The Moral Idiot

This article is part of a series on Dostoevsky’s Great Works. See also:

  1. The Brothers Karamazov: The Other Brothers
  2. Crime and Punishment: Flesh and Bronze
  3. The Idiot: The Moral Idiot

Dostoevsky’s works so far have taught us that sin is inevitably punished. Tortured intellectual Raskolnikov’s misguided personal philosophy ultimately drives him towards murder; he’s punished by his conscience long before he’s punished by the law. Dimitri, a rash and impetuous character, doesn’t commit murder. However, he leads a life of sin and debauchery, once dragging a drunken rival out of the bar and beating him publicly. And Dmitri ultimately accepts the punishment for a murder he didn’t even commit.

Sin is punished. The Idiot, now, asks the opposite question: is goodness rewarded?


Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb 

Prince Myshkin certainly doesn’t seem to be rewarded for his goodness. His honest and open-book-style personality earn him nothing but the scorn of high society.

Do you know, I cannot understand how anyone can pass by a green tree, and not feel happy only to look at it! How anyone can talk to a man and not feel happy in loving him! [1]

As heartwarming as they are, the Prince’s musings have little place in Petersburg’s impeccably-decorated drawing rooms and in the impeccably-polished conversation that fills them. Myshkin is booted clear off the social ladder. His mental condition declines, and ultimately he lands back in his old Swiss sanatorium—a care facility, reserved, of course, for “idiots.”

What are we supposed to conclude here? We know that the sinful are punished; are we now to believe that the good are as well? Dostoevsky’s work tempts us towards a disheartening conclusion: that one would have to be an idiot to be a decent man.

Is there any hope for Myshkin, and for the good man in general?

The good may suffer, but the sinful fare no better.

Myshkin may end badly, but many of the Idiot’s not-so-kind characters arguably end worse. Nastasia Philipovna, who toyed with Myshkin to the very end, winds up murdered; Rogojin, Myshkin’s not-so-loyal “friend”, wielded the knife. Most poignant of all: Aglaya, who had scorned her husband-to-be in Petersburg’s drawing-rooms, winds up unhappily-married to a Polish count of standing even more dubious than Myshkin’s. Not only that, but she experiences the pain of witnessing the prince in his invalid state, and of knowing that she herself brought him there. In one glance, she realizes the full extent of her destructive capriciousness. “The whole time,” she cries, “I was the idiot!” [2]

It’s clear that Aglaya, as well as several other characters, fare no better than our poor prince. At the same time, though, this hardly provides consolation. Myshkin is certainly no better for the fact that Aglaya winds up hurt too. The reader likely isn’t satisfied either. The downfall of the wicked does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the good. Thus Myshkin’s misfortune is unfair, regardless of how much anyone else suffers.

Myshkin’s life wasn’t all bad.

Myshkin’s tale certainly ends badly, but weren’t there some good moments in there? Myshkin tells the story, for example, of how he “kissed Marie”; and proceeded to singlehandedly save the reputation of the poor and destitute woman. This must have provided him some happiness, right?

Still, Myshkin’s few moments of happiness offer little consolation when we see the state he’s ultimately reduced to. If all’s well that ends well, can’t we say the same about what ends poorly? Myshkin’s goodness is rewarded temporarily, but not lastingly.

But what if he ends up on top after all?

The story’s not over yet.

At Rogojin’s house, Myshkin is captivated by Holbein’s haunting painting of Jesus, who is depicted after the crucifixion but before the resurrection. Myshkin says:

It is strange to look on this dreadful picture of the mangled corpse of the Saviour, and to put this question to oneself: ‘Supposing that the disciples, the future apostles, the women who had followed Him and stood by the cross, all of whom believed in and worshipped Him…how could they have gazed upon the dreadful sight and yet have believed that He would rise again? [1]

And though the book ends with Myshkin’s idiocy, we can hope that he too might rise again, as difficult as this may be to believe. Jesus’s story didn’t end with Holbein; why should Myshkin’s end with The Idiot?

Perhaps, though, the reader isn’t satisfied by this either. After all, miracles only happen so often. We can’t help but expect the most likely scenario: that Myshkin’s life ends exactly where the story left him.

In this case, then, there’s only one thing we can conclude: the extent to which virtue is rewarded isn’t always logical. The world isn’t a vending machine, where “goodness” is inserted and “success” is withdrawn. Sometimes, the good will suffer. Sometimes, even, the evil will succeed.

When I was born into this world,
I was naked and had nothing.
When I die and leave this world,
I will be naked and have nothing.
The Lord gives,
and the Lord takes away. [3]

Myshkin’s plight seems to mirror Job’s. One might win or lose, regardless of, or even in spite of, what’s deserved. Logic never even enters the equation.

I offer one small but unassailable source of solace. Myshkin probably will die distressed and disgraced–but at least he was able to save another from the same fate.

“Marie lay in a state of uncomfortable delirium the whole while; she coughed dreadfully. The old women would not let the children stay in the room; but they all collected outside the window each morning, if only for a moment, and shouted ‘Bon jour, notre bonne Marie!’ and Marie no sooner caught sight of, or heard them, and she became quite animated at once, and, in spite of the old women, would try to sit up and nod her head and smile at them, and thank them. The little ones used to bring her nice things and sweets to eat, but she could hardly touch anything. Thanks to them, I assure you, the girl died almost perfectly happy. She almost forgot her misery, and seemed to accept their love as a sort of symbol of pardon for her offence, though she never ceased to consider herself a dreadful sinner. They used to flutter at her window just like little birds, calling out: ‘Nous t’aimons, Marie!’

Shouldn’t that be reward enough?


  1. The Idiot, Eva Martin translation
  2. Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot, an incredible film adaptation
  3. Job 1:21 ERV

One comment on “The Moral Idiot

  1. Ben says:

    You conclude from The Book of Job: “The world isn’t a vending machine, where ‘goodness’ is inserted and ‘success’ is withdrawn.” Good goes unrewarded; evil goes unpunished. Actions are disconnected from their moral consequences. This is a great parallel, and Job seems to perfectly mirror The Idiot.

    The larger question, however, emerges: what is the precise “ethical nature” of the world in which Job, or The Idiot, takes place? Should we praise such a world, or lament it? And why? It might seem cruel that good and evil go unrewarded and unpunished. Perhaps, however, the disconnect you mention — between actions and their consequences — is a very deep and important one indeed.

    Given the story of Job — and, consequently, the sure knowledge that actions need not yield rewards — the doer of any good deed must, demonstrably, do his deed for reasons other than expectation of reward. This is a good state for the world. People become, instead of traders and businessmen, humans, stripped of a logical structure and reliant only on giving and faith. This is a pure consequence of Job!

    Perhaps, then, Myshkin is like Job himself. Asking whether Myshkin is rewarded is perhaps asking the wrong question. Instead, humanity itself is rewarded! We’re taken into a new moral atmosphere. Myshkin is the sacrifice.

    Most interestingly of all, however: after a strange and difficult-to-explain climax in which God, ultimately, crushes Job under the verbal and spiritual weight of his power (“Where were YOU when I lodged a hook in the jaw of the Leviathan?” He demands) — Job is restored of all of his possessions! Things end well even for our sacrificial hero. Perhaps such an end for Myshkin is coming after all.

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