New Oxford Review. By Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
“Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment.” — St. Augustine
Sin scars. God’s law written on our hearts testifies that sin — even forgiven sin — has real consequences. The wounds sin leaves on a soul require satisfaction, whether by penance in this life or purgation in the next. Though the concept of Purgatory has been attacked by Protestant “reformers” and Eastern schismatics for centuries, it is an infallible dogma of Holy Mother Church. Scripture and Tradition testify to the reality of Purgatory. It is not a marginal teaching; it reflects divine truth and informs the spirituality central to an authentically Catholic life.
A reminder of Purgatory may seem an inapposite introduction to a work by legendary novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But in one of the more remarkable literary and religious ironies, Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot is in fact a purgatorial story. Undoubtedly, The Idiot is a biting critique of the Russian aristocracy written fifty years before its destruction in the final Bolshevik conflagration. But Dostoyevsky is always a philosopher before he is a social commentator, and The Idiot is a profound testament to the power of purgatorial justice and mercy — something so ingrained in our nature that even Dostoyevsky, a lifelong anti-Catholic, uses purgation as the book’s primary theme without ever connecting it to its dogmatic equivalent.
Set in St. Petersburg in the 1860s, the novel is centered on a guileless “idiot,” Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin. Rather than what we think of as a conventional idiot, Prince Myshkin is a sweet and loving soul. Dostoyevsky’s description of him is more a commentary on those around him than on the Prince himself. In keeping with another New Testament principle, Dostoyevsky’s naïve Myshkin is a foil to the sophisticated and intellectual society that surrounds him: “But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).
The novel begins on a train — a metaphoric introduction suggesting that the story we are about to read is one that involves journey and change. Myshkin is a threadbare traveler returning to Russia after years of treatment in Switzerland for his “idiotic” condition — epilepsy. Dostoyevsky, himself an epileptic, often employed this condition as an important character trait in his novels, and the same is true of The Idiot.
What strikes the reader almost immediately about Prince Myshkin is his child-like innocence. He is returning to Russia in his late twenties with no family, no funds, and no clue as to how he will support himself. On the train ride he meets Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, who serves throughout the novel as Myshkin’s rival and principal antagonist. Also in his late twenties, Rogozhin, the boorish and hotheaded son of a wealthy merchant, is returning home from a short self-imposed exile following his father’s death. Dostoyevsky creates in the juxtaposition of Myshkin and Rogozhin a rich depiction of the fall of man — Myshkin representing Adam before the Fall, graced with preternatural gifts, and Rogozhin representing Adam after the Fall, fleshly to the core. On their trip, Rogozhin recounts his arguments with his family and his infatuation with Nastassya Filippovna. The two young men part in St. Petersburg with Rogozhin’s impulsive invitation that Myshkin stay with him at his home.
Once in St. Petersburg, Myshkin makes his way to the aristocratic Yepanchin home, headed by a retired general and father of three daughters of marriageable age. The general’s wife’s family is of honorable and ancient Russian lineage, of whom the Prince is a possible distant relative. Myshkin’s decision to visit the Yepanchins is based upon this tenuous connection; he has come to inquire whether they, as successful and experienced people, can provide him with some guidance as to what he should do now that he has returned to his native country.
The Yepanchin family is introduced as a microcosm of the Russian aristocracy: a “respected” family filled with duplicity, fixated on social scheming, and racked by boredom. Accordingly, in a fit of psychological projection, they view the Prince’s visit with considerable suspicion: After all, he cannot simply want their advice — he must be scheming for something else. While making the acquaintance of the Yepanchins, Myshkin sees a portrait of Nastassya Filippovna and is immediately overcome by her great beauty.
Nastassya Filippovna is connected to the Yepanchins through the general’s friend, the debauched Afanassy Ivanovich Totsky, Nastassya’s foster-father who adopted her as a young girl and later seduced her. Totsky and Gen. Yepanchin plot to marry Nastassya off to the general’s assistant, Gavrila (“Ganya”) Ardalyonovich Ivolgin, also in his late twenties. Though Ganya loves the general’s youngest daughter, Aglaya, he has agreed to marry Nastassya, whom he despises, in exchange for a payment of 75,000 rubles from Totsky.
We are thus introduced to Nastassya on the eve of announcing her decision whether or not she will marry Ganya. At a cocktail party to mark the occasion, Nastassya publicly asks Myshkin whether she should marry Ganya. He advises her to say no, and so she does. At that point, Rogozhin and his rowdy cohort crash the party. He announces that he will give Nastassya 100,000 rubles if she will leave with him that night. Myshkin then offers his hand to Nastassya and announces that he has just inherited a fortune. Nastassya is touched by Myshkin’s offer but deems herself too debauched for the innocent Prince. She leaves with the insolent Rogozhin.
