Title: The Idiot
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Genre(s): fiction, classics, literary, historical, Russian literature
Length: 655 pages (varies based on edition)
Ah, Dostoyevsky. 2019 was the year I discovered his novels, and the year The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment found their way to the top of my favorite books list. Naturally, then, it was only a matter of time before I overcame my supposed “need” to read a variety of books and returned to another one of his novels. I’d received The Idiot as a birthday gift a year or two ago, so it became the third.
This time, however, was different than the other two. I read a collection of Dostoyevsky’s letters in late winter of 2019, and in those letters were many references to The Idiot, as well as context for when he wrote it and why he wrote it. Subconsciously, I’d developed an expectation for what sort of story it would be. But, come to find out, whatever subconscious ideas that lurked in my brain weren’t what I found in its pages. I’m not disappointed in the least.
The Idiot centers on Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, who returns to Russia after spending several years in Switzerland receiving treatment for epilepsy. His purity of heart, belief in the power of beauty, and naivety when understanding others contrasts with the vanity, pride, pretention, materialism, and greed of the men and women of Russian society that he meets upon his return, and before long, he’s pulled into the chaos and conflict of his new acquaintances—the course of events that inevitably spirals into the ruin of many.
The more I read Dostoyevsky, the more I’m delighted by his writing style (I can’t imagine how much better it would be if I could read it in the original language!). The Idiot is no exception. There’s a combination of clarity and skill, along with a clear “voice,” even though the narrator is 3rd-person omniscient (for most of the novel, at least)—and, more so that The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, there is so much humor woven into not just what the characters say, but how the narrator presents the unfolding events of the story. There’s such a hominess and closeness, as if you’re hearing the story recited by a friend. It’s a stylistic choice not often found in modern writing, and one I greatly enjoy when it’s done as skillfully as it is by Dostoyevsky.
Another aspect I’ve come to admire about Dostoyevsky’s style, apart from how deftly he conveys characters and dialogue, is how his (sometimes long) descriptions of characters’ appearances don’t feel clunky or forced, even when he starts out immediately by giving a long explanation of their features or backstory. The “familiarity” of his style likely helps those moments feel important, rather than like an amateur info-dumping. Here’s an example of what I mean, aptly taken from Chapter 1 of Part 1 (page 3-4 in my edition):
“By the window in one of the third-class cars[,] two passengers had been facing each other since dawn, both of them young men, both with little luggage, both unfashionably dressed, bother of rather striking appearance, and both wishing, finally, to open a conversation with each other. Had they known about one another and why they were both at that moment remarkable, they would certainly have marveled that chance had so strangely put them opposite each other in the third-class car of the Warsaw-Petersburg train. One of them was short, about twenty-seven, with black, curly hair and eyes that were small and gray, but ardent. His nose was broad and flat, his cheekbones high, his thin lips incessantly twisted into a sort of insolent, mocking, even malevolent smile, but his brow was high and well formed, and it redeemed the ignobleness of the lower part of his face. What was especially striking about his face was its deathly pallor, which gave the young man, despite his solid build, an appearance of exhaustion and at the same time a passionate, almost agonizingly passionate look, not in keeping with his coarse, insolent smile and his hard, self-satisfied expression…
The owner of the hooded cloak was a young man, also about twenty-six or –seven years old, slightly taller than average, with very dense fair hair, hollow cheeks, and a narrow, pointed, almost white beard. His eyes were large, blue, and steady; there was something gentle but heavy in their gaze, something of that strange look by which some people can instantly tell an epileptic. The young man’s face was pleasing, however; lean and fine-featured, though colorless, and, just now, blue with cold.”
This section is longer than what I usually include in my book reviews, but, especially having finished the book, I’m struck by how clear (and important) of an opening these descriptions provide. The descriptions of these two young men present clear pictures, not just of what they look like, but how their temperaments are reflected in their appearance; the language is clear, not fussy, yet retains a sense of elegance (no doubt because it’s in the style of the 19th century). I’ve mentioned several other times how classics get the reputation of being universally difficult to read, but Dostoyevsky’s writing, including The Idiot, is far from boring or difficult.
One could write for hours about the characters in The Idiot, but doing so would require not only lots of literary analysis, but lots of spoilers—which I aim to avoid at all costs. Thus, this section may appear a bit vague, or short, for a story so character-driven.
What strikes me most about The Idiot, especially upon reflection, is how the characters all simultaneously represent individuals and themes. In fact, comparing the three Dostoyevsky novels I’ve read, The Idiot is the most thematic of them—nearly to the point where I’d say it’s theme-driven, rather than character-driven. The synopsis for the book posits that Prince Myshkin is an “almost comically innocent Christ figure” and a “wholly beautiful man”—and indeed, his function in this role is apparent from our first introduction to him. He’s a fascinating, endearing, sometimes even frustrating protagonist to follow; his compassion for others, and his simple but poignant understanding of the truth, is mingled equally with his naivety about the sly motives and societal norms that every other character seems to follow in some regard. His embodiment of so much goodness, in some ways, leads to serious mistakes on his part; though a Christ figure, he’s also human, and that combination creates a very thought-provoking characterization.
