I’ve been reading Dostoevsky for the last month and a half. I finished Crime and Punishment, and am currently reading The Idiot. This post is about two of Dostoevsky's many themes in The Idiot. The first is about capital punishment – Dostoevsky himself faced a death sentence – and the second is about the essence of religious feeling. I found the expression of these themes in the novel powerful and moving, and I felt it would be good to provide some quotes and passages from the novel. All quotes in this post are from Henry and Olga Carlisle's translation.
I. The Death Sentence
In 1849, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was sentenced to death for his involvement with a radical socialist group. Dostoevsky was in his late twenties then. He was about to be killed by the firing squad, when a last minute message repealed the death sentence. He was instead exiled to and imprisoned in Siberia for the next ten years.
Dostoevsky returns to this harrowing brush with death in his novel The Idiot – the second of his classic works, which was published after Crime and Punishment (this was in 1868, about eight years after his return to St.Petersburg). Many of his views are expressed through Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, a young man of nobility but who possesses no wealth when the novel begins. The prince – one of Dostoevsky’s most fascinating creations – is an unassuming person with a heart of gold, but who is mistaken as an idiot on account of his guilelessness.
In the first part of the novel, the prince, just returned to St.Petersburg, speaks to other characters of his experiences abroad in Europe, where he lived for four years. One of these experiences concerns a trip to Lyons in France, where he had observed a public execution:
“In France, they always cut their heads off…It’s done in an instant. They lie the man down, and this broad knife falls through a machine they call the guillotine – very powerfully and heavily – the head flies off before you can blink an eye. The preparations are horrible. When they read the death sentence, dress him and prepare him, tie him up and drag him onto the scaffold – all that is dreadful. People crowd in, even women – they don’t like women to look on though.”A little later, the prince talks passionately of how the idea of certain death can be more difficult than any other ordeal:
“Who could say that human nature can endure such a trial without slipping into madness? Why this ghastly, needless outrage? Perhaps there is a man to whom the death sentence was read and who was allowed to suffer and then told, ‘Go, You are pardoned.’ Perhaps such a man could tell us something. This was the agony and the horror of which Christ told too. No, you cannot treat a man like that.”
“…Think! When there is torture there is pain and wounds, physical agony, and all this distracts the mind from mental suffering, so that one is tormented only by the wounds until the moment of death. But the most terrible agony many not be in the wounds themselves but in knowing for certain that within an hour, then within ten minutes, then within half a minute, now at this very instant – your soul will leave your body and you will no longer be a person, and that is certain; the worst thing is that it is certain.” [Dostoevsky’s italics].That’s probably how Dostoevsky felt. I’ve only quoted a few passages here, but there’s more in the novel. There’s a section forty pages later when the prince, talking to a different audience in St.Petersburg – that is what the first part of The Idiot is about: the prince’s encounter and conversations many different people in St.Petersburg – imagines the details how the man he saw executed on a guillotine must have felt in his final hours, minutes.
“Then three or four hours were spent on usual things: the priest, the breakfast, at which he was given wine, coffee and beef. (Isn’t that mockery? You think how cruel it is, and yet, by heaven, those innocent people do this out of the kindness of their hearts and are convinced they are being humane.) …Finally he is taken through the town to the scaffold. I think as he is being driven there he feels he has still an eternity to live…All around is crowd, noise, ten thousand faces, ten thousand eyes…”Dostoevsky’s special achievement has always been his imagining of the inner workings of troubled minds – such as the imagining of the murderer Raskolnikov’s mind in Crime and Punishment. But in recreating what the man who was to face the guillotine felt on the day of his execution, Dostoevsky was drawing from his own experience, even though his planned execution was not a public one.
II. The Essence of Religious Feeling
Six months later – we are now in the second part of the novel; a lot has happened by now – the prince talks to Rogozhin, a rich merchant’s son, one of the novel’s main characters. He talks of his travels in an unnamed Russian province. Because he was in Europe in his formative years, the prince knows very little about Russia. It is only now that he has begun to understand the country and how deeply religious it is. And in the series of anecdotes that the prince tells, I found one of Dostoevsky’s recurring themes – religion, and what it means to be Christian – beautifully expressed.
While traveling on a train to the province the prince meets an atheist, a very learned and well-bred man. But the prince notices in the atheist what he has seen in other atheists too - that they sidestep the question of God, though it might appear that they are addressing it.
“He doesn’t believe in God. Except one thing struck me: he didn’t seem to be talking about that at all, the whole time, and this struck me precisely because whenever I’ve met disbelievers before, and no matter how many of their books I read, it always seems to me that they are always speaking and writing of something else, though on the surface it seems to be that.”Later, while the prince is staying at hotel in the province, he learns of a murder that had happened there the night before. Two close peasant friends had shared a room at the hotel. One of them wore a silver watch on a beaded ribbon, which the other, despite being a close friend, had not previously known about.
“The first was not a thief, he was in fact a honest man and for a peasant not all that poor. But he was so taken by this watch, so tempted by it that he finally could not restrain himself, he took a knife and when his friend’s back was turned came up cautiously behind him, took aim, raised his eyes to heaven, crossed himself, and bitterly and silently prayed, ‘Lord, forgive me for Christ’s sake!’ and he cut his friend’s throat with one stroke, like a sheep, and took his watch.”At this, Rogozhin, to whom the prince is talking, laughs uncontrollably and says:
“One fellow doesn’t believe in God at all, while the other believes in Him so much he murders people with a prayer on his lips. No my dear prince, you could have never have invented just that. Ha, ha, ha! No, that beats everything!”But the prince’s point – and Dostoevsky’s too – is a lot more complicated than the irony that Rogozhin finds irresistibly funny. The prince now tells Rogozhin of the following experience from his second day at the province:
“ ...as I was going back to my hotel, I came upon a peasant woman with a tiny baby. The woman was quite young and the baby six weeks old. The child smiled at her for the first time in his life. I watched and suddenly she crossed herself with great devotion. ‘What are you doing my dear?’ (I was always asking questions in those days). ‘There is joy for a mother in the child’s first smile, just as God rejoices when from heaven he sees a sinner praying to Him with his whole heart.’ This is what that peasant woman said to me, almost in those very words, such a profound, subtle and truly religious thought in which the whole essence of Christianity is expressed – I mean the whole conception of God as our own Father and of God’s joy in man, like a father’s in his own child – Christ’s fundamental thought!”And this is the prince’s final message – a sort of denouement – to Rogozhin:
“ …the essence of religious feeling doesn’t depend on reasoning, and it has nothing to do with crime or atheism. There is something else there and there always will be, and atheists will always pass over it and will never be talking about that.” [Dostoevsky’s italics].It is a remarkable message and it resonates even today. The genuine personal connection that people all over the world feel with their faith, irrespective of whom or what they believe in, cannot be explained easily. But it is something special and indisputable; it is something millions of people draw comfort and strength from.