Just 150 years ago, Dostoevsky sent his publisher the first chapters of what was to become his strangest novel. As countless puzzled critics have observed, The Idiot violates every critical norm and yet somehow manages to achieve real greatness. Joseph Frank, the author of the definitive biography of Dostoevsky and one of his most astute critics, observed that it is easy enough to enumerate shortcomings but “more difficult to explain why the novel triumphs so effortlessly over all the inconsistencies and awkwardnesses of its structure.” The Idiot brings to mind the old saw about how, according to the laws of physics, bumblebees should be unable to fly, but bumblebees, not knowing physics, go on flying anyway.

Picture Dostoevsky in 1867. With his bride, Anna Grigorievna, he resided abroad, not for pleasure but to escape—just barely— being thrown into debtors’ prison. To pay his fare, Dostoevsky procured an advance from his publisher Katkov for a novel to be serialized in Katkov’s influential journal, The Russian Messenger. But the money was almost gone by the time Dostoevsky left Russia, for the very reason he found himself in financial straits in the first place. Generously but imprudently, he had continued to support the ne’er-do-well son of his first wife while also maintaining the family of his late brother. Anna Grigorievna complained that her sister-in-law lived better than she did.

The Idiot violates every critical norm and yet somehow manages to achieve real greatness.

In her memoirs, Anna Grigorievna described how, exasperated by her husband’s absent-minded generosity, she disguised herself as a beggar, got a handout from her oblivious husband, and confronted him with the donation. When she married Dostoevsky, she thought he had overcome his gambling addiction, but abroad he could not resist roulette, and, of course, always lost. They pawned her dowry, then their clothing. In one letter Dostoevsky begged Katkov for another advance, saying they would otherwise be forced to pawn their linen. It sounds like exaggeration, but he wrote to a friend confessing that he had understated the case, because he could not bring himself to say that they had already pawned it.

In such conditions, the novel Dostoevsky was working on, to be called The Idiot, did not progress well. Five times, the couple was forced to move when landlords would extend no more credit. Dostoevsky was plagued by epileptic seizures, incapacitating him for days. When Anna Grigorievna went into labor with their daughter Sonya, he suffered an attack, and it was hours before she could rouse him to go for a midwife. When the baby died, he experienced guilt as well as grief because, he believed, if they had been in Russia, Sonya would have survived.

Dostoevsky simply had to produce a novel, but refused to cheapen his work. “Worst of all I fear mediocrity,” he wrote to his niece. “I assure you the novel could have been satisfactory,” he explained to his friend, the poet Apollon Maikov, “but I got incredibly fed up with it precisely because of the fact that it was satisfactory and not absolutely good.” At last he abandoned his drafts. Nothing mattered more than artistic integrity.

Dostoevsky resolved to start over with a new premise. The old Idiot dealt with a rogue who committed crime after crime, including rape and arson, but eventually found Christ and goodness. The problem was that Dostoevsky could not make the conversion psychologically convincing, and he was unwilling just to assert it. As it happened, at this very time, Tolstoy was serializing War and Peace in The Russian Messenger—has any publisher been so fortunate as Katkov?—and Tolstoy’s hero Prince Andrei does come to love his enemy in a way that is believable beyond doubt. No novel had ever achieved this feat before, and only one more would do so: Tolstoy’s next work, Anna Karenina. All the more galling, religion was Dostoevsky’s specialty, and so Tolstoy had beaten him at his own game.

Dostoevsky wondered: what if he were to begin with an Idiot who was already a perfect Christian soul? Suppose the novel should ask not whether the Christian ideal is possible but whether it is desirable? Without supernatural powers, would a true Christian do more harm than good in a world of real people with damaged—Dostoevskian—souls?

Dostoevsky proposed “to portray a perfectly beautiful man.” He could think of only three novelists who had tried: Cervantes succeeded with Don Quixote and Dickens with Pickwick, but only by making them ridiculous, rather than psychologically deep. Hugo’s Jean Valjean (in Les Misérables) captures our imagination not by his realistically portrayed inner life but by his prolonged suffering. None of these books tested the Christian ideal itself.

Why might a true Christian cause harm? Plutarch recounts how Aristides the Just would help the illiterate record their votes for the person to be ostracized from Athens each year. Someone once asked him to write down “Aristides.” Since the man was illiterate, Aristides could have written down anything, but performed the task honestly. When he asked why the man wanted to ostracize Aristides, he replied: “Simply because: I am sick and tired of hearing him called ‘the Just.’ ”

People tend to hate their moral superiors. That is why tabloids delight in reporting their lapses. When someone is better than we are, when we have shown our vileness in the face of their goodness, or when we suffer guilt for injuring them unjustly, our lost self-respect often provokes us to behave still worse. We hate them for having been the occasion of our suffering, and we want to change the rules of the game by violating them all the more. In The Brothers Karamazov, the loathsome Fyodor Pavlovich, asked why he hates a particular person, replies “with his shameless impudence: ‘I’ll tell you. He has never done me any harm, but I once played a nasty trick on him, and I’ve never forgiven him for it.’ ” Innocence can be so provoking! When guilt is mild, we may resolve to improve, but when it is acute, we often make ourselves worse, and then still worse, in an endless cycle.