Contrasting Prince Myshkin’s “whole beauty” is, well, everyone else. Over the course of the novel, we meet a large and diverse cast: Rogozhin, a wealthy merchant prone to obsessive love verging on hatred; Nastassya Filippovna, a strikingly beautiful yet deeply troubled woman whose unjust dishonor torments her; the Yepanchin family, consisting of General Yepanchin, his eccentric wife, Lizaveta Prokofyevna, who happens to be a very distant relation of Prince Myshkin, and their daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya; Gavril Ivolgin, a young man whose ambitions and vanity painfully contrast with his “ordinariness”; the rest of the Ivolgin family, which consists of Ardalyon Ivolgin, a former general prone to excessive lying and excessive drinking, Nina Alexandrovna, who bears her unfortunate situation with calm and dignity, Varvara Ardalyonovna, Gavril’s sister who has both her mother’s dignity and a temper to match her brother, and Kolya, a fifteen-year-old with a good-natured heart; Hippolite Terentyev, a friend of Kolya’s who is dying of consumption and spitefully outspoken about his bleak view of the world; and Lukyan Lebedev, a swindling, lying, opportunistic drunkard who constantly wavers between his base nature and (we can assume) his better qualities, such as love for his children. Each of these characters, in one way or another, highlight Prince Myshkin’s “odd” or “idiotic” ways, simultaneously being drawn to them and wanting to flee from them as the events of the story unfold. The result, in addition to being interesting simply on a character level, is a tale with unexpected twists and turns that spread layer upon layer of commentary about religion, morality, society, and life—and, surprisingly, a tale that is no less pertinent in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.
When I mentioned earlier that Prince Myshkin is pulled into the chaos of the other characters’ lives, I don’t mean that lightly—even though the plot of the novel is sound (doesn’t contain gaps or plot holes), the course of the story takes so many turns and has so many highs and lows that the reader can sometimes feel confused about where the novel will end. This, of course, has thematic merit—the volatility and uncertainty of the plot mirrors the volatile and uncertain nature of the society Dostoyevsky wished to portray. However, there were still points, like a particularly long string of dialogue in Part 3, that seemed confusing until they were finished. I wouldn’t let that stop you from reading The Idiot, however—in the end, the thematic and plot-related strands all weave together into an incredibly intriguing (even tragic) end that not only makes sense, but leaves you with a lot of ponder.
The story takes place in 19th-century Russia (specific date not given) and covers events that begin in November and reach their end in late summer. Specifically, the story centers namely in St. Petersburg and Pavlosk, a nearby town where most of the characters plan to spend the summer, though locations like Moscow and Switzerland are mentioned in conversation or in passing in the narrative.
As I read, each location felt even more “alive” to me than the setting in The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment; I could imagine each house (especially Rogozhin’s) as if watching a movie, and even locations with sparse descriptions seemed “lived-in,” so to speak. Additionally, though I don’t know much about Russian society at that point in time, the characters felt like they were grounded in it, which only added to the sense of place.
All objectionable content is low. Some characters say “damn” or “hell,” though it doesn’t read as shocking or unnecessary. Many characters drink, and a number drink in excess. Many portions of dialogue include topics like executions, beheadings, murder, and cannibalism (though it’s phrased in a non-gruesome way). Suicide is discussed, and an attempted suicide is briefly included. A character is stabbed and another is almost stabbed (neither instance is gruesome). Gossip in-narration and via characters hints at various affairs and women being “fallen,” including an instance where an older man makes his young ward his mistress.
Where to begin?
One can expect that I loved this book, as I loved the other Dostoyevsky novels I’ve read. One who assumed that would be correct. But, reading this one felt different than the other two. The Idiot is so thematic that, at times, I was left deep in pondering as I try to determine what characters and events were meant to represent; though the plot and characters on their own were immediately intriguing, I didn’t feel the same clarity as when I read The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment. And, in truth, I was left in a slight daze when I finished the last chapters. But as I thought about the story, and read a few other interpretations of its themes, I began to see how well Dostoyevsky had woven this story together. Indeed, it’s very “Russian,” in that it’s highly connected to his contemporary society; I know there are layers of meaning that are lost to me not simply by translation, but by merit of living so many centuries later. It ends on a less optimistic note than TBK and C&P; its plot is more chaotic and less grounded in specific events; the way religion is discussed and incorporated especially makes you have to stop and think. Yet this story is still so rich, and unfolds before you like a flower awakening in spring; I imagine that it will unfold even more the longer I ponder it. So, while at this point I rank it beneath TBK and C&P, it still deserves a whole-hearted 5/5 stars. I bet, in time, it’ll work its way further up my favorites list, too.