“Hidden in Plain View”: Dostoevsky’s Revision of Madame Bovary in The Idiot

Eugenia Kapsomera Amditis, University of Kansas

In her diary entry from 14 July 1867, Anna Grigor’evna Dostoevskaia records that Fedor Mikhailovich bought a copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) because of the extravagant praise Turgenev heaped on the novel, calling it the best literary work of the last ten years (211-15). During Dostoevsky’s time in the West, his financial struggles, the loss of his child, his worsening epilepsy, and unsuccessful attempts to compose The Idiot (1869), created for him an obsession with the “cursed questions” of Russian identity and destiny. Concomitantly, Dostoevsky became even more alienated from his western-minded compatriots like Turgenev, and he discerned in Russian society an increasing tendency to spiritual bankruptcy and materialism. As critics such as Peace, Terras, Sakulin, Rosenshield, and Wasiolek have noted, these themes underpin The Idiot.

The Idiot’s numerous subtexts engage the works of numerous Russian and western authors. Particularly powerful is Dostoevsky’s polemic with Madame Bovary (1856), although he does not refer to it in the notebooks for The Idiot. Myshkin finds a copy of Madame Bovary during his last search for Nastas'ia Filippovna, leaving no doubt about Dostoevsky’s incorporation of it into The Idiot. Framed between the spiritual vapidity and the consumerism of the French bourgeoisie, an emptiness forms the central core of Madame Bovary, inspiring critic Jean Rousset to label it “a novel about nothing.” Seemingly, Madame Bovary becomes a foil for Dostoevsky, a spiritually vacuous West to which he juxtaposes Holy Mother Russia. Not only does this contrast function in a national context, but also in an individual way as Emma, a sort of western “everywoman,” symbolizes the fallenness of French womanhood, while Rosenshield sees in Nastas'ia Filippovna the Russian “everywoman” (Rosenshield 647).

Very few critics have even remarked on reference to Madame Bovary in The Idiot, much less investigated it in any detail. Pevear and Grossman have commented on it, and Van Der Eng has written an entire article on it, but further attention seems necessary in order to uncover the full extent of Dostoevsky’s revision of this novel embedded within The Idiot.