Dostoevsky Studies     Volume 6, 1985...


Dostoevsky's Idiot: Treasure in Earthen Vessels

C. J. G. Turner, University of British Columbia

Scriptural epigraphs stand at the head of both Besy and Brat'ia Karamazovy and are again within the novels that they to an appreciable extent prefigure; similarly, Prestuplenie i nakazanie, although it bears no epigraph, is largely dominated by the story of the raising of Lazarus that is read in chapter 4 of Part IV. Is there an equivalent text for Idiot? Professor Hollander has suggested Revelation vi 5-6, which is quoted in the novel by Lebedev, (1) and several other critics have seen the last book in the Bible as a formative influence on the novel. (2)

There is, however, another scriptural text that would be appropriate on the symbolic, characterological and novelistic levels: namely II Corinthians iv 7, "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels" (K.J.V.) or, as it is rendered in the New English Bible, "We are no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure". The contrast drawn here by St. Paul is between the fragility or worthlessness of the container (man, in particular the apostles) and the eternal value of what it contains or bears (the Christian Gospel). The closest that Dostoevskii comes to quoting this text is in passages referring to the Chinese vase. For instance, he has Lizaveta Prokof'evna call it a 'clay pot': "A man too comes to an end, and here we are bothering about a clay pot!" (Pt. IV ch.7; VIII 455). (3) Dostoevskii is drawing a contrast between the value of the vase and its fragility; but, as is apparent from the above quotation and again later when the same speaker says that "I'm not sorry for the vase but for you" (Pt. IV ch. 8; VIII 462), he is using the vase as a metaphor for the contrast between the value of man and his fragility. Not so many pages later Radomskii picks up the metaphor of the vase with the addition of the Pauline word 'treasure' when he says to Myshkin about Aglaia: "... and you could abandon and smash such a treasure!" (Pt. IV ch. 9; VIII 481). (4)

It seems highly unlikely that Dostoevskii was consciously quoting Paul. His preference for the Johannine writings is well known, but their difference from those of Paul is not stressed by contemporary theology - indeed, the verses that immediately precede our suggested epigraph (II Corinthians iv 4-6) make use of the typically Johannine contrast between light and darkness. Father Zosima in Brat'ia Karamazovy (Bk. VI ch. 2; XIV 267, 281) recommends reading the account of Paul's conversion and quotes from the Epistle to the Hebrews (the Pauline authorship of which was not likely to be questioned by Dostoevskii himself recommends the reading of the Pauline epistles. (5) It is, however, only a few words from the text of Paul that appear in the text of Idiot, and they are separated by a number of pages and not quite in the form of either


the Church Slavonic or the Russian Bible. The fact that the Greek word from which the title of the novel is derived occurs four times in the letters to Corinth and only once elsewhere in the New Testament is presumably coincidental.

Whether or not Dostoevskii intended any allusion, echoes of a Pauline text may be found particularly in his vocabulary referring to the Chinese vase which has frequently been recognized as a symbol, for instance as "a symbol of earthly beauty" whose "shattering... by the Prince symbolises the destruction of his relationship with" Aglaia. (6) Its reference is, however, wider, as is shown by two passages earlier in Part IV by which Dostoevskii prepares the metaphor: at the beginning of chapter 4 he writes that "the Prince hastened to sit down, but somehow with a strange timidity, as if his guest [General Ivolgin] were made of china, and he were constantly afraid of smashing him" (VIII 409); and at the end of chapter 5 he has Ippolit say to Myshkin that "I notice that you are always treating me like... like a china cup" (VIII 433). (7) Thus Myshkin, Aglaia, Ippolit and Ivolgin are all explicitly compared to fragile pottery, while Lizaveta Prokof'evna extends the comparison to man in general.

In the passages about the vase three facts are stressed: it is valuable, it is fragile, and it is actually broken; it is also 'huge and beautiful' (VIII 454) and had been given, not bought (VIII 435). So also the fragility of Dostoevskii's heroes in this novel is only too obvious - in a sense it is given in the sheer fact of human mortality: General Ivolgin dies in Part IV, as does Nastas'ia Filippovna; the death of Ippolit is reported in its "Conclusion", and the fact that man is 'condemned to death' is such a recurrent theme in Myshkin's reminiscences and stories that he has been said to be obsessed with the topic. But Dostoevskii's characters are fragile not only through their mortality; their fragility is physical, moral and above all psychological. Myshkin suffers from epilepsy and from the mental incapacity with which his life begins and ends. Ippolit is a warped character condemned to die soon by his tuberculosis. General Ivolgin's alcoholic senility is most plainly manifested in an irrepressible inability to distinguish fact from fiction. Aglaia may seem more normal, but the reader senses from her first appearance a psychological fragility that has been attributed to "some central flaw... the germ of a second self." If one were to extend this summary list beyond the protagonist and those other characters who are explicitly compared to china-ware, then it would not be difficult to indicate the fragility of the murderer Rogozhin or the 'mad' Nastas'ia Filippovna; minor characters are, for the most part, more normal physically and psychologically (although not thereby more 'real' to Dostoevskii's way of thinking), but in many of them too moral stability is at best questionable.

