The Nature of Redemptive Suffering in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

Among many of the themes in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, one of the most prominent is the theme of suffering. Arguably, suffering is one of the largest themes within all of Dostoevsky’s works, particularly because of the difficulty and hardship Dostoevsky experienced in his own life. In The Idiot, suffering takes on a greater meaning when looked at as “a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God” (Deus Caritas Est 6). To understand the importance of suffering within this work, one must look at it in light of salvation history. Before Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, suffering could only be a form of punishment for sin; however, through Christ’s death and resurrection, He transforms suffering into a means of sanctification and redemption. Rather than seeing pain as an evil, Pope John Paul the Great explains in his 1984 encyclical, Salvifici Doloris, that pain is something “that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share” (Salvifici Doloris 7). His encyclical reflects the words of St. Paul: “[n]ow I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I so my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24). It is through Christ’s Death that man can understand his suffering by adding it to Christ’s—man’s suffering can become redemptive. By looking at The Idiot through this understanding, one can see many of the triumphs and failures of characters within the work and subsequently understand how their actions cause an effect beyond themselves.

When Dostoevsky first introduces the topic of suffering, it is in a discussion between Myshkin and a valet in light of capital punishment and a man who “wept as he climbed the scaffold” (Dostoevsky 22). The key remark is noted when the valet suggest that there is not much suffering when the head is cut off; Myshkin responds that this form of death holds immeasurable horror because there is complete lack of hope. Dostoevsky asks the reader to consider two examples: first of a man attacked by robbers and second of a soldier in front of a firing cannon—arguably, both will hold onto hope until the last moment they can be saved, and it is this hope that makes it “ten times easier to die” (Dostoevsky Dostoevsky 23). In contrast to this, there is the mention of the condemned man whose “whole torment lies in the certainty that there’s no escape” (Dostoevsky 23) and to die having contemplated if it is with or without Christ—he claims that to have to contemplate one’s impending death is enough to drive any strong man insane. Myshkin ends with saying, “Christ spoke of this suffering and horror” (Dostoevsky 23) which harkens to Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane when he spoke, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death… My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:38-39). Dostoevsky held Christ in high esteem, and this example of psychological suffering for fear of death must have resonated with Dostoevsky, considering he suffered a close-to-death experience as well. As Dostoevsky’s own practiced religion of Russian Orthodoxy assures that Christ suffered more than any other man in existence, he would understand from this that suffering of the mind and psyche was the ultimate form.

However, one may question how any goodness arrives from suffering, and indeed question where God’s love can be found in what appears to be complete abandonment, especially in this type of suffering; however, one must remember that God only allows suffering that is proportionate to what the individual can handle. A heart directed towards God will be reminded that divine mercy moves one to revere suffering as redemptive, and in it there is hope for salvation.

In his encyclical Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul the Great explores the meaning of human suffering as something explicitly for man saying, “What we express by the word ‘suffering’ seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence” (Salvifici Doloris 4). This is to say that the nature of human suffering is so entwined with one’s spiritual self that it allows one to grow stronger in relation to God. With this theological understanding of suffering in mind, one may question why the most innocent character within the novel, Myshkin, seems to experience the most amount of public ridicule and internal turmoil while characters, such as Rogozhin, do not. Sam McCoubrey says that there is “presented a particularly poignant example of undeserved and possibly irredeemable suffering” when it comes to Myshkin (McCoubrey 15). Throughout the entire novel, Myshkin experiences many forms of suffering, the two greatest being the story of Maria and the death of Nastasya. Although his suffering appears to stem from his social awkwardness and epilepsy, Myshkin brushes aside his own pain and take on the pain of others. McCoubrey comments that “the pain and suffering in this world was too much for him” and, as the novel ends, Myshkin must return to Switzerland because he cannot cope with the death of Nastasya. Before his final mental break-down, one can examine Myshkin as ever-giving of himself, which harkens back to how Christ lived his life; though he had to die on the cross, one still holds onto the hope that he will rise again and redeem all of mankind. Likewise, if one were to read The Idiot in a similar fashion, one is left with a greater sense of hope; however, one cannot help but acknowledge the limitations of Myshkin since he is not Divine, one may wonder if the meritorious value of his suffering is enough to bring redemption to those he was effected by the most, namely Rogozhin and Nastasya.

Nastasya Filippovna is a prideful, beautiful, and arguably the most hurting character in The Idiot. At a young age, Totsky, an older gentleman, took her under his wing and had her educated, gave her a lavish life-style, and bred her to be his mistress. Having her innocence taken away at such a young age left lasting and clear effects on Nastasya. Through this, she developed into a highly emotion individual, driven only by her pride and revenge; however, her high levels of passion and ever-changing moods make it difficult to follow her development, or lack thereof, as a character. Richard Chapple addresses the state that Nastasya seems unable to escape from, saying that she flees from that which is good because she believes she is unable to repent, be forgiven, and that she “suffers from proximity to good and expiation because of lasting and sever judgment of self” (Chapple 97). Nastasya’s lack of motivation—her resolve to remain in acedia—is the very reason that her suffering brings forth no life-giving reward. Although all people are able to be saved through the offering of one’s suffering, one must make a conscious decision to turn towards God and must actively seek forgiveness in order to be saved.

