Literary Conventions and Social Models of Love in The Idiot

Eugenia Kapsomera Amditis, University of Kansas

In “The Decembrist in Everyday Life,” Jurij Lotman advances the theory that during the 1820s, young men drew from literary texts in order to craft for an identity for themselves. Lotman discerns this type of behavior in Ivolgin from Dostoevskij’s novel, The Idiot (1868), but fails to realize that his comments apply equally to Dostoevskij’s young heroine, Nastas’ja Filippovna. In Dostoevskij’s text, the heroine, like real Russian women from that time, emulates characters from works about love, particularly Marguérite from Alexandre Dumas fils’ La Dame aux camélias (1848), in her attempts to evolve in step with the socially tumultuous transitions occurring in Russia in the 1860s. 

            In love and courtship, women possessed a higher degree of maneuverability than they could have in other aspects of Russian society (economically, politically, etc.). An analysis of Dostoevskij’s reworking of the literary convention of love in The Idiot reveals his sympathy for the suffering that the “marriage market” caused young women like his niece, Sof’ja Ivanova, to whom he dedicated his novel. In rejecting society’s expectations, Nastas’ja Filippovna looks to literature for models upon which she could pattern her behavior. Thus, through an investigation of love in The Idiot, we may better understand not only Dostoevskij’s borrowing from and subversion of literary convention, but also his support for increased women’s freedom in Russian society. 

Using the work of critics such as Diana Burgin, Donald Rayfield, Victor Terras, Barbara Heldt, and Svetlana Grenier, this paper investigates Dostoevskij’s ambivalent attitude toward literary tradition and his ultimate conclusion that existing literary practices could not adequately portray his characters in the realistic manner he desired. I suggest that his critique applies not only to the abstract concerns of literary craft, but also to the real-life problems of social behavior and the impossibility of applying literary “types” to real-life. Ultimately, Dostoevskij suggests the need for new ideals of feminine (and perhaps masculine) behavior.