If, then, the major characters of Idiot are only too plainly fragile and in most cases are actually destroyed by physical or mental breakdown, in what sense may it be claimed that, like the vase, they are also valuable? Myshkin has a number of excellent qualities, although a common trend in recent criticism has been to counterbalance his hagiography by uncovering a darker side to his personality. (9) Similarly, it is not too


difficult to find some positive qualities in the other characters: not only the beauty that both Nastas'ia Filippovna and Aglaia share with the vase, but also intelligence, kindness single-mindedness, childlikeness. But somehow it appears specious to argue along these lines, perhaps because either the dominance or the value of these is open to question: beauty, for instance, is notoriously ambivalent in Dostoevskii and its value, as is clear from Part I of Idiot, is perverted by being measured in monetary terms, a criterion that is not accepted by Myshkin. Lebedev, on the other hand, disparages himself regularly although not altogether seriously, while a more sincere conviction of their own worthlessness is evinced by Ippolit in his 'Necessary Explanation' (Pt. III ch. 7; VIII 343-4), by Nastas'ia Filippovna especially in her letters to Aglaia {Pt. III ch. 10; VIII 379-80), and by General Ivolgin as underlying most of his conduct. The value, then, of the other characters in Idiot is not so much what they are in themselves but what is attributed to them by Myshkin. He values beauty for itself and, like Ieshua in Bulgakov's Master i Margarita, he facilely assumes the goodness of the people he meets, most discordantly just after breaking the vase; more seriously and hence more significantly, he assumes from the start that all of them, from children and servants, through Marie and General Ivolgin, to Rogozhin and Nastas'ia Filippovna, are worth the total expenditure of his time, energies and financial resources, and thereby he gives them value. Dostoevskii tends to summarise this quality in Myshkin as 'compassion or 'pity', which we readers tend then to narrow down to his concern above all for Nastas'ia Filippovna; but it is in fact broader both in scope and as a concept, closer to that Christian love or agape which loves indiscriminately and not because of any merit of the loved one (i.e., like the vase, it is 'given', not bought) and which is exemplified supremely in Jesus Christ.

This leads us to the one most direct image of Christ in Idiot, namely the Holbein painting of Christ in the Tomb of which a copy hangs in Rogozhin's house and which occurs as a motif more than once (Pt. II chs. 4 & 5, Pt. III ch. 6; VIII 181-2, 192, 338-9). Its role in the novel has been considered most frequently in terms of the significant effects it has on Myshkin, Rogozhin and Ippolit, as its original did on their author. But in the present context it may also be seen as a symbol: as such it operates differently from the vase, since it is not the value and fragility of the painting Itself that come into question, but what it portrays shows more obviously the value, fragility and brokenness of man. For here was "a great and priceless being," as Ippolit says (Pt. III ch. 6; VIII 339), "such a being as was alone worth the whole of nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was created, perhaps, solely for the manifestation of this one being," (10) yet, as the painting graphically illustrates, "this is my body, which is broken for you" (I Corinthians xi 24). (11) Ippolit describes the face as 'fearfully smashed'; the picture may destroy one's faith precisely because, contrary to iconographic tradition, it presents a thoroughly kenotic view of Jesus as 'emptied' of his divinity, disfigured, dead and buried. (12) It is for that very reason that it can serve as an image for Myshkin, who was Dostoevskii's first attempt at an imitatio Christi, i.e. a Christfigure without the divinity of Christ.


