on June 30, 2007
What could have prompted me to first read "The Idiot" at age 13 on a beach vacation with my family I can not recall. What I do recall, however, is that I was fully engrossed day after day in a world of ideas, people and places far beyond my experience. Having now just "re-read" it 39 years later (following Crime and Punishment and Brothers Karamazov), I know I couldn't possibly have digested all of its ideas at that age: atheism vs. Christianity; nihilism vs. a dying social order; Eros vs. charity; truth vs. artifice; id vs.ego and superego. And yet, I also sense I know what captivated me even then.
The characters in this novel, though usually explained as symbolic of the ideas they represent, are yet the most vividly realized characters I had ever "read" then, and still. The real-time manner in which they are drawn and followed is as if the author simply recorded their actions and conversations as and where they happened. We get to know who these people are, not through narrative description, but, as if by "candid camera", observing what they say, withhold, do, and fail to do. What emerges are fascinating, at times frightening and at times affectionate portraits of real and troubled humans: Lizaveta, the flighty, but loving society mother; General Epanchin, the successful but utterly conventional man of the house; Aglaya, the childish but delightful beauty who resents her sister's and parents' expectation for her; Ganya, who wants money and love, but plays the wounded martyr while more obviously blaming his father for his failures at both; Ivolgin, the pathetic figure of an aging man who aches for dignity and respect but who's former glory is long gone and mostly imagined; and Lebedev, the likeable sycophant and name-dropper.
The more central characters to the events, the murderously passionate Rogozhin, and the self-scorning beauty Nastasya, are more starkly drawn. But even those portraits are created not through direct thought narration or narrative description, but by the author's leading us to read between and behind the lines of their words, conversations with others, and public "displays".
As for the Prince himself, he is often said to symbolize the human side of a Christ-like man. That, of course, is true; but (as can also be seen in Aloysha, the hero of The Brothers Karamazov), he is as much child-like as he is like a Christ. The Prince's honesty, naiveté, trust, and simple affection for those around him, are all qualities that he seems to maintain as a man because he is really only entering the "adult" world of social Petersburg after a long and sheltered upbringing among younger children in Switzerland. When he enters this tangled world of adult competition, insecurity, envy, ambition and intrigue, though much older, he's in the most essential ways still the child that was sent by his benefactor to Switzerland for help with his illness.
One comes away with the strong impression (reinforced by the portrait of Aloysha, hero of Brothers Karamazov) that Dostoevsky saw children as embodying the ideal of spirit that we strive to maintain or regain as adults. The prince's obvious affection for the loyal young boy Kolya and the compassionate young girl Vera, in this book, and similar bonds between his hero Aloysha and the children in Karamozov Brothers, show Dostoevsky's admiration for the child in man.
The Idiot shows what happens when a simple, trusting and exceptionally compassionate child-man enters the more corrupt world of human adulthood without the experience to navigate, or even to perceive, the traps and snares laid by more worldly humans whose innocence has been chipped or stripped bare by ambition, envy, greed, despair or old age.
On another level, The Idiot is an allegory for the Christ story itself- with Prince Myshkin coming from the Swiss sanatorium into the "the world" of Petersburg with a mission to live among, love and save its people. The complications of heart and mind when his human emotions unexpectedly collide with the more selfish and less willing of those around him are at the center of this story of a second coming re-imagined.
One might be left, at the awfully tragic end of this novel, with the idea that Dostoevsky himself was of the same mind as Ippolit, the suicidal atheist, who his hero befriends of compassion. That is, from the disastrous conclusion, one might think that Dostoevsky believes that Holbein's painting (central to the story) of the disfigured and lifeless body of Christ the corpse, shows the impossibility of a divine spirit in (and after) a wretched human existence. Yet, it is with such affection that he describes the many and contradictory (and often delightful) sides of the "ordinary" people in this story, that I felt the opposite: that is, that Dostoevsky recognized not just in the tragically compassionate Prince, and the young Vera and Kolya, but also in the few and fleeting glimpses of love, friendship, compassion and even real dignity of the fallen or struggling others, that there is a redemptive force that underpins the human experience. If there were any doubt of that after reading this novel, it is laid to rest in the Brothers Karamazov, whose likewise tragic denouement yet ends on a note more obviously reflective of Dostoevsky's ultimate optimism.
