The Idiot

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Other authorsConstance Garnett (Translator), Boardman Robinson (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 1942

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

Modern Library (1942), 586 pages

Description

Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s masterful translation of The Idiot is destined to stand with their versions of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and Demons as the definitive Dostoevsky in English. After his great portrayal of a guilty man in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky set out in The Idiot to portray a man of pure innocence. The twenty-six-year-old Prince Myshkin, following a stay of several years in a Swiss sanatorium, returns to Russia to collect an inheritance and “be among people.” Even before he reaches home he meets the dark Rogozhin, a rich merchant’s son whose obsession with the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna eventually draws all three of them into a tragic denouement. In Petersburg the prince finds himself a stranger in a society obsessed with money, power, and manipulation. Scandal escalates to murder as Dostoevsky traces the surprising effect of this “positively beautiful man” on the people around him, leading to a final scene that is one of the most powerful in all of world literature.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
In this book Dostoyevsky does what few other novelist have done successfully--he makes a very good man interesting. It is easy to make evil interesting. But to make good interesting--that is an accomplishment.

Prince Myshkin arrrives from Switzerland, where he was undergoing "medical" treatment. (We would call it psychiatric treatment today.) On the train his destiny is set when he meets Rogozhin who becomes first his friend, then his rival in love. They both love Nastasya Filippovna, although the Prince wants his love to save her, and Rogozhin wants to possess her. In the end, Rogozhin ends up killing Fillippovna.

Dostoyevsky is throwing a "positively good man" (his phrase for Prince Myshkin) into the ebb and flow of St. Petersburg social life, and the result is not pretty. He is not crucified, but he might as well be by the end of the book. The superficial life of the characters is exposed by the Prince, but in a way that drives home their rational for their lives. The hard part about the book is that we can easily recognize ourselves in its pages, and often NOT in the person of Myshkin.

This is a MUST READ for any serious reader.
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LibraryThing member jeff.maynes
I've been hovering around this review, trying to think of the best way into this work. This reflects well on my own experience reading it. I found myself totally immersed in the novel, while at the same time having a difficult time coming to grips with the whole thing. It is a slow burn. Plot elements are put into place, and they develop very slowly as a whole host of characters move in and out of the story. It lacks the driving plot device of the murders at the heart of Karamazov or Crime and Punishment. Nastasya Filippovna and her relationships to Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin is clearly driving the novel, but she is rarely physically present in the middle books of the novel. As a result, it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees here.

Yet, it is wholly worth it for two reasons. First, the ending scenes of the novel are riveting. Though the plot develops slowly, it is not developed aimlessly. It is not enough to set the pieces into place, but to slowly develop the mind and character of the Prince. Without this development, the ending might come across as superficial with the Prince's hesitation at a crucial moment seeming like mere indecision. The second reason is that this novel, like much of Dostoevsky's work, is a complete immersion experience. His characters are so memorable, his plots so intricate and his writing so sparkling, that even if you are lost in the forest, you'll be happy to be there. Aglaya's motivations and the nature of the Prince's goodness preyed on my mind even when I wasn't reading. Puzzling through the novel is itself an enjoyable experience.

That said, the book is certainly at its strongest in the beginning and end. While the final scenes are intense, engrossing and utterly gripping, my favorite scenes took place early in the novel. When the Prince arrives at the Epanchin's, he discusses his experiences with capital punishment with a few different people. This is the Prince before the complexities of the real world have begun to affect him, and we see his pure compassion in a beautiful way. The passages are wonderfully written, and emotionally affecting. Dostoevsky anticipates Camus' remarks that the great cruelty of binding someone to die often exceeds the cruelty of the crime that is being repaid. It is the certainty of death that makes each individual moment a richer experience, but this richness comes at a price. We appreciate our moments because every moment has been pervaded with a sense of our own death (and perhaps even annihilation). Philosophically rich and intensely moving, these passages are worth reading even if one does not engage with the entire work.

