Although The Idiot is not a novel of manners, and so issues of class status and the subtle hierarchies of society are not a major concern, we do experience the differences between the aristocracy, the middle classes, and to a small extent the lower class. At the same time, the novel is concerned with society as a whole, and with its rules of behavior, which seem ironclad until someone demonstrates their bogus nature.
Questions About Society and Class
- Where does Myshkin's immediate interest in the aristocracy and in his own status as a member of it come from? Does it seem sudden that he feels so at home at the Epanchin dinner party, or are there signs earlier on that he does really feel himself to be of a higher class than many of the people with whom he interacts?
- The novel is full of examples of people being socially out of place (Rogozhin's crew being too shy to come into an apartment, Mrs. Epanchin being totally horrified at the low class people hanging around Myshkin's rented house, General Ivolgin betraying his high rank by being so unfit to be around other people). Compare these episodes.
- Does the novel advocate people knowing their place, or does it support social mobility? Are those who go against their proper station punished or rewarded? What would Nastasya be like if she were a man? Would we see her actions and desires of rubbing society's nose in her bad behavior differently? What about if one of the other characters were the opposite gender?
Chew on This
The characters who feel and care about class differences most strongly are those who suffer least from being exposed to these differences.
Although at least in part, the novel seems to study the way society works, in practice it is almost impossible to determine the social status of characters through their actions, speech, or even dress. For every slovenly peasant, there is an equally slovenly upper class character, and vice-versa.