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Literature / The Idiot

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For a long time now I’ve been tormented by a certain idea, but I’ve been afraid to make a novel out of it, because the thought is too difficult, and I’m not ready for it, though it’s thoroughly tempting thought and I love it. The idea is — to portray a perfectly beautiful man. Nothing, in my opinion, can be more difficult than that, especially in our time.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in a letter to Apollon Maikov, January 12, 1868

The Idiot (Идиот) is a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, originally published serially between 1868 and 1869.

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg after a several-year stay at a Swiss sanatorium. He had received treatment for epilepsy and supposed mental deficiencies, and now that his treatments are at an end, he’s eager to “be with people” again.

What Prince Myshkin finds within his very first day on Russian soil are people who, whether nobility or lower class, whether old Orthodox or young nihilists, are constantly struggling against each other: struggling for social status, for money, or for romantic conquest. He meets the brooding and passionate Rogozhin, the bitterly philosophical Ippolit, the possibly-mad femme fatale Nastasya, the capricious daughter of nobility Aglaya, and the vain but ordinary Gavrila.

These people, with their crossed purposes and intrigues, are a keg of gunpowder, and Prince Myshkin’s noble qualities—his kindness, humility, and surprising forthrightness— are the spark that sets them off. Because of Myshkin’s innocence, nearly everyone assumes him to be a fool, and either immediately takes him into their confidence, or tries to exploit him outright. The results are alternately tragic and darkly comic.

In 1951 it received a Setting Update to Japan, in a film directed by Akira Kurosawa. In 2003, the novel was adapted into a rather well-received (Russian) miniseries directed by Vladimir Bortko.

Provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: General Ivolgin and Lebedyev are both drunks, so naturally they become best friends, and continually embarrass their sensitive children.
  • Apologizes a Lot: Lukyan Timofeyevich Lebedev, when engaging in Yes-Man mode, will browbeat himself and wax lyrical in his agreement with any criticism flung in his direction. Myshkin, too, tends to apologize at the drop of a hat, and gets characters yelling at him for being an Extreme Doormat.
  • Attention Whore: Ippolit Terentyev, possibly. Other characters speculate that he can’t stand the thought that other people are happy while he’s dying of tuberculosis.
  • Beam Me Up, Scotty!: invoked Happens in-story. Both Ippolit and Aglaya attribute the phrase “Beauty will save the world” to Prince Myshkin. What Myshkin actually said was, “Beauty is difficult to judge; I'm not prepared yet. Beauty is a mystery.”
  • Been There, Shaped History: General Ivolgin, a pathological liar, likes to tell self-aggrandizing stories. At one point, he launches into a multi-chapter-spanning epic in which he serves Napoleon, and it is his influence that convinces Napoleon to give up his conquest of Russia.
  • Betty and Veronica: For the most part, Aglaia and Nastasya are this respectively for Myshkin, and Myshkin and Rogozhin respectively for Nastasya. And both Myshkin and Nastasya, when faced with a choice, opt to be with the Veronica, the one they're not actually in love with, whom they know full-well is likely destructive for them personally.
  • Big Brother Bully: Ganya for Varya. He almost hits her before the prince intervenes. To Kolya he's more of an Aloof Big Brother.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: On Myshkin's birthday he has to witness Ippolit's suicide attempt at his Surprise Party and later read Nastasya's harrowing letters.
  • Book Ends: Major spoiler. The novel opens with Myshkin having been just released from a Swiss sanatorium. The novel ends with Myshkin recommitted to the sanatorium.
  • Brain Fever: Rogozhin suffers a bout.
  • Break the Cutie: The plot in a nutshell.
  • Break Them by Talking: Aglaya attempts this on Nastasya, her romantic rival, when they met face to face in the end of the novel. Aglaya succeeds, and it backfires horribly. Nastasya abandons her noble intentions to let her beloved Myshkin be happy and demands he stays with her; he hesitates, and it's enough to break Aglaya's heart.
  • Broken Bird: Poor Nastasya's been through a lot.
  • Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Nastasya and Myshkin are a Gender Flipped version. Nastasya's not getting over her torrid past anytime soon, and as such Myshkin dedicates himself to comforting her and trying to help her see hope and value in herself.
  • Brutal Honesty: Combined with Innocently Insensitive - because of his No Social Skills, Myshkin actually has a bizarre version of this. He is, of course, polite and never means to offend anyone, but he innocently tells Aglaia she's 'almost as pretty' as Nastasya, tells Ganya he's 'ordinary' and tells the whole company at the Epanchins' party all the nasty things he's heard about the upper class.
  • Bungled Suicide: Ippolit attempts to shoot himself in the head. His gun misfires. (Though, owing to his aforementioned attention whoring, some characters suspect that Ippolit wasn’t actually trying to kill himself and had loaded his gun wrong deliberately.) Ultimately, it's left up to the reader to decide if his suicide attempt was genuine.
  • Character Filibuster: Myshkin launches a screed against the Catholic Church, claiming that it is an anti-Christian, power-hungry institution that created atheism, and that the Russian Orthodox Church should stand against it.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Defied. Prince Myshkin is a Russian Orthodox Christian and launches into a Character Filibuster denouncing the Catholic Church as an anti-Christian, power-hungry institution that created atheism; against the Catholic Church and Western ideas stands the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Myshkin seems to be drawn to people on the verge of death or ruin - he describes his impressions seeing a man about to be executed, is determined to befriend consumptive Ippolit, be a refuge for both Marie and Nastasya, ad infinitum. His efforts to "save" them, however, are usually less than successful.
  • Collapsed Mid-Speech: Poor Myshkin goes down with a seizure in the middle of an impromptu impassioned speech to the entire company at the Epanchins' party.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: The adaptation often dresses Aglaya and the Prince in light-coloured clothes and Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin in black; this seems to be not about good vs evil though, but about life vs death and heaven vs hell. When all four of them are suddenly in black, you know something's up.
  • Converting for Love: Aglaia runs off with a Polish count and converts to Roman Catholicism for him, though "Love" is probably not the right word.
  • Convulsive Seizures: Myshkin suffers two bouts over the course of the novel. The first inadvertently saves his life.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Rogozhin's obsessive jealousy over Nastasya drives him on to all sorts of evil.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Aglaya. It may be noticed even in the book, but it's especially glaring in the adaptation. Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin have their moments too.
  • Death Seeker: Nastasya Filippovna. She believes that's exactly what she deserves. She gets her wish.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Myshkin doesn't end up with Nastasya or Aglaya. The former is murdered by Rogozhin, the latter marries a Polish count. Oh, and Myshkin himself loses his sanity.
  • Downer Ending: Rogozhin murders Nastasya. Upon finding out about it, Myshkin loses his sanity.
  • The Dulcinea Effect: Myshkin for Nastasya. He sees her, learns a bit about her, and is immediately moved to defend her honor, protect and comfort her. Aglaia even lampshades it in her "poor knight" poetry reading, where she indirectly compares Myshkin's championing of Nastasya to the knight in the poem, who is an Expy of Don Quixote, champion of the original Dulcinea.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Being Doestoevsky, this is not surprising. Myshkin and company have a myriad of issues and traumas, ranging from alcoholism to suicidal self-loathing.
  • Easily Forgiven: Rogozhin attempts to murder Myshkin, and the latter is only inadvertently saved by his Convulsive Seizures. Later, Myshkin doesn't hold it against Rogozhin at all.
  • Femme Fatale: Nastasya Filippovna.
  • Foil:
    • Prince Myshkin, Rogozhin, and Ippolit.
    • Nastasya Filipponva and Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchina.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Nastassya Filippovna makes a comment about Rogozhin becoming consumed by his passions and ending up being exiled to Siberia. Much later on, Rogozhin murders her...and is sentenced to fifteen years' hard labour in Siberia.
    • Early in the novel, Myshkin flat-out predicts that Rogozhin will murder Nastasya.
    • The first time Myshkin and Nastasya meet in person, he is struck speechless. He ends up Dumb Struck after seeing her dead in the end of the novel.