Perhaps the central conflict of the novel is one which my own philosophy students are quick to recognize in other areas. While the ideals of goodness (represented here by the Prince) are certainly praiseworthy and worth pursuing, these ideals can not only fail in the complexities of an imperfect world, they can lead to morally bad outcomes. I do not wish to dive too deeply into the ending, but the Prince is conflicted between a love borne out of compassion and one out of romantic feeling. They should not be in conflict, but a conflict is forced upon him nonetheless. Most importantly though, he cannot choose one or the other without causing harm, and the choice he makes certainly makes good on this fear. My students see this same worry when discussing Kant's views on ethics, which require of us compliance with exceptionless moral imperatives. Certainly, they remark, we must not lie. But what if we are in a situation where the world faces us with no choice - lie or permit a terrible fate to come to pass? Dostoevsky is sensitive to this issue, and indeed, one could perhaps read the whole novel as setting up this conflict. To see the conflict arrive on the scene, we need the layers upon layers which could embroil the virtuous Prince in the scenario, with no easy solution out of it. It leaves us with the interesting question one finds between Kant and the utilitarians - is moral goodness a matter of living up to an otherworldly ideal, or of making the best of things given the constraints of this world?

Despite all of my praise for the novel, it is difficult to read it without comparing it to The Brothers Karamazov. This is unfortunate. By my (non-expert) reckoning, "Karamazov" is unsurpassed work of literary brilliance, and my favorite novel. There are a number of clear parallels between the work. The Prince's goodness and humility will be seen again in Alyosha, while Ippolit sets us up for the great Ivan Karamazov. The triad of the Prince, Ippolit and Rogozhin shares common ground with Alyosha, Ivan and Dmitri, and similar themes about the relationship between horribly unethical acts, traditional virtue and moral nihilism abound. This comparison is unfortunate, however, because The Idiot is left consistently wanting. I suspect I would have enjoyed the novel even more if I was not (sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly) recording these comparisons. Though it may not equal "Karamazov," The Idiot is a worthy work in its own right, and one I highly recommend to all readers.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
I had wanted to read this book for the longest time. I loved the audiobook of “Crime and Punishment” and thought this would be as good. However, “The Idiot” was a bit disappointing. The reader was not as good and the number of Russian names and places were incomprehensible to my ear. In the printed edition, the names would have been more recognizable, so I recommend reading it, not listening to it.
The story is intricate and intense. The characters are not very likeable. They are pompous, devious and scheming all the time. They thrive on gossip and rumors. They are judgmental and cruel at times, and tend to angry outbursts and sometimes violence. They seem eccentric, unhappy and unfulfilled, disloyal, often rudely arrogant and completely untrustworthy. The upper class is viewed negatively, as shallow and conniving, rarely loyal and mostly self-serving.
The main character, Prince Myshkin is supposedly an Idiot. He calls himself that, however, he seems to have more common sense at times, than all the other characters. He suffers from epilepsy, and as a result, his education was limited, yet he seems to think more logically, in his innocence, than many of those he encounters throughout the book. He is easily admired because of his honesty, even as they laugh at his simplicity or naïveté. Each of the characters is a contrarian, taking the opposite point of view than the one prevailing in their conversations. They seem to enjoy the banter. They constantly contradict each other’s judgment so that what you think is happening is generally not exactly what does occur. The say one thing, mean another. Myshkin’s naive remarks invariably cause havoc and/or inspire respect. Many of the characters accuse each other of being mad. Prince Myshkin, who is supposedly the least sane, is perhaps the sanest of all until the very end when the severe emotional trauma of certain events causes what may be irreversible damage to his psyche.
There are some nasty references to Jews which I found disheartening, but I believe it was because of the time in which the book was written. Many books portrayed Jews negatively. (I wonder if Jews, like the blacks and now the American Indians have done, should lobby to alter the wording in these offensive books.) Jews were definitely not thought well of in the few places they are mentioned, and they were presented stereotypically in the view of the prevailing times.
