Most of Dostoevsky’s novels are in fact experiments. He sends his protagonists into the world to test a certain hypothesis on the nature of man or society. As we follow a murderer, a gambler, a monk, a prostitute—or simply ordinary people—we are driven to pose the questions Dostoevsky wants us to ask. And though the novels are extremely exhaustive and complex, they can be reduced to rather simple intelligible questions.
In 1868 Dostoevsky began publishing his novel The Idiot in a journal titled “The Russian Messenger”. It is a story of a truly good person: innocent, kind-hearted, selfless, forgiving, a man without moral faults. Prince Myshkin—this is his name—is “a positively good and beautiful man”, as the author describes him. The experiment in this novel was a rather odd one: what would happen if ordinary men and women were to encounter a man who is utterly good? The intuitive answer, I think, is that it would somehow ameliorate their lives. But the great author demonstrates his belief that the result would be altogether different.
The novel begins as Prince Myshkin arrives in St. Petersburg after spending years in Switzerland for treatment of epilepsy. He comes to meet a distant relative of his and encounters the various characters. Rogozhin, a passionate and violent man, is infatuated by a societal beauty; he inherits a fortune and wants to marry her. She, Nastasya Philippovna, was made a concubine at the age of sixteen by her legal guardian, appointed after the death of her parents. She threatens to expose him; he promises her 75,000 rubles if she marries his assistant, Ganya, an ambitious young man. Myshkin himself falls in love with the beautiful Aglaya, the daughter of his family relative; she is infatuated with him, almost against her will, though ridiculing his good nature and naiveté.
Myshkin, as has been pointed out, is an extremely good person. He sees the positive side of everyone, always offering help, calming any dispute—and taking the blame for the sins of others. This makes the various characters think he is, well, an idiot… They see self-sufficiency, egotism and selfishness as evidence of intelligence; their absence implies stupidity. Yet this protagonist, clearly somewhat of a Christ-like figure, ignores common beliefs and adheres to his strictly good ways.
The plot takes several dramatic turns. Rogozhin confesses that his deep desire for Nastasya Philippovna is so overpowering that it makes him think of cutting her throat. She is so traumatized by her sexual exploitation at a young age that she is overtaken by self-destruction. Ganya wants to marry her to upscale his social status. And poor Myshkin, shaken up by her sufferings, offers to marry her to prevent a catastrophe, and thus disappoints the lovely Aglaya. At the end, after many vicissitudes, Nastasya Philippovna runs off with Roghozin, who then murders her. Aglaya, broken-hearted, marries a ‘wealthy exiled Polish count’ who is revealed to be neither wealthy nor a count, and turns her against her family. Myshkin finds Rogozhin with the body of Nastasya Philippovna, and they both lament her. Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia. Myshkin goes mad and returns to the sanatorium in Switzerland.
Clearly Dostoevsky is portraying tragic consequences of the encounter with this perfectly good man. Yet the roots of these misfortunes are not unequivocal. Myshkin is something of a Christ figure. Is it possible that the encounter with Christ leads to nothing but misery? Though profoundly religious, Dostoevsky often points out the paradoxical nature of religious belief; it is the most profound yearning for something beyond our reach.
Possibly Myshkin’s habit of taking the blame for others is the cause of all this misery, as some scholars have pointed out, since it seems to drive his sinful friends to more desperate misdeeds. It is a fundamental criticism of Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church: forgiving the sinners only drives them to commit worse crimes.
But Dostoevsky’s work cannot be reduced to a religious statement. This novel seems to convey a very strong message: taking the blame for others is harmful, aspiring for eternal good is destructive, and forgiving anything is detrimental. Oddly, in spite of his being a profoundly religious man, this comes rather close to contemporary secular values: personal responsibility for one’s achievements and failures; the aspiration to relative advantages rather than absolute ones; the treatment of mental defects by science, not devotion. George Panichas, a noted scholar of Dostoevsky, said that “Through Myshkin, Dostoevsky gives his prophetic vision of a modern world in which a life ordered by Revelation and the ability to experience the world in a religious way are lost.”
So is Myshkin an idiot? Not in a simple way, of course. His choice of self-sacrifice is conscious and not the result of stupidity. But in a more profound way, Dostoevsky is suggesting that perhaps he is.