Skip over navigation

The Idiot

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Context

Table of Contents

Plot Overview

Fyodor Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821. Like the hero of The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy, experiencing his first fit when he was seven years old. In 1837, after his mother's death, he came to St. Petersburg and entered the School of Military Engineers. In 1845, he finished his first major novel, Poor Folk. Several years later, Dostoevsky joined several socialist societies, the association with which earned him a death sentence.

Fortunately for Dostoevsky and the world literary tradition, he was pardoned just before his execution, and was instead sentenced to four years of hard labor in Omsk. In 1854, he was released and entered the army. Three years later, he married his first wife, Marie Isaeva, and in 1859 returned to St. Petersburg with her. In the years that followed, Dostoevsky was very prolific in both writing and publishing. From 1861 to 1863 he was a publisher of the journal Time and later of the journal Époque.

In 1862, Dostoevsky went abroad for the first time. His dream of traveling to Europe turned out to be a huge disappointment and led to his aversion to the West. The trip abroad was also concurrent with a passionate affair with Suslova, a "fatal woman" who tormented him. His love-hate relationship with her served as a basis for many similar relationships in his novels. Suslova's personality may have influenced such femme-fatales as Nastassya Filippovna and Aglaya, though she did not serve as the complete model for either of those characters.

Intertwined with Dostoevsky's passion for Suslova was his passion for gambling, which continued for many years. In 1864, his first wife, Marie Isaeva, died of consumption, much like Hippolite in The Idiot. In the same year his brother also died. In 1866, Dostoevsky married for the second time, this time to a woman named Anna Snitkina. Dostoevsky entered a period of financial hardship, rushing to publish new novels to pay his bills. Running away from creditors, he and his wife left Russia in 1867. They spent the next four years abroad, mainly in Geneva, Dresden, and Florence. Dostoevsky was very unhappy and homesick. We see this feeling expressed in the final lines of The Idiot, through the character of Lizaveta Prokofyevna.

Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot in 1867–1869, and today it is considered one of his greatest works, along with Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). In The Idiot Dostoevsky hoped to portray the ideal of a "positively beautiful individual," a man who wishes to sacrifice himself for others. Prince Myshkin is a sort of Russian Christ who represents the values Dostoevsky deemed the highest and most noble: altruism, meekness, kindness, and brotherly love. As Dostoevsky saw sexual passion as inherently selfish, it is not surprising that Prince Myshkin is a completely asexual character. Though he develops romantic feelings toward Aglaya, he subordinates them to a higher ideal of pity and compassion that he expresses in his relationship with Nastassya Filippovna. Facing the "dark world" of corruption and moral decay that he meets in society, he inevitably perishes.

Dostoevsky died in St. Petersburg in 1881.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us