by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin
An epileptic young man—an example of a perfectly good person. Myshkin travels from a Swiss clinic to Petersburg to find a place for himself in Russia. Instead, he stumbles into a series of love triangles that ultimately doom their participants.
We learn pretty much everything we need to know about Myshkin's character from the first few moments we meet him. In this we are like every character in the novel. Because Myhskin? He wears his heart, along with his every other emotion or thought, on his sleeve. Check out the intro dude gets right in the beginning of the novel, when he's sitting on the train next to Rogozhin:
[Myshkin] had been obliged to bear the full severity of a Russian November night entirely unprepared. His [light jacket] was by no means adapted to the long cold journey through Russia, from Eydkuhnen to St. Petersburg. […] The readiness of the fair-haired young man in the cloak to answer all his opposite neighbour's questions was surprising. He seemed to have no suspicion of any impertinence or inappropriateness in the fact of such questions being put to him. Replying to them, he made known to the inquirer that he certainly had been long absent from Russia, more than four years; that he had been sent abroad for his health; that he had suffered from some strange nervous malady—a kind of epilepsy, with convulsive spasms. His interlocutor burst out laughing several times at his answers; and more than ever, when to the question, "whether he had been cured?" the patient replied:
"No, they did not cure me."
"Hey! that's it! You stumped up your money for nothing, and we believe in those fellows, here!" remarked the black-haired individual, sarcastically. (1.1.4-12)
Yup, we've got the whole package here. In almost every way, Myshkin is immediately shown to be totally unprepared for life. Externally? He's dressed totally inappropriately for the weather, and therefore ends up totally freezing on the unheated train. Meaning, you know, he's only just barely able to take care of himself.
More important, though, is the way he talks to the random strangers who happen to be sitting next to him. He just blurts out his whole life story—even the narrator is "surprised" at how willing Myshkin is to spill the deets of his life. He is totally oversharing without any awareness that this is at best totally socially awkward, and at worst even be dangerous—check out the fact that he isn't even clued in to the fact that Rogozhin is full out making fun of him about his incurable epilepsy.
The most amazing thing of all? Somehow, Myshkin's social ineptitude gets everyone he ever meets to really, really like him, and then to tell him his or her own story as well. Just after this meeting, Rogozhin busts out with the whole long convoluted tale of Nastasya and her deal with Totsky. Even the usually hateful Rogozhin is later in the chapter forced to wonder, "Prince, I don't know why I have taken a fancy to you; perhaps because I met you just when I did" (1.1.75).
Okay, bear with us for two quick detours here. Detour number one: for a while there, in the 19th century, Europe was swept up in a progressive humanist movement. (Quick Shmoop brain snack here: progressives are people who are into new, liberal, forward-moving ideas; humanists are people who place priority on the needs and welfare of humans in the here-and-now rather than their spiritual/religious needs in the afterlife.) Part of their deal was treating the ideas and lessons of Jesus as wise rules and suggestions for secular (i.e., non-religious) ethics rather than dwelling too much on the son-of-God aspect.
Detour number two: there is a pretty long tradition in literature of creating outsider characters who are either so deeply naive and honest, or conversely so evil, that they really show off just how self-centered, depraved, and generally terrible society is. On the clueless innocent side we've got everyone from Gulliver in Gulliver's Travels to Jo in Bleak House, while on the wicked side you can take any of the Devil-comes-to-town characters like Mr. Gaunt from Needful Things or Daryl van Horne from Witches of Eastwick. Actually, Dostoevsky mentions a few of these in the letter we talked about in the "In A Nutshell" section (go, ahead, check it out, we'll just hang out and wait for you right here).
In The Idiot we have a perfect example of the first archetype—Myshkin. There are many things about him that tie him to the Biblical Jesus. Besides his overly highly developed sense of honor, justice, and truth, there is: (1) the fact that he says he came out of his seizure-induced catatonia because he heard a donkey bray—and the donkey is an animal really closely identified with Jesus, who rode one into Jerusalem; (2) the fact that he can't help but speak in long, convoluted, but clearly meaningful, parables to the confusion of everyone around him—compare this to Jesus, who was also super into parables despite his disciples frequently complaining that they didn't get it; (3) he is an orphan with a mysterious and very powerful father-figure who provides for him and guides his life until about age 30; (4) and, hey, don't forget that whole deep commitment to truth, honor, duty, integrity, morality, equality, and humility—those are pretty key.
At the same time, Myshkin often shows us how artificial the Petersburg society around him actually is. Check out, for example, that party at the Epanchins' where Myshkin is overwhelmed by the warm and friendly feelings that seem to be coming from all the guests, because he totally doesn't get that actually they are all just acting the charming way they are expected to act at a social gathering, and that most of them secretly hate each other.
Of course, one problem with being only a Christ figure and not actually Christ is that at the end, you don't get to resurrect, and you don't really get to save anyone from anything. What do you think about the ending of the novel? Are we meant to be depressed? Is it a tragic story or is there some kind of upside?Myshkin's Timeline