It may be remarked that we have been playing variations on a theme, (13) and it is indeed our purpose to show the importance of this theme in Idiot precisely by indicating its variations. Our starting-point was a Pauline text that contrasted the fragility of human beings with the 'treasure' of the Gospel committed to them. The relevance of this theme of the combination of value with fragility in man is underlined by its recurrence in two of the novel's most striking symbols: the Chinese vase, whose shattering reverberates in a number of apparently disparate contexts; and the Holbein picture of Christ, whose dual divine and human nature is manifested in the value of his Gospel and the fragility of his earthly body. Dostoevskii, we assume, was not consciously alluding to this text; and, even if he were at some level of his consciousness aware of it, then he may well have taken it out of its context and interpreted the 'treasure' as referring to some inherent in man. (14) Such a 'translation' would fit the major characters of Idiot: they are all, in one way or another and to a greater or lesser degree, fragile; their value appears more questionable but is assumed and hence 'given' by Myshkin, whose chief failing has been seen as his persistent overvaluation of his fellows. (15) It is a principle that applies pre-eminently to the novel's hero. Prince Myshkin, who is painfully fragile in both mind and body but is highly valued by just about everyone he meets. (16) And yet it is a principle that begs the question of what constitutes value in man, which thus becomes a major moral centre of the novel. Dostoevskii's answer to that question may be adumbrated by comparing Myshkin with his concept of that other 'priceless' being, the Christ.

It is well known that in two letters at the Russian New Year (12/13 January 1868, according to the New Style) Dostoevskii refers to his idea of portraying a "fully" (in the second letter "positively") "fine man" (17) and that in his notebooks for the novel he emphasized 'Prince Christ' (IX 246, 249, 253). It is a commonplace that these are more of a declaration of intent than a comment on his accomplishment. Their timing is indeed significant: the letters were written when only the first seven chapters were ready for publication, and 'Prince Christ' appears in April when Dostoevskii was still working on the beginning of the present Part II. One has the distinct impression that Myshkin is closer to Christ in Part I (where, for instance, he evinces a prophetic insight and utilises the strategies of the 'parable' (18)), than in the later Parts (where the darker side of his personality emerges in his 'double motives' and suspiciousness and where he becomes more clearly fallible). In other words, as Dostoevskii's work on the novel proceeded, he found that the novel-form itself, with its concern with man as a social being, precluded the depiction of a Christ-figure complete with the ultimate divine wisdom and authority of Christ. Myshkin, limited by his humanity, was perhaps bound to fail in the world of the novel if we take the practical effects of his life as the criterion of its value; so indeed did Jesus fail if one ignores the authenticating resurrection and exaltation (so Paul in I Corinthians xv 14: "If Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void," N.E.B.). But Dostoevskii was more concerned to depict the inherent quality of Myshkin's life: (19) faced with the eternal conundrum of the human imitation of the divine Christ, he is forced back on his initial attraction to Christ as aesthetic


and moral - but essentially human - perfection, the "ideal of man in the flesh" (XX 172). This seems to me to be what is indicated by the crucial texts where Nastas'ia Filippovna says to Myshkin, "Farewell, Prince, for the first time I have seen a man" (Pt. I ch. 16; VIII 148), and Ippolit says to him, "I shall bid farewell to a Man" (with a capital letter! Pt. III ch. 7; VIII 348).

The positive qualities of such a hero have been variously estimated and defined, but, in terms of the present paper, his value lies in his approximation to the value-system represented by the human Jesus: an insight that penetrates through the worldly facade to the personality and its distortions; a sense of eternal proportion that values human beings above money and everything else; and a self-sacrificial willingness to be spent in order to redeem them. If we put this imitation of Christ alongside the physical and mental fragility of Myshkin and his obsessive consciousness of mortality that are emphasized from the start of the novel, then we get what amounts to a novelistic commentary on Paul's own development of our original text: "Wherever we go we carry death with us in our body, the death that Jesus died, that in this body also life may reveal itself, the life that Jesus lives" (II Corinthians iv 10, N.E.B.). Myshkin shares both the mortality and at least something of the principles of eternal 'life' of this Jesus; like him and like the Chinese vase, he is, on the one hand, fragile and, on the other hand, fine and valuable. This paradox is the 'idea' for which, typically, Dostoevskii was most concerned. (20)

Our final 'variation' concerns the novel qua novel, for many would be inclined to reverse Professor Peace's verdict on Idiot that "as a novel it is an artistic success; while as a vehicle for the great idea, the portrayal of 'the positively good man', it is a failure." (21) While it is not, strictly speaking, possible consistently to separate the idea from the form in which it is expressed, one can hardly deny either that the novel has its artistic flaws or that one substantial element in its success is its attempt to portray an "ideal of man in the flesh" in a contemporary social context. Dostoevskii's idea, then, is yet another 'treasure' in the fragile 'earthen vessel' of the novel. He himself regretted that the form of his novel was inadequate to express "even a tenth part" of his treasured idea and recognized that a special cast of mind was required for its appreciation. (22) The extent of the damage done by its artistic defects is disputable and will be differently estimated by different casts of mind, and yet these very defects are a paradoxical merit in that, as a consequence of them, the artistic structure itself of Idiot reflects the theme of value in combination with fragility that is pointed up by two of its major symbols and is central to the concept of its hero.