    • Early in the novel, Myshkin says that the climate of St. Petersburg might be harmful for him. Indeed, his Convulsive Seizures return, and in the end, the moral climate of the city destroys his sanity.
    • Aglaya recites Pushkin's poem about the poor knight, not too subtly comparing Myshkin to the knight. The poem ends with the knight losing his sanity, and the same happens to Myshkin by the end of the novel.
  • Friendship Moment: Myshkin and Rogozhin, in Part Two, meet to discuss their feelings for Nastasya, and exchange crosses before parting. It doesn't stop Rogozhin trying to murder him a few hours later.
  • Friendless Background: Due to severe debilitating illness that isolated him from his peers, Myshkin has never really been friends with anyone his own age before. No wonder he has No Social Skills.
  • Friend-or-Idol Decision: Aglaya and Nastasya's confrontation ends with them forcing Prince Myshkin to decide which is more important, his love for Aglaya, or his pity for Nastasya?
  • Friend to All Children: Myshkin was beloved by children when he was getting over his illness in Switzerland. It's also to some degree why he makes friends so easily with Kolya, who's a young teen. It's likely because Children Are Innocent so he, being the ultimate innocent, can relate to them better, and can influence them to adopt his kind and giving mindset before they become too jaded.
  • Funetik Aksent: When Lebedev tries to use French words and mispronounces them, the words are written phonetically to convey his accent.
  • Girl Next Door: Vera Lebedyev is a sweet, honest, and down-to-earth girl who lives literally next door (the other half of the villa) to Myshkin.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Myshkin is blond and is the nicest guy in the book. He also has Innocent Blue Eyes.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: To some extent why every character is so comfortable calling Myshkin an 'idiot'. In those days, while it still did carry its modern meaning, they used it just as often as a clinical term for people with mental disabilities, believed to be related to epilepsy. A heavy dose of Values Dissonance comes in as well, as it would be about the equivalent of calling him a 'retard' which is still quite offensive today.
  • Henpecked Husband: General Epanchin is a fairly minor example.
  • Heroic BSoD: The finale leaves Prince Myshkin mad and unable to speak.
  • Honorable Marriage Proposal: Myshkin's proposal to Nastasya is a variation of this, as he tells her that he is actually in love with her, that she is already an honest woman, and if she accepted, it would be her doing him an honor.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Myshkin kisses Vera's hand in gratitude for her sympathy and to reassure her. She blushes immensely. He also kisses her forehead later on.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Prince Myshkin.
  • Insecure Love Interest: Nastasya loves the prince, but is convinced she is too wicked to be worthy of him and would only bring him to ruin if she stayed with him.
  • Internalized Categorism: Nastasya believes herself forever soiled by her time as Totsky’s mistress, and decides she might as well be a bad girl.
  • Love at First Sight: Rogozhin saw Nastasya on the street and, by his own admission, was all of a blaze at once.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Let's see. Myshkin loves Aglaya, and is briefly in love with Nastasya but mainly just pities her (which nevertheless makes Aglaya see her as a threat). Gavrila loves Aglaya, but for various reasons won't commit himself to her; he doesn't love Nastasya at all, but he's seeking her hand anyway because of her impressive dowry. Ippolit seems to also have a crush on Aglaia, who disdains Gavrila, loves Myshkin but won't admit it, and is sort of intrigued by Ippolit, despite barely interacting with her. Rogozhin only has eyes for Nastasya. Nastasya used to be Totsky's mistress but now she hates the man; she seems to despise Gavrila; she's in a full-on Masochism Tango with Rogozhin, so it's unclear whether she loves or hates him; and she seems to be afraid of Myshkin—his love threatens her self-image as a bad person, and in her more selfless moments she fears that she'll hurt him.
  • Love Martyr: Played with. Nastasya returns to Rogozhin despite their Destructive Romance not out of love, but out of self-destruction. It's unclear to what degree the prince is this for Nastasya, as he does have a lot of angst over her suffering and his relationship with her, but on-screen she's usually pretty nice to him. Myshkin is actually probably more of a martyr for his supposed true love Aglaia, who is a Loving Bully to him.