Myshkin meets a stranger, Rogozhin, on the train taking him to Russia, and from that moment, his life takes an ultimately tragic turn. Both men become involved with the same woman, Nastasya Filippovna, a beautiful but flighty woman of changeable, perhaps demented, mind. Both men love her, one in a romantic way while the other believes he loves her because he pities her. Myshkin is in and out of another romantic relationship, with Aglaya. He, like Nastasya, has issues with being faithful and true to those to whom they pledge themselves. He is almost the comic foil; he can’t win for losing. He is the most compassionate and trustworthy, but his judgment is faulty and immature. He lacks he reason to truly think through the consequences of his actions; although he analyzes the situations he is in quite logically, he makes illogical conclusions.
Myshkin is the subject of what starts out as elaborate deceptions and schemes and then become reality. He is always somewhat of a victim and a hero, at the same time. There are so many ridiculous explanations and assumptions that the truth is elusive; facts are not facts, rumors take on a life of their own, the pomposity of the elite class is irritating. They are all responsible for their own failures and disasters. Their own behavior brings them down and they move each other around like pawns in a game of chess.
The book is brilliant but it should be read, not listened to so that the characters are more easily identified by name recognition. Sometimes the reader’s interpretation was frantic with emotion and often the dialogue seemed too long. At times I felt as confused as Myshkin, however, the author examines the minds of his characters in great detail and with enormous depth so that I was able to get to know Myshkin.
All for the love of the woman Nastasya Filippovna, Myshkin and Rogozhin ultimately destroy themselves and the woman. There are so many betrayals; brides and grooms are left at the altar, and often mental incompetence is almost presented as the norm. It is as if what we call sanity is unattainable or non existent.
It was not until the very last part of the book that it all began to fall into place for me which is probably the mark of the exceptionality of this book. This great author was able to hold my attention, guide me through my confusion and finally allow me to reach the end without having thrown up my hands in despair and frustration!
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LibraryThing member sarahpfeil
I never finished this book, unfortunatlly, because I started with the signet '86 publication and switched to this translation about mid way. I found this translation a bit stiff, maybe I was just more accustom to the first. My theory, though, is while Dostoevsky can create beautiful stories, with vibrant characters, he's a pretty lousy writer. I often switch translations and some writers (gabrial garcia marqez, for instance, although spanish is a bit closer to english.) hold up regardless of the translator. The assumption is, the better it's written in the origial language, the more effortless it will be to translate. I find myself identifying with something in all of the characters in Dostoevsky's novels.

It's ok, Dostoevsky. I still like you.
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LibraryThing member xtien
Prince Mishkyn returns from the mental hospital in Switzerland. But the world has changed. He's dragged into Russion society, but in the end he decides to go back to the hospital. When reading the book, gradually you feel it's not Mischkyn who's crazy. It's all the others. I enjoyed this book more than Crime and Punishment.
LibraryThing member Sandydog1
An amazing love quadrilateral, (or really a decagon, if one considers all the suitors). Wonderfully, developed characters, mostly of the unsavory sort, and several of which are intently focused on self destruction. The characters take great pains to develop one another! The narrative is sometimes Seinfeld-esque and often full of wild diversions and the expected but fascinating discourses on religion, life and death. Make sure you have a playbill nesx to you. These Russian names are tough.… (more)
LibraryThing member Garrison0550
I'm not worthy enough to review Dostoyevsky.
LibraryThing member Tijana2811
One of my favorite books. In mine modest opinion the best Dostoevsky's novel. His descriptions of a perfectly good, pure human are even better then Cervantes' in his Don Quixote. His ideas about religion, meaning of life, love, women's position in the society, the secrets of human soul are refreshing even now-a-days. I am not going to say anything about his amazingly beautiful style of writing... Reading of any of his books definitely contributes to intellectualism, widens perspectives, and brings indefinite joy to all literature lovers.… (more)
LibraryThing member kirstiecat
In short, too much romance and not enough death. Actually, some of the frivolity of the female characters especially sort of reminded me of Jane Austen, who I feel is an earlier/predecessor of wretches like Danielle Steele.