  1. R. Hollander, 'The Apocalyptic Framework of Dostoevsky's The Idiot' in Mosaic 7 (1974) pp. 123-39; I refer to p. 130. F.M. Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii u tridtsati tomakh (Leningrad, 1972- ) vol. VIII p. 167 (Idiot Part II chapter 2); future references to Dostoevskii given in my text will be according to this set by volume and page; where applicable, Book or Part and chapter will also be given.
  2. See, for example, R.L. Cox, Between Earth and Heaven (New York etc., 1969) pp. 164-91 (p. 178: '... if we undertook to trace all the imagery and symbolism which Dostoevsky borrows from the Apocalypse, we should never finish'); V. Ia. Kirpotin, Mir Dostoevskogo (Moscow, 1980) pp. 22-63 ('The Rider on the Black Horse'); and W.J. Leatherbarrow, 'Apocalyptic Imagery in The Idiot and The Devil's' in Dostoevsky Studies 3 (1982) pp. 43-51 (Leatherbarrow examines inter alia names in Idiot, but does not suggest Revelation v 5, where the Lamb [i.e. Christ] is oddly metamorphosed into a Lion [in Russian, Lev], as a possible explanation of Myshkin's first name). For various reasons a computation of the Scriptural references in Idiot cannot be more than approximate, but a survey of those noted in the current Soviet edition of Dostoevskii indicates that direct quotations from Revelation are rivalled only by those from the Gospels; that allusions to John's Gospel are more numerous than the single direct quotation would imply; and that quotations from the Epistles are found only in the notebooks.
  3. For 'in earthen vessels' (in Greek, 'en ostrakinois skeuesin') the Church Slavonic Bible has 'v" skudel'nykh"' and the Russian Bible has 'v glinianykh sosudakh'; the Good News Bible has 'common clay pots'. Lizaveta Prokof'evna's 'clay pot' is a 'glinianyi gorshok'. Cox (op. cit., p. 185) connects this passage with Revelation ii 27.
  4. 'Treasure' is sokrovishche in both Dostoevskii and the Bible. Myshkin's response to this reproach ('She alone, only Aglaia looked on Nastas'ia Filippovna in that way') makes it appear at first sight that, in his absent-minded way, he is taking Radomskii's words to refer not to Aglaia but to Nastas'ia Filippovna as a 'treasure'. But even Myshkin could scarcely call Nastas'ia Filippovna 'shattered' at this point in the novel; nor does Radomskii, carried away as he is, object. Hence we must interpret Myshkin as meaning that Aglaia alone saw Nastas'ia Filippovna as a serious rival. This would imply, firstly, that Aglaia is intelligent and, secondly, that her intelligence allowed her to see the extent of Myshkin's esteem for Nastas'ia Filippovna; in other words as unusual value in Myshkin's eyes for both women.
  5. F.M. Dostoevskii, Pis'ma (ed. A.S. Dolinin; Moscow-Leningrad, 1928-59) IV p. 5.
  6. D.M. Fiene, 'Pushkin's "Poor Knight": the Key to Perceiving Dostoevsky's Idiot as Allegory' in Bulletin of the International Dostoevsky Society 8 (1978) pp. 10-21 (p. 14); J. Meyers, Painting and the Novel (Manchester, 1975) p. 138.


