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Myshkin’s queer failure: (Mis)reading masculinity in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageRussian
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
JournalSlavic and East European Journal
Volume63
Issue number1
DateAccepted/In press - 7 Oct 2017
DatePublished (current) - 21 May 2019

Abstract

This article uses queer theory to shed new light on the long-standing critical debates around Prince Myshkin, the hero of Fedor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. The current controversy centres around why Dostoevsky, in setting out to depict a “wholly good man,” ended up creating a protagonist who causes hurt and suffering to those around him and who ultimately reverts to idiocy at the end of the novel. While Nina Pelikan Straus dismisses The Idiot as Dostoevsky’s “exploded fantasy that an asexual Prince Christ could save the world,” I make the case for a reparative reading of Myshkin’s failure using queer theory, drawing particularly on Jack Halberstam’s idea that failure offers a way to “dismantl[e] the logics of success and failure with which we currently live” and to imagine more “cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” I suggest that Myshkin’s failure does not show the limitations of what a Christ-like figure can achieve on earth, but rather mounts a critique of the gender order of the day, particularly hegemonic masculinity, and reveal its absurdity. This line of enquiry also leads me to posit a new approach to Dostoevsky’s narrative. Building on Gary Saul Morson’s work on sideshadowing and Sarah Young’s work on scripting in The Idiot, I suggest that the failures of communication between characters, the silences in the text and the moments where the narrative logic break down point constitute a queer way of doing narrative, inviting the reader to imagine an alternative outcome in which, in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s words, “the future may be different from the present” and “the past, in turn, could have happened differently from what it did.” My approach to The Idiot ultimately leads me to an engagement with queer theology, which provides an alternative, more positive view of Myshkin’s role than, for example, Rowan Williams’s view that the Prince is ultimately “a force for destruction.”

    Research areas

  • Dostoevskii, Russian literature, masculinity, gender, sexuality, queer theory

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    Rights statement: This is the final published version of the article (version of record). It first appeared online via Ohio State University at http://u.osu.edu/seej/63-1/doak/. Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

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