I was on the NR train with a college junior who was a former Bible study student of mine in high school. We were on our way to the Carnegie Deli when I asked how his fellow classmates were doing. It was then that he told me the news. “Didn’t you hear?” he said. “— was recently in a porn video.” When I heard this, I said that it was like hearing that a young child I knew had been molested. He responded incredulously, “When I heard about it, I laughed.”
I might have laughed as well. The way one laughs in disbelief upon hearing about some foolish or crude act, I might have said, “Oh my gosh!” or “Are you serious?” all the while itching to hear more of the titillating details. Afterwards I would have offered some hint of condescending sympathy while condemning her on how she could have been so stupid. In the end I would have felt a certain pleasure as one often does upon hearing salacious gossip.
But when I heard the news, my heart immediately sank and I wanted nothing more than to tell her that she was a good person, that God loved her and sent His Son to die for her, and looked at her as His precious adopted daughter. At that moment I wanted to tell her with heartfelt honesty that I always thought of her as being one of the most tender hearted people I knew, a person who wanted to know God so personally and with such childlike sincerity. I wanted her to forget momentarily her reputation – deserved and undeserved – and I wanted to remind her of being the girl who memorized and recited to me the first chapter of James, of being one of a handful in the class who always participated in our community outreaches, of being the girl who would lift up her hands with eyes closed during praise time when no one else would. I wanted her to believe all these things, but even still, I hoped against hope and felt and still feel a deep desperation.
If you have not read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, you will not understand that desperation or why I was hoping against hope. What follows is a brief attempt to show how The Idiot changed my heart from one that once snickered to one that now sighs in despair.
The novel is basically about a beautiful woman who was seduced in her youth by a rich man who promised to marry her, and another man’s efforts to save this woman who continually suffers from her betrayal and the social stigma of being tainted.
Prince Myshkin, the would-be savior of Nastasya Filippovna, is a young man who has recently inherited a large sum of money and returns to his homeland after recovering from severe epilepsy that continues to recur on and off. The Prince is often viewed as an idiot by others chiefly because he appears to be very naive to the ways of the world. Many characters abusively take advantage of his generous, meek and forgiving nature. Parfyon Rogozin, a rogue in lust for Nastasya, for example, repeatedly strikes and even attempts to kill the Prince who only responds sympathetically with tears, “You will regret what you’ve done!” In another example, Agalya, a beautiful young aristocrat in love with the Prince and whom the Prince romantically loves in return, often cruelly humiliates him in public to test and measure how forgiving and patient and unconditional his love for others, and for her, really could be. Then there are those who would ask for loans, which the Prince gives to them freely amidst the criticism of Agalya’s mother and her friends who deprecate him as incorrigibly gullible.
The Prince however is no fool. In one particularly memorable scene at a dinner party in the home of Agalya’s mother, the Prince gives the most penetrating and damning fulmination of Roman Catholicism ever written (Chapter 7 of Part 4). Also, his dealings with the young, dying existentialist Ippolit show remarkable insight and restraint. To be sure almost everyone around him comes to admire and grow fond of the Prince. But it is not primarily the Prince’s wisdom or kindness that makes him, along with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, one of the most endearing and inspiring characters in history. It is the Prince’s decision to commit to loving the broken, bitter, and vengeful Nastasya over his sweetheart Agalya that sears him into the conscience.
Although Agalya inflicts much suffering on the Prince throughout the novel, she finally comes to reconcile the fact that the Prince’s love is real and submits herself to his entreaties. They would have made the ideal couple – she from an upstanding family with a wealthy dowry, he from a noble lineage – they would have enjoyed the envy of everyone around them. But the Prince in the end cannot ignore the pain of Nastasya who suffers constantly from the disdainful glances and whispers of the elite, the lustful grabs by rogues, and most of all from her own perception of herself as tawdry and without hope.
The Prince ends up pursuing Nastasya and offers his hand in marriage to her. What happens next explains why I said at the beginning of this review that you would not understand why I had hoped against hope that the former student would come to believe all that I wanted her to know unless you had read this novel. At the wedding ceremony, Nastasya walks down the aisle as everyone gasps at her sheer beauty, but upon seeing the Prince, she runs away to a carriage driven by Rogozin.
Some would conclude that Nastasya’s problem was that ultimately she had failed to forgive herself, and as a result, could not let the past go to live happily with the Prince. But this is not a complete analysis. Nastasya’s problem was at root unbelief. She failed to believe in the love of the Prince and its power to overlook her past. Others may suppose that it was humility driving this unbelief that forced her to flee from the Prince. That Nastasya thought that she was only worthy of a lecherous life with Rogozin. But far from showing humility, this thought demonstrates the greatest pride. She refused to believe that the Prince was a more qualified judge of her than herself. Only pride could support such a view.
The parallel to my former student and our Lord is too obvious and need not be expressly stated here. I would only add that when I said that I still feel desperation that the former student would come to believe all that I wanted her to know, what I had in mind was what happened to the Prince after Nastasya left him at the alter for Rogozin. That is, the Prince continued to pursue her, and . . . well, the ending of the novel, I leave for you to discover on your own as an incentive for you to read this book in its entirety. I know most scholars and critics view Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov as the greatest novel ever written, but surely there has never been a character as sublime as Prince Myshkin through whom we can all understand the meaning of grace deeper than we had ever dared to know before.