Making of The Idiot

Dostoevsky left for Western Europe with his bride, Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina, on April 14, 1867 and lived in various cities until 1871. The Idiot was created during this period of his foreign residency. Dostoevsky made the first notebook entry toward a new novel that would be The Idiot on September 14 in Geneva; the novel was finished on January 17, 1869 in Florence.

Here is a summary of how The Idiot developed to be what we read today. This summary is an abstraction and reorganization of the first part of Chapter XV (pp. 334 - 348) of "Dostoevsky: his life and work" written by Konstantin Mochulsky and translated by Michael A. Minihan. We can observe two stages in Dostoevsky's work on The Idiot. The first produced a series of plans, underlying thoughts, character and plot sketches. Though they formed the platform for the next development and some of them maintained the remnance of their original forms in the final version of the novel, they were rejected on December 4, 1867. The second led directly to the writing of the novel. As we will see, the writing of The Idiot was characterized by numerous difficulties for the writer: struggle with a "premature thought" of depicting "a wholly beautiful individual," the birth and loss of his first daughter, and continuous attack of fits...

Stage 1

Aug 1867 letter to Maikov from Geneva
"I have a novel... there isn't much yet down in black and white"
Oct 1867 letter to Maikov
"I'm throwing myself full force into the novel..."
Jan 1868 letter to Maikov
"... but December 4th I tossed the lot to the devil."

Development of ideas for the first rejected version

1. Mignon and the Umetsky case
On the first page of notebook No. 3 that dates from September 14 to October 27 appears the name Mignon. There is substantial evidence to support that Dostoevsky conceived the new novel as a story of the Russian Mignon substantiated by the artistic dramatization of the story of Olga Umetskaya. Dostoevsky writes in the notebook: "The story of Mignon is exactly the same as the story of Olga Umetskaya." His then-newly-wed wife Anna Grigorevna Snitkina later writes: "I remember that in the winter of 1867 F. M. was interested in the details of the Umetsky trial, which had raised a great tumult at that time. He was interested to the point that he intended to make the heroine of the trial, Olga Umetskaya, the heroine of his new novel."
2. The decomposition of the Russian cultured class
The novel expanded around the Mignon-Umetskaya core to encompass the decomposition of the Russian landowning gentry [6 Liberation of the serfs]. In this stage appear the prototypes of the members of General Ivolgin's family. The family at this stage includes an abject father who is reduced into thievary, his wife who is "a person worthy of respect and noble, but without sense," their handsome elder son "with pretention to originality," and daughter who has a fiance, an officer who earns living by money lending.
3. An idiot
Dostoevsky first conceives of a character with the quality of "an idiot" at this stage and makes him another son of the ruined landowning family. The "idiot" of the first version is, however, directly opposite in character to Prince Myshkin, though they both suffer from epileptic and nervous fits. Here are some of the characteristics and themes which Dostoevsky conceived and experimented to create an attractive idiot.
(a) Pretended humility out of pride
In his notebook Dostoevsky writes: "The idiot's passions are strong, his need of love burning, his pride excessive; out of pride he wants to master himself and conquer himself. Finds pleasure in humiliation." The idiot is to find himself in a chancery and to end the affair with a scandal.
(b) Fortune and love-egoism
Dostoevsky, dissatisfied with the quality of proud humility, introduces the motif of fortune. The idea of covetous knight, who is to be obsessed by the fortune he accidentary obtains and to run away with the foster-child of the family, Mignon, is combined with the idea of love egoism. The "selfness" of the idiot is to manifest itself in love, which is "both love and the highest satisfaction of pride and vanity." Dostoevsky calls the idiot's love "the ultimate degree of ego" and "its kingdom." In this egoistic personality, however, one can observe the instinctive character of Rogozhin as well. The author writes: "His love is strange: it is purely an immediate feeling, wihout any reflections. He does not dream and does not calculate, for example, whether she'll be his wife, whether this is possible, etc. It is enough for him to love."
(c) Oppression and pride - murder of the beloved
Dostoevsky revives the motif of oppression and humiliation; this time, however, he creates an idiot who is oppressed and ashamed and who, therefore, justifies his base acts that arise from viciousness. In pride the idiot seeks a way out and salvation. Thus, his love itself is at the end turned into pride. Here, Dostoevsky conceives the theme that love-egoism can drive a man to murder his beloved and ascribes to the idiot this possibility of the crime that Rogozhin is later to assume. At this stage the story is to remind the reader of the capability of the idiot to murder Mignon, who is captivated by his wild pride. The "Karamazov" elemental vitality sustains the idiot through all his falls and leads him to a way. However, Dostoevsky seems to remain unclear with what " divine act" the idiot will end at this point.
(d) Theme of the "ressorection" of the strong personality with the quality of a "holy-fool"
Dostoevsky thinks of starting the novel from the place at which "Crime and Punishment" was concluded. He characterizes the idiot by the villainy of Iago [7]. The idiot, however, is to resurrect, as Raskolnikov was to, "in a divine way" with the help of meekness and forgiveness of his half-brother who is earlier wronged by the idiot. This half-brother, the legitimate son of the family, occupies the spacial position of the future Ganya Ivolgin and assumes the role of the future Prince Myshkin. Meanwhile, in the idiot of this stage the character of Prince Myshkin is not separated from that of Rogozhin. The idiot retains not only the character of a villain, but also that of a "holy-fool," which is to persist and finally to become the main trait of Myshkin.
(e) The contemporary generation and development of the prototype of Stavrogin
Toward the end of October 1867 the scheme of the plot and the pictures of the main characters were determined. However, Dostoevsky still struggles to embody the full image of the hero and to this end he tries to represent the contemporary generation in the hero. Dostoevsky perceives the generation the idiot is to represent as the following: "The main thought of the novel: so much power, so much passion in the contemporary generation and they don't believe in anything. Unlimited idealism with unlimited sensualism.... Ergo, the entire problem is that such a colossal and anguishing nature (inclined to love and revenge) needs life, passion, a task, and corresponding aim." Thus, the idiot as a representative of the generation is to be a great, idle power, exhausting itself in inactivity: a tragic figure who thirsts for beauty and an ideal, but who, due to his disbelief, falls into ennui and appeals to the desposition of unmerciful passion as a means to dispelling it. Dostoevsky develops the story of the great, noble, and heroic personality falling into evil; however, much of this theme is to wait for "The Devils." Nevertheless, several new traits connect the idiot with Prince Myshkin. Although the image of Stavrogin overshadows the idiot, he still retains some of the features that later compose Myshkin, such as his being sent to Switzerland, attractiveness by his childish naivete, the blood of a prince, and the holy-fool nature.
f) Revival of holy-fool-just-man and abandonment of the proto-Stavrogin
At the last moment before he actually began work o November 30, 1867, Dostoevsky abandoned the demonish character like later he developed in Stavrogin in favor of a hero with the character of a holy-fool. Here, the idea of relationship between the idiot and children comes into the pictre. Although the initial images developed at this stage of the idiot constantly sorrounded by children and of the union between the two were realized in "the Idiot," they still keep their remnants in the life of the idiot in Switzerland and in the episode of the children's reconciliation with Marie. Also, at this stage the motifs of the slap given to the idiot and Holbein's painting with its demoralizing effect were already evident.

