The Tarnished Halo: Moral Authority and Charismatic Influence in The Idiot

Lindsay Sargent, Northwestern University

One of the central scholarly questions raised by Dostoevskij's novel The Idiot is how the reader is to understand the shift between Myshkin's role in Part I, and his markedly more complex role in Parts II-IV. Critics have explained this shift in various ways, often concluding that Dostoevskij has simply failed to offer adequate explanations of what took place in the characters' lives during the nine months that elapse between the close of Part I and the opening action of Part II. There is a consensus that Myshkin's character has changed in some way, and that the other characters respond to him differently because of this change. For example, in his The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Literature, David Bethea argues that by the beginning of Part II, Myshkin has acquired "an all-too-human trait," namely, the ability to judge. In this analysis, the catastrophe of the novel's conclusion results from Myshkin's inability to sustain Christ-like compassion in the face of the world's evil. I will argue, however, that the evident differences between Part I and the latter part of the novel have less to do with changes in Myshkin's character than they do with Myshkin's changed position in the world of the novel.

The notebooks for Parts II-IV give no indication that Dostoevskij intended to mar his "perfectly beautiful" hero with human flaws. But there can be no question that other characters respond differently to Myshkin from the beginning of Part II. Taking Myshkin's relationship with Rogozhin as a representative example, we see that Rogozhin is both attracted to and repelled by the Prince almost simultaneously. Rogozhin himself tells Myshkin that when they are apart, all he can feel is anger toward the Prince, yet now "[y]ou haven't been sitting a quarter of an hour with me, and all my anger is passing away and you are dear to me as you used to be (The Idiot, II, 3)". It would seem that Myshkin's charisma, the element in his personality that draws others to him, has not altered. Rogozhin's anger results not from who Myshkin is, but from what he has done.

What has Myshkin done to alter his relationships with the other characters? By proposing to Nastasja Fillipovna in the classic Dostoevskian scandal scene that closes Part I, Myshkin has given up, to a certain degree, the special status that he held up until this point. He is successful in Part I because he is a disinterested party without a personal agenda, or, indeed, the kind of personal history that would lead others to believe that he acted to fulfill a personal agenda. In fact, in his classic study, Problems of Dostoevskij's Poetics, Mixail Baxtin argues that a key element of Myshkin's character is his fundamental separateness, and that it is this separateness that allows him to "'penetrate' through the life-flesh of other people and reach their deepest 'I.'" By proposing to Nastasja Fillipovna, Myshkin calls into question his separate and unique status. He compromises not only his relationship with Rogozhin, who now sees him as a romantic rival, but also his ability to influence other characters. While he may continue to act out of absolute compassion, he has opened the door for other characters to question the purity of his motives and the moral legitimacy of his actions. Read in this light, the spiralling chaos of the latter part of the novel can be seen as resulting not from Myshkin's humanity, but from the inability of the world to believe in the values he embodies.