(Review by Sidharth Vardhan
of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel 'The Idiot'
First written on April 25, 2015')
An ideal idiot
Most of my favorite characters are either pure evil or complex anti-hero type; the stereotype Mr. Goody-two-shoes has never appealed to me; however Prince Myshkin, the idiot in the novel, is now going to be an exception.
He has suffered from idiocy due to epilepsy (FD too suffered from epilepsy attacks) all his childhood and early youth - and thus gets the technical title of 'Idiot'.
Perhaps it was due to this idiocy that he has not adopted the so-called common sense – the ‘normal’ way of looking at the world which is formed by slow corruption of our sense of compassion on pretext of what is called self-defense in a cruel world.
Myshkin is full of compassion – which is very clear from stories he tells (the stories you tell, tell a lot about yourself.) His goodness (unlike Evegeine’s calculated goodness and Ptitson who allows himself only small evils) makes him indifferent to harm being done to himself if it means happiness of someone else. If you try to insult or hurt him; he would feel sorry for circumstances that made you do so; and let you cheat him. It is not so much that he doesn't notice or can't defend the harm done to himself but rather he prefers to suffer himself rather than bring on others - even if others are sinister in their ways.
He has no sense of social class - he could talk in the same way with servants or master, grownups or children. He lets you make fun of him – often himself joining the lough himself.
He won’t stand for his rights but would stand to fight for others. He got into a fight twice within novel, and both times it was to defend someone.
His natural goodness won’t let him be suspicious, angry or jealous of anyone; in fact he would reproach himself if he finds himself harboring any such emotion. This restrain is contrasted by people that surround him – drunkards, rogues etc (FD’s novels are always full of contrasts) It is not that he is above all emotions – he is easily excited – but by such emotions like guilt, gratitude and happiness and never so much that he could harm someone.
He is tipsy and cuts a messy figure which makes people under-rate him – the fact that he himself is ignorant of his abilities doesn’t help. He has a kind of inferiority complex about him, can’t believe that he can be loved by a woman – which is ironical because four woman are attracted to him during the novel.
A loved idiot
Thus it is easier for you to make fun of him; but you will do it at your own peril; his turn-the-other-cheek attitude is bound to find your love sooner or later. Even those who try to cheat on him end up loving him. A third reason for which he attracts attention is curiosity. He is purely original in his thoughts (as opposed to Gania’s lack of originality.) Thus while people under-rate him in beginning; soon they all end up respecting him - in a way. They adopt him, pet him, forgive him all mistakes and want him to do well in life; because of his absolute inability to harm anyone.
Lizaveta likes him but do not want him to marry her daughter to him - knowing that his goodness won't let him survive him for long in the world. However she won’t admit to herself reasons for same. One of the women he loves, leave him as she thinks she doesn’t deserve him; another leaves him because …. Well, in being good to everyone, he ends up hurting her.
Myshkin is a good example who shows that if we play the good Samaritan too much; it is always at cost of harming ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, those who love or depend on us.
Myshkin was supposed to be inspired from a Hans Holbein the Younger's painting 'The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb' (see below) - the realism of which struck both Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Myshkin powerfully. .
Myshkin's reaction upon seeing painting is here:
"The prince glanced at it, but took no further notice. He moved on hastily, as though anxious to get out of the house. But Rogozhin suddenly stopped underneath the picture. […]
"I like looking at that picture," muttered Rogozhin, not noticing, apparently, that the prince had not answered his question.
"That picture! That picture!" cried Myshkin, struck by a sudden idea. "Why, a man's faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!"
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The Idiot)
It is the fact that in this painting Christ has wounds and looks beaten just like mortal, his body is seen putrefying. Fyodor Dostoyevsky 's wife note how she had to take him away from this painting as she was afraid he would get one of his attacks.
Myshkin's complete lack of aggressiveness is completely contrasted by Rogozhin, Dostoevsky's idea of anti-Christ. And this anti-Christ isn't pure evil but someone who can't stand the idea of being cheated upon. A person lacking ability to forgive is all that Dostoevsky's idea of evil. However Fyodor Dostoyevsky goes one step further making Prince and Rogozhin friends. In the end, Prince's couldn't defeat the anti-Christ in Rogozhin and his own compassion became his doom.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky makes Myshkin a true Christian – a christen by heart and default; and convinces us that it is suicidal to be good in a world of corrupt souls.