Study Guide

The Idiot Philosophical Viewpoints: The Non-Divine Christ

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

Philosophical Viewpoints: The Non-Divine Christ

The prince's gaze was so gentle at this moment, and his smile was so entirely free from even a shade of concealed hostility, that the general suddenly stopped, and somehow suddenly looked at his visitor in a different way; the whole change of view occurred in an instant. (1.3.21)

Here is a great example of Myshkin's totally disarming and even charming honesty. He is such a breath of fresh air that he can't help but make everyone immediately drop their defenses before him. But isn't there something inhuman in being quite this blank—with a face completely free of any shade of nuance?

"All this is very strange and interesting," said Mrs. Epanchin. "Now let's leave the donkey and go on to other matters. What are you laughing at, Aglaya? and you too, Adelaida? The prince told us his experiences very cleverly; he saw the donkey himself, and what have you ever seen?" (1.5.50-53)

This is one of the clear indicators in the text that the prince is compared directly with Christ. Jesus is closely associated with donkeys—he is described as riding one into Jerusalem. But the novel's ambivalence toward its Christ figure is evident even here in Aglaya's laughter. This makes the story less of a spiritual memory and more of a modern-day ridiculousness.

"You're not angry with me for something?" [Myshkin] asked suddenly, as if in perplexity, and yet looking straight into their eyes. […]. "That it's as if I keep teaching […]. "If you're angry, don't be," he said. "I myself know that I've lived less than others and understand less about life than anyone. Maybe I sometimes speak very strangely.…"

And he became decidedly embarrassed.

"Since you say you were happy, it means you lived more, not less; why do you pretend and apologize?" Aglaya began sternly and carpingly. "And please don't worry about lecturing us, there's nothing there to make you triumphant. With your quietism one could fill a hundred years of life with happiness. Show you an execution or show you a little finger, you'll draw an equally praiseworthy idea from both and be left feeling pleased besides. It's a way to live." (1.5.106-111)

Ah, Myshkin trying to teach people stuff. You've gotta love Aglaya's defense of the prince as some kind of stoned dude, looking at anything at all and saying "whoa, deep." Execution, little finger, there's always some moral to be drawn out of it somewhere.

"Well, then—they were all children there, and I was always among children and only with children. They were the children of the village in which I lived, and they went to the school there—all of them. […] I passed all four years of my life there among them. I wished for nothing better; I used to tell them everything and hid nothing from them. Their fathers and relations were very angry with me, because the children could do nothing without me at last, and used to throng after me at all times. The schoolmaster was my greatest enemy in the end! I had many enemies, and all because of the children. Even Schneider reproached me. What were they afraid of? One can tell a child everything, anything. I have often been struck by the fact that parents know their children so little. They should not conceal so much from them. How well even little children understand that their parents conceal things from them, because they consider them too young to understand!" (1.6.2)

What do you think about Myshkin's truth-telling policy when it comes to the children? We are definitely supposed to see a parallel with Jesus and his disciples facing the hostile authority figures around them…but dude, these are little kids. Aren't they supposed to be protected from the world and its horrors?

"Are you going to cross my path for ever, damn you!" cried Ganya; and, loosening his hold on Varya, he slapped the prince's face with all his force.

Exclamations of horror arose on all sides. The prince grew pale as death; he gazed into Ganya's eyes with a strange, wild, reproachful look; his lips trembled and vainly endeavoured to form some words; then his mouth twisted into an incongruous smile.

"Very well—never mind about me; but I shall not allow you to strike her!" he said, at last, quietly. Then, suddenly, he could bear it no longer, and covering his face with his hands, turned to the wall, and murmured in broken accents:

"Oh! how ashamed you will be of this afterwards!" (1.10.51-54)

A pretty great example of the prince's extreme empathy here. He's the one who is hurt, but all he can do is immediately put himself in Ganya's shoes. The emotion that overcomes him is pity for Ganya's embarrassment and not—we don't know—anger at being slapped in the face.

"Now, prince, what do you think?—are there not far more thieves than honest men in this world? Don't you think we may say there does not exist a single person so honest that he has never stolen anything whatever in his life?" [said Ferdishenko.]

"What a silly idea," said the actress. "Of course it is not the case. I have never stolen anything, for one."

"H'm! very well, Daria Alexeyevna; you have not stolen anything—agreed. But how about the prince, now—look how he is blushing!"

"I think you are partially right, but you exaggerate," said the prince, who had certainly blushed up, of a sudden, for some reason or other. […]

"Immediately, immediately! But if even the prince admits it, for I maintain that what the prince has said is tantamount to an admission, would someone else say (naming no names) if he ever wanted to tell the truth?" (1.14.1-6)

This is a pretty direct reference to Jesus's defense of the adulterous woman from being stoned —"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone"—turned totally on its head. What on earth could Myshkin have stolen?

