‘Like a Child’: The Virtues of Childhood in The Idiot

In a novel tasked with depicting the ‘positively good man’, it is significant that the majority of characters who are characterized as ‘good’ in The Idiot are consistently described as children, whether they be actual children, naïve adults, or terminally ill people who have entered their ‘second childhood’. [1] With this pattern in mind, it seems rather clear that Dostoevsky believed there to be some inherent virtues common to children, and The Idiot may well provide further insights into what exactly these virtues might be. My reflection here seeks to explore the inherent virtues which are unique to children in The Idiot and trace how these virtues change as characters enter into adolescence and adulthood in the novel. With these unique childlike virtues in mind, I hope to provide potentially new ways to think about the Christian posture of childlikeness, and what it means to ‘receive the kingdom of God as a little child’. [2]

The most direct treatment of children comes early in the novel as Prince Myshkin relates the story of Marie and his interactions with the Swiss children. Here, the Prince’s positive opinions about children are revealed, framing children conceptually for the remainder of the novel. Myshkin makes the claim that ‘you can tell a child everything’ and, in fact, should do so, as children ‘can give extremely valuable advice in the most difficult situations’ and understand a great deal more than adults assume they are able. [3] Additionally, Myshkin endearingly refers to children as ‘little birds’ because ‘the earth holds nothing finer than a bird’, and he believes that ‘the soul is healed through contact with children’. [4] Through these initially expressed beliefs, children are set up in the novel to be seen as helpful, pure, and ultimately good creatures. For this reason, it may come as a surprise to the reader when the children’s first action in the story is to throw stones at Myshkin, followed by near-constant abuse of the disabled Marie. Myshkin, however, goes on to relate that he began talking to the children, concealing nothing and being as honest as he could, which led to the children’s eventual love for Marie and their role in making her last days easier. Implicit in this narrative is a belief that children will pursue the good with a fervency not common to adults, provided they are made aware of that good. The children in the narrative initially abuse Marie only because it is what they see their trusted elders doing, from their parents to their pastor – ‘everyone around her regarded her as some sort of vermin’. [5] After being introduced to the possibility of finding a sort of beauty in the starved, disgraced, and terribly ill Marie, the children sought to protect that beauty in every way they could, to the extent that ‘she almost died happy’, surrounded by their thoughtful little gifts. [6]

Myshkin goes on to relate that it was the joy of seeing the town’s children that brought him out of his own depression and idiocy: ‘I would stop and laugh from sheer gladness as I gazed at their little flashing legs, always running, at the little boys and girls running together, at their laughter and tears (many of them contrived to fight, burst into tears, make up again, and start playing before they got home), and I would forget all about being depressed’. [7] This short passage demonstrates Dostoevsky’s basic belief in the ‘natural goodness of children’, that they are in some way or another ‘closer to original perfection’. [8] The children run and play in a charming (if somewhat kitschy) image of a pure childlike desire for happiness, love, and goodness, and they bring about reconciliation with one another for no reason other than their desire for these things.

While these desires are positively portrayed in children, however, it seems Dostoevsky believes this natural desire for the good is inevitably the very thing which becomes corrupted in the subsequent developmental period of adolescence. [9]

The adolescent who receives the most attention in The Idiot is certainly the sick and unhappy Ippolit. On the surface, Ippolit appears very different from the Swiss children; they were healthy and happy and he is on the verge of death and bitterly unhappy. On account of this unhappiness, Ippolit lashes out throughout the novel, engaging in fierce debates and participating in elaborate schemes. After the first of these schemes, however, Ippolit allows a brief glimpse into his underlying motives:

‘Just think, today is the last time I shall be out in the open air, among people, and in two weeks’ time I shall be under the earth for certain. So this is a kind of farewell to people and to nature. Although I’m not very sentimental, actually I’m very glad that it’s happened in Pavlovsk: at least I can see a tree in leaf’. [10]

Ippolit’s intention in coming to the Prince’s villa, then, is not to gain money or respect, nor to simply stir up trouble (although he certainly does). Rather, he attempts to form relationships and witness the beauty of nature—two things that he had been deprived of in his upbringing as a chronically ill child. However corrupted or disturbing his manner of pursuit may have been, Ippolit was following a ‘natural desire for happiness’ and love akin to that found in his healthier, younger counterparts. [11]

Ippolit’s second scheme—his public suicide attempt—appears to contain a similar underlying desire. As he delivers his ‘necessary explanation’, Ippolit at once proclaims disdain for the ‘Pavlosk trees’ as well as a recognition of the greater workings of nature which he longs to be a participant in. [12] Prince Myshkin identifies this and later recalls a period of time when he had felt similarly; often, when he was still a ‘complete idiot’ in Switzerland, Myshkin would encounter the ‘brilliant sky, with the lake below and the bright and limitless horizon all around him’, and wonder to himself ‘what was this feast, what was this permanent grand festival, which had no end, to which he had for long been drawn, always—ever since childhood, but could not join’. [13] Both Ippolit and Myshkin felt not only the desire (which has been associated with childhood) to pursue the good but also the stark feeling that they were somehow excluded from that good, and wanted more than anything else to somehow know their place in the world and love it. The pure childlike desire for good is corrupted by adolescent self-loathing, manifested in a simultaneous recognition of God’s greater working in the world and a reactionary distancing of oneself from that world.