Stage 2

Jan 1868 letter to Maikov
".... to portray a wholly beautiful individual"

A new start with "a beautiful individual" and submission of the Part One

Despite the fact that he was obliged to submit the first part of the novel for the January issue of "Russian Messenger," on December 4 Dostoevsky "tossed to the devil" everything he had written since November 30 and the ideas in the notebooks No. 3 and No. 11. Konstantin Mochulsky alludes the cause of this abrupt change in the scheme of the novel to Dostoevsky's unsuccesful struggle to depict the religious mystery of salvation; Dostoevsky was being stuck with the problem of ascending to sanctity the strong individual without grace who trying to attain this goal by his might. Thus, the significant break in the creation of the novel was marked by the replacement of the dynamic of a strong personality uncovering the image of God and attaining sanctity with the static of an innately just and beautiful personality as the central current of the novel.

Dostoevsky confesses in his letter to Maikov dated January 12, 1868 that his "desperate situation" compelled him to resort to the fascinating and tempting, but nontheless difficult and premature thought of portraying "a wholly beautiful individual.[11]" As a result, into the Part One, which he started writing on December 18 and submitted in its full form on January 11, the "beautiful individual," Prince Myshkin, was plunged premature and "extraordinarily weak." The prince remained weakly delineated and to be developed under the pen.

Dostoevsky writes in the letter: "On the whole I simply don't know myself what sort of thing I've sent." Thus, he is still ambiguous toward the work he had done so far; however, he continues his letter to emphasize the importance of the following parts to the novel: "The first part is, in the main, only a simple introduction. One thing is necessary: that it excite curiosity, if only some, for what follows.... In the second part, everything must be established definitely (but it will still be far from being explained)."

March 2, 1868 letter to Maikov
"I've still not begun the 3rd (2nd) part of the novel."
April 9, 1868 letter to Maikov
"Nothing comes out."

Birth and Death of daughter Sonya and delay of the Part Two

Dostoevsky was to submit the second part of "the Idiot" by April 1; however, it was submitted only to make the July issue of the Russian Messenger. This delay was already inherent in the first part of the novel. The ambiguous image of the hero and the multiplicity of the potential plots caused by the publication of his yet premature thought gave Dostoevsky a prolonged period of agony of trial and error. This mental agony was acompanied by a number of violent fits. Dostoevsky's anxiety can be observed in his letter to Maikov dated March 2: "As for The Idiot, I am so afraid, so afraid, that you cannot imagine. Even a kind of unnatural fear. It's never been like this before."

Moreover, the organization of his "artistic thoughts" and the "artistic excecution" of the full image were further troubled by the birth (in February) and subsequent death (in May) of his first daughter Sonya.

August 2, 1868 letter to Maikov
"Now I will make my last efforts on the third part."

Submission of the Part Three and revelation of the denouement

From his letter to Maikov dated August 2, 1868 we can observe Dostoevsky's continuing struggle with the novel. That he was putting his carrier at stake in the work is evident in his words from the letter: "If I set my novel right, I'll recover myself, if not then I'm ruined." However, by the time when he finished the third part, he seems to have been quite successful in getting over the crisis at least temporarily, and even to have begun to bring to his consciousness the composition of the novel that consists of actions that accelerate toward a denouement.

January 25, 1869 letter to S.A. Isanova
"Now it is finished, at last!"

Conclusion of the novel

The novel was finished on January 17, 1869 in Florence and its last chapters in the Part Four were despatched as a supplement to the February issue of The Russian Messenger for 1869. Dostoevsky exhibits his rather dissapointed attitude towards the work in the letter to his niece.

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