The Idiot | Study Guide

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Idiot | Themes


Incompatibility of Eros and Agape and Limits of Compassion

The two types of love most evident in the novel are eros and agape. Eros is sexual, often consuming love, which necessitates an exclusivity of two people that separates them from the rest of the world. Agape is the dispassionate, unconditional love—the love that God has for his creatures and that they feel for God. Agape also manifests as compassion and pity, in which one person shares the suffering of another or feels sorrow for the misfortune of another. Compassion is not empathy: it is feeling for, rather than feeling with. A central theme in the novel is the incompatibility of eros and agape and the limits of compassion.

Early on in the novel Prince Myshkin tells Rogozhin that he cannot marry because he is ill, and he indicates he has no experience with women. But as the novel progresses, Myshkin forgets what he said and presents himself as a potential husband, first to Nastasya, and later to Aglaya. He blurs the difference between eros and agape, and while he appears to feel sexual love for Aglaya, it seems doubtful he could consummate a sexual relationship with her or any other woman. While sexual love can be destructive, as evidenced in Totsky's ravishment of Nastasya and Rogozhin's obsessive desire to possess her, eros is also a creative force in the world and the engine that drives procreation. People often make great sacrifices when they love a sexual partner. Even if a universe of two has its limits, a sexual relationship can also be an instrument for human development and maturity and ultimately teach lovers to better serve the world.

While both eros and agape are important in human relations, mixing them up or trying to replace one with the other leads to chaos, disruption, and destruction. The prince's inability to understand that the two women who love him will not be satisfied with agape when they need eros leads to their destruction as well as his own. At the end of the novel Myshkin thinks he can serve Nastasya with agape and continue to love Aglaya romantically, which necessarily leads to the rupture of their relationship. Aglaya is so badly hurt by her liaison with Myshkin that she marries a sham Polish count on the rebound and becomes estranged from her family and ensnared in a bad marriage. Nastasya also loves the prince but understands he can neither return her sexual love nor contain her existential rage. This is why she keeps returning to Rogozhin.

The novel also demonstrates the limits and even the failure of human compassion. People often reject the compassion of others because their ego needs a different kind of love. Furthermore, genuine compassion often acts as a mirror of self, which can be unbearable for people in certain situations. This is the case with General Ivolgin. He cannot bear Myshkin's pity, which clearly shows him he has been living a sham life. Shortly after the general's rejection of Myshkin after he tells him the Napoleon story, Ivolgin has a stroke.

Myshkin's compassion for Rogozhin cannot save him because he is consumed by sensuality and beyond the reach of any remedy that may be available through friendship. Rogozhin rejects the prince's forgiveness, telling him he is not sorry he tried to stab him. He accepts Myshkin's advice only after he has committed murder and quenched his desire to finally possess the woman of his obsession—by extinguishing her life. Myshkin's pity for Nastasya cannot erase the trauma she has suffered because of the way she was used by Totsky. Her need for revenge on her tormenter overshadows her desire for rehabilitation, which is why she remains involved with Rogozhin. Her hatred of Totsky is transferred to Rogozhin, and she torments him even as she torments herself and ultimately succumbs to Rogozhin's murderous rage.

Problem of Death

Novelist and literary critic A.S. Byatt says "the true subject of The Idiot is the imminence and immanence of death," represented by Holbein's portrait of the dead Christ, his body "damaged and destroyed, with no hint of a possible future resurrection." The novel's form is shaped by "Dostoevsky's deepest preoccupations ... doubt and fear that is the intense religious emotion in this novel." Like all of Dostoevsky's novels, faith and doubt are the two poles between which all the action takes place, but in The Idiot the fear and horror of death, which may not be followed by metaphysical epiphany, takes center stage. Thus, the cruelty of capital punishment is an important subtheme. Myshkin provides vivid details of a beheading in France as well as a detailed story of someone reprieved from execution by firing squad. These deaths are unbearably cruel because they force a person to fully experience for a length of time their impending extinction. Similarly, Ippolit, the dying consumptive, must cope with the sentence of a short life to which he cannot assign any meaning that gives him satisfaction or comfort.

Always lurking in the background of this novel is the corporeal body and its mortality and the horror of contemplating one's own death and decay. The only solution to this problem is to take refuge in the Russian Christ, a humble and compassionate Jesus—a course recommended by Prince Myshkin. But the resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for humanity, along with the possibility of transcending the corporeal form, seems to be absent in The Idiot.

Corruption of Society by Capitalism

Money plays an important role is this novel, and most of the human transactions that take place are inextricably linked with buying and selling. In Dostoevsky's view the technological and scientific advances in Western Europe that gave rise to industrialism and new ways of defining humanity also destroyed traditional values. As a Slavophile (one who wants to preserve Russian culture from European influence), Dostoevsky believed that the corrupting effects of capitalism on Russian culture were as bad as those of socialism.

The novel depicts General Epanchin and Totsky as landowners and joint-stock holders, getting richer through the interests they hold in corporations. Totsky is a thoroughly corrupt man who uses his money to turn an innocent child into a prostitute. General Epanchin is willing to marry off his own daughter to this corrupt man because it will benefit him financially by strengthening their business partnership and bringing Totsky's money into the Epanchin family.

Totsky thinks he can buy off Nastasya Filippovna with 75,000 rubles, and Ganya is willing to marry her for her money, even though he doesn't love her, so that he can move up the socioeconomic ladder. As noted by literary critic Roger Anderson, Ganya exchanges his spiritual identity for a monetary identity. Meanwhile, Rogozhin uses his new inheritance to offer Ganya 100,000 rubles to stop pursuing Nastasya, but his actions amount to winning Nastasya as the highest bidder.

Prince Myshkin's new inheritance is diminished when a parade of people with false claims ask him for money. Burdovsky, egged on by his friends and a crooked lawyer, tries to claim part of the prince's inheritance by falsely stating he is the illegitimate son of the prince's guardian and mentor. Other minor characters also abandon their moral values to get their hands on some money. For example, General Ivolgin pawns his mistress's possessions to get money and impoverishes her children and then steals 400 rubles from Lebedev. Ptitsyn, Varya's husband, makes a living as a money lender, as does Lebedev. Lending money at interest, long considered by European Christians to be a disreputable profession, became even more common with the rise of capitalism. The ability to make money with money cannot help but encourage greed and corruption, a phenomenon which Dostoevsky clearly saw and which he portrays in the novel.

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