  • Loving a Shadow: Yevgeny Pavlovitch conjectures that Myshkin was never truly in love with either Aglaia or Nastasya. Myshkin, very confused about his feelings, readily admits that he might be right.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: This mindset causes a great deal of the conflict in the novel, as no one (including Nastasya herself) can understand why Myshkin would care for 'disreputable' Nastasya when the 'pure and perfect' Aglaia is in love with him. It's notable because this one distinction of their sexual experience and background is all that separates the public opinion, as one can make the argument that the two beautiful, proud, capricious, intelligent and rebellious women are quite similar apart from it.
  • Man Hug: Rogozhin gives Myshkin one at parting after their Friendship Moment.
  • The Masochism Tango: Roghozin and Nastasya are the worst offenders, crossing the line into Destructive Romance, but everyone gets in on the act to some extent.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin. In Russian, "lev" means “lion”, and "mysh" means “mouse”. Furthermore, Myshkin shares his name with an architect from Karamzin’s History of the Russian State, who designed a large cathedral that collapsed in 1474.
    • Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova. Barashkov is derived from the Russian for "lamb." Nastasya is short for Anastasiya, a Greek name derived from ἀνάστασις "resurrection."
    • Aglaya is another Greek name that means "beauty". Fitting indeed.
    • Ptitsyn is derived from "bird", Ivolgin from "oriole" and Lebedev from "swan". Really, there's a lot of animal and bird motifs in the last names of the characters.
  • Mistaken for Servant: When Myshkin first answers the door to Nastasya at the Ivolgins' house, she thinks he's a particularly stupid footman, and he's too shocked to undeceive her.
  • Money to Burn: Nastasya throws a package of ten thousand rubles into her fireplace, and tells Gavrila that he can have the money if he pulls it out with his bare hands.
  • Mummies at the Dinner Table: Briefly in the end. Rogozhin murders Nastasya and preserves her body, acts like he is afraid to wake her up, and hides from people not because he will be punished for the murder, but because they will take her away.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Rogozhin tries his level best to kill the man his beloved Nastasya truly loves: namely, his sworn exchanged-cross brother, Prince Myshkin himself.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Myshkin has a lively conversation with the Epanchins' footman while he waits to see the general, and treats him as an equal. The footman is mostly just weirded out by this.
  • No Social Skills: A more subdued case of this than most, but Prince Myshkin is often this (and even acknowledges it himself).
  • Oblivious to Love: Notably, Myshkin has to be told by other characters that both Nastasya and Aglaia are in love with him, as both have too much Pride to make an Anguished Declaration of Love, and it's unclear if he realizes for himself, and he sometimes seems to view the idea of loving an "invalid" like him as ridiculous. He's even oblivious to his own love for Aglaia, for largely the same reasons, and it's very ambiguous when he realizes, as he never gets a dramatic and clear Love Epiphany.
  • Odd Friendship: Between Rogozhin and Myshkin. Myshkin is the nice, all loving Messianic Archetype, Rogozhin is rough and Hot-Blooded, they are romantic rivals, and yet, they respect and value each other and most of the time, get along surprisingly well.
  • Peerless Love Interest: Aglaia is viewed by pretty much everyone as such, especially Yevgeny Pavlovitch.
  • The Philosopher: Other characters describe Myshkin as such, and he does indeed like to speak about very heady subjects when he as the chance.
  • Poke the Poodle: According to the narrator, Gavrila would constantly insist to himself that he would be as mean as it took to succeed, but could never bring himself to do anything truly mean.
  • Poor Communication Kills: It seems no one in this book is capable of actually saying what’s on his mind (assuming that the characters themselves understand what they’re thinking); the suspicions and misunderstandings that arise are major driving forces on the plot.
  • Pride: The major motivation for nearly everybody. Prince Myshkin is darn near the only person not motivated by pride.
  • Properly Paranoid: Myshkin wanders around St. Petersburg in a haze, and tries to dismiss the panicky feeling that Rogozhin is following him as mere sickly paranoia. Rogozhin proceeds to show up and attempt murder.
