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Summer reading

The exam season is more or less over, my marking marathon is finished, and one of the things I always look forward to at this time of year is being able to read intelligent books for fun. First up is my annual Dickens fix, and this time I’m reading Oliver Twist. This was the book that turned me against Dickens as a kid, and even though it must now be nearly 20 years since I realized how wonderful he really is, I’ve kept putting off my return to Oliver Twist. But living in London has finally spurred me on, and I’m now racing through it.

It is, as many people have noted, an uneven book, certainly not as consistently brilliant as my favourites, Bleak House and Dombey and Son, but beyond the standard gripes about poor characterization and inconsistent narrative voice, two things in particular bother me, in part because they both play such a problematic role in Dostoevsky’s writing: its anti-Semitism, and the portrayal of epilepsy, both of which are connected firmly in the novel with evil.

Monks’s epilepsy is a minor element in the novel, but it becomes his chief characteristic because he is barely fleshed out in other respects, and there is a definite assumption that there is a link between criminality and epilepsy, even if the causality remains unclear. Essentially, the role of epilepsy here is to make the character more repulsive and frightening, and even though in the end Monks is not treated particularly harshly, the fact that the character is given this illness to make him seem less sympathetic is troublesome.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare Dickens’s treatment of epilepsy to Dostoevsky’s, given that the latter suffered from the disease and was capable of depicting it from within, as he does, of course, in The Idiot. But it is always a source of ambiguity in Dostoevsky, making us question Prince Myshkin’s goodness — which seems to derive from his illness — but moving in the opposite direction with Smerdyakov in The Brother Karamazov, who initially appears to be wholly negative but is ultimately shown to be far more complex. But the comparison made me think about other portrayals of epilepsy and related illnesses in literature, in particular Silas Marner’s trances in George Eliot’s novel, because they are, as Wolf states (see references below) related to religious questions, as Myshkin’s fits are in The Idiot, and are responsible for Marner being considered by the other characters as both saintly and satanic. I’m pretty certain Dostoevsky wasn’t aware of Silas Marner when he was working on The Idiot (according to Harper and Booth, the publication of the Russian translation of Silas Marner was delayed, so that it didn’t appear until some years after Dostoevsky’s death — all her other novels were translated straight away), and while Eliot’s use of a medical diagnosis makes sense because of her humanism, Dostoevsky’s religious beliefs make his incorporation of epilepsy more complicated, particularly when considering his supposed attempt at portraying a ‘positively beautiful man’.

But the context of Prince Myshkin’s first fit, which saves him from Rogozhin’s knife, does raise the of possibility that Dostoevsky was drawing on both Oliver Twist and Othello (both of which he certainly did know). He cites the latter in his notebooks for the novel, specifically referring to the relationship between Myshkin and Rogozhin, but I never felt the comparison really worked, and somehow it didn’t register when I was studying The Idiot that Iago mentions witnessing Othello having an epileptic fit (Act 4, scene 1). Then in Oliver Twist, when Oliver first encounters with Monks (chapter 33), he is saved from attack by the onset of Monks’s epileptic seizure. In both these texts, therefore, a connection is established between epilepsy and murder or violence. Dostoevsky’s scene (The Idiot, pt 2, ch 5) clearly echoes Dickens’s, not least because Myshkin and Rogozhin have just become ‘spiritual brothers’ by exchanging crosses, while Oliver and Monks are half-brothers, but Dostoevsky reverses the roles; the ‘healthy’ character is the murderous one, and the fit saves the epileptic himself. Epilepsy thus emerges as a positive, even as the horror of witnessing the fit is described in graphic detail.

This obviously doesn’t account for everything related to epilepsy in Dostoevsky’s novel, but while the build-up to Myshkin’s fit has been much analysed (including by me, in both my book Dostoevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ and the Ethical Foundations of Narrative and, taking a different perspective, in an article, ‘Dostoevsky and Buddhism’, in my edited collection Dostoevsky: On the Threshold of Other Worlds — I am planning to post that article on my website some time soon), that encounter between Myshkin and Rogozhin has been somewhat passed over in comparison (except in Elizabeth Dalton’s Freudian study), but on this reading the intertext makes it a more significant moment. What it means, precisely, I’m not yet sure, beyond emphasizing his rejection of physiological explanations for crime and violence. Perhaps it is also an indication that one ought not to make easy assumptions about the guilt and innocence of Dostoevsky’s two main characters. However it is interpreted, it seems quite strange that this echo of Oliver Twist appears in the novel which to some extent marks Dostoevsky’s shift away from his preoccupation with the ‘insulted and injured’, and it shows that even when that is not the main focus of his writing, it is never in fact far away from his attention.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the question of anti-Semitism in Dickens and Dostoevsky.


Elizabeth Dalton, Unconscious Structure in ‘The Idiot: A Study in Literature and Psychoanalysis (Princeton University Press, 1979)

Kenneth E. Harper and Bradford A. Booth, ‘Russian Translations of Nineteenth-Century English Fiction’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 8.3 (1953), 188-197

Wolf, Peter, ‘Epilepsy in Literature’, Epilepsia, 36, suppl. 1 (1995), S12-S17

See also:

Irina Gredina and Philip V. Allingham,  Dickens’s Influence on Dostoevsky on The Victorian Web.

Andrew Larner, Dostoevsky and Epilepsy in ACNR, 6.1 (March/April 2006).

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