Nastasya Fillipnova seems unable to commit in her life, and this is prominently seen in her inner dialogues and are manifested in her actions with Myshkin and Rogozhin. Mikhail Bakhtin, in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poets, says that “Nastasya Filippovna’s voice is divided between the voice that pronounces her a guilty ‘fallen woman’ and the voice that vindicates and accepts her” (Bakhtin 257). Myshkin represents the second voice and continuously affirms Nastasya’s innocence even when she is fully immersed in her destructive role as a corrupted women. Although she recognized that Myshkin can aid her in growing in virtue and goodness, she rejects his extended hand multiple times through her conviction to see herself as nothing more than a condemned woman. From early on in the novel, Nastasya finds comfort in Myshkin saying, “I believe in him as the first truly devoted man in my whole life. He believed in me from the first glance, and I trust him” (Dostoevsky 154); however, Myshkin’s early opinion of Nastasya was that “her fate was no ordinary one. It’s a gay face, but she has suffered terribly” (Dostoevsky, 36), which is a suffering that she attempts to hide. Regardless of her desire to be more than a femme fatale character, she holds onto the identifier, allowing men like Rogozhin to essentially bid on her. Myshkin was correct in his assessment regarding Nastasya’s suffering, but before Nastasya could ever truly give herself to Myshkin, she needed to understand that suffering is not only this seemingly unattainable means of sanctification, but also a way to repent for one’s own iniquities. In the gospel of Matthew, Christ says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Christ invites each and every individual to participate in humiliation, physical pain, and even death to follow Him into the kingdom of heaven.

However, Nastasya is too wrapped up in her own self—her own self-loathing, pity, and pride—that she believes that there is no hope. Christ calls: “all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” but one must be receptive (Matthew 11:28). Nastasya’s obvious rejection of forgiveness from Christ through her rejection of Myshkin in marriage was the cause of her ultimate downfall and death. However, Nastasya is not the only broken character in The Idiot. Each character brings forth a different element of rejection or acceptance to the suffering given to them: some settling for their mediocre life-styles, and yet others become broken because they would not turn to Christ to help carry their cross. Of the later, one such character is Rogozhin. When introduced to Rogozhin, one may get the impression that he is nothing extraordinary. He pines for Nastasya, but is not fulfilled when he succeeds in attaining her. Dostoevsky knew that he was going to have the greatest downfall in the end by murdering Nastasya. Regrettably, Rogozhin rejects Christianity even though, out of all of the characters within the novel, he is presented with the most tangible opportunities to turn to Christ.

The two clearest Christian symbols given to Rogozhin are Holbein’s Christ and the exchanging of crosses in Chapter Four Part Two—both of which can be seen as opportune moments for him to turn towards God. In Acts of the Apostles St. Luke writes, “[b]e penitent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be forgiven” (Acts of the Apostle, 3:19), a message to sinners that one can always return home to the Father. The first symbol seen, the painting of Holbein’s Christ, is discussed for only a moment before Rogozhin “suddenly abandoned the painting and went further on his way” (Dostoevsky 218). One may gather that Rogozhin cannot look upon the dead and decaying Christ because it is the sins of man that caused him to be crucified. Although he says that he enjoys looking at the painting, there is an element of sadness in the tone which suggests that looking may cause him grief. Moments after the discussion of Holbein’s Christ, Myshkin and Rogozhin discuss a series of people, all but one of which were sinners. Myshkin relates what he heard one woman say, that the joy in a mother upon seeing her child smile is the “same as God rejoices each time he looks down from heaven and sees a sinner standing before [H]im and praying with all his heart” (Dostoevsky 221). Following these stories, Rogozhin desires to exchange crosses with Myshkin. When one sees this in light of salvation, one can see that Myshkin willfully accepts his cross in a very Christ-like manner, giving Rogozhin a lighter cross in exchange for his heavier one. In this moment there is a particular sense of hope that Rogozhin may be able to turn back to Christ. After this exchange, Rogozhin presents Myshkin to his mother who blesses him immediately, as if upon seeing him she could see his good heart. Regardless of the opportunity presented to Rogozhin, and countless more times in which he is given the chance to redeem himself, he eventually falls. It is his greed and pride that cause him to commit the heinous murder of Nastasya. Myshkin noted of Rogozhin that “despite his external calm, he was in some deep inner anguish” (Dostoevsky 604). Rogozhin’s inability to turn to Christ and offer up his suffering directly resulted in his breakdown. Rogozhin’s actions not only result in the death of Nastasya, but also lead to Myshkin’s final breakdown and result in his having to go back to Switzerland.

Dostoevsky’s novel is full of pain and suffering that ultimately moves the plot along. One understands that though the novel seems to end abruptly and without a greater passion for Christ, there is an implicate message sent through Myshkin: sometimes one must give up everything and embrace one’s cross so that others may attain eternal salvation. Like Christ, Myshkin gave all he had. As seen in the text, to abandon suffering only leads man to become resentful and miserable; this reflects the paradox in Christ’s words, “[w]hoever seeks to gain life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke, 17:33). Likewise, to embrace suffering with perfect love is what causes it to gain meaning. Pope Benedict XVI encompassed this same idea in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est: “Love embraces the hole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time” (Deus Caritas Est, 6). Through The Idiot, one can come to a deeper understanding of the nature of suffering and the necessary role it plays in salvation history. Without the passion on the cross, suffering can only be seen as a pointless punishment; however, with Christ in mind, suffering transforms itself into a means of unification with God.

Works Cited

Benedict XVI. Deus Caritas Est. Vatican, 2005. Web. 25 November 2015. Chapple, Richard L. A Catalogue of Suffering in the Works of Dostoevsky: His Christian Foundation. Vol. 4, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Ewald, Elizabeth J. The Mystery of Suffering: The Philosophy of Dostoevsky’s Characters. Trinity College, 5 Feb. 2011, John Paul II. Salvifici Doloris. Vatican, 1984. Print. 5 November 2015 Sam McCoubrey. “Suffering and Redemption in the Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.” Https://, Boston College, 2004. The Holy Bible, Douay Rheims Edition. TAN Books, Janic Inc, Web. 5 November 2015.