The Idiot: A Story on the Insufficiency of Love
A Brief Analysis of The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
The Idiot in the book refers to Prince Myschkin, an epileptic orphan who returns to Russia in his mid-twenties after spending years in the mountains in Switzerland where a doctor had been attempting to cure him of his epilepsy. The opening of the book is precipitated by the Prince's return to Russia, where we find out in the course of the book that he has inherited a substantial fortune from a distant relative. In calling upon another distant relative, Lizaveta Yepanchin, he becomes embroiled in the drama of Saint Petersburg society.
The principle device that drives the plot, however, is the character of the Prince himself. He is repeatedly called an idiot by other characters in the book because of his innocence, naivit, and guileless good nature. He speaks his mind, he takes other people at their word, he sees the best in people, and he acts in a spirit of trust even towards those who have repeatedly broken that trust. Dostoyevsky imagined the Prince, as a character, as a man who by nature embodies the Christian ideals of love. In the book, he correspondingly exerts a powerful force on those around him. He attracts through curiosity, of course, but he also acts as a mirror for the qualities of the other characters. They either seek to support him or to take advantage of his "idiocy". Events, crises, and resolutions constellate around him.
This overlaps with the other driving force behind the plot. A bewitchingly beautiful, enigmatic, and seductive woman - Nastasya Filipovna - is also constellating forces and characters around her as she is set to decide who she will marry. In a very real sense, Filipovna is a devouress - able to manipulate and drive men to desperate and mad acts. Competing for her attentions are several other characters in the book, including the hostile brother/shadow figure Parfyon Rogozhin. The two forces of nature, Nastasya and Myschkin, dance around each other for the first half of the book, until they collide at a party in which Nastasya is to reveal which man she has chosen to marry. Seeing the good in her, the Prince - revealing himself to be the heir to a large fortune - also reveals himself to be in love with her. He sees the suffering she has borne, and with the goodness of his heart, can perhaps contain the devouress in his pure love. He asks her to marry him, she accepts, and the party becomes jubilant.
In a simpler book, that would be the end of the story. At first ecstatic and hopeful, her fears get the better of her. She then rejects Prince Myschkin and runs off instead with Rogozhin, who has paid her 100,000 rubles to choose him.
Over the course of the rest of the book, we see Nastasya Filipovna stringing Rogozhin along, with Myschkin pursuing her as in wait for when she decides she is worthy of redemption. Meanwhile, Myschkin and Aglaia Yepanchin, daughter of his distant relative Lizaveta Yepanchin, realize and admit their love for one another. Aglaia, as stormy as Nastasya Filipovna, is light to Nastasya's dark. With a privileged upbringing, she has not seen Nastasya's suffering. But she is bold and hungry for life, and as the Anima figure she acts as a counterbalancing figure to the Prince, as well as to Nastasya who functions as a sort of shadow-Anima. Nastasya Filipovna supports their relations, feeling that she cannot drag the Prince into hell with her and even feeling affection for Aglaia. At the moment when the Prince is to propose marriage to Aglaia, however, the storm fronts collide and break in a three-way meeting between the Prince, Aglaia, and Nastasya. In a nasty fight between the two women, the Prince goes to comfort Nastasya. The action insinuates, and is interpreted by Aglaia, as his choosing Nastasya over her.
She leaves. Nastasya and the Prince become engaged, and Nastasya abandons the Prince at the altar and returns to Rogozhin. Prince Myschkin tracks her down for the final time. Rogozhin - who had previously attempted to murder Myschkin - has killed Nastasya, rather than lose her again. Her death is too much for both of them. Rogozhin is stripped of his inheritence and sent to Siberia. Myschkin has another epilectic attack that returns him permanently to a state of child-like idiocy. Aglaia runs off with a Polish "count" and is promptly abandoned by him, penniless and disgraced.
Some questions that arise point to issues of human nature that can never be satisfactorily resolved. E.g. why did Nastasya feel so unworthy of Myschkin's love? Why did she feel she was so worthless that her proper situation was as a harlot, a temptress, and a seductress?
Rather, I want to focus on the character of the Prince. The story is a tragedy. In reading it, I presume that my desire to see at least the Prince and Aglaia (after Nastasya rejects Prince Myschkin) achieving happiness, union, and resolution is universal among readers. Why this union was not so, and could not be so, is the subject of this brief investigation. And worse, it is not even a proper tragedy. In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the lovers at least leads to a broader reconciliation and resolution in the world, with the two feuding families deciding to live in peace. The price of their feud was too high. The world learns at the expense of the protagonists. In The Idiot, this broader re-ordering and resolution does not occur. Myschkin is reduced to truly being an idiot, Aglaia is disgraced and has ruined her life, Nastasya is dead, and Rogozhin is sent to Siberia. Aglaia's family, which features prominently in the book, is presumably reeling from the loss of their favored daughter, but the broader impact of the events on the family and on the other characters in the book is not particularly explored. The various characters constellated about the protagonists are left to pick up the pieces of their lives and go on with business as usual. This lack of integration is symbolized by Myschkin's loss of conscious faculties via his epileptic attacks, three of which occur during the course of the book. The final one - when he sees Nastasya dead -seems to be permanently damaging. These attacks will figure heavily into this analysis. But the inability of the constellated, secondary characters to absorb the events and manifest a resolution point to the fundamental problem with Myschkin's character.
