Study Guide

The Idiot What's Up With the Ending?

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

What's Up With the Ending?

We've spent a whole bunch of time discussing the idea that Myshkin is basically supposed to be Jesus, minus the supernatural and divine parts—you know, a walking, talking, perfect human being. And this isn't some analysis tacked on after the fact, either. Dostoevsky himself wrote his niece a long letter laying out the whole make-an-ideal-human program (check out "In a Nutshell"). So what exactly are we supposed to make of the ending?

Um, spoiler alert: Nastasya is murdered by Rogozhin, who is sent to prison; Myshkin is driven completely catatonic by the experience and shipped off to Switzerland; and Aglaya marries some con artist and is separated from her family forever.

It really doesn't seem like Myshkin saved anyone. But why didn't he? It's hard to know, and scholars disagree on this. Is the idea that you just can't have a perfect person function in the real world? Is the whole novel a drawn-out downer about how a dude who was able to reach out and touch some people in a simple, rural setting—that Swiss village where Myshkin really did make a bunch of kids see the light—could never possibly be able to change the minds and attitudes of the hardened aristocrats of 19th century high society?

Or is novel an elaborate test—just like that Holbein painting that tests one's faith? (Check out the "Symbols" section for some chitchat about it.) Are we meant to hear the description of a near-catatonic Myshkin at the end of the novel and think of it not as total defeat, but rather as the beginning of his path to recovery?