Famed as Dostoevsky’s attempt to represent a “positively beautiful person,” The Idiot (1869) also marks the convergence of two distinct trajectories in Russian realism: the scientific materialism of the Russian radicals, which Dostoevsky rejected, and his own conception of realism as a site of ethical truth and visionary experience. While the novel dramatizes a clash between these two projects, this surface narrative conceals a more complex interplay between materiality and transcendence, manifest in Dostoevsky’s attempt to reconcile character subjectivity and environment. This talk will examine Dostoevsky’s narrative strategies for simulating the spatial and temporal experience of transcendence in The Idiot, and his correlated endeavor of representing the fictional object world as a harmonious totality. In focusing on the representation of material and social reality, the talk will outline the elusive terms of unity in Dostoevsky’s novel, with the goal of enhancing our understanding of the work’s narrative structure and central themes, including empiricism and materialism. In turn, The Idiot exemplifies the ideological complexity of the turbulent 1860s, and the intersection of secular and spiritual discourses in Russian modernity.
Tom Roberts is Assistant Professor of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Smith College. He is currently completing his first book, Embattled Realism: Russian Fiction between Mimesis and Transcendence, which explores how scientific materialism and Orthodox theology shaped narrative practices in nineteenth-century literary realism. Roberts also researches Russian and Soviet cinema and has published extensively in this field, with particular attention to the work of directors Kira Muratova and Alexei German.