Dostoevsky planned to devise situations to test the saintliness of Prince Myshkin, his perfectly beautiful man, on psychologically complex people. Creating scandalous scenes, he would examine each character’s emotions and record what each would do in response to Myshkin and to the other characters. Would Ganya, a good person blinded by greed and a desire to avenge slights, respond positively to Myshkin’s interventions? What about the novel’s heroine, the spectacularly beautiful Nastasya Fillipovna? Having been seduced when underage by her guardian Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, she simultaneously regards herself as innocent and deeply sinful. When Myshkin treats her in the way she has always dreamed of but dismissed as impossible, and still more when he unexpectedly proposes to her, she first accepts him, only to sense herself, moments later, as unworthy of her own dreams. “Did you really think I meant it?” she laughs. “Ruin a child like that? That’s more in Afanasy Ivanovich’s line: he’s fond of children!” Instead she ruins herself all the more by selling herself to the wealthy philistine Rogozhin, who is erotically obsessed with her and publicly offers her a hundred thousand rubles wrapped in newspaper. She throws the money into the fire and runs off with him.

In scene after scene, Myshkin’s influence has a decisive effect, sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. What would the final verdict on his goodness be? Dostoevsky truly did not know.

What would the final verdict on Myshkin’s goodness be? Dostoevsky truly did not know.

Once Dostoevsky had his theme, the first chapters came easily, and in January 1868 he sent them to Katkov. He didn’t have a clue what would happen next, much less how the experiment would end. Of course, he wanted the Christian ideal to triumph, but he would be guided entirely by psychological plausibility and artistic integrity. In a genuine experiment, after all, one does not know the outcome, and, as Dostoevsky’s notebooks amply testify, that was surely the case with The Idiot.

The ending that finally did happen, one of the most thrilling in world literature, utterly amazed the author who had been considering alternatives only days before. It demonstrates Dostoevsky’s absolute honesty. (If you haven’t read the book, skip the rest of this paragraph.) The Christian ideal fails as the novel winds up demonstrating what Irving Howe memorably called “the curse of saintliness.” Myshkin’s goodness destroys almost everyone. Nastasya Fillipovna runs off from Myshkin at the very altar and returns to “Rogozhin and his knife.” When Myshkin at last tracks her to Rogozhin’s dark mansion, Rogozhin demands silence lest they wake her up. He shows Myshkin the apparently sleeping heroine, which he recognizes as a corpse only when a fly settles on her face and she does not react. Rogozhin, who both loves Myshkin and has tried to murder him, lies down with him next to the body, and the rivals, one madder than the other, hug each other through the night. Rogozhin is sentenced to Siberia. Before the novel begins, Myshkin had grown up in a Swiss asylum and had only recently regained his sanity; now he returns there, this time for good, where he will live out his days as “an idiot.”

This description makes the novel seem more coherent than it is. The critics recognized it as a complete mess, as if it were written extemporaneously, with no overall structure in mind—as, in fact, it was. As Dostoevsky explained his efforts to Maikov:

I turned things over in my mind from December 4th to December 18th. I would say that on the average I came up with six plans a day (at least!). My head was in a whirl. It’s a wonder I did not go out of my mind. At last on December 18th I sat down to write my new novel and on January 5th I sent off five chapters . . . . I took a chance as at roulette: “Maybe it will develop as I write it!” This is unforgiveable.

The notebooks leave no doubt that he never knew what the next installment would contain.

As a result, inconsistencies and loose ends abound. Time and again readers get what seems like a promise of a future climax that never arrives. In the first of the novel’s four parts, Ganya three times calls Myshkin, ominously and eponymously, “an idiot,” and proclaims that they will either be great friends or great enemies. But no conflict ever takes place, and Ganya turns into a minor character. Part One also makes a great deal of Myshkin’s expert calligraphy and his ability to read character from handwriting, but this rich theme is apparently forgotten. Early on Myshkin explains that he cannot marry because he is “an invalid” (impotent?), but, as if the author has forgotten about this ailment, Myshkin goes on to court the beautiful Aglaia. One character promises to tell Myshkin a secret, concerning his noblest action, but then postpones doing so—so far as we know, forever. We catch another character “listening in silence with an extraordinary interest, for which there were perhaps special reasons”—but the “special reasons” are never revealed. Over and over, the other shoe fails to drop.

