Study Guide

The Idiot Good vs. Evil

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Good vs. Evil

[The prince] began to examine the portrait in his hand. He longed to solve the mystery of something in the face Nastasya Philipovna, something which had struck him as he looked at the portrait for the first time; the impression had not left him. It was partly the fact of her marvelous beauty that struck him, and partly something else. There was a suggestion of immense pride and disdain in the face almost of hatred, and at the same time something confiding and very full of simplicity. The contrast aroused a deep sympathy in his heart as he looked at the lovely face. The blinding loveliness of it was almost intolerable, this pale thin face with its flaming eyes; it was a strange beauty. (1.7.46-47)

It's almost as if he can see both the person that Nastasya is today and the person she could have been without that whole Totsky situation. Also, check out the "flaming eyes" reference—Nastasya and Rogozhin have matching eyes.

"Oh, aren't you ashamed of yourself—aren't you ashamed? Are you really the sort of woman you are trying to represent yourself to be? Is it possible?" The prince was now addressing Nastasya, in a tone of reproach, which evidently came from his very heart.

Nastasya Philipovna […] walked quickly up to Nina Alexandrovna, seized her hand and lifted it to her lips. "He guessed quite right. I am not that sort of woman," she whispered hurriedly, flushing red all over. Then she turned again and left the room so quickly that no one could imagine what she had come back for. All they saw was that she said something to Nina Alexandrovna in a hurried whisper, and seemed to kiss her hand. Varya, however, both saw and heard all, and watched Nastasya out of the room with an expression of wonder. (1.10.61-64)

It's the duality of Nastasya that makes her so interesting in the beginning. She both flaunts her public role as this immoral, over-sexed being, and also can't help but see herself from the outside and mourn the kind of life she could have had.

[Nastasya] was in full dress this evening; and her appearance was certainly calculated to impress all beholders. She took [Myshkin's] hand and led him towards her other guests. But just before they reached the drawing-room door, the prince stopped her, and hurriedly and in great agitation whispered to her:

"You are altogether perfection; even your pallor and thinness are perfect; one could not wish you otherwise. I did so wish to come and see you. I—forgive me, please—"

"Don't apologize," said Nastasya, laughing; "you spoil the whole originality of the thing." (1.13.39-42)

Yes, yet another quotation about Nastasya and her two sides. But it's just so interesting how many conflicting and contrasting aspects she has! Here, she thinks Myshkin is overcome by her superhot hotness, but instead he surprises her with his word choice. "Perfect" is meant to evoke her interior life, not just her physical attractiveness, and this makes her shift from haughty-beauty behavior to a more confiding, laughing tone.

[Myshkin] remembered that during his epileptic fits, or rather immediately preceding them, he had always experienced a moment or two when his whole heart, and mind, and body seemed to wake up to vigour and light; when he became filled with joy and hope, and all his anxieties seemed to be swept away for ever; these moments were but presentiments, as it were, of the one final second (it was never more than a second) in which the fit came upon him. That second, of course, was inexpressible. When his attack was over, and the prince reflected on his symptoms, he used to say to himself: "These moments, short as they are, when I feel such extreme consciousness of myself, and consequently more of life than at other times, are due only to the disease—to the sudden rupture of normal conditions. Therefore they are not really a higher kind of life, but a lower." This reasoning, however, seemed to end in a paradox, and lead to the further consideration:—"What matter though it be only disease, an abnormal tension of the brain, if when I recall and analyze the moment, it seems to have been one of harmony and beauty in the highest degree—an instant of deepest sensation, overflowing with unbounded joy and rapture, ecstatic devotion, and completest life?" (2.5.11-13)

This is kind of a reverse of the Holbein painting argument about the conflict between nature and the physical body on one side, and faith and spirituality on the other. Here, either the moments of universal truth that Myshkin experiences are a symptom of his disease and thus are worthless, or the fact that he experiences this level of connection, however it might happen, is a confirmation of some kind of higher principle.

