Study Guide

The Idiot Innocence

By Fyodor Dostoevsky


The conversation proceeded. The readiness of the fair-haired young man in the cloak to answer all his opposite neighbor'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. (1.1.10)

The fact that this behavior comes off as endearing rather than off-kilter just goes to show how locked down this society really is in terms of rules of conduct.

[A] great change now came over Nastasya Philipovna. She suddenly displayed unusual decision of character; and without wasting time in thought, she left her country home and came up to St. Petersburg, straight to Totsky's house, all alone.

The latter, amazed at her conduct, began to express his displeasure; but he very soon became aware that he must change his voice, style, and everything else, with this young lady; the good old times were gone. An entirely new and different woman sat before him, between whom and the girl he had left in the country last July there seemed nothing in common.

In the first place, this new woman understood a good deal more than was usual for young people of her age […]. Her character was absolutely changed. No more of the girlish alternations of timidity and petulance, the adorable naivete, the reveries, the tears, the playfulness... It was an entirely new and hitherto unknown being who now sat and laughed at him […] he now had to deal with a being who was outside the pale of the ordinary rules of traditional behaviour, and who would not only threaten mischief but would undoubtedly carry it out, and stop for no one. (1.4.7-10)

It's funny how we totally start out rooting for this lady, right? Here, she is like some kind of proto-feminist avenging superhero or something, with this dramatic change being her origin story. (Hey, some get bitten by radioactive spiders, others get shafted by the old guys who made them their mistresses.) Too bad she can't make it last.

"I must say it's very nice of you to laugh. I see you really are a kind-hearted fellow," said Mrs. Epanchin.

"I'm not always kind, though."

"I am kind myself, and always kind too, if you please!" she retorted, unexpectedly; "and that is my chief fault, for one ought not to be always kind. I am often angry with these girls and their father; but the worst of it is, I am always kindest when I am cross. I was very angry just before you came and pretended I couldn't and didn't understand anything. That happens to me—like a child. Aglaya there taught me a lesson—thanks, Aglaya, dear. Anyhow it's all nonsense. I'm still not as stupid as I seem and as my daughters would have me appear. I have a strong character and am not very shy. Come here Aglaya and kiss me—there—that's enough" she added, as Aglaya came forward and kissed her lips and then her hand. (1.5.58-65)

There are a lot of descriptions of Mrs. Epanchin as being childish or child-like. Myshkin calls her that, and it's a pretty high compliment for him to give. Is Mrs. Epanchin child-like because she is somehow innocent of some of life's complications? Or because she is moody and a little chaotic?

[T]he arrival of the prince came almost as a godsend.

The announcement of his name gave rise to some surprise and to some smiles, especially when it became evident, from Nastasya's astonished look that she had not thought of inviting him. But her astonishment once over, Nastasya showed such satisfaction that all prepared to greet the prince with cordial smiles of welcome.

"Of course," remarked General Epanchin, "he does this out of pure innocence. It's a little dangerous, perhaps, to encourage this sort of freedom; but it is rather a good thing that he has arrived just at this moment. He may enliven us a little with his originalities." "Especially as he asked himself," said Ferdishenko.

"What's that got to do with it?" asked the general, who loathed Ferdishenko.

"Why, he must pay toll for his entrance," explained the latter. (1.13.15-20)

For General Epanchin, the prince's innocence is something to be cultivated for public pleasure. For grody-to-the-max Ferdishenko, though, it's something to be exploited for amusement. Which is pretty much what every other person Myshkin ever comes across tries to do.

"[Y]ou needn't be afraid, Ganya; everybody knows what your worst action is without the need of any lying on your part. Only think, gentlemen,"—and Ferdishenko here grew quite enthusiastic, "only think with what eyes we shall observe one another tomorrow, after our tales have been told!"


"But, pardon me, Mr. Ferdishenko, is it possible to make a game out of this kind of thing?" persisted Totsky, growing more and more uneasy. "I assure you it can't be a success. […] as Gavrila Ardalionovitch has said, the least suggestion of a falsehood takes all point out of the game. It seems to me that sincerity, on the other hand, is only possible if combined with a kind of bad taste that would be utterly out of place here."

"How subtle you are, Afanasy Ivanovitch! You astonish me," cried Ferdishenko. "You will remark, gentleman, that in saying that I could not recount the story of my theft so as to be believed, Afanasy Ivanovitch has very ingeniously implied that I am not capable of thieving—(it would have been bad taste to say so openly); and all the time he is probably firmly convinced, in his own mind, that I am very well capable of it!" (1.13.79-86)

Ooh, another moment where innocence is converted to experience, or at least that's what Ferdishenko is hoping will happen after this game is played. Check out that thing about how the players' eyes will be changed after they find out all of these gross details about each other. Can we connect that to Nastasya and Rogozhin's eyes?

