Iconography in Dostoevskij’s Idiot

Kerry Sabbag, Brown University

This paper stems from and follows the path of Victor Terras’s commentary on the beauty of Nastas′ja Filippovna in Dostoevskij’s Idiot: “But as a vision, as the symbol of an ideal, it is an immediate revelation of the divine. Again, this makes more sense in an Orthodox Christian context than it does in a secular context. The Orthodox belief that ideally the human face has retained the divine features of God’s face, a belief on which the worship of icons is based, makes Prince Myškin’s reaction to Nastas′ja Filippovna’s portrait more understandable.” The purpose of this paper is to follow Terras’s line of investigation, by identifying moments or scenes in the text which may be read as reflecting iconography and explore what insights this approach may offer the reader.

Significant moments in the text focusing on the concept of “lico”, both two- and three-dimensional, point to the importance of the concept of iconicity. A familiarity with Orthodoxy allows one to better understand Myškin’s desire the reach the divine in Nastas′ja Fillippovna through her face in all forms, as well as his pursuit of this divinity regardless of her behavior. Myškin’s efforts to protect faces and to offer comfort through a physical connection with the face reflect an attempt to reach the archetype contained in the image. In addition, the concept of the icon suggests a connection between the face, Myškin’s moral code, and his potential as a teacher. In this respect, the face, like the icon, represents a means of knowledge, both to Myškin as its primary reader and through him to other characters. As a means of exploring these ideas, I will employ the primary theories of C. S. Peirce’s system of semeiotic. Peirce’s trilateral configuration of signification provides rich potential for investigating the relationships between divinity, face, and icon as well as between Myškin and other characters. A reading of Idiot through Peirce’s system offers better access to the concept of the icon embedded in the text and facilitates an understanding of the significance of the icon to the text as a whole.


Terras, Victor. The Idiot: An Interpretation. Twayne’s Masterwork Studies 57. Boston: Twayne, 1990.