True enough, these two characters may have had more reason than the average adolescent to feel different due to their illnesses and unique upbringings. Dostoevsky seems to anticipate this, as he allows a far more ‘normal’ character—Aglaya—to explain the ways that she felt similarly in her adolescence. During Myshkin and Aglaya’s much anticipated meeting on the green bench, the Prince speculates that Ippolit had ‘probably wanted people to crowd round and tell him how fond they were of him, and how much they respected him, and for them all to implore him to go on living’. [14] Aglaya then relates that she understands, saying that she thought of poisoning herself ‘thirty times or more’ in her adolescence, dreaming of how ‘everyone would weep over’ her and repent of the ways they mistreated her. In the trials of adolescence, the child’s desire to be loved is corrupted by a certain amount of mistrust which leads not only the lowly and ill Ippolit or the lonely and depressed Prince Myshkin but also the wealthy and socially supported Aglaya to feel unloved. Regardless, these adolescent longings reveal a deeper trace of a purer desire first seen in the Swiss children: to pursue and desire goodness, beauty, and love.

In making the transition from adolescence to adulthood, these desires seem to only become more corrupted. The eclectic cast of adults in The Idiot includes adulterers, pathological liars, abusers, and people motivated entirely by greed, lust, pride, or some mixture of the three. It is not all downhill, however. In terms of inherent virtues, Dostoevsky imagines something like a bell curve, beginning with children who are naturally virtuous, continuing through adolescence where those virtues begin to become corrupted, through adulthood where there is far more vice than virtue to speak of, and finally back into a ‘second childhood’ which seems to have a uniquely virtuous nature. [15] Even the vicious Rogozhin recognizes this, as he brings Prince Myshkin to his mother—the only character directly referred to as being in her second childhood—and asks her to bless the Prince. His mother obliges before Rogozhin even finishes his request by putting three fingers together and devoutly crossing the prince three times. The old woman’s habitual silence in addition to her inability to ‘understand anything people say’ includes Rogozhin’s mother in the same category as Marie from Myshkin’s story as well as Myshkin’s eventual state at the end of the novel. All of these characters are united by a necessity to be taken care of by others due to their illnesses. By including the scene of Rogozhin’s mother blessing the Prince, Dostoevsky seems to suggest that there is something particularly virtuous, and perhaps even holy, to this category of adults who are wholly dependent on others.

This absolute dependence on others is reminiscent of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s spirituality of childlikeness, commonly known as the ‘little way’.

This absolute dependence on others is reminiscent of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s spirituality of childlikeness, commonly known as the ‘little way’. St. Thérèse advocated for Christians to remain as children before God, embracing our limitations and weaknesses as a way of becoming united with Christ, who seeks out the weak. St. Thérèse goes on to explain that to remain ‘a little child before God’ is to ‘recognize our nothingness, to expect everything from God as a little child expects everything from its father…not attributing to oneself the virtues that one practices, believing oneself capable of anything, but to recognize that God places this treasure in the hands of His little child’. [16] According to St. Thérèse, if one is supposed to ‘receive the kingdom of God as a little child’, the manner of receiving will certainly be one of radical humility and dependence on a Father. [17] As John Hanson puts it regarding St. Thérèse, ‘The profile of a childlike adult looks like this: one who is not only convinced of his need, but also not ashamed of it’. [18] Dostoevsky seemed to be aware of this spiritual truth, as the childlike adults in the novel both occupy this humble position and hold some kind of innate virtues. [19]

If adults are meant to receive the kingdom of God as a little child, one good place to start is by finding which virtues seem to be inherent to children. Dostoevsky identifies this through the Marie story as an innate desire for goodness, happiness, and love. These desires are then complicated through real-life experiences in adolescence and beyond, but Dostoevsky provides narrative lenses to view the underlying pure desires behind several of the characters in The Idiot. Finally, through several adults who have lapsed into their ‘second childhood’, Dostoevsky provides a framework for incorporating the humble posture of these characters into the Christian life, as one must recognize their childlike need for goodness, happiness, and love, while only humbly seeking to be fully provided for in these regards by the Father. [20] By reading The Idiot alongside such theological thinkers as St. Thérèse, we are able to more clearly see the implications of Dostoevsky’s use of childhood throughout the novel, and thereby have a greater understanding of the greater narrative arc which eventually lands Myshkin in his ‘second childhood’. Beyond this narrative understanding, however, a reading of The Idiot which focuses on the virtues of childhood also further informs our theological understanding of childhood, and may provide new insight into what it means to incorporate childlikeness into the mature spiritual life.

 


Notes

[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Alan Myers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 233.

[2] Mark 10:15, NRSV.

[3] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 71.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 73.

[6] Ibid., 77.

[7] Ibid., 79.

[8] Donna Orwin, ‘The Return to Nature: Tolstoyan Echoes in The Idiot’, Russian Review 58, no. 1 (1999): 89.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 302.

[11] Orwin, ‘Return to Nature’, 90.

[12] Dostoevsky, The Idiot, 435.

[13] Ibid., 446.

[14] Ibid., 449.

[15] Ibid., 233.

[16] Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Her Last Conversations, trans. John Clarke (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1977), 139-140.

[17] Mark 10:15, NRSV.

[18] John Henry Hanson, ‘Growing Young: St. Therese of Lisieux and Spiritual Childhood’, St. Josemaria Institute, October 1, 2019, https://stjosemaria.org/growing-young/.

[19] The exception to this rule seems to be Lizaveta Prokofievna, whom the prince calls an ‘absolute child’ (81). She is certainly in a different category than Rogozhin’s mother, Marie, and Myshkin, but she is one of the only adults in the novel who is referred to as a child. To fully understand the virtue of childhood as Dostoevsky conceives it, Lizaveta Prokofievna is certainly a vital piece which this article does not have the capacity to address.

[20] It is worth noting that the only characters who achieve this humble posture in the novel are those who are terminally ill or disabled in some way. Dostoevsky seems to believe (and St. Thérèse would likely concur) that the healthy must make extra effort to maintain this humble posture—if it is even possible at all without being reduced to a childlike state, as is Prince Myshkin’s fate.

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