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The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Context


Indeterminacy in The Idiot: Polyphony and the Unreliable Narrator

Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975), in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (1929, revised and edited with current title 1963), refers to Dostoevsky's novels as polyphonic because they explore a variety of opposing ideas and points of view without much mediation from the narrator. According to Bakhtin, Dostoevsky used this method of composition because he believed truth about oneself could emerge only in the absence of external interference.

Dostoevsky varies the type of polyphony he uses in his novels: in The Idiot oftentimes there is no narrative mediation between the reader and the novel's characters, all speaking in their own voices. At other times the narrator breaks in and admits he is repeating rumors and that the rumors are conflicting. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator indicates that there is no way to know the real truth about what happened. Thus, the uncertainty created by polyphony is compounded by an unreliable narrator.

As noted by literary critic Alexander Spektor, the incoherent narrative and unreliable narrator create interpretive anxiety in the reader, hindering their ability to make an ethical judgment about Prince Myshkin's actions and motivations. Spektor also notes, following Bakhtin, that the polyphonic voices in The Idiot compete in trying to impose a narrative order on the world, while idiocy becomes the "destabilizing force, a refusal and/or inability to secure meaning." This idiocy is tied to Myshkin's disintegrating consciousness at the end of the novel. Interpretation of the novel is made difficult, "not so much by the polyphony of its voices" but because of an "insistence that any kind of finished interpretation is morally inadequate." The unreliable narrator is a key factor in creating instability and forcing the reader to split into the narrator's easily persuaded imagined reader and an actual reader who sees through the narrator's tricks. After acknowledging the existence of good and evil in themselves, actual readers arrive at compassion for the characters.

Epilepsy and Mysticism

Dostoevsky's epileptic fits were preceded by a mental experience of spiritual ecstasy, which he describes in this novel. In those moments the world makes perfect sense and fear disappears. The narrator describes Prince Myshkin's precursor to an epileptic fit in Part 2, Chapter 5: "The sense of life, of self-awareness, increased nearly tenfold in these moments, which flashed by like lightning." He experiences luminosity, freedom from anxiety and doubt, as well as deep tranquility. Dostoevsky said of his epilepsy that such moments of "illumination" just before a fit were "worth a whole life," and the narrator of the novel concurs. Myshkin himself exclaims, "Yes, for this moment one could give one's whole life!"

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder distinguished by seizures that typically last for between one and two minutes. These seizures occur when signals between nerve cells in the brain are absent or overloaded. The seizures may include convulsions, unconsciousness, odd movement or behaviors, or emotional disturbances. Epilepsy historically has been linked to the divine or demonic in many cultures, and recent clinical studies show a strong connection between religious experiences and epileptic seizures, particularly in people with temporal lobe epilepsy (seizures that involve one or both temporal lobes; patient is awake and aware during seizures). The temporal lobes run along the sides of the brain and are connected to the limbic system, which handles sound, smell, some vision, memory, and emotion. When people have a seizure in the temporal lobe, their normal emotions are heightened because many nerve cells fire together. In the scientific literature, so-called religious symptoms before an epileptic fit, also called auras, were reported by 3.9% of epilepsy patients. Ecstatic religious experience may be predominantly localized to the temporal regions of the brain, in the right hemisphere, according to clinical experts. Sometimes these experiences involve feeling a presence, which people associate with a vision of God. Since Myshkin is a Christ-figure, Dostoevsky fashions him as an epileptic prone to visions. He is either an idiot or saint, depending on which aspect of the author's polyphonic view is being supported or defended.

Dostoevsky's Reactionary Politics

In the late 19th century Russia lagged behind Western European countries in developing technology and industry, largely because it was still an agrarian country operating under an antiquated class system. The Russian aristocracy headed by the czar, a supreme ruler, still held the majority of power, and while the middle class grew, most of the population were peasants—and most of the peasants were recently freed serfs, unfree laborers attached to the land. Still, Russian industry experienced some growth, especially in large population areas. Modernization increased European influence and brought European science and technology to Russia. In the second half of the 19th century, capitalism (economic system characterized by private enterprise) and socialism (economic system characterized by government enterprise) in Russia became competing ideologies among the educated classes, and both ideologies were disliked by Slavophiles (those who favored Russian culture over European influences) such as Dostoevsky.

As a young man the author briefly became involved in a socialist circle, for which he was severely punished with a stint in Siberia from approximately 1850 to 1854. The result of this chastisement was a conscious re-conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and hatred for anything that smacked of socialism. The chastised Dostoevsky became a Slavophile, or someone who considered Western Europe, along with Catholicism, morally bankrupt. The Slavophiles rejected both capitalism and European-style democracy, putting their faith instead in the Russian Orthodox Church and the way of life of the common people. Prince Myshkin is a Slavophile, and he condemns Catholicism in Part 4, Chapter 7, as an unchristian faith that preaches a distorted Christ. Myshkin dislikes the Catholic Church because it has a history of wielding temporal power.

Dostoevsky's Critique of Materialism

Capitalism came to Russia with the development of industry, and it put a new emphasis on private competition and the accumulation of wealth among the growing middle classes. Industrialization had the effect of transforming traditional social and class relationships and shifting power to the newly moneyed. In addition, trends in science, particularly the theory of evolution, as set forth in British naturalist Charles Darwin's (1809–82) On the Origin of Species (1859), attacked humanity's relationship with God and demoted men and women to nature's creatures. Science objectified people by making them one more subject of study under the scientist's microscope. And capitalism objectified people as they become one more commodity to buy and sell.

Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot while he was living abroad, and during those four years, from 1867 to 1871, as translator Richard Pevear notes, he "brooded most intensely on the fate of Russia." In the novel the author critiques the effect of the new materialism on Russian society. One of Dostoevsky's key topics is how the pursuit of money and power corrupts people. For example, General Epanchin, the son of a common foot soldier, gains money and status, becomes an investor in a corporation, and will stop at nothing to enhance his social position. Thus, he is contemplating marrying his eldest daughter off to the corrupt aristocrat Totsky, who spent years grooming a girl—Nastasya Filippovna—and using her for his sexual gratification, beginning when she was 16. Similarly, Ganya, the man chosen to take Nastasya off Totsky's hands, plans to marry her to get his hands on 75,000 rubles, which Totsky has given to Nastasya as a kind of perverse dowry. Throughout the novel many people around Prince Myshkin are corrupted by money in one way or another and lose sight of traditional Russian values, usually with disastrous results.

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