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The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Symbols


Ippolit's Dream Monster

According to literary critic Roger Anderson, the monster of Ippolit's dream, a scorpion-like creature that ends up poisoning his dog, symbolizes the "abstract, unstoppable force behind nature, a principle whose workings control each life while it cannot be affected in return." Ippolit is tormented by this recurring dream of the scorpion and says, "I was terribly afraid [of it,] but I was most tormented by who could have sent it to my room, what did they want to do to me?" Thus, the dream monster is weighted with existential questions. Facing his impending death from consumption (tuberculosis), a disease from which people died before the invention of antibiotics, Ippolit is at the mercy of nature. The unstoppable force in this case is bacteria, but all people are at the mercy of nature and natural causes, which eventually lead to every creature's extinction. The relentlessness of death is a mysterious conundrum that cannot be interrogated.

Holbein's Portrait of Christ

The central metaphor and symbol of this novel is The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497–1543). The painting's unusual dimensions, about 1 foot by 7 feet, in the shape of a coffin, show the grey-green face of a dead man tilted toward the viewer, his blackened feet close to the wall of the space in which he is enclosed. The painting is a realistic and horrific image of a corpse, rendered more horrific because the corpse is the body of Jesus, the God-man. Most religious depictions of the dead Christ indicate his coming resurrection, but no such hints exist in Holbein's stark image of human life at its end. Prince Myshkin is only half joking when he says the painting can make a person doubt their faith in the resurrection. The most complete description of the painting appears in Ippolit's manifesto, "A Necessary Explanation," in which he wonders: "how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect?" But the question behind this question, and the driving pulse of the novel, is how anyone can have faith in a metaphysical or nonmaterial existence beyond the grave when faced with the corporeal reality of a dead body. Like all Dostoevsky's novels, The Idiot oscillates between faith and doubt, although doubt appears to predominate.


Epilepsy in the novel is a marker for Prince Myshkin's idiocy but also for his status as a holy fool. Myshkin's epilepsy symbolizes his Christlike figure and the embodiment of compassion. The narrator says Prince Myshkin's precursor to an epileptic fit gives him heightened self-awareness, in which his mind is lit by "an extraordinary light" and all his worries, doubts, and fears disappear in the knowledge that all will be well. Dostoevsky said of his own epilepsy that such moments of "illumination" just before a fit were "worth a whole life," and Myshkin thinks, "Yes, for this moment one could give one's whole life!" Myshkin's epilepsy makes him both an idiot and a saint. When he comes back to Russia, he is a Christlike figure with a gift for reading people and immediately understanding their suffering. The reader can surmise that his spiritual gifts are connected with the auras that precede his epileptic fits. Myshkin attempts to alleviate people's suffering with compassion. When his compassion fails utterly at the end of the novel, he lapses back into a semi-conscious state, originally caused by his epileptic disease.

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