Friday, July 24, 2009



It is commonly accepted that Prince Myshkin, the main character in Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot' is a savior figure or, more to the point, Christ. While Myshkin does fit the bill in several ways, he seems to fall short in one very important way.

The Savior is a motif that runs throughout literary history, from Prometheus to Jesus and into modern times. Prometheus suffered in order to bring fire and light (and presumably enlightenment) into the world. Jesus suffered and died to save humanity from its sins.

'The Idiot' is a very modern novel, especially considering it was written well before the twentieth century advent of 'modernism' as a literary style. Its hero is an outsider. He spent four years undergoing treatment for a malady in Switzerland, and returned almost a complete stranger to his home - Russia. Great pains are taken in the novel to give him a 'ministry' among children - telling them stories - and caring for the sick Marie (or Mary, as in Mary Magdalene). In great detail the novel reveals what it must have been like for Myshkin's 'friend' to have been given a death sentence and then to have had it commuted at the last moment. Dostoyevsky himself had been sentenced to death and placed before a firing squad before it was called off. And of course Christ did face a sentence of death and was killed by crucifixion and was resurrected three days later.

The point of this novel is that a person who is innocent and genuine has no place in the real world, and is better off in an asylum (or dead). As Myshkin goes through his day he bumps into any number of people, all of whom are impacted by his innocence and who then find themselves in a different place in their lives. The trouble with this is that his innocence seems to operate from the outside in. Because they meet him, their lives are changed. Indeed, that seems to be the message of modern Christianity for the most part: Christ lived and died for us, so we should worship him. But the life of Jesus as the Christ ran counter to the accepted practices of religion of his day, and one suspects he would find the same thing today. The true power of Christ comes from the inside out. An encounter with Christ is an encounter with one's true self, and that self is then transcended. Only then will that person's life change in any real way.

By remaining an 'outsider', Dostoyevsky's character lacks the power of the real Christ. His impact on the lives of others seems quite coincidental and they react more like a body that has been impacted from without. The real Christ penetrated to the heart and soul of people, and their lives were changed forever.

Kazantzakis wrote of the duel nature of humanity - the body and the soul - and the war that exists between the two. Myshkin falls short as a Savior, but that does not prevent us from attempting to portray the savior in our writings. All of us, if we are genuinely willing to search ourselves, have experienced the conflict that exists between our earthly, fleshly, material selves, and the Spirit that dwells within us.

Next Week: The Movement Back to Realism.

1 comment:

  1. i have yet to read this dostoyevsky novel. recently read notes from underground though, very good. oh and jim, you should check out my blog, i've updated a bit.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.