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.
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LibraryThing member AshRyan
The more I read and re-read of Dostoevsky, the more I am forced to conclude that he was every bit as medieval philosophically as Tolstoy, at least epistemologically. The most fundamental theme of all of his major works that I've read, including Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and even The Brothers Karamazov (though in a much more subtle and sophisticated form) is that reason and the intellect are corrupting and one should instead be guided by faith and feelings. But Dostoevsky is easier to stomach because his feelings are relatively humanitarian, compared to Tolstoy's obscene misanthropy and misogyny. And for an artistic vision of why Christian morality is utterly impracticable, this is probably the greatest novel ever written...Christlike Prince Myshkin's fate is as inevitable as it is horrifying.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattviews
The Idiot is Dostoevsky's second novel. The book is a hybrid of biographical sketches and anecdotes of the writer. The protagonist, Prince Myshkin, bears traces of his creator in his suffering of epilepsy. Dostoevsky often deviates from the main plot and voices his perspectives on pain, suffering, capital punishment, and moral goodness.
The notion of suffering incessantly sifts through the novel as if true suffering plays a key role in purifying the protagonist and granting him the overriding power to the [evil] society in which he seeks to gain acceptance. However excruciating and painful it might be, physical suffering and bodily agony would distract the mind from spiritual suffering. That is, the physical aching deprives functioning of mental thinking. The worst suffering, as Prince Myshkin contemplates, are the knowledge and the inevitable truth of one's imminent death, the invincible parting of soul with the body. Being mindful of one's death would only perpetuate suffering. Readers should grip this idea and bear in mind.

Morally upright, magnanimous, forgiving, humble, loving, honest, virtuous and mindful of others needs, Prince Myshkin embodies all human virtue and goodness. He is almost like God, or perfecting to be like God. He is a man capable of an ideal. He is stuck and torn between the love of Aglaia and Natasya upon his return to Russia from medical treatment in Switzerland. Myshkin's self-stigmatizing, humble, and diffident element often agitated Aglaia whose love for him manifests to the full in her passionate recital of a poor knight poem. She shows desire to marry him despite the wonted taunting. She assures that Myshkin is more honorable than anybody is and nobody is worth his little finger let alone his heart and soul.

Out of volition and obligation, Myshkin believes he is responsible to rescue the vile, [evil] Natasya from her deranged mental state. The cause of his love for her was more than just the bewitching, demonical beauty: it is rather eagerness on Myshkin's part to be of service to his country after being abroad. He has long set an ideal and having faith in such ideal empowers him to give up his life blindly to it. Though Natasya is surprised at Myshkin's discerning words that she ought to be ashamed and that she is not what she pretends to be, she tortures herself by not falling in love with him lest to disgrace and ruin his life.

In her importunate letters to Aglaia, Natasya implored and coaxed her to marry Myshkin as she did not wish to besmirch him. But destiny plays a cruel joke on them. Myshkin bears such tender spot for the afflicted, disgraced women in Natasya. However pertinacious not to love him, Natasya acknowledges his irresistible impact on her and regards him as the first and only man she has met in her whole life that she has believed in as a sincere friend. When Aglaia accuses her being a manipulator, Natasya falls down on her knees and thwarts Myshkin from leaving, who then comforts her and agrees to marry her.

