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The Idiot (Vintage Classics)
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186 of 197 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2007
Format: Paperback
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.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
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.
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49 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.
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58 of 68 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 1999
Format: Mass Market Paperback
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.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
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.
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
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.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2007
Format: Paperback
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.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
I came to Dostoevsky through the back door, so to speak. In about 1958 or 1959, a small art theater in Dallas, Texas was showing a movie of THE IDIOT that had been filmed in Russia in 1958, under the direction of Ivan Pyriev, a leading Russian director. How this movie ever got from Russia to Dallas or where it disappeared to after I saw it, I don't know. I do know that it is impossible to find.
All this is by way of introduction. This stark, black and white film so fascinated me that I had to read the book. THE IDIOT had such an impact on me that I felt compelled to search out and read everything I could find by and about Dostoevsky. His body of work then led me to many of the other great Russian writers; Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, and, of course, the father of them all, Aleksandr Pushkin. I even discovered some of the "lesser" Russian writers such as Goncharev. In my case, at least, one good book led to years of wonderful reading.
THE IDIOT, the book that started it all for me, stands on its own as a wonderful piece of literature. It can be read by itself, or as a part of the body of Dostoevsky's work, or within the framework of great Russian literature. Attempting to determine which book or which of these authors is better is an exercise in futility and, if you'll pardon me, of sophistry. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, "A good book is a good book is a good book."
Dostoevsky did say that THE IDIOT was his favorite of his books. Perhaps that was because of certain biographical aspects of the book. Dostoevsky, like Myshkin, was an epileptic. Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg and its callous society after years of absence during which he underwent medical treatment for his "idiocy." Dostoevsky, in real life, returned to St. Petersburg after a long absence that consisted of his incarceration in Siberia for four years followed by an additional four years of enforced army duty. These are not the only biographical aspects of THE IDIOT. I would not want to be misunderstood, however. Dostoevsky incorporated aspects of his own life into the book but it is not, in any way, a work of fictionalized autobiography.
Prince Myshkin, the "idiot" of the title, is as near to being a saint as is possible for a flesh and blood human being. His saintliness is accompanied by naivete. He is naive to such a degree that he cannot anticipate the consequences of his actions. His attempts to do good often reap havoc on those about whom he cares. Because he loves one woman and pities another, he inadvertantly ends up being a destructive force in both their lives. In trying to redeem one, who is essentially unredeemable, he indirectly causes her to be murdered. From the standpoint of pure innocence a case could be made that Myshkin was the model for Jerzy Kosinski's Chauncey Gardener.
Dostoevsky is certainly a master of the psychological novel, and THE IDIOT is a novel that delves into the soul of a man. He investigates the impact that a corrupt society has on the soul of an incorruptable man and, conversely, the impact of goodness and spirituality on a corrupt society which is unwilling to be swayed. I wish that I could say that society was improved for having been exposed to Myshkin, but it wasn't changed any more than the wealthy of Rome were changed by their exposure to the early Christian martyrs.
THE IDIOT is a book that is well worth reading. It is not necessary to "ease into it" by reading another of his novels first as has been suggested elsewhere on these pages. What is necessary is to bring a thoughtful mind along with you when you sit down to what should be one of the greater reading experiences that may come your way.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
THE IDIOT is an important novel for understanding Fyodor Dostoevsky and his complex approach to life, but for me it was not an enjoyable novel to read. After a promising beginning, it became a moderate ordeal. I cannot recommend it to anyone other than those keenly interested in Dostoevsky the person.

More so than with any of Dostoevsky's other novels (I have now read all of the major ones), THE IDIOT is a novel of ideas. Perhaps it seems that way because the plot is relatively thin and most of the characters relatively unsatisfactory (they are more stand-ins for types than they are fully and consistently individuated people), and therefore the ideas are pretty much all the reader has to work with. But Dostoevsky packs far too many ideas into the novel, so that it ends up diffuse and untidy. And confusing. The clearest message I gleaned from the novel is the one I have quoted as the title for this review.

Dostoevsky wrote to a friend that the main idea of the novel was "to portray a positively beautiful man". In history, the only positively beautiful figure (for Dostoevsky) was Christ and in literature the most complete such figure was Don Quixote. Prince Myshkin, the central figure (and the idiot) of the novel, exhibits aspects of both Christ and Don Quixote. At the beginning of the THE IDIOT Myshkin is a secular saint - penniless, utterly guileless, and selfless - and it is enchanting to see him gradually win over the many vacuous, conceited, and materialistic members of the Russian upper-middle class he encounters. But as the novel progresses, the egotism and materialism of the world end up soiling and then crushing Myshkin. The most difficult problem he has to deal with is being entrapped by two loves - for the beautiful but despoiled Nastasya and the equally beautiful but girlish and virginal Aglaya. Myshkin's "love" is of a different sort altogether from conventional (and selfish) human love, so it goes unrequited. Ultimately, no one truly understands Myshkin (he is an idiot and a "holy fool") and he fails in his quest to live a pure, Christ-like life in this world.

There are numerous autobiographical aspects to the novel. For example, Myshkin suffers from epileptic fits, as did Dostoevsky. Early in the novel, Dostoevsky, through Myshkin, tells the story of the mock execution he experienced as a young man and how that concentrated a desire to live every minute of his life to the fullest. Looming over the novel is Hans Holbein's painting of the dead Christ just taken down from the Cross, a painting with which Dostoevsky was transfixed when he saw it in Basel, Switzerland. (For Dostoevsky the painting raised the question, which he passes along in the novel, "that if death is so terrible and the laws of nature are so powerful, how can they be overcome?") The vying of the two women Nastasya and Aglaya for the affections of Myshkin even mirrors, at least imperfectly, the vying for Dostoevsky's affections between his former mistress and his second wife.

If the theme of the novel were more focused on whether and how a true Christian can live in this sinful and selfish world, I might respond more favorably to it. But Dostoevsky tackles numerous other issues as well - for example, money-grubbing, liberalism, Roman Catholicism, atheism, and the Young Nihilists. He also uses the novel to launch an extended, oft-satirical, attack on the Russian upper-middle class. For me, there simply is too much going on. (And the novel is wordy, even by the standards of the 19th-Century novel.)

To help offset my generally negative and perhaps idiosyncratic response to the novel, I will end by quoting Joseph Frank, from his definitive biography of Dostoevsky: "But though THE IDIOT is the most uneven of Dostoevsky's four best novels, it is the one in which his personal vision of life, in all its tragic complexity, is expressed with the greatest intimacy, with the most poignancy, and with a lyrical pathos that touches on sublimity."
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