Crime and Punishment, a psychological crime story, showed Dostoevsky's incredible genius for "writing" the inside of the human mind. Brothers Karamozov was a morality tale that laid out, on a grand scale, yet in great detail, the most essential questions of good and evil, id and ego, life and after-life. For me, The Idiot did what both of these other great novels did, but was the most captivating of the three, because it was so human, intimate and real in its characters' discourse, actions and exposition. It was much less overt than the Brothers Karamazov, and less psychologically analytical than Crime and Punishment. But of the three, the timeless characters of "The Idiot" last most indelibly in the mind.
on July 25, 2004
This is one of the more famous of Dostoyevsky's novels, and quite rightly so as it has his very-unique blend of psychology, philosophy and an unrelenting view of the bleakest recesses of the soul.
I read the novel in the original Russian, so this isn't a review of any particular translation but the work itself.
In brief, the book centres around a Prince who has returned to Russia after being treated for mental illness in Switzerland since his childhood (hence the idiot). He quickly becomes involved within the upper-middle eschellons of St Petersburgian society, as people become fascinated by his direct honesty, simplicity and compassion. He becomes emotionally involved with a Fallen Woman, and this develops into a love triangle with another woman, ultimately ending in --- you guessed it! - tragedy. The Idiot is portrayed as the symbol of a child-like innocence: he genuinely wants everyone to live in harmony and love. However, the falseness, politics and backstabbing of the world of Russian middle-nobility will have none of that.
The plot is quite complicated - but not in terms of twists. The story is quite simple in terms of what happened, however much of it is told inside-out, focusing on the internal world of the characters. So, if you feel like you've missed something - a reason for a character's comment, an event etc, chances are, this will be revealed later on.
Dostoyevsky dwells on the extreme minute aspects of the emotional lives of his charactes. This is the richest aspect of the novel - and these emotions possess all the contradiction and chaos that real people have. There are no total heroes in the book - but I found a part of myself identifying with the Prince, as the grown child who just doesn't want to accept the "adult" behaviour of interpersonal relationships. I think it's expected in reading the book that some characters will be loathed, some found amusing and admired, some arousing interest - but not loved. This is because the world portrayed within the book is very inaccessible. It's hard to identify with anyone in terms of more than the generality of emotion - not just because the setting is remote, but because the characters experience thoughts and ideas that are so different to what most people would. I think this inaccessability was deliberate - as we feel not-quite-at-home in the world of the book, so it highlights how the Prince is not quite at home there - and that's where the sublime feeling is derived from.
On a side note, be prepared for the difficulty of keeping track of names, as people are called by their surnames on certain occasions and the rest is first name and father's name. With heaps of characters and many Russian names, it all becomes a mess. But with some concentration (perhaps making a cast of characters?) that can be overcome and a great read will be had.
A great book that will interact with your emotional world - if you don't mind heavy reading.
on February 21, 2006
Having previously read my first Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) I was literally chomping at the bit to start reading something else of his. I am not altogether sure as to why I found The Idiot to be the most appealing, it probably wasn't the synopsis, because I, in my ignorance, thought I was buying "The Possessed". I realized this as I pulled away from the book store, but didn't worry about it. Dostoevsky is Dostoevsky, right? Well, sort of. I was shocked when I did not find the anti-hero I expected, but Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, a pure and beautiful soul who I loved from the start. It was hard not to cheer for him throughout the course of the novel, and to feel his pain at the corrupt and confusing society that surrounded him. He is torn apart by his first love for the intriguing Nastasya Filippovna, and then later Aglaia Ivanovna, equally intriguing.
I'll be the first to admit that though I loved this book I struggled through certain portions of it, namely nearly every scene Lebedev is involved in, and Ippolit's letter. The book has a very 'meandering' quality to it, and you get the feeling at times that Dostoevsky didn't have the slightest clue how he would finish it, and so stalled for time in certain areas. This didn't really diminish the book's quality, it simply made it harder to follow. Also, towards the end it seems as if Dostoevsky finally knows, and he finally hurries off.
