A Drastic Cure: Prince Myškin as a Castrated Figure

B. Rufus Johnson, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The premise of this study holds that in Dostoevskij’s novel The Idiot, Prince Myškin was physically castrated while in Switzerland as a treatment for his convulsive disorder. Such an understanding resolves the persistent ambiguity surrounding the Prince’s impotent asexuality. This interpretation of the Prince meshes seamlessly with the images of castration that pervade the novel, imbuing them with deeper and more complex meaning. It also deepens and clarifies the tortured triangle of Prince Myškin, Rogožin, and Nastas′ja Filippovna.

The premise of this study does not originate simply by drawing upon a prevalent but seemingly underdeveloped theme within the novel to explain some ambiguities about Prince Myškin’s character. Castration as treatment for convulsive disorders was, if not widespread, well-known as a sensational success among the medical community of mid-nineteenth century Europe. Suffering from epilepsy himself, Dostoevskij took a great interest in reading about its cause and treatment and most likely would have been familiar with the sensational cure. The said cure was publicized in the decade prior to Dostoevskij’s commencement on The Idiot. Since Dostoevskij used real events in his fictional works, it is not beyond logic to assume he would have incorporated this sensational cure for epilepsy into a work dealing with epilepsy. Furthermore, in 1863 Dostoevskij consulted Moritz Heinrich Romberg, who had cited this treatment for epilepsy in a publication of 1853. (At this point in my research, I have not found proof positive that Dostoevskij knew about this work, and until such proof is found, knowledge of the castration treatment on the part of Dostoevskij must be treated as an assumption. However, it is an assumption I feel merits pursuit.)

Beyond chronological harmony of events, elements within the novel, beyond the theme of castration itself, point to an understanding of Myškin as physically castrated in treatment for his convulsions. Prince Myškin himself states that he received treatment for his epilepsy while in Switzerland at the hands of Dr. Schneider. Presumably he received the most advanced medical treatment of his day. The medical treatments Myškin reports he underwent parallel precisely the treatment given the man who was eventually castrated. Furthermore, Myškin ties his convulsive disorder to his “inability to marry.” Given the fact that Dostoevskij, who used his own epilepsy as a model for Prince Myškin’s, had seven children, the statement on Myškin’s part that his disorder caused his inability to marry is suspect.

Following a more detailed analysis of the above points, this study will examine the novel through this interpretation of Prince Myškin as castrated in treatment for his convulsive disorder. Elements to be touched upon include: Rogožin’s relationship to the skopcy and his relationship to Myškin; the knife imagery in the novel; the return of Myškin’s convulsions; and the death of Nastas′ja Filippovna.