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.
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.
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.
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!
It's ok, Dostoevsky. I still like 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
not light reading