Read an Excerpt
From Joseph Frank's Introduction to The Idiot
The Idiot is the most autobiographical of Dostoevsky's novels, or at least the one in which autobiography obtrudes most overtly. There is the scene, for example, in which the prince attempts to gain admission to the Epanchin mansion from a recalcitrant footman, who is inclined to think him an impostor because of his far-from-fashionable clothes and modest manner. The prince succeeds in gaining entry, however, after recounting his impressions of an execution by the guillotine that he had witnessed in Europe. Intuiting the agony undergone by the condemned man as he faced the ineluctable certainty of death, which the prince compares with the "torture" and "agony" of which "Christ spoke too," he then muses: "Perhaps there is some man who has been sentenced to death . . . and then has been told 'you can go, you are pardoned.' Perhaps such a man could tell us."
Dostoevsky himself was such a man, having experienced these same torments in 1850 during the mock execution staged by Nicholas I to punish the Petrashevsky Circle, all of whom were officially condemned to death and then pardoned. And he utilizes the ordeal of his mock execution again in Prince Myshkin's scene with the Epanchin sisters, who at first tend to regard the unassuming prince as something of a pious fraud. Not only does Dostoevsky here reproduce the exact details of this lacerating event, but he also expresses sentiments similar to those he employed in a letter to his older brother Mikhail just after returning to prison. "Life is a gift," he wrote then, "life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of bliss." These are the very emotions that Prince Myshkin attributes to a condemned man who then was pardoned: "What if I could go back to life—what eternity! . . . I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing." The mock execution again appears when the prince, asked to suggest a subject for a picture to be painted by Adelaida Epanchin, can think only of the face of a condemned man and a priest holding up a cross. The prince's sensibility is thus haunted by the shadow of eternity, and the absolute sense of moral obligation that he exhibits can be attributed to this overhanging presence.
In The Idiot as well Dostoevsky also draws on his own ailment of epilepsy more explicitly and directly than anywhere else in his writings. Just before the onset of a fit, when he loses consciousness and is overcome by spasmodic convulsions, the prince felt an "aura" of ecstatic plenitude that, as we know from other sources, reproduces the sensations felt by his creator. At such moments, the prince became aware of "the acme of harmony and beauty . . . a feeling, unknown and undivined till then, of completeness, of proportion, of reconciliation, and of ecstatic devotional merging in the highest synthesis of life." It was a moment of "infinite happiness," which "might well be worth the whole of life." And it was then that the prince "seem[ed] somehow to understand the extraordinary saying [from the Bible, Book of Revelations 10:6] that there shall be no more time." Moments such as these may well have strengthened Dostoevsky's own belief in the existence of a supersensuous realm transcending ordinary earthly existence. If so, however, he did not employ it in The Idiot for such a purpose. On the contrary, the loftiness of the vision is depicted as a sublime illusion; and when the prince acts under its inspiration, he provokes Rogozhin into an attempt on his life.
This first section of The Idiot contains some unforgettable scenes in which the "angelic" character of the prince is superbly portrayed. One such is the story of Marie, a consumptive little slavey in the Swiss village where the prince is being treated for epilepsy. She has been seduced and abandoned by a traveling salesman, and then becomes a despised outcast mistreated by everyone and ridiculed by the village children. Moved by her misery, the prince gives her a few francs and persuades the children that she has been unjustly abused and condemned. The last days of her life are thus irradiated by the warmth of their love, and she dies surrounded by their care and devotion. The children, when they observe the prince kissing her out of compassion, are unable to distinguish between this and the kisses exchanged between their parents; this leitmotiv will later be developed on a large-scale in the rivalry between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaia Epanchin.
The completion of this first part, however, posed new problems for Dostoevsky because he had written it without any overall plan, and it is clear from his letters and notebooks that he scarcely knew how to continue. "As I go along," he wrote to his niece, "various details crop up that I find fascinating and stimulating. But the whole? But the hero? Somehow the whole thing seems to turn on the figure of the hero . . . I must establish the character of the hero. Will it develop under my pen?" Even though Dostoevsky seemed to see other characters quite clearly, he confesses that "the main hero is still extremely pale." The notes reveal that he continued to struggle with this problem all through the remainder of the book. On the one hand, as he writes in a note, it was necessary to show the Prince in a field of action" [italics in text]; but on the other, as Reinhold Niebuhr has written of Christianity, "it is impossible to symbolize the divine goodness in history in any other way than by complete powerlessness." Dostoevsky thus was faced with the dilemma of creating a hero lacking all the usual attributes associated with such a figure, but whose moral-religious purity would somehow shine through and redeem his practical impotence.