Written for my “Typologies of the Novel I: 18th and 19th Centuries” class, in 28.02.2017. We were asked to analyze Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, through the lens of the quixotic ideal.
In order to fully and coherently answer this question we must first discuss the implications of the term “quixotic.” In Cervantes’ revolutionary novel, Don Quixote, the quixotic element relies on the tension between the idealized illusions and the realized truths. Among his many other eccentricities, Don Quixote has but one ideal: Dulcinea, and although he spends most of his time chasing what others call “delusions,” when Sancho Panza tries to convince Don Quixote that Dulcinea is among the farmer girls they are seeing, his first reaction is disbelief.
This moment is crucial as it is an instance where, for the first time, Don Quixote is actually seeing the truth in front of his eyes, only to be fooled again by Sancho that there must have been a spell. As the ideal of Dulcinea is vulgarized among the farmer girls, Don Quixote convinces himself he must “break the spell,” unaware that no such spell exists. However, the anecdote serves another function as it points out the cruel nature of irony. Don Quixote will either have to “break the spell” and acquire self-knowledge, or he must continue living in the idealized and fundamentally unattainable fantasy.
Since there is no actual spell, a tragic element arises from this juxtaposition: neither choice can bring happiness; self-knowledge can only lead to destruction and disillusionment where nothing as enchanted as the ideal of Dulcinea can ever be actualized. Both routes bring misery in their wake. This is perhaps where the quixotic ideal begins to relate to Prince Myshkin, the good-hearted “hero” of Dostoevksy’s novel The Idiot.
The quixotic element in regards to the novel in general and Myshkin in particular has a layered construction. On the surface, there is an obvious comparison between Don Quixote and Myshkin as exemplified by Aglaya’s choice to keep his letter in a copy of “Don Quixote” and the way she jokingly taunts him by calling him the “poor knight.” The obvious implication of this comparison (represented by Aglaya’s jealousy and intuitiveness) is that Myshkin has positioned Nastasya Filippovna as his “Dulcinea” and will never see Aglaya in the same light. This is somewhat true, if one chooses to interpret Myshkin as an irrational and passionate character who never gives up on his ideals. Upon further deconstruction, however, a question arises about his idealisations.
From the beginning of the novel, we see that Myshkin is able to “see people who they are.” This is first emphasized in his meeting with Rogozhin and further illuminated when the Yepanchin sisters beg him to tell them what he has deducted from their faces. Therefore, I am not sure whether we can claim (as Aglaya does) that the interest Myshkin shows in Nastasya is a quixotic infatuation. There is never a moment in the book where Myshkin is not sure of who Nastasya is; he knows, from the very start, that she is tremendous pain and feels guilty, and this is why she acts in self-deprecating and self-destructive ways. Both her inner emotions and motivations are always clear to Myshkin. This innate ability he has to understand and empathize with people is also clear when he prophetically guesses that Rogozhin will be the death of Nastasya in the end.
This is why Myshkin is not quixotic in the sense that the narrative will have us first believe. I believe that Myshkin is an embodiment of the quixotic ideal because he has the ability to highlight the essence of quixotic irony: knowledge ultimately brings death and destruction. This is where the narrative is more connected to the quixotic ideal; it is not that Myshkin is under any spell or sees anyone in an enchanted way. On the contrary, he knows exactly who they are.
Another element that prevents Myshkin from becoming completely quixotic is Dostoevsky’s effort to create a Jesus-like character. Myshkin has a capacity to empathize with everyone, understand the poor and doomed, and he has absolute forgiveness accompanied by infinite pity. The two women who became the object of his attention (Nastasya and Mari) only do so because he feels immense pity for them. Although it must be noted that his attitude towards Aglaya weakens this argument to an extent, it his hard to imagine a world in which Don Quixote would venture to find Dulcinea because of the pity he feels for her.
So, Myshkin cannot be quixotic in the way he feels about his “idealized pursuits” of women because they are neither “idealized” nor (in any way) “pursuits.” These elements of the quixotic kaleidoscope become clouded by Myshkin’s similarities to the Holy Fool. In the case of Dulcinea and Don Quixote breaking the (non-existent) spell would also mean that the transcendent would demolish and leave its place to earthly (i.e. vulgar) elements; but Myshkin is already “above” earthly sensations and aspirations. At the risk of over-analyzing, I must also note that even his hinted impotence (accompanied by other Jesus-like characteristics) can be a signifier of how earthly pleasures (by nature) are not, or cannot ever be, what “interests” him.
In the end, quixotic and Jesus-like characteristics of Myshkin overlap in one very significant feature; what he knows about this world and his ability to empathize with people even in the most dire of circumstances, leaves no choice for him but to be an “idiot.” He knew, for instance, that Rogozhin would kill Nastasya in the end. Therefore the tragic element is not that he has any illusions (as Don Quixote does) about the people around him; it is that he has none. This clarity of intuition, vision and knowledge accompanied by an ability to feel deeply empathetic, is ultimately what drives him to “madness.” Much like Jesus, he shoulders the pain and suffering of the universe around him, all the while being aware of the intrinsic characteristics of human existence. This is why, at the end of the novel, he is doomed to be reduced into idiocy.
Here pictured: a promotional artwork for the movie, The Idiot, 1958.