Reader's Encyclopedia

Idiot, The (1868)

A novel by Dostoyevsky. It is concerned with the effect of the saintly Prince Myshkin on worldly society in St. Petersburg. Myshkin's gentle, childlike nature and his refusal to take offense at anything have earned him the nickname of "the idiot." He himself admits to having been virtually an idiot for several years while under medical care in Switzerland. On the death of his benefactor, he returns to Russia to find himself heir to a large fortune. Almost immediately the trustful Myshkin is entangled in the affairs of the corrupt world of society. On the trip back to Russia he has already met the violently passionate Rogozhin, who is obsessed by the beautiful Natasha Filippovna, the victim in her youth of an older man who brought her up as his mistress. The shame Natasha feels has driven the proud girl to degrade herself even more. Only when she meets Myshkin does she feel she has encountered a sympathetic being. This feeling eventually drives her to greater self - torment, when she realizes that Myshkin's love is, in fact, pity.

Myshkin becomes involved with another woman, young Aglaya Epanchin, to whom he also cannot give the normal passionate love she wants, although he does ask her to marry him. His pity for Natasha, however, overcomes whatever love it is he feels for Aglaya, and he goes off to try again to redeem her. His vacillations manage only to hurt both women and, eventually, to enrage the jealous Rogozhin to the point of murder. The latter tries unsuccessfully to kill Myshkin and, at the end of the novel, he murders Natasha. Confronted by the scene, Myshkin relapses into idiocy.

Dostoyevsky's announced intention with the character of Myshkin was to portray a truly good man. The attempt has been viewed by critics as only partially successful, not only because Myshkin wreaks havoc with most of the characters he influences, but also because of the bloodless, abstract quality of the characterization itself. A more successful effort of this type is Aleksey Karamazov, in whose portrayal Dostoyevsky managed to blend harmoniously both human and Christlike attributes.

Dostoyevsky acknowledged that The Idiot was not completely successful but insisted that the book was, nevertheless, his personal favorite among his works. Besides the figure of Myshkin, the author included in the novel many of his ideas on the superiority of Orthodoxy to Western religion and on the connections between Roman Catholicism and socialism.