“‘The Idiot’ is the most personal of all his major works, the book in which he embodies his most intimate, cherished, and sacred convictions.”

by Dennis Abrams

Previous to starting this blog, I’d read Crime and Punishment at least three to four times, so I went into it fairly familiar with the material. But the remaining books in our series, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov I’ve read only once, so reading these will be just as much an act of discovery for me as it will be (I’m guessing) for all of you.

When I read The Idiot, probably 8-10 years ago, I have to admit that at the time, it was my least favorite of Dostoevsky’s major works. Not that I didn’t like it, and not that I didn’t think that it was a great book (it certainly is that), but it felt far removed from both my conception (or preconception) of who Dostoevsky was, and the most distant from my own concerns as a reader. The more I thought about it though, the more I was certain that the fault was in me and not in the book itself, so for me, this is one of the books I’m most excited about reading.

As a brief introduction, this from Joseph Frank:

“Writing to a correspondent more than ten years after finishing The Idiot, Dostoevsky remarks, ‘All those who have spoken of it as my best work have something special in their mental formation that has always struck and pleased me.’ The Idiot is the most personal of all his major works, the book in which he embodies his most intimate, cherished, and sacred convictions. Readers who took this work to their hearts were, he must have felt, a select group of kindred souls with whom he could truly communicate. It is only in The Idiot that Dostoevsky includes an account of his ordeal before the firing squad — an ordeal that had given him a new apprehension of life, and Prince Myshkin struggles to bring this revelation to a world mired in the sloth of the material and quotodian. Prince Myshkin approximates the extremist incarnation of the Christian ideal of love that humanity can reach in its present form, but he is torn apart by the conflict between the contradictory imperatives of his apocalyptic aspirations and his early limitations.”

In other words, nearly a mirror opposite of Raskolnikov.

And to give you a sense of how the book was written and its narrative structure, this from Gary Saul Morson:

“Structure in literature makes time symmetrical, as it is not in life. In life, events are caused by prior events, but in novels, they are caused both by prior and by subsequent ones — by the end to which they are tending. Every reader knows to look for tacit or explicit foreshadowing — the backward causation effected by the pre-given end. When the reader identifies solely with characters, he or she appreciates time as open and identified with hope and fear: Oh, Oedipus, do not say that! but when a reader stands back to contemplate the whole, hope and fear diminish as he contemplates the perfect pattern. The moral concomitant of structure is stoicism. It is certainly no accident that religious consolation, and the comfort provided by prophetic theories of history, so often take the form of a divine of quasi-divine story, guided to a providential end. We are invited to contemplate the structure of time, the over-arching design that justifies all. In surrendering to such a view from outside, we anticipate the structure of time as a whole. In effect, we see the world not only as characters in it but also (we suppose) as readers outside it, readers of the historical novel that is life. Eveil then becomes, like an Aristotelian peripety, a step that, ironically, leads to the predestined end it tries to thwart. The moment in Book III of Paradise Lost, when God describes the pattern of history and views Satan rushing off to de-rail a plan he is in fact fulfilling, joins both the theological and the narratological point. We view the author of the poem and the Author of All, together, describing not only what will happen, but what has really already happened, happened outside of time. And when Ivan Karamazov rejects all such theories on moral grounds, he insists both on the presentation of suffering that no larger story can justify and on the falsity of all narrative consolations. ‘I want to stick to the fact,’ he repeats: the fact, not the story; the moment in its presentness not as a part of a larger design. Narratology is theology.


Narrative structure was therefore deeply disturbing to Dostoevskii, and he sought yet another way around it. He tried to find a literary form that would not implicitly endorse the wrong theology and the wrong view of life. In short, he needed to find an alternative to structure. He attempted several experiments at a work coherent enough to read byt lacking an over-arching standpoint. He needed to dispense with a time outside of time and find a story in which there would be no equivalent to either Milton’s God or Milton.

His idea was this: what if the author did not plan the work in advance, but instead created rich situations and let the work proceed as it would? — something I have referred to elsewhere as ‘algorithmic’ creation or as ‘creation by potential.’ Would that not be closer to life? Would such a method not refuse both the consolation and the threat to freedom implicit in an over-arching design?

In that case, the intentionality responsible for the work would resemble Kairova’s — it would be evolving, bit by bit. Like the God of the Hebrew Bible but not of the theologians, it would manifest a succession of wills. At every moment the author would know what he was doing, but not what he was going to do. He would be guided not by a single design but by an evolving set of possibilities, not by a drive towards closure but by an intense focus on the opportunities of the present moment. In such a work, there could never be an ending, if by an ending we mean a point at which all loose ends are tied up and the pattern governing the whole is revealed. For there is no pattern governing the who0le, and while some conflicts might be resolved, others would remain: as in life…the first work in which Dostoevskii tried out his new method was The Idiot; but he developed the technique further in [Demons] and, in its most extreme form, in the Diary of a Writer. The Brothers Karamazov manages to combine structure and process in a unique and remarkably satisfying synthesis.

In creating his new processual form, Dostoevskii exploited a number of opportunities. To begin with, he discovered in his very frenetic and desperate style of working as an opportunity. He made a virtue of circumstance. To recall the conditions of composition: Dostoevskii and his new wife were abroad in 1867 because he thought that journey might ameliorate his epileptic seizures and to escape from his creditors. In dire poverty, the couple pawned their wedding rings, the presents he had given her, and (many times) clothing. Special poignancy characterises the letters in which he describes having sold their linen. The author suffered one of his seizures while his wife was in labour, and when the baby Sonia died, he blamed himself. He tried to win at roulette and, as always, lost. In these circumstances, he absolutely had to produce a novel, but insisted that he would not cheapen his work — ‘worst of all I fear mediocrity.’ Yet had no time for careful planning.”

This is going to be an interesting trip…

And finally, I read this yesterday, and it seemed to me a fitting ending to our discussion of Crime and Punishment — from Harold Bloom:

“Raskolnikov never does repent and change, unless we believe the epilogue, in which Dostoevsky himself scarcely believed. Despair causes his surrender to Porfiry, but even his despair never matches the fierce ecstasy he has achieved in violating all limits. He breaks what can be broken and yet does not break himself. He cannot be broken, not because he has found any truth, objective or psychological, but because he has known, however momentarily, the nihilistic abyss, a Gnostic freedom of what is beyond our sense of being creatures in God’s creation. Konstantin Mochulsky is surely right to emphasize that Raskolnikov never comes to believe in redemption, never rejects his theory of strength and power. His surrender, as Mochulsky says, ‘is not a sign of penitence but of pussillanimity.’ We end up with a pre-Christian tragic hero ruined by blind fate, at least in his own vision. But this is about as unattractive a tragic hero can be, because Raskolnikov comes to late in cultural history to seem a Prometheus rather than a bookish intellectual. In a Christian content,. Prometheus assimilates to Satan, and Raskolnikov’s pride begins to seem to satanic for tragedy.?

Monday’s Reading — The Idiot

Part One, Chapters One and Two


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One Response to “‘The Idiot’ is the most personal of all his major works, the book in which he embodies his most intimate, cherished, and sacred convictions.”

  1. Charie says:

    I expected comments on the line from C&P a few days ago: “That’s why they’re going to exile me now, that’s what they want…Look at them all scuttling up and down in the street, and each one of them is a scoundrel and a robber by his very nature; worse than that — an idiot!”and how Prince Myshkin and Raskolnikov are “mirror opposites.” I’ve not read Dostoevsky before, and appreciate the notes that mark links among his works. Even though he uses a new processual form, I wonder how deep of a seed was already in his mind for this “opposite” work as he neared the end of C&P.

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