But, there is, perhaps, some of the greatest writing ever put on paper within these pages. Scenes such as Prince Myshkin's oratory on capital punishment, the party at Nastasya Fillippovna's, Prince Myshkin in the house of Rogozhin, and the most chilling scene in Rogozhin's bedroom. The beauty, terror, and despair in these scenes are so genuine that it's impossible not to be swept into Dostoevsky's world. So, would I recommend it? Of course, but not to someone unaquainted with Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment is a much better place to start. But once you're acquainted with Dostoevsky's writings dive into this book, and you'll find yourself longing to help the poor Prince Myshkin, the idiot.
on April 30, 2011
Definitely a book worth reading. However, NOT in this translation by Eva Martin*. Forget all the unusual transliterations; these are just details that have changed over the years: Muishkin is now Myshkin, Rogojin is now Rogozhin. A bit distracting but you can adapt to it. But the translation is very stilted, leaning toward a British reader of maybe 80 years ago. I felt like I was groping for the flavor of the Russian on every page. There are multiple typos in this Kindle Edition as well. Again, you can adjust. And the price is right. But you do get what you pay for. Anyone who wants to read this book seriously -- and it is worth reading seriously -- should consider handing over some cash for a modern translation; it will be worth it.
*Folks, a peek inside this book on the Amazon site indicates the translator was Constance Garnet. But the book as downloaded to my Kindle gives the translation credit to Eva Martin. So I have to admit I don't know *who* made this stilted translation, only that I don't like it.
on January 23, 2001
Having read "Crime and Punishment" fifteen years ago, I was prepared for Dostoevsky's commentary on the social and materialistic qualities of the Russian middle class of the 19th Century. "The Idiot" has a slower pace but a surprise ending which makes reading it well worth the effort.
The novel begins with three strangers in a train en route to Petersburg. A young man named Prince Myshkin is returning from a Swiss sanatorium where he has been treated for the past few years for some malady similar to epilepsy. He meets a roguish young man named Rogozhin, who has an unhealthy obsession with a beautiful young woman named Nastasya Filippovna, and a nosy government official named Lebedyev, who figures prominently throughout the novel.
Upon arriving in Petersburg, Myshkin acquaints himself with many of the citizens and eventually meets, and is infatuated by, Nastasya. She is pushy, fickle, and impetuous, and bounces from fiance to fiance like a fortune hunter. Her irresistibility and psychological stronghold on the men in her life leads to her downfall.
The basis of the novel is that Myshkin is not bright, has not had much education, and traverses society with a mentality of simplistic innocence. When speaking his opinion, he struggles to articulate himself with Charlie Brown-like stammering and wishy-washiness. For this reason, people consider him an idiot, but he is a good, honest, sympathetic, and gracious person. When he comes into a large inheritance, he is blackmailed by a man who claims to be the illegitimate son of Myshkin's benefactor; but when the man's story is debunked, Myshkin befriends rather than chastises the culprit and his accomplices. Myshkin also falls in love with and becomes betrothed to a giddy girl named Aglaia, who uses his ingenuousness as a foil for her jokes and sarcasm, despite his undying devotion to her.
The novel seems to say that a saintly man, making his way in a society that is concerned with materialism and cutthroat avarice, will be considered a childish idiot for valuing honesty, kindness, and the simple things in life. Like I said, the ending is a shocker and sends a plaintive message, that in a crazy world, a sanatorium is the only place for a saint.
on November 5, 1999
Dostoyevsky is the master of the art of creating the character. All his characters have a distinct personality, each of them behaving in a certain way, until you truly feel for those characters. But in The Idiot, things are different. You see the corruption of the people through the eyes of the innocent and loveable Prince Myshkin. But Myshkin is seen as an 'Idiot' because of his true kindness. Only the strong can survive in this world, or so it seems. The character of Hippolite is also a truly great character, as well as Rogozhin. Not a word should ever be changed from this awesome novel. Read it, change your view on life.
on December 27, 2012
"What if it was disease?" Asks the epileptic character in reference to his religious obessions. In terms of pure psychological accuracy and plot intricacy, this is Dostoyevsky's greatest novel. Some of his other novels risk too much action or philosophy at the expense of human portraiture. Sensational activities and heroics mar honesty. Proust shows us that nothing at all needs to happen, and perhaps, the more a writer forces things to happen, the less real things appear.
This novel should be read while keeping in mind, at every second, that Dostoyevsky IS each character. Each characters words and moods are Dostoyevsky's own. Read in order, one notices a sort of Dostoyevsky progress from novel to novel, in which Dostoyevsky confronts himself and develops.
