Myškin’s Confessional Discourse

Mirande Bissell, Princeton University

A persistent criticism of Dostoevskij’s character Myškin—both from within The Idiot itself as well as from its readers—is that the prince is insufficiently humanized, strangely vacant. Near the close of the novel, Radomskij offers the prince a bleak view of himself and his actions, pointing to the “enormously great mass of intellectual convictions which [Myškin] with [his] extraordinary honesty … , [has] hitherto taken for true, natural, spontaneous convictions.” (The Idiot, Penguin edition, 584). This overly cerebral Myškin takes the blame for the ends of the novel’s main characters—tragic in the case of Nastas′ja Filippovna and Rogožin, farcical in Aglaja’s—although readers sympathetic to the idea (of compassion) embodied by Myškin have sought to extricate it from its carrier in the novel. And yet Dostoevskij explicitly intended his readers’ sympathies to extend not simply to the idea but to Myškin himself, a great Christian hero not by virtue of his comic credulity or misfortune, but because of his innocence (J. Bortnes, 1994, 10).

While acknowledging Myškin’s lack of “definitiveness” and his unwillingness to “crowd others out of” life with his presence, M. M. Baxtin argues that “[h]is personality possesses the peculiar capacity to relativize everything that disunifies people and imparts a false seriousness to life.” Baxtin is able to praise Myškin because he locates the prince “on a tangent to life’s circle” and not wholly removed from it. (Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 173, 174). By contrast, Kovac argues that the generic force of the novel “removes the lyrical theme” and the “Swiss—sentimental-Enlightenment—logic” espoused in Myškin’s early monologues (Kovacs, 1986, 118–120; see also Danow, 1989, 69–71). The novel does not so much exile these monologues as devour and re-exhibit them in its own manner. This paper will examine Myškin’s two great monologue scenes (both at the Epančins’, upon his arrival to Petersburg, and at the soirée) as confessions. The theme of recovery and renewal of life runs through the novel, both in comic and tragic versions, and the prince’s confessional “parables” of his own recovery meld these two strains in a mature vision. It is through these confessions that Myškin both attracts and repels (often simultaneously) the characters around him, and it is in them that he most clearly remembers himself and articulates his sense of earthly life (incarnation). The confessions are further significant because the prince himself is asked to hear others’ confessions (again, of both the comic and tragic sort), and in order to do so, he must draw upon his accumulated sense of his own lived life (condensed, perhaps distorted, in his long speeches). It is in his role as confessor that we find the crux of Myškin’s anguish over how to “read” others without condemning, and, conversely, how to offer gifts without condescending.