Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?: Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

Eugenia Kapsomera Amditis, University of Kansas

Within the world of The Idiot (1869), Aglaia’s personal story reflects the catastrophic penalty of non-compliance with social rules. Dostoevsky discerns the complicated relationship between art and life in Russian society. As Richard Pevear suggests, the novelist turns to a central Russian work: Chernyshevsky’s Chto delat’? (1863). In Dostoevsky’s art, the lines between fiction and reality flow seamlessly into each other, often making it impossible to distinguish between them. In an intriguing move, Dostoevsky marries the real-life story of his friend and would-be bride, Anna Korvin-Krukovskaia, to that of his heroine, Aglaia. Similar to other women for whom “life imitates art, imitating life,” Korvin-Krukovskaia and Aglaia drew from the plot of Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? to plan their own escape from parental control. Thus, Dostoevsky embroiders his homage to his lost love onto the fictional world of The Idiot.

In “The Decembrist in Daily Life” (1986), Iurii Lotman discusses the practice of using literary texts as a model for real-life behavior. Although he mentions that Ivolgin in The Idiot uses stories about Napoleon’s officers to craft his own behavior text, he overlooks the women in the novel who pattern their behavior on fiction. Irina Paperno investigates this possibility in Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism (1988), but she never explicitly connects Aglaia and Anna. Victor Terras identifies her as the prototype for the youngest Epanchin girl in his book on The Idiot (1990), and he points out Dostoevsky’s marriage of reality and art. In this case, The Idiot (art) imitated Korvin-Krukovskaia’s history (life), which in turn imitated What is to be Done? (art).

An examination of this aspect of the text reveals a great deal about Dostoevsky’s view of reality, art, and the human psyche. He employs the tragic fates of these women, and their struggles for self-determination, to call for a re-evaluation of Russian society with its paucity of opportunities for women.