Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”: Reflection and Closure, Part I

I finished reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” back in March. It was lengthy, packed full of drama, gripping, provocative, and emotional. A few days after finishing, I wrote a small reflection on Facebook:

Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” is, as of right now, the most moving book I’ve ever read. Just finished it a couple days ago, and I’m still plagued by the gravity of its ending. The last 50 pages are gripping, and I can’t help replaying the last few dialogues over and over in my mind. Tragic isn’t even the word to describe it, and it makes Romeo and Juliet’s ending look sentimental.

It is the ultimate story in “what could have been?” What would have happened had Prince Myshkin ran after Aglaia Ivanovna, and what could have been had he decided to forego his morals and trust his emotions? All things to think about, and I can’t make heads or tails of how I feel about it all. Maybe that was Dostoyevsky’s point..

On to “Brothers Karamazov”. Namaste.

20160926_164039Firstly, I couldn’t recommend this book enough. Whatever you’re reading, you can fit Dostoyevsky in. The insights into life and psychology alone are worth the price of the book. Anyone mildly familiar with Shakespeare will detect shades of Hamlet in Dostoyevsky’s characters. He will lead you through the tumultuous waters of a conflicted conscience, through the valleys of a psyche consumed with doubt, and the deserts of self-reflection.

Dostoyevsky is a psychological master. When he was 18 years old he wrote in a letter to his brother: “Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.” He had a rare ability to penetrate deep into the sub-consciousness of individual psychology. The pain, gravity, and weight you feel when reading his novels are a product of his insight into the very depth of a human soul.

This post not meant to be a biographical sketch of dear Fyodor; I merely used the last couple paragraphs to commend to him to those who haven’t yet given him a chance. Seriously, go buy The Idiot, or The Brothers Karamazov, or Crime and Punishment. If you don’t know which to start with, I’d recommend The Idiot.

This post is, however, meant to be an extension and follow-up to the original FB post above. To those clamoring that this really should have been done 3 months ago, I hear you. But, in my defense, the summer has been a busy one. I moved to Philadelphia, started at Westminster Theological Seminary, and have been consumed with learning New Testament Greek since the end of July. I realize that my opinion on this matter is of very little consequence, but the feedback I’ve received when talking about this in person or on social media was very pleasant. So, this is me putting my thoughts in a coherent stream, all the while hoping that I could process the ending a little better.  It is me seeking closure.

However, the main reason it has taken this long to write something up is simply this: the conundrum is a wild one. It has taken 6 months of considerable reflection and internal dialogue to put myself in Myshkin’s shoes. I’ve had to embrace all his strengths, faults, shortcomings, sins, and virtues and then analogically compare them to my own . I reread critical dialogues for clues; I scoured the last few chapters for relevant detail that I had missed before. And, finally, when I came to facing the ending again, I was instantly transported back to March, on my couch in my old room, flooded with the same emotions. I was angry.  I was exhausted. I was at a loss for words, and plagued with confusion. I didn’t know how to feel. Just like in March, I finished the last few pages while shaking my head. At first you don’t realize what happened. Then, as it slowly dawns on you, you inevitably put the book down in disbelief. Did that really just happen?

The story revolves around a rather confusing love triangle. The reason it’s confusing is because it sometimes involves only 3 people (hence, triangle), and sometimes 5. It is an incredibly complex and intricate web of affection where the reader really doesn’t know what they want to happen. At least I didn’t. The main character is Prince Myshkin, Dostoyevsky’s archetype. Prince Myshkin is a genuine, good-natured, benevolent, trusting, forgiving, generous, and unassuming figure. It was critically said of him that he would forgive anyone 1,000 times if they came to him the next day and asked for it. He was called foolish for being generous with his inheritance, and gave away a substantial amount to people who were trying to defraud him.

He represents Dostoyevsky’s vision for the ideal man, the truly Christ-like figure. The Idiot explores how Russian, aristocratic society relates to such a man. Dostoyevsky labors to show the stark contrast between Prince Myshkin and rich, powerful, aristocratic Russian families. The love triangle consists mainly of Myshkin, the virtuous Aglaia Ivanovna, and the beautiful Nastasya Fillipovna. The other two members, Rogozhin and Ganya, play pivotal roles but the central struggle doesn’t involve them.

The really interesting role is played by the different kinds of love Myshkin has for both Nastasya and Aglaia. He loves both of them, and wants to marry both of them, though in different ways and for separate reasons. They feel the same way about him, though each in her own individual way. That’s about a 30,000 foot view of what’s happening. Remember, the web is far more complex than that. Also, these relations are merely a means that Dostoyevsky uses to make his fundamental point– that is, the stark contrast of Dostoyevsky’s archetype and Russian aristocracy.

It is at this point, however, that I must show my hand. We’re about 1,000 words in and I haven’t yet begun to describe the internal tensions in those relationships. It requires careful reasoning, writing, and reflection to bring the reader up to speed, and provide him with a foundation to understand the answer to that elusive question mentioned above: “What would have happened had Prince Myshkin ran after Aglaia Ivanovna, and what could have been had he decided to forego his morals and trust his emotions?”

There’s tremendous depth and complexity to it, and a short post would not do it justice. Perhaps I bit off more than I could chew?

I mentioned earlier that it has taken 6 months of considerable reflection and internal dialogue to put myself in Myshkin’s shoes. I’ve had to embrace all his strengths, faults, shortcomings, sins, and virtues and then analogically compare them to my own.

Did I get closure? Somewhat. If it were me, and I met the girl of my dreams and she happened to love me back, of course I wouldn’t let her slip! But, that logic falls on deaf ears when there’s two of them in the picture. Does it not? If it were me, I would have let Nastasya fall and ran after Aglaia. I would have secured Aglaia’s love. This is troublesome, however, since securing Aglaia’s love effectively kills Nastasya, whom he loves just as much. Myshkin’s hesitation in running to Aglaia, however, led to her end as well. And, consequently, the ending is tragic, devastating, and truly incredible.

The worst part is, though, I fear I’ve missed the point. It dawned on me that perhaps I ought not be wondering which of the girls he should have chosen, nor focus on how tragic the ending was. This feeling, I still cannot shake. And so, I bought the original copy of the book in Russian. Perhaps a read-through in the original will grant some closure. Or not.

Maybe Dostoyevsky just wants me to wrestle with the possibilities as he searches my soul through his characters? One might ask what good that is, but that would be a dead giveaway that he hasn’t yet read Dostoyevsky.




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