Over the next several months, Myshkin and Rogozhin trade Nastassya back and forth as she cannot make up her mind between them. Rogozhin’s “love” for Nastassya is all-consuming — it is a type of burning obsession that destroys rather than edifies. Over the course of the book, it is clear that Rogozhin both loves and hates Myshkin, and a strange, foreboding friendship develops between them. He even plans to stab Myshkin but is thwarted by the latter’s sudden epileptic fit.
All the while the guileless Myshkin is hounded by charlatans masquerading as creditors of his newfound estate; he chooses to diminish his inheritance by paying the spurious claims rather than dishonoring the dishonorable by challenging their dubious veracity.
In the midst of his pursuit of the fickle Nastassya, Myshkin begins to fall in love with the capricious Aglaya, who feels the same but openly mocks him and pretends away her love for him. Her family sees through the spoiled girl’s charade and begins to treat Myshkin as her fiancé. Her love for him comes out into the open, paradoxically, after he embarrasses himself at a party thrown for him and Aglaya, at which he interacts clumsily with the haughty guests and breaks an ancient Chinese vase. His night culminates in another epileptic fit.
During their courtship of sorts, Aglaya receives letters from Nastassya in which she implores Aglaya to marry the Prince. After his disastrous introduction to the aristocracy, and as if to spite them, Aglaya forces the issue between Myshkin and Nastassya. The women want the Prince to decide between them. Even though he loves Aglaya in the romantic sense of the term, his compassion for the wounded Nastassya prompts him to pause, albeit for a moment. This pause is enough to convince Aglaya to flee the Prince, and, in turn, Nastassya agrees to marry him.
But the marriage does not take place: Nastassya leaves him at the altar and runs off again with Rogozhin. Myshkin follows them to St. Petersburg only to find that Rogozhin has stabbed her to death. The book ends with a vigil over her dead body, after which the surviving main characters leave Russia: Rogozhin to Siberia, Aglaya to Poland with a deceitful nobleman, and Myshkin to Switzerland. The ending for the book’s central characters is a metaphor of sorts for Russia’s inability to retain her young citizens.
As any Dostoyevsky fan knows, there are certain characters and dualities that are repeated in his works, and The Idiot is no exception. The spoiled aristocratic beauty is contrasted to the lower-class woman-child of suspect morals. The innocent soul who radiates goodness is contrasted to the boorish man of depravity. There are licentious men, superficial middle-aged pseudo-intellectuals, sickly boys, and, of course, villainous Poles. Dostoyevsky uses certain motifs over and over again: Catholic bashing, epilepsy, murder, and grinding poverty. But the gift that separates Dostoyevsky from other writers is his ability to reinvest these same types and motifs in characters and situations that are as fresh and compelling as the first time one reads them.
But why is this story one of purgation? It is because Myshkin cannot have Nastassya: She persists in sin and, in some measure, disqualifies herself from a relationship with a pure soul like Myshkin. Her senseless fleeing from him, over and over again, is not as senseless as it seems, and to whom she flees says much. Nastassya knows she cannot have Myshkin — her sins have defiled her. She flees from that which she desires most because nature, as it were, compels her to do so. As for Myshkin, his love for her is twofold: It is both a self-sacrificing love that seeks to heal and an aesthetic infatuation. But make no mistake, Myshkin’s hesitation at the novel’s climax underscores the fact that his love for Nastassya is profound and consuming. But it is a love that cannot be — the scarring on her soul prevents it.
Another central theme in The Idiot is that of “attraction,” in this case, the compulsion toward searing beauty. Nastassya is one of those rare beauties whose mere presence radically changes men; she is the type of woman for whom men will throw everything away in order to pursue, as if hypnotized. Dostoyevsky captures the deleterious effect such objectification has on a young woman.
The Idiot also treats the relationship between wealth and charity. We catch a glimpse of the death throes of an ossified aristocratic culture that has forgotten that it owes service to the greater good. The Yepanchins are emblematic of the inward rot of the Russian aristocracy — with its overweening self-interest and smug self-satisfaction. This is a theme that Dostoyevsky and the other great writers of Russia’s Golden Age explore in near-prophetic fashion. In some ways, the demise of the Russian aristocracy some fifty years after Dostoyevsky finished The Idiot was anti-climactic; it was already long since dead. But for Dostoyevsky, a renewed aristocracy was not the cure for Russia’s ills (nor were the revolutionaries). Rather, what Russia needed then — and needs now — is to return to its authentic Christian roots.