ESSAY
The Idiot and the Limits of Compassion
POSTED
August 13, 2015

Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, like his other major works, is a complex evaluation of the human condition—a juxtaposition of the innate goodness and innate evil that resides within every human heart. There is much one can say about The Idiot. I am no specialist of Russian literature, or Dostoyevsky. I enjoy his writing, laborious and confusing as it sometimes is. His insight into human nature, his opened-eyed faith in the midst of life’s moral complexities and doubts, and his articulation of the divine beauty that permeates our sin-scarred world has always captivated me.

So I expected more of the same when I picked up The Idiot. And I was, for the majority of the novel, not disappointed. But the last pages of the novel left me frustrated with Dostoyevsky and his account of Christian compassion. Here, it seems to me, he lets the reader down. And perhaps more tragically, he lets down the hero of his story. Dostoyevsky’s misstep at the end of The Idiot shows us the failure of unrestrained compassion when divorced from the particularly and commitment of love.

In a letter to his friend Apollon Maikov, Dostoyevsky conveys his hope of depicting “a completely beautiful human being.”[1] This beautiful human being is introduced to the reader as prince Myshkin—a character meant by Dostoyevsky to embody the essence of pure Christian love and compassion.[2] The young prince has returned to Russia from abroad where he had been treated since early childhood for idiocy. The prince has made a recovery, but is nonetheless woefully ignorant of the normal social conventions that govern polite society—especially wealthy society.

But what sets him apart from the other characters in the novel is not his ignorance, but his goodness. He has an almost impossible capacity not to be offended, not to judge, and to feel genuine compassion for nearly anyone—even those who are abusing him.

Throughout the novel, the prince intersects with a variety of characters, many of them (indeed nearly all of them) duplicitous to varying degrees. The prince finds it easy to love them all, to see past their invective, to excuse them because of the suffering and fear that lies beneath their pride and scheming. And throughout the novel, the reader (at least this reader) finds it easy to be captivated by the beauty and innocence of the young prince. Here Dostoyevsky’s prince is at his best.

But as the novel progresses, a love triangle emerges between the prince and two women—Aglaya Yepanchin and Nastasya Filippovan. Aglaya is a young upper class woman—beautiful, proud, and child-like. She has grown up in a well to do home as the youngest of three sisters, and is the favorite of the family. Nastasya Filippovan is likewise a woman of remarkable beauty, but of the sensual kind. She, like Aglaya, is proud. But she carries with her a tragic self-loathing, a product of her tragic past. From the age of twelve she was raised to be the mistress of a rich businessman, a role she performed for five years.

Both women are compelled and attracted by the prince’s compassion. He is so unlike the other men who have pursued them. The prince, in turn, is captivated by both. Aglaya’s innocence (and no doubt her beauty) captures the prince’s heart. Yet the prince is likewise captivated by Nastasya. She is a tragic figure, made all the more alluring by her stunning physical beauty. This twin combination of beauty and sorrow evokes the full measure of the prince’s sympathy and compassion. When asked why he likes “that sort” of woman, the prince replies hesitatingly, “In that face… there is much suffering…”

Early in the story the prince proposes to Nastasya as a means of delivering her out of her status as a kept woman. She sees his genuine goodness, his compassion and pity, and is passionately, almost pathologically drawn to him. But she ultimately refuses him, feeling she is not worthy of his love, and knowing that it is only pity that motivates him. The prince follows after Nastasya through much of the novel, determined to save her from her own self-loathing. But in the end he gives up, exhausted by her erratic behavior and unable to defeat her self-hatred. His thoughts and heart turn toward Aglaya.

Aglaya is likewise drawn to the prince. But at the outset she will not admit her feelings, and heaps scorn upon him as a means of self-protection. The prince’s persistent ability to endure her scorn eventually overcomes Aglaya’s childish pride. He proposes marriage, but her jealousy toward Nastasya torments her, and she is determined to win a decisive defeat over her rival before acquiescing to the marriage. Toward this end she arranges a secret meeting between the prince, herself, and Nastasya. And it is in this meeting that Dostoyevsky’s prince loses the thread of Christian compassion.

The meeting between the three lovers is volatile and intense. Dostoyevsky is masterful in conveying the hatred and fear the two women have for each other. Aglaya has won the prince and she is determined to secure her superiority over her rival. The conversation takes a wicked turn as both women let the full measure of their invective and jealousy take control. As the scene reaches its climax, Nastasya accuses Aglaya of fear—fear that Nastasya still has power over the prince and could take him from her if she desired. Aglaya’s hatred for Nastasya is fully unveiled and she “cannot restrain herself in the face of the dreadful pleasure of revenge;” she pours contempt on Nastasya, slandering her because of her scandalous past. Nastasya comes unhinged (as only Dostoyevsky’s characters can); in a burst of raving passion soaked through with pain she threatens Aglaya that she will “command” the prince to stay with her, that she need only speak a single word and the prince will leave Aglaya and run to her. The prince can take no more:

With a look of entreaty, mingled with reproach, he addressed Aglaya, pointing to Nastasya the while: "How can you?" he murmured; "she is so unhappy."

But he had no time to say another word before Aglaya's terrible look bereft him of speech. In that look was embodied so dreadful a suffering and so deadly a hatred, that he gave a cry and flew to her; but it was too late.

She could not hold out long enough even to witness his movement in her direction. She had hidden her face in her hands, cried once "Oh, my God!" and rushed out of the room…

The prince made a rush after her, but he was caught and held back. The distorted, livid face of Nastasya gazed at him reproachfully, and her blue lips whispered:

"What? Would you go to her—to her?"