Dostoevsky is obviously planting mysteries to resolve should he ever find himself unable to think of something to write. He also hit upon the idea of resorting to his own biography. Every reader would have known that Dostoevsky, once a radical, had been arrested, imprisoned, and then one morning told that he would be executed that very day. Led out to the Senate Square, the condemned prisoners were given last rites and offered blindfolds. At the last possible moment, when rifles were trained upon the first group, an imperial courier galloped up with a message that Tsar Nicholas, Defender of the Faith and Emperor of All the Russias, had in his infinite mercy commuted their sentences to a term in a Siberian prison camp followed by exile from European Russia. One man’s hair turned white on the spot, another went mad and never recovered his sanity, while the third went on to write Crime and Punishment.

Whenever Dostoevsky needed material, Prince Myshkin’s mind turns to his favorite topic, capital punishment. His three descriptions of the last moments of a condemned man count among the most thrilling in literature, all the more so because we know they were not made up. The first ends with Myshkin musing that “perhaps there is some man who has been sentenced to death, been exposed to this torture, and has then been told ‘you can go, you are pardoned.’ Perhaps such a man could tell us [what it was like].” Every reader knew that there was such a man and he was telling us at that very moment.

The experience of execution reveals essential truths about life, especially about how people experience time. People always orient themselves to an uncertain future. Actions have meaning because our efforts matter and the future depends partly on what we choose to do. Time is open, and we must exercise free will. As W. H. Auden was to write, “we live in freedom by necessity.”

No matter what they may profess, determinists cannot help behaving as if choice were real and the future uncertain. No less than the rest of us, they experience guilt and regret, both of which imply that they might have acted differently. What’s more, if the future were fixed, if everyone were simply given whatever they might desire, as socialism promises, life would lose all meaning. As Dostoevsky once explained, “people would see that they had . . . no will, no personality . . . that their human image had disappeared . . . that it is not possible to love one’s neighbor without sacrificing to him something of one’s labor . . . and that happiness lies not in happiness but only in its pursuit.”

Humanness entails choice and uncertainty, which is why not just socialism but also capital punishment is so horrible. As Myshkin explains in his first description of execution, once the sentence is passed, death is absolutely certain, and so our humanness, which depends on uncertainty, is stripped away:

Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood . . . must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain.

All three descriptions focus on how the condemned man experiences time running out. Imagine being told, as Dostoevsky was, that one would be executed that day. The mind speeds up, as if it were trying to compress forty years of lost experience into a few hours. The road to the gallows seems endless. As one gets closer and closer, time speeds up all the more, so that forty years is concentrated into an hour, then into ten minutes, five minutes, a few seconds. The condemned man may be tortured by the thought that if he could only live experiencing the world with his present intensity, life would be an eternity and he would not waste a single moment: “This idea would turn into such a fury that he would long to be shot more quickly.”

When one lays one’s head upon the block, decades are concentrated into instants. One knows that the last sound one will hear will be the clang of the iron as the blade is released: “I would listen on purpose for it! It may last the tenth of a second, but one would be sure to hear it.” Imagine the intensity of the mind in that last tenth of a second. And now consider: some have suggested that “when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off!” At that rate, a second is experienced as ten times forty years. “And what if it knows for five seconds?”

Was there ever a work that offered such a direct access to the author’s most intimate moments?

Was there ever a work that offered such a direct access to the author’s most intimate moments? For Joseph Frank, this intimacy explained the work’s triumph over its structural flaws.

Dostoevsky also turned for material to his epilepsy, which readers knew about as well. The moments before Myshkin’s seizures resemble approaching execution, except that instead of absolute horror they confer transcendent bliss. Can it really be an illness, Myshkin asks himself, if he experiences “the acme of harmony and beauty . . . a feeling, unknown and undivined till then, of . . . ecstatic devotional merging into the highest synthesis of life”? Through our senses we encounter one or another part of existence, not existence itself, but just before the fit Myshkin experiences “the direct sensation of existence itself in the highest degree” and concludes that “for this moment one might give one’s whole life!” He understands the paradoxical line in the book of Revelation that “ ‘there shall be time no longer.’ Probably . . . this is the very second that was not long enough for the water to be spilt from Mahomet’s pitcher, though the epileptic prophet had time to gaze upon all the habitations of Allah.”

At some point it occurred to Dostoevsky that, apart from testing the Christian ideal, his work had acquired another theme: the nature of time as people experience it. In its psychological, political, and philosophical passages, the novel develops the idea that time is truly open. There are more possibilities than actualities, and whatever does happen, something else might have. Dostoevsky also realized that writing without an advance plan was in fact the best way to depict the openness of time. Determinism tells us that the future is already given, and for conventional novels it is. If freedom is an illusion, then we resemble characters whose efforts can only bring about the future the author has contrived. In The Idiot, that is not the case. The author found out what would happen only when the characters did. He was no less surprised than they were.