To write a perfect novel one must experience blindness. One must never own up to the fact that each element of the fiction is a mirror of self and a mirror of psychology. One must perfectly balance and hide this fact. Every line needs to be necessary from two directions; one must speak accurately of self and one must speak accurately about the fabricated characters situation. One builds two worlds out of one unconscious flame.
The most painfully deliberate novel ever written might be "The Great Gatsby"...and it has latent overtones of suicidal longing because it is so completely conscious of itself...Meanwhile, Dostoyevsky's Idiot represents a stark opposite to the willful and self-aware type of creation. This is Dostoyevsky's most automatic novel...he imagines existence as one continuous scaffold. Welcome to the gallows.
on July 3, 2007
Written immediately after CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Dostoevsky gives us THE IDIOT, whose hero, Prince Myshkin, is gentle and Christ-like - the polar opposite of Raskolnikov, the nihilist murderer. Taken together, the two novels give us a fascinating critique of Russian (and Western) society from the perspective of a sinner and a saint, and of a society that has produced both.
Admittedly, THE IDIOT must be seen a minor novel in comparison to CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. It lacks its psychological power and narrative drive. But I would suggest that the greatness of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is enhanced by reading THE IDIOT. Further, I would argue that much of what is seen to be the greatness of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT originates in the location of the narrator's point of view inside the teeming and tortured mind of the ultimate outsider, Raskolnikov. The third person narrator inside a single consciousness became the "default" practice in the late 19th and early 20th century. This is perhaps why the story of Prince Myskin, our gentle insurgent in THE IDOT who is nearly always seen inside of a Russian society, and whose story is told in a mix of omniscient narrator and from Myshkin's point of view is seen to be old-fashioned or hard to read.
I would argue that given the nature of the story Dostoyevsky is telling here - of a society that cannot cope with an honest and compassionate man that the omniscient narrator's voice is warranted and appropriate (unlike a number of reviewers below for whom this technique comes off as creaky and plodding). To tell the story he wants to tell, Dostoyevsky must move from one drawing room to another, one set of eyewitnesses, gossips, and minor characters to another. These set pieces - such as Natasya's "party" where she chooses whom she will marry, or the nihilist Ipollit's reading of his Confession, also locate THE IDIOT more in the realm of traditional 19th century novel of manners than CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. And its ostensible subject matter - marriage - places it squarely in the genre.
I find it sad that the set pieces in THE IDIOT can seem interminable to some modern readers. Yes, characters do hold forth for pages and pages, propounding theories, relating anecdotes in excruciating detail. In the society of the 19th century, even in the chaotic society of post-feudal Russia where the social order was in flux, the conversational customs of a court society still held sway. Even in the considerably more democratic United States, the presence of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. at social functions was highly prized by elites because he was universally recognized for his acumen as a speaker and conversationalist. These days we don't talk anywhere near as intelligently, as passionately or grandly these marvelous characters, and our suburbanized circumstances reduce our chances for unsettling social encounters as well. Which do you more often attend - parties featuring a stew of anarchic social criticism, bizarre personal attacks and grotesque dissembling, or a dull pudding of sitcom japes and bumpersticker politics? Which would you prefer?
Dostoyevsky fills his drawing rooms with challenges to the status quo, with intemperate invective, with radical claims on the political and economic system. At the same time he gives voice to conservative views, e.g., that Russia was better before Alexander II freed the serfs (in 1861, only 6 years prior to the publication of THE IDIOT), better before the aristocracy began to rub shoulders with powerful merchants and usurers, better before the atheists, nihilists and anarchists attacked the church and the social structure.
Interestingly, many of these contretemps are, as in so much 19th Century fiction, posed in connection with "the woman question." Our heroine, Natasya, raised by her guardian and seduced at a young age. is intent upon exposing Russian society for its hypocritical attitudes and brutal behavior toward women. Brilliant and beautiful, Natasya concoct a series of circumstances that both outrage and shame conventional society. She is the demonic critic of Russian society, her vindictive spirit contrasting sharply with Prince Myshkin's penchant for compassion and forgiveness. Together they form a unique double-edged critique of the bourgeoisie. And both are broken by their society's cruel intolerance and vast hypocrisy.