    A symbol that is strangely analogous, in both form and significance, is found in Henry James' The Golden Bowl (1904) .
  7. It was Ippolit who had drawn attention to Lebedev's china cups at the beginning of Part II chapter 10 (VIII 241). A 'broken pot' had appeared already in Part I chapter 14 (VIII 126) in a general context (Ferdyshchenko's parlour-game) where moral fragility is of the essence and a particular context (General Epanchin's contribution to that game) where mortality and the value of a human being are pivotal.
  8. F.F. Seeley, 'Aglaia Epančina' in Slavic and East European Journal 18 (1974) pp. 1-10 (p. 8).
  9. See, for example, S.O. Lesser, 'Saint and Sinner: Dostoevsky's Idiot' in Modern Fiction Studies 4 (1958) pp. 211-24; M. Jones, 'K ponimaniiu obraza Kniazia Myshkina' in Dostoevskii: Materialy i issledovaniia II (Leningrad, 1976) pp. 106-12; J.B. Woodward, 'Overlapping Portraits in Dostoevskij's The Idiot' in Scandoslavica 26 (1980) pp. 115-27.
  10. K. Onasch rightly surmises that in all probability Dostoevskii stands behind these words of Ippolit (Der verschwiegene Christus [Berlin, 1976] p. 143).
  11. K.J.V.; most modern versions follow the stronger manuscript tradition in omitting 'broken'.
  12. It is probable that originally Holbein simply painted a corpse, adding the stigmata and the inscription to give it more commercial value; see A.B. Chamberlain, Hans Holbein the Younger (London, 1913) I pp. 101-2. Karamzin, in his Letters of a Russian Traveller which Dostoevskii doubtlessly knew, records the tradition that it was painted from the corpse of a drowned Jew (N.M. Karamzin, Izbrannye sochineniia [Moscow-Leningrad, 1964] I p. 208).
  13. The artistic structure of Idiot consists largely of a number of variations or 'overlaps' (Woodward's term) on different levels, and its plot may thus be represented graphically perhaps best by a spiral rather than by a line. It may be remarked, too, that in order to play our variations we have resorted to two opposite procedures: the concept of fragility has been rendered by verbs such as 'break, shatter, smash' that normally represent the one Russian verb razbit'; 'value', on the other hand, has normally been used to represent a range of terms such as sokrovishche ('treasure', in the Pauline text but also used in the novel of Aglaia), dorogoi ('dear', of the vase) and bestsennyi ('priceless', of Christ).
  14. In this novel he quotes Revelation x, 6 three times (Pt. II ch. 5, Pt. III ch. 5; VIII 189, 318, 319), at least on the first occasion taking it to refer to the timeless quality of eternity. This is a possible interpretation of the Greek as rendered in the K.J.V.: '... that there should be time no longer'; but it is generally accepted that in context


    it means that there will be no time left, hence the N.E.B. renders: 'There shall be no more delay'.
  15. M. Krieger, 'Dostoevsky's Idiot: The Curse of Saintliness' in (Krieger), The Tragic Vision (New York, 1960) pp. 209-27.
  16. Nastas'ia Filippovna calls him a 'treasure' (Pt. IV ch. 8; VIII 474); but, in the context of her climatic interview with Aglaia, this is at least on one level ironical. Similarly ironical is Gania's introduction of Myshkin as an 'invaluable chap' (Pt. I ch. 9; VIII 89). Ia. O. Zundelovich, (Romany Dostoevskogo [Tashkent, 1963) pp. 62-104) traces the ambivalence of many of the evaluative epithets in the novel to a conflict between its different narrative voices.
  17. Dostoevskii, Pis'ma II pp. 61, 71. The second letter refers to Christ as a possible prototype and to John's Gospel. The rendering 'fine' is an attempt to capture both the aesthetic ('beautiful') and the moral ('good') connotations of prekrasnyi; this adjective is also used repeatedly to describe the Chinese vase.
  18. See R.F. Miller, Dostoevsky and 'The Idiot' (Cambridge, Mass., & London, 1981) pp. 168-74.
  19. In the notebooks to the novel he wrestled with the problem of how to depict an ideal character whose effects are minimal: 'The Prince only touched their life. But what he could have done and undertaken, all that died with him... But wherever he touched - everywhere he left an ineffaceable trace... The chief problem is the character of the Idiot. Develop it. That's the idea of the novel... Everything that would have been worked out in the Prince is extinguished in the grave. And therefore showing step by step the Prince in a field of action will be enough. But! For that the plot of the novel is essential' (IX 242, 252, emphasis in the original).
  20. Like his creator, Myshkin too fears that his 'idea' will be compromised by its outward expression (e.g. Pt. III ch. 2, Pt. IV ch. 7; VIII 283, 458); similarly Ippolit at the end of Part III chapter 5 (VIII 328). Perhaps one may suggest a parallel to God's fear, indeed foreknowledge, that his son would not be recognized because of his 'form of a servant' (Philippians ii 7).
  21. R. Peace, Dostoyevsky: An Examination of the Major Novels (Cambridge, 1971) p. 70.
  22. Dostoevskii, Pis'ma II 160 and III  256.
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