Myschkin is treated by other characters as an idiot, but because Myschkin possesses full consciousness of what is happening to him, he can't properly be called one. He sees and understands that others are trying to take advantage of him, or gossip about him, or treat him as a non-entity. Only, he pretty generally does little about it. In the later part of the book, when he has his fortune, a group of ne'er-do-wells conspire with a false claim to gain a small fortune of their own from the Prince. Rudely barging into his home, they demand (in front of the Prince's friends no less) that he pay them what is due. Despite the entreaties of his friends to throw them out, Prince Myschkin admits that he wants to pay them. Only when the falsity of their claim is fully exposed do the rogues desist, more out of a sense of humiliation that in spite of their being ousted the Prince still wants to pay them money.
Why is this? Sensitive, thoughtful, honest to a fault, and good-natured, Myschkin exemplifies the Christian ideal of loving one's neighbor. And, for the first half of the book, these qualities make Myschkin an attractive hero figure. After people realize he is not an idiot, but rather a rare specimen of human goodness, his guileless good nature seems like it is enough to renew and revivify the lives of Nastasya and the Yepanchin family. Yet the writing is already on the wall, as it were. Until the party where he meets Nastasya, he is swept along by events to the party itself. His marriage proposal, coming out of the blue, is his one positive action. It is a redemptive act for him, taking positive steps towards a more active engagement with the world. Nastasya's rejection could have been the impetus for growth into a more developed person, one with more agency over his own life. Instead, he continues to allow himself to be dragged along, incapable of saying, "No," "enough," or "this is what cannot be." As a result, he is a surprisingly passive character. Things happen to him. In the interim in the two parts of the book, since receiving his fortune, he did little except follow Nastasya around in the vague hope that something might come of it, and to be there for her when she runs away from Rogozhin. And all the while he becomes embittered and jaded. He can't change and escape the cycle of entrapment and bitterness he is in, because change would imply positive action, something to move towards, which implies cutting up the world into Bad, Good, Better and Worse, into wrongs to be righted, insufficiencies to be addressed, and undone tasks to be done.This is something he is incapable of doing.
Myschkin cannot make any meaningful choices on his own, because that would imply assigning value. And assigning value means saying that some things are better than others, and that clear and purposeful action be taken to secure the more valuable choices. Something which is impossible for someone who is so highly open to the world that they essentially have no will or agency of their own. Anyone or anything can make a valid claim on Prince Myschkin's time, resources, money, and energy because he has no mechanism for sifting through what is in front of him. Hence, he is unable to decide between Aglaia and Nastasya, and at least four lives are ruined. He is open to the world and to others at the expense of his own personal boundaries and cohesion as a discrete psychic entity. Openness is antithetical to the act of valuation, positive segmentation of the world, and meaningful action. This does not mean the two cannot co-exist, but the one must be tempered by the other. There is a synthesis of the two that must emerge. Myschkin has the openness, the Christian love, but he lacks another positive virtue or guiding principle in his life to synthesize this with. He is all innocence and no thrust. He lacks a principle by which he can actively grapple with the world and, in doing so, shape himself. All power and no love is tyranny or psychopathy, but all love and no power is not automatically morality. Was it moral to enable Nastasya's descent into hell? Was it moral to lead Aglaia along, only to reject her for Nastasya?
Myschkin is clearly meant to embody a certain aspect of Christ, who went to his death with full consciousness of his fate and therefore of the depths of human savagery and cruelty. That can only be because Christ knew what he stood for and what it was worth. Myschkin, while not an idiot, was reduced to being one because he lacked consciousness of the shadows of human nature. His epileptic attacks occur during moments when that savagery comes out in others - at a party when he is being socially humiliated, when he is about to be attacked with a knife, and when he sees Nastasya dead. Because he can only see the best in others, he cannot see the evil in them (or in himself for that matter). He cannot keep anyone, himself included, out of Hell, because he cannot admit to its existence. He has no reason to, because anything is infinitely understandable and valid and thus anything is permissible. Because he cannot face evil and give it a name, he loses his mind.
Dostoyevsky, as I understand it, set out to write about someone who is inherently good-natured. That is, they do not have to learn how to be good. In the story, this asserts itself in the fact that Myschkin is an orphan. The implication is perhaps that he needed nothing from parents since he had it all within him from the beginning. Yet especially the Father represents not only the earthly father that raises the son as an embedded member of the community, but also the Heavenly Father, that is the ideal, the end towards which one dedicates their life. This is the principle that could balance Love and Openness, and create a whole person. This, I think, explains why Myschkin could not learn to balance his character or change his ways over the course of his adventure. He has no embeddedness, no structure or hierarchy of values, no North Star by which to orient himself. Without this, people spin out into the extremes of either nihilism and roguishness or, as Myschkin does, into apathy and dissociation. Indeed, we never hear of a goal or aim of the Prince's besides being introduced to the Yepanchins at the very beginning of the book, and later vaguely chasing after Nastasya.
I say all this having been incredibly inspired by the example of the Prince, particularly in the first part of the story leading up to the party where he initially proposes to Nastasya. But the story is ultimately a tragedy. To be able to consciously take on the highest suffering, as Prince Myschkin attempted to do with Nastasya, you need to be strong, insanely strong, or else the world disintegrates into chaos. To be strong requires taking a stand and exerting ones will onto the world. Heroic strength is power tempered with love, empathy, and compassion. But his shadow figures, Rogozhin and Nastasya, remain unintegrated and meet a gruesome end. His anima figure, the innocent but hungry-for-life Aglaia who acts as a foil to his passivity and resignation, is corrupted as the result of his unwillingness to take a stand. He is estranged from the Yepanchin family in general, which should have been his adoptive family. Psychologically, his mental breakdown is inevitable, and in fact has already occurred as the characters representing the various aspects of his personality are violently destroyed.
He is not strong enough to peer into the darkness and rescue the princess, so he stays a perpetual prince rather than succeeding to the kingdom.
...sees much and knows much