The forms of 19th-century European fictions, including the Russian, have a powerful relation to older Christian stories, from the Bible to Bunyan. The novels meet the old tales with part parody, part dialogue, part rejection and reconstruction. Middlemarch opens with a paradigm of its heroine as a "later-born" St Theresa, "helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul". Dorothea's virtue cannot find a form in her modern world. Unlike Eliot, Dostoevsky was Christian, and increasingly passionate about preserving faith. DH Lawrence, another maker of fictive prophecies and apocalypses, was reading The Idiot in 1915. "I don't like Dostoevsky," he wrote. "He is like the rat, slithering along in hate, in the shadows, and in order to belong to the light professing love, all love." It had become, he shrilled, "a supreme wickedness to set up a Christ worship as Dostoevsky did: it is the outcome of an evil will..."
The central idea of The Idiot as we have it was, as Dostoevsky wrote in a letter, "to depict a completely beautiful human being". Prince Myshkin is a Russian Holy Fool, a descendant of Don Quixote, and a type of Christ in an un-Christian world. Author and character face the problem all good characters face in all novels - good in fiction is just not as interesting as wickedness, and runs the risk of repelling readers, even those less worked up than Lawrence. There is another problem - goodness tends to mean unselfishness, and unselfishness tends to lack sexual energy, another great driving force in fictions. In the letter quoted above, written in 1868 as Dostoevsky was writing and sending out the first chapters of the novel, he acknowledges uneasily that he has seized this ambitious project prematurely, out of financial and professional desperation.
The writing and publication of the novel were certainly both tortured and strained. It was written abroad, unlike his previous novels, for serial publication, put together by his second wife and stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna. Their daughter died during the writing. Dostoevsky gambled suicidally and had epileptic fits. Anna preserved the notebooks, which show that both plot and characters were in a state of fluid and volcanic chaos, even while the book was appearing. The good prince appears in the early notes as proud and demonic, and the rapist of his adopted sister (a prototype of Nastasya Filippovna). He also commits arson and wife-murder. The first part of the novel, as it appeared, is acknowledged to be powerful. Dostoevsky appears not to have had a clear idea of how to proceed. The second two parts are phantasmagoric and rambling, unplotted and fitfully energetic.
John Jones, in his excellent study of Dostoevsky, rejects The Idiot as a major work on the grounds that, alone among Dostoevsky's novels, it does not have the intricate tissue of language and punning Jones makes available to non-Russian readers. Other critics complain that the "good" prince makes everyone's life worse and achieves nothing - though in this he may be compared to the resurrected Christ of Ivan Karamazov's fable of the Grand Inquisitor. The world does not know what to do with him.
I think The Idiot to be a masterpiece - flawed, occasionally tedious or overwrought, like many masterpieces - but a fact of world literature just as important as the densely dramatic Brothers Karamazov or the brilliantly subtle and terrifying Devils . In those two novels, as in the simpler Crime and Punishment , Dostoevsky had plots and political and religious ideas working together. In The Idiot he is straining to grasp a story and a character converting themselves from Gothic to Saint's Life on the run. What makes the greatness is double -the character of the prince, and a powerful series of confrontations with death. The true subject of The Idiot is the imminence and immanence of death. The image of these things is Holbein's portrait of Christ taken down from the cross, a copy of which hangs in Rogozhin's house, and which was seen by both Dostoevsky and Prince Myshkin in Basle. It represents, we are told, a dead man who is totally flesh without life, damaged and destroyed, with no hint of a possible future resurrection. The form of the novel is shaped by the inexorable outbreak of Dostoevsky's deepest preoccupations. It is the quality of Dostoevsky's doubt and fear that is the intense religious emotion in this novel - to which Lawrence was no doubt reacting.
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