In the standard premise of an innocent person coming to the big city, one of the most popular ways of showing the differences between him and the society he has entered is to display the small, etiquette-based hypocrisies he encounters. In this case, it turns out they are really nothing but artificial constructs to confuse and embarrass the newcomer. The Idiot does this quite well, but it also ventures deeper, into the hypocritical behavior under that behavior. Motivations that drive small, meaningless actions in society are perceived as suspect when taken in in larger doses by the newcomer.
Questions About Hypocrisy
What are the demographics of hypocrisy in this book—do men or women tend to be more hypocritical? Young or old people? Wealthy or poor?
Find a time when Myshkin's avoidance of all hypocrisy works well for him (like those moments of oversharing in the beginning of the novel, for example). Compare it to a time when those around him are shocked that he doesn't mask whatever he is saying (his conversations with Ippolit, for instance). Why do they elicit different reaction from those around him? What is at stake emotionally in each situation?
Does the novel condemn or praise hypocritical behavior? How do you know?
Chew on This
It is actually Myshkin's complete inability to be a hypocrite that makes him a totally unsuitable partner for both Nastasya and Aglaya.
The characters who function most successfully in the world of the novel are those who are able to moderate their truthfulness with hypocrisy—they are actually the ones who are the most attuned to those around them.