The Idiot is Dostoevsky's brilliant 1869 novel about a poor nobelman, Prince Myshkin, who has recently been released from a Swiss sanatorium where he was treated for epilepsy. Despite his destitution, a gambling habit, and the death of his first born child, Dostoevsky completed this masterpiece of Russian literature a mere two years after Crime and Punishment. His protagonist Myshkin is a saintly character, who's "idiocy" has left him utterly kind and free of malice in a world obsessed with money, sex and power. Myshkin's strange state inspires both love and resentment amongst his fellows in St. Petersburg. Our protagonist gets caught up in several scandals, including fraud, extortion, and murder, but Myshkin turns the other cheek as it were, for which he's once again confirmed as an idiot.
That said The Idiot is not an easy read - it might be best read after one is familiar with Dostoevsky (and perhaps some Russian history). It is not a thrilling, plot-driven tale. It is a coalescence of Dostoevsky's religious, philosophical and psychological notions - ideas he wanted to share with the world despite their conflict and complexity. The bulk of the book takes place in amidst a flurry of conversations, not actions, with new ideas flowing out of every page, which makes this a difficult book for most modern readers. They might see it as implausible or obscure, but the central idea, that one who imitates the Christ will be treated like a fool, is strong and well conceived.
Be the first to review this title!
Prince Myshkin had spent years in a sanitarium for his epilepsy and returns to Russia where he trusts untrustworthy people, falls for all their plots where he is the patsy, and falls in love with a rather uppity girl who returns his affections and then when it comes to the moment, chooses another woman for all the wrong reasons and thereby ends up rejected by both.
He is the very definition of an idiot, he never, ever learns and what intelligence he has he doesn't put to working out the truth of a situation and what he should do to benefit himself. He always falls for the next plot, the next plan, the next person with a glint in their eye for how they can use him to further their own ends. It got so I wanted to shake him and tell him to wake up and smell the kofia.
Sadly, the debacle, written in a time when not even the word 'neurology' had been invented, let alone the science, is rather idiotic. On getting drawn into a crime committed by a man mad in every sense, crazy and angry, his epilepsy degenerates into a mental illness so deep he crosses over into another land. Bye bye gentle idiot. I was glad to read of you, I'm glad I didn't know you.
In any case, if we were to look at the way Dostoevsky writes these women, we would think they were pious, noncommittal, mentally ill, self serving, spoiled, with no sense of grasp on how to conduct themselves properly. The men are more of a varied bunch on the whole, with the intoxicated general to the well meaning prince who is truly no idiot (he's an intelligent epileptic).
Also, my version of the novel has been translated by Constance Garnett. I know there are fierce debates amongst fans of Dostoevsky about who is the best translator (I seriously think some of them meet in the night over intense chess games to verbally assault eachother over whose translation is superior.) In my opinion, Garnett does well to translate all of the French terms and phrases that are used, the familiarizations in terms of referencing people with different friendly versions of you and their names, and explains what the Russian words that don't translate exactly mean. At the same time, it doesn't seem as poetic as it may have been written in some places and it gets entirely confusing when there are two separate princes and they all have about ten surnames and full names. There are points in the novel when just "the prince" is the reference point but you won't know which prince is being referred to or is speaking for an entire long winded paragraph at least. To me, that just isn't a recommended way of translating and it should be clarified sooner.
The novel's strengths by and large lie within the philosophical discussions about class and politics as well as capital punishment. In comparison, the love triangle aspect might make the book more accessible to the average reader but greatly lessens the impact of these points. I'd love to read a long essay on these subjects without any female characters involved because, the way Dostoevsky has written these few ladies, I wouldn't care to ever know them.more
Russian naming is difficult for those of us who do not have the Russian background, and 'The Idiot' was hard to keep straight in my mind - I probably didn't feel comfortable with names to near the end of this very long novel. There's Pavlovitch and Pavlischtev - not the same person. The hero Myshkin is also Lyov Nikolayevitch. Gavril is also Ganya (the short form of his name). With a large suite of characters, tracking these names is not easy. Perhaps a publisher/translator might provide a guide for non-Russian readers. I did find some connection through my knowledge of music: Madame Epanchin, Lizaveta Pokofyevna reminded me of Prokofiev, and the young man dying of consumption, Ippolit, reminded me of Ippolitov-Ivanov.
This novel is a psychological thriller and it may be unbelievable to most readers. How did Dostoevsky know that there are people in the world like Myshkin - perhaps he was one himself, perhaps he observed and understood one. Myshkin, perhaps because of his own 'illness' is attuned to everyone else's needs - sacrificing his own needs as totally without value. So what happens when two women fall in love with him (strange though each of them is)? He wants to love them both. Neither can accept that, but still he cannot let go. This seems to be a recipe for disaster (and in some ways it is), but Myshkin flourishes where he might not have because he has the most extraordinary view of the value of every moment of life. Early on he describes a guillotine execution he had observed and how the man being executed clung to every moment of his life - trying to maximise the richness of it even as the blade came down on his neck. Does Dostoevsky really believe that this is an idiotic way to live life? Or is he recommending that we should all pay more attention, be less flippant with the time that passes us by?
One of the women who fall in love with Myshkin is one of Madame Epanchin's daughters - Aglaia Ivanovna. Despite her love, Aglaia torments Myshkin (but that's not of much significance to him). Here is a quote that meant so much to me - a real insight into Myshkin's personality. 'There is no doubt that the mere fact that he could come and see Aglaia, again without hindrance, that he was allowed to talk to her, sit with her, walk with her was the utmost bliss to him; and who knows, perhaps, he would have been satisfied with that for the rest of his life.'
This novel is hard work, and it's not a happy story. But it is rewarding in its insight into human nature. If you read it you will have to decide for yourself if people like Myshkin actually do exist. And if you happen to meet one - how should you interact with them?
explore the philosophy of phenomenology - I don't have a preferred book to suggest
as a contrast - 'Spring Torrents' - Ivan Turgenev (the author is mentioned in 'The Idiot')
'Under Western Eyes' - Joseph Conrad
'Sylvie and Bruno' - Lewis Carroll