Many readers, myself included, would mull at the meaning of the title. It would be impossible to do Myshkin justice by abasing him as an idiot. A simpleton at best? Myshkin is looked upon as an idiot (from Greek meaning private and ignorant) for his not being compromised with the vanity, vices, [evilness], mendacity, and avarice of a vain society. Unyielding as he might be, it is almost like naivete that Myshkin always resolves to be courteous, honest, and trustful with everyone. Such naivete somehow gives way to philosophical outlook and idealism and thus ennobled him. Others harbor the effrontery to inveigle him, to launch a calumny against him in order to usurp his fortune. Maybe his ignorance of the vile and magnanimity for others' wrongdoings create in him an idiot (a private person).

The Idiot, as cumbersome and lengthy as it seems, is rather a simple novel in plot. Dostoevsky often deviates from the main plot to reflect (and to reiterate) his philosophy through the prince, somehow bears an overriding sense of mission in the society, if not the whole world. I have denounce some critics' portraying the story as some bitter love triangle, for Dostoevsky has no room for a melodrama. In an epic that evokes Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky seeks out the most ordinary characters whose ordinary tales (Madame Epanchins' imaginative troubles and whining, Ippolit's nightmares, General Ivolgin's delirious memories of his childhood encounter with Napoleon) lend a special note of verisimilitude in the lives of Russians.

Like Crime and Punishment, The Idiot is dim, melancholy, doleful, and somber though the Epanchins, Lebedyev, and General Ivolgin animated, lightened up with a tinge of comic relief. Myshkin's desire to cure Natasya of her madness only relapsed himself into insanity. The Idiot evokes in readers a sense of tenderness and sympathy for the protagonist whose unyielding righteousness impedes him from resolving his own plight.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
The "idiot" of the title is Prince Myshkin, and epileptic, an innocent, and a representative of "pure" goodness. He is considered by some to be a prototype for the character of Aloysha Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. He is a character based on certain ideas of the author and as such is alternately attractive to or repellent to the significant characters that he meets in this sometimes melodramatic novel. In Candide-like fashion he faces encounters such as an attraction to two beautiful women between which he must choose. However, the prince is unable to choose between them and it is not clear to the reader what choice he should make either.
The novel seems to be more focused on the psychology of the characters, their feelings and impulses, than on serious action that would make the novel more interesting. On the other hand, the conflict between many of the characters, their differences, that may have been handled more interestingly in a comedy of manners by Trollope, seems to fall flat in this narrative. The result is a flawed masterpiece at best, for the Dostoevskian-philes, and a jumble of a novel for the rest. I would rank this at the bottom of Dostoevsky's great final masterpieces. Reread Crime and Punishment instead.
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LibraryThing member cdeuker
This book is all over the place, but when it is good . . . it is great. The ending has an hallucinatory/dreamlike feel to it that is chilling. I read this long ago, had heard that Myshkin was Christ-like, so of course didn't respond to him at all. The "Christ-like" thing is true, but it's much more interesting than pure perfection. As a person constantly trying to do good, in fact, Myshkin in this messy world actually causes a lot of harm.… (more)
LibraryThing member stillbeing
I have a soft spot for Dostoyevsky, and I really liked this one. By the end, I felt like I knew the characters personally. I won't spoil it, but I rather liked the twist at the end, though I felt more could have been made of it and the simple "report like" conclusion left me feeling a little unsatisfied given how close the reader becomes to the characters. That said, I still really liked it!… (more)
LibraryThing member hannahj26
This book was incredibly long and at times rather dull. Though I feel that it is worth reading, it is not for the faint of heart. Picking up this book is a huge commitment of time. However, looking back on it the story was an interesting one and it was not a book that I ever thought of giving up on.
LibraryThing member Grendelschoice
I always wanted to read one of "the classics" of Russian literature. I was recuperating from surgery and had a lot of time on my hands to do nothing but read, and this book was perfect. What a sad, beautiful story about a man too kind and good to weather the cynicism of the world around him. The grace of Dostoevsky's prose is simply breathtaking.… (more)
LibraryThing member William345
Here's Dostoyevski's mode of proceeding, and it's maddening. One, here's what I'm about to tell you; two, now here I am actually telling it to you; and three, now let's review what I've just told you. Every point is handled thus. The tedium! Nevertheless, it's D so I forced myself to read most of it. In the end the book fell heavily from my hands and I woke.… (more)
LibraryThing member EllieNYC
I found The Idiot to be one of Dostoevsky's most moving books, as well as one of the few of his I have reread several times.
The story of Prince Mishkin (as always, one amongst many other stories), an epileptic who is mocked by the world but retains a purity that goes beyond naivete and an integrity that cannot be belittled.
This is a beautiful and poetic tale, less didactic than most of Dostoevsky's works and more hopeful, in some way, although as usual with much tragedy as well.
It wouldn't be Dostoevsky otherwise, now would it?
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
The title character of The Idiot is Prince Myshkin, a poor Russian nobleman who is returning to Russia after spending several years in a Swiss sanatorium to recover from epilepsy. Alone in the world, he is searching for some distant relatives and gets quickly caught up in a complicated love triangle that involves himself, the beautiful fallen woman, Natashya Filipovna, and the wealthy Roghozin. As with many of the Russian classics, there is a HUGE cast of characters, who are well depicted and come from a variety of classes. This book has much of what you come to expect from a Russian classic - tragic heroes, sacrifice and sad, sad endings. But The Idiot is also a wealth of philosophy. Although it departs from the main plot, there is some great philosophy in this book, with reflections on the meaning of life, especially when death is imminent.