Prince Myshkin's conversation marks him among members of his society an "idiot" because he speaks forthrightly and answers truthfully without regard for the consequences. So disturbing is this behavior that Aglaya, the woman he hopes to marry, tells him not speak at the gathering at which he is being introduced to high society as a suitor. But driven by the onset of an epileptic fit, he disobeys and gives himself up to a remarkable speech in which his praise for the assembled company, his views on politics and religion are interpreted by most as an insult, and by many as the ravings of a madman. His speech is a form of social suicide, self-murder, and as such the flip side of Raskolnikov's homicide.
In the largest sense, what's at stake in these conversations and disputes is no less than the soul of Russia. Through the prince's speech Dostoyevsky poses the question as to whether Russia will reawaken to her deep and unique Christian heritage and behave, like the prince, with virtue, compassion and honor, or become like the empires to the West whose money-grubbing ways have begun to infect Russia and her people.
THE IDIOT has flaws. There is too much disquisition and exposition even for a 19th century novel. Sometimes, Dostoyevsky will vamp along for a few pages, trying to figure out what to do next. But still, THE IDIOT is well worth reading by itself, or even better, in combination with CRIME AND PUNISHMENT for its psychological acuity and its devastating dissection of a unique social world under stress.
on June 9, 2007
Dostoevsky's "The Idiot" is a work with which the author himself was never truly satisfied, but even in its 'unrefined state' it is complete, masterful, and deeply moving. It vies with "The Brothers Karamazov" in my mind for the title of greatest novel ever written, and is in my mind a must-read. The depth and insight into the human soul is a fascinating product genius.
The pace of classics is different from contemporary novels and takes some getting used to, and Dostoevsky is no exception. For people who wonder whether they will find the work tedious, Dostoevsky's works are long, but very rewarding.
The Penguin Classics edition has a helpful introduction and is less expensive than most other editions.
on May 5, 2006
I try to avoid giving five stars as a small gesture towards reducing Amazon's version of grade inflation, but can't help it here.
These Everyman cloth editions are just excellent. P&V's translation flows beautifully. The paper is high quality and the font is easy on the eyes. The book simply feels good in your hands. I'm tired of cheaply printed versions of classics--this edition does justice to its content.
The task of reading it:
A reading group provides incentive to keep up the pace. I read this in a few weeks, 250 pp in the last three days. This is exhausting but if you can find the stamina to get through it in a short time it's better I think--the novel really inhabits your head so the impact is greater. The only place where I struggled was getting through Ippolit's interminable letter. At this pace you feel a bit of D's "brain fever" yourself.
The novel itself:
It's a great choice for a book club because it opens up so many topics for discussion. For example:
--The distinctions among innocence, idiocy, and mere stupidity. How the prince's innocence waxes and wanes according to the needs of the plot.
--The expedience of "fever"--does fever absolve the characters of responsibility for their actions? (See also Crime and Punishment). If it doesn't, what is its point?
--Similarly, epilepsy. What difference does it make that he is epileptic? Plotwise, not much?
--Love as plot device. "Love" happens as if turned on by a switch. Both female leads are beautiful leading to wondering if the love is infatuation. Falling in "love" with a beautiful women is a mistake not specific to idiots indeed has been the downfall of many a wise man. What if one or both of the love interests were simply ordinary looking?
--Once caught in prince's (lady trouble) dilemma, how might a non-innocent have been able to recover? No obvious solution, even for a wise man.
--D's seeming disdain for work--anybody with a job is a beast of burden. Originality is more important than responsibility. His artistic characters lose money, lend money to nogoodniks, give it away, gamble it away, even burn it in a fire. None of this is judged to be "idiotic". Prince conveniently loses enough of his fortune to shysters to demonstrate his innocence, but manages to wise up (not described--see variability of innocence above) and hang on to enough of it to maintain status in his aristocratic circle. Money is only something you ought to have enough of to be able to make dramatic gestures that demonstrate your disinterest in the practical aspects of life. To actually go and earn it doing something of value to society reveals you to be not very bright at best, and, worst of all sins to D, "unoriginal".
But the plot is just something to hang the characters on. The psychological insights to be found on nearly every page are astonishing. When I finished I gasped--my head was full of another man's genius. This is why we read.