Imagine a good man. Not Jesus, for he was both human and divine in one. No, imagine just a really, really, really good person. What would that man be like? How would he interact with our world of selfishness, poverty, evil, and hatred? And, while we’re thinking, what if Jesus were just a good man? What difference would it make if he were only a perfect man, teaching wonderful morals, who then died? These are the questions Dostoevsky explores in The Idiot.
The plot is kind of difficult to relay, because, like most Dostoevsky stories, it is based more around characters than a story. First, there is Prince Myshkin, an epileptic who earns the title of ‘Idiot’ because of his illness, but also because of his uncommon frankness, generosity, and compassion. Rogozhin is Myshkin’s opposite: a local ruffian, who matches Myshkin in frankness, but has none of his compassion. Nastasya Filippovna is the nearest character to Myshkin in terms of kindess and honesty, but she is full of self-loathing. In the background is Ippolit, a poor teenager who is dying of consumption.
As stated before, Myshkin is the main character. Despite the through-line of the novel being his love for Nastasya, Myshkin also finds himself mixed up in the politics of the Russian nobility. Throughout the novel, his honesty, sincerity, and generosity is placed in direct contrast with the foolish niceties of society. The nobility manipulate, backstab, and complain about each other, all in the hopes of making their own life better. Myshkin does none of these things. At one point, he even willingly offers money to those who are seeking to scam him, despite knowing what they are doing. Myshkin embodies the self-sacrificial love of Christ, revealing the best of humanity. Yet, as he lives among the elites and struggles with Rogozhin for the heart of Nastasya, he begins to feel his illness returning. Myshkin is Dostoevsky’s tool for exploring the idea of perfection without divinity, and his answer is an exceedingly dark one.
Perhaps the peak of this point comes when Myshkin and Rogozhin look at a painting of Christ being taken down from the cross. The painting, which drastically affected Dostoevsky, reveals Christ looking like the perfect man, but without any hint of divinity. When looking at the painting, Myshkin exclaims that such a painting could cause one to lose one’s faith, pushing him towards either Ippolit’s nihilism or Rogozhin’s absolute selfishness. Christ devoid of divinity results in nothing but madness.
Indeed, Dostoevsky contrasts Myshkin’s perfection with Ippolit’s nihilism. Myshkin seeks to help all even at severe cost to himself. The Ippolit, dying of consumption, encourages all to enjoy life, then attempts to commit suicide. In the end neither the perfect nor the nihilist reach enjoyable ends. Ippolit comes to appreciate life, though he is dying. Myshkin, though he sought perfection, ends in madness because of his inability to fix a broken world.
This, I feel, is where Dostoevsky lands: Humanity may strive for perfection, but it is unattainable. Even perfection is useless in this broken world without a means of destroying evil. A perfect, but only human Christ is meaningless if he is not also divine. Without the divinity to overcome evil and destroy it, perfection is useless. This point comes across also through the ending, which upon first read is somewhat unsatisfying. Yet, I think this is purposefully so, because perfection devoid of divinity is unsatisfying, for it is incomplete.
Ultimately, this is not an easy book. It’s not a book to read on your summer break if you want to get sucked into something fun and light. This is slow, it’s dark, and it’s a bit disturbing. Some things don’t make sense, and the ending is of the sort that leaves you cold. But this is worth it. Put the time into it, think about it, dwell on it, and ponder it. Dostoevsky deserves it, and so do you.
Published on 1 September, 2016. Last updated on