I listened to the audiobook and I LOVED Simon Vance's narration. From rattling off long and beautiful Russian names (my favorite was Lizaveta Prokovyevna) to his wide range of accents for some very eccentric characters, this was an enjoyable book to read and listen to.
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LibraryThing member Lukerik
This is not as good a novel as Crime & Punishment. He just doesn't reach the profound here. Still, a large cut above most books and well worth a read. Part 1 is particularly good, bravely written, with a great crescendo and one of the sexiest heroines ever. If the remainder is a little off, don't worry, you're already hooked.… (more)
LibraryThing member jddunn
The life and times of the Christlike epileptic, Prince Myshkin. This was the one major Dostoevsky I had yet to read. It’s proving to be a suprisingly hilarious dark comedy so far, thought that’s by no means all it is. I do think it’s the worst of his big four novels though. Myshkin was his attempt at a perfectly good man, and much like with the Alyosha/Zossima attempted redemption in Karamazov, it comes off as less than convincing compared to the preponderance of the very non-Christlike stuff and overpowering general doubt that packs his writing(and makes it so compelling.)… (more)
LibraryThing member auntycaz
i loved this book. it has such a sense of dignity & honour, values from an age past. felt like i was soaking those values in. like a spring shower. wonderful.
LibraryThing member frecklesbook
great book
not light reading
LibraryThing member veritatem.dilexi
My least favorite Dostoevsky so far. Excellent characterizations and philosophical ideas get horribly bogged down by a boring soap-opera-esque plot. Worth it if you already love Dostoevsky or Russian literature, but go with "Crime and Punishment" if it's your first taste of the unique Fatherland.
LibraryThing member Mikalina
A book about a Dostoevskian Don Quixote. DQ becomes what he is from reading to many chivalric stories, the idiot is just shown off as an idiot through his unselfish ways. The world do not believe in unselfishness, in the real world unselfishness is not recognized as a possible motif for anyones actions, and when it is, it is not met for what it is - which is the man of the world´loss and the unselfish idiot´s tragedy and undoing. The story is dark, displaying the vulnerability of the human project, and the sacrifice asked of anyone trying to live up to it. Where Cervantes satire gives us the relief of laughter, and an escape from our animalistic instinctive ways through humor, Dostoevsky´s idiot is set in more realistic surroundings, which makes the story grimmer and hope of humanism slimmer.… (more)

Language

Original language

Russian

Barcode

4116
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