"Do you believe that in this affair of Burdovsky you have right on your side? Do you admit that Pavlichev overwhelmed you with benefits, and perhaps saved your life? If you admit it (which we take for granted), do you intend, now that you are a millionaire, and do you not think it in conformity with justice, to indemnify Burdovsky? Yes or no? If it is yes, or, in other words, if you possess what you call honour and conscience, and we more justly call common-sense, then accede to our demand, and the matter is at an end. Give us satisfaction, without entreaties or thanks from us; do not expect thanks from us, for what you do will be done not for our sake, but for the sake of justice. If you refuse to satisfy us, that is, if your answer is no, we will go away at once, and there will be an end of the matter. But we will tell you to your face before the present company that you are a man of vulgar and undeveloped mind; we will openly deny you the right to speak in future of your honour and conscience, for you have not paid the fair price of such a right." (2.8.45)

Ippolit's strategy is to completely reverse the situation—to make the unreasonable sound reasonable. Would this kind of argument actually work on any of the novel's other characters? (Myshkin responds positively to pretty much any request for help so these kind of verbal shenanigans are moot with him.)

"Well, prince, to do you justice, you certainly know how to make the most of your—let us call it infirmity, for the sake of politeness; you have set about offering your money and friendship in such a way that no self-respecting man could possibly accept them. This is either all too innocent or all too clever—you ought to know better than anyone which." (2.9.28)

Wow, now that right there is almost a Jedi mind trick! (This is Lebedev's nephew Dokrorenko speaking, by the way.)

"Not long since I visited a convict prison and made acquaintance with some of the criminals. There were some even more dreadful criminals than this one we have been speaking of—men who have murdered a dozen of their fellow-creatures, and feel no remorse whatever. But what I especially noticed was this, that the very most hopeless and remorseless murderer—however hardened a criminal he may be—still knows that he is a criminal; that is, he is conscious that he has acted wickedly, though he may feel no remorse whatever. And they were all like this. Those of whom Evgeny Pavlovich has spoken, do not admit that they are criminals at all; they think they had a right to do what they did, and that they were even doing a good deed." (3.1.72)

So the measure of true evil isn't even the lack of guilty feelings for committing a crime, but instead the sheer inability to recognize what society's rules are in the first place. Is there a way in which Myshkin can be put in the evil category based on this kind of logic?

"I tell you, my dear fellow, Aglaya is such an extraordinary, such a self-willed, fantastical little creature, you wouldn't believe it! Every high quality, every brilliant trait of heart and mind, are to be found in her, and, with it all, so much caprice and mockery, such wild fancies—indeed, a little devil! She has just been laughing at her mother to her very face, and at her sisters, and at Prince S., and everybody—and of course she always laughs at me! You know I love the child—I love her even when she laughs at me, and I believe the wild little demon has a special fondness for me for that very reason. She loves me more than any of the others. I dare swear she has had a good laugh at you before now! You were having a quiet talk just now, I observed, after all the thunder and lightning upstairs. She was sitting with you just as though there had been no row at all." (3.3.69)

Like Nastasya, Aglaya also changes within seconds from a "wild little demon" to "sitting quietly" and chatting. They really have far more in common than not.

When Rogozhin quieted down […] the prince bent over him, sat down beside him, and with painfully beating heart and still more painful breath, watched his face intently. […] Time went on—it began to grow light.

Rogozhin began to wander—muttering disconnectedly; then he took to shouting and laughing. The prince stretched out a trembling hand and gently stroked his hair and his cheeks—he could do nothing more. His legs trembled again and he seemed to have lost the use of them. A new sensation came over him, filling his heart and soul with infinite anguish.

Meanwhile the daylight grew full and strong; and at last the prince lay down, as though overcome by despair, and laid his face against the white, motionless face of Rogozhin. His tears flowed on to Rogozhin's cheek […].

At all events when, after many hours, the door was opened and people thronged in, they found the murderer unconscious and in a raging fever. The prince was sitting by him, motionless, and each time that the sick man gave a laugh, or a shout, he hastened to pass his own trembling hand over his companion's hair and cheeks, as though trying to soothe and quiet him. But alas he understood nothing of what was said to him, and recognized none of those who surrounded him. (4.11.147-150)

What a totally amazing ending to that scene! Not only is Myshkin doing exactly the same thing to Rogozhin he did to Nastasya after the confrontation with Aglaya, but we also get the picture of the two men through the eyes of the random strangers that find them. The image is of purity embracing straight-up evil, and both are entirely lost within their minds. Whew!