Critics from Aristotle to the present have presumed that great literary works exhibit structure. In art, unlike life, each detail has a reason for being there. We expect an effective ending to tie up all loose ends and earlier events to anticipate later ones. In the opening chapter of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the young hero gives a pie to an escaped convict, and we can be confident that this act will mean something or the author would not have included it. In life, such confidence would be absurd because no author has shaped events into a satisfying pattern. But in art, events are not only pushed by prior ones but also pulled by later ones, which is why, as we approach the end of a book, we can guess who will marry whom and rule out endings that would not complete a good structure. Literary works allow for foreshadowing, in which earlier events happen because later events are going to happen, but life precludes such backward causation.

All these facts of artistic structure make it almost impossible to represent time as open. One could have characters assert a belief in free will or a future with many possible outcomes, but the reader knows that in the very act of doing so they are contributing to an ending already planned and recorded. Irony discrediting belief in freedom is almost unavoidable. As Tolstoy as well as Dostoevsky recognized, to represent freedom the writer must overcome what might be called the bias of the artifact, a bias in favor of determinism and closed time.

That is just what The Idiot does. Unlike Dickens’s masterpiece, it bakes no pies. Every time the other shoe fails to drop, we sense that in this work, as in life, nothing is given in advance. To make this point still more explicit, Dostoevsky had his characters read the real Russian press and react to current events just as they were happening in real life. For example, they discuss a sensational murder case that was committed after the first installments of the novel had appeared, and so could not have been part of an original plan.

Still more surprising, the heroine reads about another sensational true crime, in which a man named Mazurin, who closely resembles Rogozhin, murdered a woman much like herself, and wonders whether the same fate will befall her. Critics who call the Mazurin case a mere source of the novel miss the most important point. Tolstoy’s beloved aunt was the source of his heroine Princess Marya in War and Peace, but Marya does not know that and does not model her behavior on her original. Nastasya Fillipovna, by contrast, is fully conscious of the resemblance. She becomes aware of the crime almost as soon as it was reported in the real world and even discusses it with Rogozhin. Nastasya Fillipovna herself, not the author, chooses her to die like the real-world victim, while Rogozhin chooses to act like Mazurin, much as any one of us might become a copycat killer. Rogozhin even chooses to disperse the corpse’s smell with “Zhdanov’s fluid,” just as the press had reported of Mazurin. The novel’s characters, readers, and author all live in the same world, experience the same present, and react to the same events as they are taking place.

Readers of The Idiot rapidly suspect that the author knows outcomes no better than the characters.

The novel’s overpowering suspense depends on this intensely felt presentness. Reading most works, we cannot help reflecting that suspense is illusory since the author is driving events to a planned ending, but readers of The Idiot rapidly suspect that the author knows outcomes no better than the characters.

The novel’s most famous chapters seem to arise from nowhere, just as they occurred to the author. Ippolit Terentiev, a minor character who is obsessed with his own imminent death from tuberculosis, reads aloud his forty-page meditation on ultimate questions, especially the openness of time. He compares his imminent end to execution, making all effort pointless. He wanted to study Greek, he reflects, but gave up because “I will die before I get to the syntax.” Ippolit recorded his meditations just as they occurred to him, much like (as we reflect) the work in which Ippolit appears. In the novel’s most quoted passage, Ippolit expresses Dostoevsky’s idea that life can be meaningful and truly happy only when understood as a process, an uncertain sequence with many possible outcomes, and not as a finished product whose ending is a foregone conclusion:

Oh, you may be sure that Columbus was happy not when he had discovered America but while he was discovering it. Take my word for it, the highest moment of his happiness was just three days before the discovery of the New World, when the mutinous crew were on the point of returning to Europe in despair. It wasn’t the New World that mattered, even if it had fallen to pieces.

Columbus died almost without seeing it; and not really knowing what he had discovered. It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.

Writing The Idiot, Dostoevsky discovered a way to overcome the bias of the artifact and represent freedom with unprecedented power. To be sure, Tolstoy hit upon a similar strategy for War and Peace, which, he explained, he was writing without determining what would happen to his fictional characters. The difference is that Tolstoy knew from the start that his theme was the contingency of events and from the outset planned a book with no advance plan. Dostoevsky did not. Appropriately enough, the idea of process occurred to him only in process. It came as a surprise, and the reader senses the unexpected discovery. For that reason, it is all the more effective. In literature of this sort, and especially in The Idiot, what matters is not just the final product but the everlasting and perpetual process.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 4
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