential goodness and humility are in the midst of a society on the verge of moral and spiritual disintegration. Despite Dostoevsky's best literary intentions, The Idiot has been faulted by many critics for its undeveloped characters, its artificial plot structure, and its bitter polemicism.

Biographical Information

Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot between 1867 and 1868, at a time when he endured dire financial and emotional difficulties. In an effort to avoid his numerous creditors, Dostoevsky and his wife fled Russia and traveled from city to city in Europe, trying to eke out a humble living. During this gloomy period of poverty, the author suffered a number of serious bouts of epilepsy, which left him in a fragile emotional and physical condition. Some critics and biographers have speculated that Dostoevsky endowed Myshkin with epilepsy in an almost cathartic attempt to come to terms with the circumstances of his own condition. Dostoevsky also continued to succumb to his obsession with gambling, which left him desperate and penniless. Asa result, Dostoevsky realized that he needed to produce a work that would lift him out of debt and change his family's fortunes. To that end, he began work on a novel which he had promised the journal Russian Messenger. When The Idiot appeared in serial form beginning in 1868, readers responded with bewilderment to what they considered to be incomplete characters, an incoherent narrative structure, and a fantastical, unrealistic setting. Given the initial reticence of the periodical subscribers, publishers were reluctant to purchase the book rights to the novel. Indeed, readers and commentators alike considered The Idiot a step backward for Dostoevsky after the resounding popular success of his previous novel, Crime and Punishment (1867).

Plot and Major Characters

The Idiot begins with the meeting of Prince Myshkin and Parfen Rogozhin on a train traveling from Switzerland to St. Petersburg. Myshkin had been receiving treatment for epilepsy in a Swiss sanatorium, and now was on his way to visit his distant relatives, the Epanchins, in Russia. At first, Myshkin is welcomed into the upper-class society as something of a curiosity, a penniless and childlike character upon whom the cynical group focuses with amusement. Almost immediately upon arriving, Myshkin makes clear his dream to influence all of his acquaintances on the merits of living a life of honesty and humility. Little does he know that the group he intends to influence includes Rogozhin, a sinister and jealous predator, who is Myshkin's alter-ego; Ganya Ivolgin, General Epanchin's greedy and ruthless secretary, who will consider any means to amass personal wealth; Ippolit Terentev, a terminally ill intellectual who arrogantly flouts Myshkin's naïve spirituality; and Nastasya Filippovna, a haughty and beautiful woman who, as a young girl, was seduced by her guardian, Afanasii Totsky, and who now schemes to exact revenge on him. Despite his good intentions, Myshkin succeeds in embarrassing and offending nearly everyone with whom he comes in contact, but his presence, however awkward, becomes tolerated when he receives a sizable inheritance from a distant relative. Myshkin's naïve, oblivious actions set into motion a number of events which culminate in the novel's tragic conclusion. Through his platonic admiration of Nastasya Filoppovna, Myshkin unwittingly makes himself a rival for her hand in marriage, sending her other suitor, Rogozhin, into a jealous rage. Rogozhin's fury leads to the attempted murder of Myshkin and, later, the murder of Filippovna herself in the climax of the novel. Myshkin's actions also affect the lives of other characters, such as Aglaya Epanchin, the general's daughter, with whom Myshkin has a budding romantic relationship, and Ivolgin, who has designs on Aglaya for himself. In the tragic conclusion, the chaos and social disintegration of the Russian society finally overwhelms Myshkin's innocent idealism. Ippolit has died, Filippovna has been murdered, Rogozhin has been incarcerated, Aglaya runs away from Russia, and Myshkin regresses into a state of childlike idiocy.

Major Themes

The central theme of The Idiot revolves around the main character, Prince Myshkin. Dostoevsky represents him as a young man whose emotional and intellectual development has been arrested by the circumstances surrounding his illness. Although physically he is a man, he has the innocent personality of a child. In this regard, Myshkin represents a Christ-like figure, a character of innate goodness, who believes that humility and brotherly love can transform the earth into a kind of heaven where all humankind can live in harmony. However, Myshkin's innate goodness contends with an overpowering antithesis in the form of the morally and spiritually corrosive Russian aristocracy with whom he associates. Here, Dostoevsky carefully contrives an elaborate allegorical structure to accentuate the conflict between Myshkin and his acquaintances. The author employs a vast array of images, proper names, geographic places, physical descriptions, and biblical references to evoke moral decay, social chaos, and a pessimistic vision of the current spiritual state of Russia. Further, this spiritual decline signals an apocalyptic omen for Dostoevsky, and he integrates this idea into the fabric of his story as well. The characters' hysterical preoccupations with amassing wealth, sexual conquest, intellectual egotism, and power all reflect the author's fatalistic belief that the Russian civilization was on the verge of a moral and spiritual collapse which could very likely herald the Apocalypse prophesied in the Book of Revelations. The fact that Myshkin ultimately succumbs to the vortex of deceit and spiritual destruction that surrounds him reflects Dostoevsky's bleak conclusion that there is no hope of reversing the encroaching moral decay in contemporary Russia.

Critical Reception

From the time of the publication of The Idiot, readers and commentators alike have been highly dissatisfied with what they perceive as loosely drawn characters, an incoherent narrative, and an artificial structural unity in the work. It has been suggested that these issues perhaps reflect the difficult circumstances under which Dostoevsky wrote his novel. Literary scholars have combed Dostoevsky's letters and notebooks in an effort to determine why a novel of such promising scope and intention ended up as such an artistic failure. Indeed, in recent decades many critics have attempted to salvage the literary merits of The Idiot, arguing that while the novel might be structurally deficient, it is also rich in esoteric spiritual and philosophical insights. In fact, one critic, Robert Hollander (1974) has perceptively argued that Dostoevsky ingeniously integrated the apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelations into the structural framework of The Idiot to unify the characters and narrative action of the novel. Other critics have analyzed the etymological significance of the characters' names as well as geographic places and iconographic images to demonstrate how Dostoevsky employed biblical allusions to underscore the major themes and symbols in the novel. Commentators have also focused on the character of Prince Myshkin, debating the success or failure of Dostoevsky's attempt at creating a “positively good man.” While some commentators have asserted that the author set himself up for a nearly impossible task and, as a result, created an implausible and unrealistic character, others have maintained that the author endowed Myshkin with a sophisticated combination of ethereal spiritual attributes and inescapable human flaws which make him a compelling and ultimately tragic figure. Indeed, critics such as Janet G. Tucker (1997) have argued that the time has come to move beyond the simplistic view that Myshkin is merely a one-dimensional, Christ-like character. According to Tucker, “considering Myshkin solely or even primarily in these terms strips both the hero and novel of significant gradations of complexity crucial to understanding both.”

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