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Idiots in an Alien World

Dostoevsky's The Idiot

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

Dostoevsky’s lengthy novel offers insights to the psychology of people faced with a person whose behavior they cannot understand but whom they strangely admire. At least as long as it seems in their best interest to do so.

Prince Myshkin returns to his native Petersburg from a lengthy stay in a Swiss asylum, where he has learned to cope with epilepsy and attendant disorders. He seeks out distant family members because he understands he is to receive an inheritance from a departed relative. He becomes enmeshed in the Epanchin family and their assorted friends, acquaintances, and affairs.

But Myshkin is not like anyone these people have ever met before. He is kind, thoughtful, a good listener, intelligent although naïve, and a humble servant. He is so unlike the rest of them—and everyone else in this story—that their favorite term for referring to him is “idiot.”

Over the course of many new acquaintances and episodes, Myshkin receives his inheritance and, as we might expect, is even more adored by the people he has begun to know. Out of pity, he falls in love with a dark woman, but only because he wants to save her from her hopelessly lost life. His real love, one of the Epanchin daughters, ultimately rejects him, unable to cope with the compassion he shows Natasya. 

But let something go wrong, or some evil come to light, or offense be taken, and Myshkin is the first to admit it and the last to know. His willingness to accept not only his own faults but those of others causes his “friends” to scorn and reject him, leading him to return to Switzer-land and his beloved and trusted Dr. Schneider.

The story unfolds in a series of gatherings, through and around which a thread of intrigue develops focused on Myshkin and his intentions. But he seems to have no agenda except to rescue Natasya and help anyone who turns to him for any reason. Myshkin is a Christ figure, humble, eager to serve, loving, generous, and sin-bearing, after a fashion. His plight leads us to understand what to expect as believers in a world awash in narcissism and mere material gain.

 Dostoevsky masterfully carries the story forward through various scenes in which he manages to keep consistent a cast of characters who resemble many people we all might know. The Idiot is a long read and requires being willing to stumble through lots of Russian names. But it can be helpful to remind us of what our calling as “idiots” to an alien world requires of us.

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