I can’t claim to be any kind of an expert on classic Russian novels, having only read six works from that time and being part way in to my seventh as I write this. But this blog is not meant to be an insight in to the texts. Not being qualified to dissect the writing, or to fully review the books themselves I will not attempt to do so. Instead what I would like to talk about is two cases in which I have read about a character who I believe, if they were written today would be thought of as undiagnosed autistics. The two in question are Prince Myshkin, the main character in The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky ( the older Bollkonsky) one of the main supporting characters in War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy.
First of all Myshkin: Prince Myshkin is a young man who is though of, and described as an “Idiot” by those around him. The main reason for this being that they assume he lacks intellect as he does not understand, or often comply with the strict set of social rules that govern his class. He talks as readily to a footman as he does to the master of the house, and often has no clue he is doing something othes would think of as socially odd. He seems to have emotional intelligence, but the way he expresses it strikes those around him as odd. His desire to help everyone he can means that he is often open to being manipulated, and he tries to see the good in everyone.
Dostoyevsky wanted to create a truly good man to sit at the heart of his novel, and see the effect this goodness, and above all truthfulness, would have on the society around him. A society where noone says what they really mean, and everyone has a game to play. It would not be spoiling anything to say that he has an impact on those around him, and being caught up in a society like that takes a heavy toll on him.
In short Myshkin is a smart, socially awkward man who often has no clue when he has said or done something to shock those around him. He does not try to break the rules of society, but merely by telling the truth, and believing in the good in people he stands out from those around him.
I am not one hundred per cent certain that he is autistic, but reading some of the interactions he has they are not so very different from those of Saga Noren in The Bridge almost 145 years later.
Also, on a side note, Myshkin has epilepsy, as did Dostoyevsky himself. I am unsure if this would relate in anyway to autism, but it is interesting to read about how Epilepsy was viewed at that time.
Moving on to War and Peace and Prince Bolkonsky: Let me just make this quick, and run through a few basics.
Bolkonsky is a man of great intellect who was able to rise to the top of his chosen profession. He spends most of his time since retirement locked away in his house and grounds. He sticks to routine, and I mean he really sticks to it in a way I wish I could. To the point where everyone else in the house knows where he will be, and what he will be doing to the minute on any given day. He gets angry at anything that disrupts this even if it is a visit from a loved one. A lot of the time he snaps at, and is rude to those he loves the most, and like a lot of families of autistic people they bear the brunt of his behavior. As well as his own routine he becomes upset and alarmed if anyone else in the household does not stick to the routine he has planned for them. Not a nasty or evil man at all, he is never the less controlling and downright rude to those he loves the most. I can recognize that, as I am sure a lot of autistic people can. Even when his son`s goes off to join the army he finds it hard to show his feelings, and they come out more as sly jibes, and harsh words to those left behind. This in a book where most of the men openly weep, and declare their love for any and everything.
There may well be more that I am forgetting. War and Peace is a large book, and took me a while to read. But I do know that every time I read about Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky I recognized myself, and other autistic people in him. I felt even more than I did with Myshkin that if he were real, and alive today he would be thought of as an undiagnosed autistic. He is an army man who would have lived most of his life by the strict rules of the regiment, and he tries to recreate this in his later years.
Both Myshkin and Bollkonsky struck me as I read about them, and stuck with me long after I finished the books. Both seemed to be good men at odds with the world around them. One who dealt with this by accommodating the wishes of others above his own, and going along with what ever seemed to be happening, and one who tried to deal with it by controlling and regimenting every part of his life, and the lives of those who lived with him.
If you know me then you know I am not a fan of diagnosing historical real-life figures as autistic without solid proof, but I think when it comes to the realms of fiction there is no harm in reading between the lines.
Perhaps both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy knew autistic people who inspired the characters in their novels? Perhaps Dostoyevsky himself was autistic? He certainly shared a few traits with Myshkin. As a young autistic reader finding characters like this makes me think of all the people who have lived with autism without knowing it over the years. Partly it is sad to think of how people must have struggled in the days before they could be diagnosed. But also it makes me smile to think how autistic people were influencing popular culture around the world decades before anyone even knew autism existed.
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