"At first I received the news with mistrust, then I said to myself that I might be mistaken, and that Pavlichev might possibly have had a son. […] That is why I thought it my duty to try and help him as 'Pavlichev's son'; in the first place by rescuing him from the influence of Chebarov, and secondly by making myself his friend. I have resolved to give him ten thousand roubles; that is about the sum which I calculate that Pavlichev must have spent on me. […] the main point is that Mr. Burdovsky is not Pavlichev's son at all. Gavrila Ardalionovitch has just told me of his discovery, and assures me that he has positive proofs. […] there can be no further doubt that Chebarov is a rogue! He has deceived poor Mr. Burdovsky, and all of you, gentlemen, who have come forward so nobly to support your friend—(he evidently needs support, I quite see that!). He has abused your credulity and involved you all in an attempted fraud, for when all is said and done this claim is nothing else!" (2.8.65-92)

It's kind of hard to know what to make of what the prince says here. Do you really think that he means it when he says that Burdovsky and his pals are a bunch of yokels who were bamboozled by this wily Chebarov guy into trying to get some money out of Myshkin? Or is this a really well-crafted attempt of letting Burdovsky save face in front of this room full of people? Who is really innocent here?

"Oh, undoubtedly, this person wished somehow, and for some reason, to do Evgeny Pavlovich a bad turn, by attributing to him—before witnesses—qualities which he neither has nor can have," replied Prince S. drily enough.

Muiskhin looked disturbed, but continued to gaze intently and questioningly into Prince S.'s face. The latter, however, remained silent.

"Then it was not simply a matter of bills?" Muishkin said at last, with some impatience. "It was not as she said?" (2.11.12-14)

So, yeah, Radomsky turns out to be not actually quite so innocent of the whole embezzlement situation, right? But Nastasya is also pretty guilty—she is acting under orders from Lebedev, who for some reason knows about Radomsky's suspiciously well-timed resignation from the army. So do we feel bad for Radomsky and how this yelling-from-the-carriage incident derails his thing with Aglaya?

"I want to be brave, and be afraid of nobody. I don't want to go to their balls and things—I want to do good. I have long desired to run away, for I have been kept shut up for twenty years, and they are always trying to marry me off. I wanted to run away when I was fourteen years old—I was a little fool then, I know—but now I have worked it all out, and I have waited for you to tell me about foreign countries. I have never seen a single Gothic cathedral. I must go to Rome; I must see all the museums; I must study in Paris. All this last year I have been preparing and reading forbidden books. Alexandra and Adelaida are allowed to read anything they like, but I mayn't."


[The prince] could not believe that this was the same haughty young girl who had once so proudly shown him Ganya's letter. He could not understand how that proud and austere beauty could show herself to be such an utter child—a child who probably did not even now understand some words.

"Have you always lived at home, Aglaya Ivanovna?" he asked. "I mean, have you never been to school, or college, or anything?"

"No—never—nowhere! I've been at home all my life, corked up in a bottle; and they expect me to be married straight out of it." (3.8.64-75)

Compare this scene to the one where Nastasya shows up to confront Totsky. Here, we also have a sudden transformation, and the prince also wonders who this person is in front of him who seems nothing like the one he has knows all this time. In this case however, the prince thinks Aglaya is regressing into childhood, whereas Nastasya was clearly busting out of her childhood shell into adulthood. But are these really childish requests on Aglaya's part? None of what she is saying sounds all that crazy to us. And hey, she actually ends up doing exactly what she says she wants to do, right?

[W]hen the whole essence of an ordinary person's nature lies in his perpetual and unchangeable commonplaceness; and when in spite of all his endeavours to do something out of the common, this person ends, eventually, by remaining in his unbroken line of routine—[…]. [A] type of commonplaceness which will not for the world, if it can help it, be contented, but strains and yearns to be something original and independent, without the slightest possibility of being so.


Such were, for instance, Varvara Ardalionovna Ptitsyn, her husband, and her brother, Ganya. There is nothing so annoying as to be fairly rich, of a fairly good family, pleasing presence, average education, to be "not stupid," kind-hearted, and yet to have no talent at all, no originality, not a single idea of one's own—to be, in fact, "just like everyone else."

[Ganya] was from head to foot permeated and saturated with the longing to be original. This class, as I have said above, is far less happy. For the "clever commonplace" person, though he may possibly imagine himself a man of genius and originality, none the less has within his heart the deathless worm of suspicion and doubt; and this doubt sometimes brings a clever man to despair. (4.1.2-12)

It's kind of interesting to think of unoriginality as a form of innocence. You know, a person who is innocent of new ideas or opinions. What does this formulation reveal about Ganya?

"I am a prince of an old family myself, and I am sitting among my peers; and I am talking like this in the hope of saving us all; in the hope that our class will not disappear altogether—into the darkness—unguessing its danger—blaming everything around it, and losing ground every day. Why should we disappear and give place to others, when we may still, if we choose, remain in the front rank and lead the battle? Let us be servants, that we may become lords in due season!" 


"Do you know, I cannot understand how anyone can pass by a green tree, and not feel happy only to look at it! How anyone can talk to a man and not feel happy in loving him! Oh, it is my own fault that I cannot express myself well enough! But there are lovely things at every step I take—things which even the most miserable man must recognize as beautiful. Look at a little child—look at God's day-dawn—look at the grass growing—look at the eyes that love you, as they gaze back into your eyes!" (4.7.107-110)

The party at the Epanchins' house is a pretty great set-piece for the social satire side of the prince's innocence. He can't begin to imagine that all the people who are being so friendly and charming there are just putting on good manners. But it's also the place where he rants about the evils of the Catholic Church, and then about the fact that the Russian aristocracy needs to dig a little deeper to hold on to power and status—both things that don't really sounds like the totally wide-eyed innocent Myshkin that we know. So what do we make of this speech? Does it clarify anything about Myshkin and his goals? Make him more mystifying?