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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
In The Idiot Dostoevsky attempts to portray the ideal man—a "positively beautiful individual." Prince Myshkin represents all the qualities Dostoevsky deems the best aspects of a human being. First, he is frank and open; unlike other members of high society such as Ganya and General Yepanchin, Myshkin does not hide his true feelings behind a veneer of friendliness in order to gain something or to merely maintain appearances. The prince always says what is on his mind, regardless of whether it is perfectly appropriate for the social setting. Prince Myshkin is also very meek. In contrast to other characters—Ganya, who considers his self and reputation more important than anything else in life; Nastassya Filippovna, who cares more about her own shame than Myshkin's or Aglaya's happiness; Hippolite, who cannot accept death without making some sort of memorable statement—Myshkin does not think about himself at all. Unlike the other characters, many of whom constantly try to assert themselves, Myshkin is very altruistic. Not only is he humble, but he is also very giving and compassionate. These seemingly perfect traits of man come into headlong collision with a corrupt world.
What happens when the ideal human being comes into the real world? In Dostoevsky's view, the ideal man does not bring good, but rather his own goodness is inverted and manipulated, leading to the destruction of both himself and his ideal. The world that Prince Myshkin enters is one of moral corruption and decay, with money as the object of principal importance. In this world, money not only makes one a better human being (Ganya, for example, believes it can cure his mediocrity), but it can also obtain one a beautiful bride (the various men bid for Nastassya Filippovna). No one deems Prince Myshkin a good husband for Aglaya, while nearly everyone considers Ptitsyn—an emblem of mediocrity who has enriched himself through usury—la most respectable match. Beautiful, intelligent women such as Nastassya Filippovna, are dishonored and consequently destroyed.
The world of the novel is also full of drunks (Lebedev, General Ivolgin, Ferdyshchenko, Rogozhin and his company) and rogues (Lebedev, Doktorenko, Keller, Ferdyshchenko and others). Practically everyone else, such as the Ptitsyns and the Ivolgins, is ordinary. High society is full of superficial nothings along with others—such as General Yepanchin—who have behaved in an obsequious manner to these nothings in order to gain a high position. Though Myshkin is infinitely morally superior to the world he enters, his effect on this world is ultimately zero—a mix of positive and negative. Though Myshkin attempts to help those around him, he drives several of them—General Ivolgin, Nastassya Filippovna, Aglaya—to destruction. The failure of Myshkin's compassion to save those about whom he cares most, especially Nastassya Filippovna, drives him to insanity.
Prince Myshkin is a Christ figure, though Dostoevsky adds what he believes to be a Russian element to this messiah. Myshkin describes religion as an immensely strong feeling similar to the joy God feels for his creation—a feeling he recognizes when he sees a young mother joyously nursing her baby. Much like the idea that religion is a feeling rather than a set of rules that one follows, Myshkin Christ-like character can also be reduced to a feeling: his immense compassion and love for others.
Dostoevsky explores the idea of redemption in a series of characters who are condemned. Myshkin, during his first meeting with the Yepanchins, tries to imagine the feelings of a condemned man prior to his execution. Later on, the novel unravels characters who—much like the man standing near the scaffold and awaiting his execution—stand on the brink of ruin. Such characters include the Swiss woman Marie, Nastassya Filippovna, Hippolite, Rogozhin, General Ivolgin, and even Aglaya. Myshkin offers some sort of hope—if not the complete reversal of the death sentence, then at least the softening of the psychological suffering it inflicts upon the condemned.
The Idiot is also full of sinners, from harmless drunkards like General Ivolgin to habitual liars and rogues like Ferdyshchenko, Lebedev, Keller, Doktorenko and even murderers like Rogozhin. Prince Myshkin spends a considerable amount of time with all of these sinners, even after many of them have committed offenses against him. They need the prince morally and spiritually; his attempts at assisting them even after their affronts represent the ultimate in selfless compassion.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Idiot!