She fell senseless into his arms. …A few moments later, the prince was seated by Nastasya on the sofa, gazing into her eyes and stroking her face and hair, as he would a little child's. He laughed when she laughed, and was ready to cry when she cried. He did not speak, but listened to her excited, disconnected chatter, hardly understanding a word of it the while. No sooner did he detect the slightest appearance of complaining, or weeping, or reproaching, than he would smile at her kindly, and begin stroking her hair and her cheeks, soothing and consoling her once more, as if she were a child.

And here at the end we see the deformity of the prince’s compassion; he agrees to marry Nastasya. Naively, the prince makes numerous attempts to visit Aglaya and her family. They are understandably unwilling to receive him. The sense of betrayal they feel on behalf of their beloved Aglaya is deep and genuine. And indeed, they have good cause to feel betrayed. They had been the one family to genuinely love the prince, even if imperfectly. They had approved of the pending wedding between Aglaya and the prince, even at the potential expense of their own social standing. And Aglaya’s mother had led the way in defending the prince after a particularly embarrassing episode with members of the Yeppachin’s society friends. The pain they feel is not the petty embarrassment of high society folks, but the true pain of betrayal from one they had taken into their confidence and trust.

Incredibly, the prince is unable to see the disconnect between his love for Aglaya and his willingness to marry Nastasya. Yevgeny, a friend of the Yeppachin family, chastises the prince for not running after Aglaya, even with Nastasya fainting into his arms. The prince agrees. . . but,

"Yes, yes, I ought—but I couldn't! She [Nastasya] would have died—she would have killed herself. You don't know her; and I should have told Aglaya everything afterwards….I should have cleared it all up, you know….Oh, she'll understand, she'll understand!....She would understand that all this is not the point—not a bit the real point—it is quite foreign to the real question."

"How can it be foreign? You are going to be married [to Nastasya], are you not?...

"Yes, I shall marry her—yes."

"Then why is it 'not the point'?"

"Oh, no, it is not the point, not a bit. It makes no difference, my marrying her—it means nothing…. I am only marrying her—well, because she wished it."

Yevgeny is dumbfounded by the prince’s logic and again rebukes him. The prince owns the rebuke but still seems unable to grasp the full scope of his actions.

“Oh, yes! I am guilty and I know it—I know it! . . . I have no words; but Aglaya will understand. I have always believed Aglaya will understand—I am assured she will."

"No, prince, she will not. Aglaya loved like a woman, like a human being, not like an abstract spirit. Do you know what, my poor prince? The most probable explanation of the matter is that you never loved either the one or the other in reality."

And here we must concur with Yevgeny. The prince has loved neither Aglaya nor Nastasya. He has loved compassion; but this is not quite the same thing. Compassion, when untethered from the commitment of love, is a sentiment that tosses one to and fro by every shifting wind and wave of suffering. The prince’s compassion, without love to bind him to a particular person or persons, causes him to betray those who trust him.

In the end, the prince cannot truly love either woman, because he cannot choose between them. He is at the mercy of whatever suffering is before him at the moment. He has allowed his compassion for Nastasya’s suffering to undermine his love for Aglaya. In the end, the prince’s compassion is not a mark of love, but of weakness.

Whatever Dostoyevsky’s intent, the sum of all of this does not invoke a sense of sympathy in the reader for the prince. The prince is not William Golding’s Simon—innocent and wise beyond his years, a misunderstood prophet torn apart by the cruel vicissitudes of human evil and caprice. No, the prince brings upon himself his own suffering, precisely because he cannot tether his compassion to love. And thus far does the prince fail as Dostoyevsky’s “truly beautiful human being”—as a pure embodiment of Christian love.

God’s love for his people—full as it is of compassion—is not at the mercy of compassion. He is not yanked to and fro by whatever manifestation of suffering most immediately presents itself to him. Indeed, if such were the case his people would be lost. It was divine love that overlooked the suffering of the Egyptians at the death of their firstborn; it was divine love that refused to look with compassion on the Moabites and Midianites when they were cursed by Balaam; it was divine love that looked without pity on the enemies of Israel as the sun stood still in the sky; it was divine love that ignored the sorrow of Saul when David was lifted up as king. And oh how great was the divine love when the Father looked upon the broken body of his Son and did nothing. It was love for you and I that silenced heaven when the Son cried his cry of dereliction.

Divine love is more than compassion, even if it is not less. Divine love chooses. Divine loves commits to a particular person or persons, and then stands by that commitment with an eternal tenacity and jealousy. The prince, for all his compassion, was unable to love.

Perhaps I’ve been too hard on Dostoyevsky. At the end of the novel the prince descends again into his idiocy, exiled from his native Russia. Perhaps through this Dostoyevsky intended us to understand the prince as a failure. Perhaps we, like Aglaya, are meant to turn away from him in the end.

Whatever the case, Dostoyevsky’s prince falls short of the sort of the jealous love that radiates from heaven. We are loved by a God who does not merely love compassion, but who love us. We are loved by God as flesh and blood persons, not as “abstract spirits”; we are loved as Agalya desired to be loved—as particular human beings. And not even the compassion of God—great as it is—can shake him from his commitment to that love.

Gerald Hiestand is the Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, and the Director of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He blogs at www.pastortheologians.com.

[1] See the introduction in the Penguin Classics edition by William Mills Todd III, xxiii.

[2] In his notes, Dostoyevsky clarifies three different types of love as represented by the characters in the story, with the prince representing Christian love. Ibid., xxii.

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