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The Idiot

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

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Study Questions

How does setting function in The Idiot?

Dostoevsky uses the setting to mirror the psychological state of his characters. The novel's opening passage describes an atmosphere of humidity and semi- darkness that foreshadows the oppressing quality of the psychological world of the characters. The darkness symbolizes the moral corruption of the Russian aristocrats to whom we are introduced. The train station also creates an atmosphere that foreshadows the characters' future psychological states: the closed quarters of the train compartments not only mirror the oppression of individual characters, but also suggest the cramped and stifling nature of the characters' interactions. We see such cramped spaces again in the scandalous episode at Nastassya Filippovna dinner party, which takes place in her drawing room; the meeting of Aglaya and Nastassya Filippovna, which occurs in a small room; and the scene when Rogozhin and Prince Myshkin sleep next to the body of Nastassya Filippovna in Rogozhin's small study.

Setting also reflects the psychological state of individual characters. The atmosphere of the city of St. Petersburg, for example, reflects Myshkin's psychological state: its oppressive humidity and heat mirror his oppressive thoughts of Nastassya Filippovna and foreshadow his oncoming epileptic fit. Furthermore, Rogozhin's house symbolizes its owner's psychological state and lifestyle, creating an atmosphere of darkness and oppression. Its inhabitants are mentally unhealthy (Rogozhin's mother and arguably Rogozhin himself) and greedy (Rogozhin's brother). On the whole, the house represents the deranged and dark world of Rogozhin.

Discuss the motif of alienation in the novel with reference to two or more characters.

Many of the novel's characters are alienated from others. Nastassya Filippovna feels alienated from respectable society because of her past dishonor. The Ivolgin family stands firmly against welcoming a woman who was once another man's mistress—even if she was taken advantage of—into their family. Hippolite feels alienated from nature and from other people because of his imminent death from consumption; he feels cheated and therefore cannot join nature's "banquet." Prince Myshkin is alienated from society because he is unaware of or refuses to act in accordance with its conventions. He is also alienated due to his "idiocy," naïveté, and impracticality, as well as by his epilepsy, all of which exclude him from being a welcomed suitor and an acceptable husband for a young girl.

The plot of The Idiot advances through a series of "scandalous" scenes. What are the features of a typical scandalous scene? Discuss what function such choices of the novel's structure play in the novel.

Each part of the novel features one or more scandalous scenes. In Part I, these take place at the Ivolgin household and at Nastassya Filippovna's dinner party. The scandalous scene in Part II features the Yepanchins along with Burdovsky and his group, who come to demand a portion of Myshkin's inheritance. In Part III, the primary scandal scene centers on Hippolite; other characters listen as he reads his "Essential Statement" and then react to his attempted suicide. Finally, the scandalous scene in Part IV is the meeting of Aglaya and Nastassya Filippovna. Each of these episodes brings most or all of the novel's major characters together in one place, pushing their interactions up to a very high level of emotional intensity. In these scenes, the characters typically reveal shocking things about themselves or others or do things to wound other characters.

Dostoevsky uses these scandalous scenes to push forward the dramatic action of The Idiot, as such episodes are a perfect means of conveying the psychological and emotional drama of each of the characters and their interaction with each other. Because the characters are full of psychological distress and moral despair, such scandalous scenes are vital for conveying such aspects of their character and psyche. Simply telling us that Nastassya Filippovna is a "fatal woman" is not nearly as effective as showing us, by having her accept Myshkin's proposal of marriage only to deny it several seconds later and run off with Rogozhin. In this sense, the scandalous scenes represent instances when each character reveals his or her personality emphatically and sometimes catastrophically.

Suggested Essay Topics

What is the function of minor characters (Ganya, Varya, Lebedev, General Ivolgin, and so on) in the novel?

What is the significance of Hippolite's "Essential Statement"? How does it relate to the rest of the novel? Looking at the world Dostoevsky portrays within the novel, whose vision of this world—Hippolite's or Myshkin's—seems more accurate?

Does beauty save the world in the novel as Prince Myshkin suggests?

How is Myshkin characterized? In what ways is his character important to the thematic content of the novel?

The Idiot begins with Myshkin arriving in St. Petersburg from Switzerland and ends with the prince back in the Swiss clinic. In the end, has Myshkin had any effect on the world he has encountered in Russia? What is the significance of this effect, or lack thereof, on the thematic content of the novel?

How does Dostoevsky tell the story in the novel, and what is the significance, if any, of the way in which he tells it? What is the function of the narrator in the novel?

How does Dostoevsky use contrast in The Idiot? Explore several instances.

Is the "poor knight" a good model for Myshkin's character? Explain why and how it is significant that Aglaya in particular comes up with this model for the prince.

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