  • Psychotic Love Triangle: The Myshkin/Nastasya/Rogoozhin triangle is a complex example as Myshkin and Nastasya are the ones most often called mad, but Rogozhin is the one trying - and once succeeding - at murdering the other members of it.
  • Punished for Sympathy: Ultimately, most of society condemns Myshkin for actions motivated purely by pity and compassion for Nastasya.
  • Rape as Backstory: Totsky's treatment of Nastasya was definitely statutory rape, and the damage it did to her is a huge influence on her subsequent actions and character.
  • Ridiculously Average Guy: Lampshaded and discussed at length. The narrator launches into an aside about how memorable literary types are actually exaggerations of traits from real life—and inversely, “ordinary” folks are actually watered-down versions of traits from fiction. The narrator then describes a particular class of ordinary folks, those who attempt (unsuccessfully) to make themselves unique or who (falsely) believe themselves to already be unique—and tells us that Varvara Ardalionovna Ptitsyna, her husband Ivan Petrovich Ptitsyn, and her brother Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin all belong to this class.
  • Runaway Bride: Nastasya Filippovna, multiple times. She vacillates between Myshkin and Rogozhin, being intermittently overcome by her fear and her pride and self-loathing as each wedding approaches.
  • Secret Test of Character: Sort of. The aforementioned Money to Burn scene ends with Gavrila refusing outright to go for the money, then fainting. Nastasya then pulls the money out with fire tongs and decides to give it to Gavrila anyway. “So his vanity is still greater than his lust for money. [...] I grant him full possession of it as a reward for... well, for whatever!” What’s unclear is how much (if at all) Nastasya planned any of it.
  • Self-Made Man: General Epanchin worked hard to get where he is in life, and as such has no time for petty freeloaders, which is what he assumes the prince is at first.
  • Sheep in Sheep's Clothing: Quite few characters think Myshkin can't possibly be as kind and innocent as he seems, that he must have a dark secret or a calculating ulterior motive. They are wrong.
  • Shipper on Deck: Kolya ships Myshkin/Aglaia, and Nastasya's friend Darya (who initially advocated for Dump Them All to Ganya and Rogozhin's offers) avidly ships Myshkin/Nastasya, seeing the gentle prince as Nastasya's best chance at happiness and healing. But the ultimate shipper is actually Nastasya herself, who supports Myshkin/Aglaia and actively schemes to bring it about, despite being in love with Myshkin herself, in her very twisted version of I Want My Beloved to Be Happy.
  • Shout-Out: "Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin" is often considered a not-so-veiled reference to Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: The reason why two beautiful women fight over who gets Prince Myshkin. Eventually, neither does.
  • Smug Snake: Ferdyshchenko establishes himself as this in one scene. He proposes, as a bizarre parlor game, that everyone confess the worst misdeed they ever committed. He confesses that he once stole 25 rubles for no reason, and allowed a maid to take the blame for the theft. After telling the story, he gets annoyed that no one is impressed with the deed.
  • Sour Outside, Sad Inside: Nastasya, who uses her pride and anger as a shield to deflect the pain she has gone through in her life.
  • Spell My Name With An S: Thanks to multiple translations from Russian to English.
  • Stupid Good: Myshkin's capacity for compassion and forgiveness for all stretches all reason at times, but it's a choice that he sticks to. Some interpret this as his being a Kindhearted Simpleton (a major contributor to his moniker as an 'idiot') but others realize that Good Is Not Dumb.
  • Suicide by Cop: Or, more accurately, suicide by Rogozhin. The text more-or-less confirms that Nastasya returns to Rogozhin precisely because it means her death. And she's right.
  • Third-Person Person: Lebedev talks like this in the first scene.
  • Tsundere: Aglaya, who falls head-over-heels in love but can never bring herself to publicly admit it, so she mocks the object of her affection instead.
  • Wife Husbandry: Totsky originally groomed Nastasya Filippovna as his own love interest. The plan backfired.
  • Yes-Man: Lebedev.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Myshkin delivers a rather touching speech to this effect to Broken Bird Nastasya while proposing marriage, and apparently spends even more time off-screen trying to convince her of it, but she never fully believes him.