"Once you did me the honour of giving me your confidence. Perhaps you have quite forgotten me now! How is it that I am writing to you? I do not know; but I am conscious of an irresistible desire to remind you of my existence, especially you. How many times I have needed all three of you; but only you have dwelt always in my mind's eye. I need you—I need you very much. I will not write about myself. I have nothing to tell you. But I long for you to be happy. ARE you happy? That is all I wished to say to you—Your brother, PR. L. MYSHKIN."

On reading this short and disconnected note, Aglaya suddenly blushed all over, and became very thoughtful. […] Next day, she took it out, and put it into a large book, as she usually did with papers which she wanted to be able to find easily. She laughed when, about a week later, she happened to notice the name of the book, and saw that it was Don Quixote de la Mancha. (2.1.44-46)

This might well be the point when Aglaya starts thinking of Myshkin as "the poor knight," what with the Don Quixote coinkidink and everything. What do we make of this letter? Aglaya reads it as a straight-up love letter, um, probably because of all that "I need you" stuff —but later, when asked about it, Myshkin is all, oh, I didn't really mean anything by it. Why this misunderstanding?

[Ippolit] began joyfully. "[…] I wanted to be a man of action—I had a right to be. Oh! what a lot of things I wanted! Now I want nothing; I renounce all my wants […]. Yes, nature is full of mockery! Why"—he continued with sudden warmth—"does she create the choicest beings only to mock at them? The only human being who is recognized as perfect, when nature showed him to mankind, was given the mission to say things which have caused the shedding of so much blood that it would have drowned mankind if it had all been shed at once!

[…]

Well, let me tell you that if I hate anyone here—I hate you all," he cried, in a hoarse, strained voice—"but you, you, with your jesuitical soul, your soul of sickly sweetness, idiot, beneficent millionaire—I hate you worse than anything or anyone on earth! I saw through you and hated you long ago; […]."

"He is ashamed of his tears!" whispered Lebedev to Lizabeta Prokofievna. "It was inevitable. Ah! what a wonderful man the prince is! He read his very soul." (2.10.80-103)

It's interesting that Ippolit goes from anger at the world for using the idea of Jesus ("the only human being recognized as perfect") as an excuse for bloodshed to getting angry at Myshkin for sitting there and empathizing with him. It might be because Myshkin is the closest thing to Jesus Ippolit has ever seen, but is just as unable to intervene in human misery on a large scale. What do you think of Lebedev's commentary on the prince's infuriating empathy?

Myshkin was glad enough to be left alone. He went out of the garden, crossed the road, and entered the park. He wished to reflect, and to make up his mind as to a certain "step." This step was one of those things, however, which are not thought out, as a rule, but decided for or against hastily, and without much reflection. The fact is, he felt a longing to leave all this and go away—go anywhere, if only it were far enough, and at once, without bidding farewell to anyone. He felt a presentiment that if he remained but a few days more in this place, and among these people, he would be fixed in this world irrevocably and permanently. However, in a very few minutes he decided that to run away was impossible; that it would be cowardly; that great problems lay before him, and that he had no right to leave them unsolved, or at least to refuse to give all his energy and strength to the attempt to solve them. (2.11.30)

Again, this is a callback to Jesus's thoughts in the garden at Gethsemane while he waits for Judas to betray him so he can go and be crucified already. The sense of duty that Myshkin feels in having to stick around to face the music, rather than just taking off Nastasya-style when the going gets tough, is of course yet another mark of his "perfect" character. Is it just us, or did the phrase "a certain step" make anyone else think Myshkin is considering suicide?

[Myshkin said,] "Roman Catholicism is, in my opinion, worse than Atheism itself. Yes—that is my opinion. Atheism only preaches a negation, but Romanism goes further; it preaches a disfigured, distorted Christ—it preaches Anti-Christ […]. This is my own personal conviction, and it has long distressed me. The Roman Catholic believes that the Church on earth cannot stand without universal temporal Power. He cries 'non possumus!' In my opinion the Roman Catholic religion is not a faith at all, but simply a continuation of the Roman Empire, and everything is subordinated to this idea—beginning with faith. The Pope has seized territories and an earthly throne, and has held them with the sword. And so the thing has gone on, only that to the sword they have added lying, intrigue, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, swindling;—they have played fast and loose with the most sacred and sincere feelings of men;—they have exchanged everything—everything for money, for base earthly POWER! And is this not the teaching of Anti-Christ? How could the upshot of all this be other than Atheism? […] we must resist, and quickly, quickly! We must let our Christ shine forth upon the Western nations, our Christ whom we have preserved intact, and whom they have never known." (4.7.38-47)

Whoa, calm down, dude. This is a pretty unusual thing for Myshkin to do—suddenly argue forcefully about something. And all in all it's pretty convenient: Dostoevsky gets to get in a dig at Catholicism and air out his issues, and the prince gets to be excused since this ranting happens just before he has a seizure and is thus plausibly out of character. Two birds, meet one stone. Nice.