The Idiot

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apeman
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The Idiot

Post by apeman » 08 Nov 2011, 11:06

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot during his sojourn in Europe (1867-71) where he had fled to escape his creditors. His obsession with gambling and the powerful impression made on him by Hans Holbein’s figure of Christ taken from the cross are key motifs in the novel, which is dominated by the contrasting themes of acquisitiveness and Christian charity. Prince Myshkin, the Idiot and central figure, like his author, returns to Russia after four years in ‘civilised’ Europe, where he has suffered poverty and epileptic fits. It is these seizures, as well as his childlike innocence that have led to him being dubbed ‘the idiot’ by most of his fellow citizens. In a novel of over 600 closely packed pages and crammed with up to a hundred characters, the Prince is the sole touchstone of goodness. His frankness and innocence are seen by many as stupidity. He is even accused of vice and cunning when being simply disarmingly honest. He is often used as a pawn by calculating figures, such as the ‘villain’ Rogozhin and the beautiful ‘fallen’ woman, Nastasya Filippovna. To the Prince these are desperately unhappy people whom he seeks to rescue, but without success. He is trapped between two equally beautiful and impulsive young women, Nastasya Filippovna (full name used throughout) and Aglaya Yepanchin, the youngest of General Yepanchin’s three unmarried daughters. The Prince, who confesses love and seems to have proposed marriage to both, is torn between their needs and his own need to save them from their darker selves. Both women have several suitors, some offering respectable futures, others desperate passion. Myshkin moves tortuously between both, giving advice, chasing after them, offering his disinterested love, yet in his heart knowing that he is a hopelessly laughable suitor.

Behind the love stories there are several recurrent themes that continually resurface, most notably the position of Russia in Europe – what it means to be a true Russian in a continent where the natives are seen as backward and uncivilised peasants. Tolstoy, too, was much concerned with this question, although to Dostoyevsky both he and Turgenev (with whom he quarrelled when in Europe) were contaminated by French and German influences. In fact the Prince, just before the onset of one of his epileptic seizures, uncharacteristically breaks silence, bursting out with a long tirade, inveighing against nihilists, Jews, atheists and the Catholic Church, much to the embarrassment of his hosts, the Yepanchins, who are, with other notables, about to celebrate his engagement to Aglaya, their youngest daughter. In other scenes, long speeches on legal, commercial, political and spiritual matters are given by others, but in these the Prince is either absent or remains quiescent. And of course there are always ‘the woman question’ and the land ownership question, together with a sense of a decline in spiritual values.

I am not sure whether the modern reader will appreciate the rather old-fashioned narrative modes that Dostoyevsky employs in this novel. There are constant asides to the reader, telling us for example that ‘the motives of human actions are usually infinitely more complex and varied than we are apt to explain them afterwards, and can rarely be defined with certainty.’ One is a little reminded of George Eliot, the Wise Woman who couldn’t resist pointing a moral to adorn a tale. Then there is the position of the narrator himself, who confesses to being often absent at crucial times and being reduced to interpreting gossip or making speculation as to what might have happened. Chapter 9 of Part Four, for instance, begins with a Fielding-like introduction, putting the reader in the picture with ‘A fortnight has passed since the events described in the last chapter, and the position of the characters of our story had changed so much that we find it extremely difficult to continue without certain explanations. Yet we feel that we have to confine ourselves to a bare statement of facts, if possible, without any special explanations, and for a very simple reason: because we ourselves find it difficult in many instances to explain what took place ...’ The digression continues and the reader waits impatiently. Of course the delaying tactic is a novelist’s stock-in-trade, but Dostoyevsky, in this novel at least, occasionally oversteps the bounds of decency. Much of the ‘action’ indeed is told through unreliable gossips or malicious liars. Myshkin goes missing for long periods and we are constantly given letters of distraught repentance, passionate love and regret (often false). Yes, our narrator, as he explained above, has a miserable time getting to the facts behind appearance and conjecture.

But these are perhaps minor quibbles in what is for the most part an intriguing and surprisingly convincing tale of a basically good and honest man in a nest of vipers. We have here again the solitary soul, the alienated Underground Man, but now resurfaced in the world of high society. The absorbed reader follows Prince Myshkin’s encounters with drunks, braggarts, liars, deceivers, gamblers, lechers and murderers, from the streets of Petersburg to the country estate of Pavlovsk. Although the novel climaxes with a terrible murder, it is a less dark novel than the author’s earlier Crime and Punishment – in fact it is at times extremely funny, for example when the sisters collapse with laughter over the Prince’s revelation on seeing the donkey (ie himself) after a dream - but the theme of redemption through Christian suffering is paramount. Prince Myshkin embodies Christian values, but without being in the least evangelical or doctrinaire. He is able to laugh at himself and his foolishness - for he is often gauche and embarrassed in company - even managing, in spite of dire warnings, to break his hostess’s precious Chinese vase in the exuberant outburst noted above. This is indeed a remarkable portrayal: – a Christ-like figure with no dignity and a keen sense of humour.

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mouseofcards89
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Post by mouseofcards89 » 23 Dec 2011, 13:26

Myshkin anticipates Ivan Karamazov's "Tale of the Grand Inquisitor." He manages to bring turmoil and discord to every secondary character in the novel through no direct fault of his own. These are insipid, ordinary people, 'men of action' unable to understand any higher moral ground. To them, the only thing that a precipice is good for is throwing yourself off of. Every word is brilliant.
"The world is a vampire/sent to drain/secret destroyers hold you up to the flames/And what do I get for my pains?/Betrayed desires, and a piece of the game."

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Post by jeyushka » 19 Jul 2012, 16:14

This is one of my favourite novels. Myshkin is an unachievable ideal of a Russian person, a selfless, understanding and kind man full of compassion. He's impossible to be real in the real Russian world; the cruel reality is too much for his sanity and therefore he is an idiot.
There is a brilliant Russian TV series based on this novel released around 10 years ago, it is so close to the text and the acting is so powerful that I often cry when I watch it. I wish someone made English subtitles for it.

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Post by tinatin » 29 Jul 2012, 11:20

I have read this book in the original russian language and english, and in both versions, I was not dazzled by Dostoyevsky's work. Generally, many people agree that he wrote in a very heavy language, though nowadays others believe reading Dostoevsky is prestigious, but personally, I don't like it. He is not Tolstoy or Turgenev which was a real pleasure to read.

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Post by jeyushka » 29 Jul 2012, 16:28

2 tinatin - in my opinion, Dostovesky is not loved for his language, but for his monumental thoughts and ideas. I agree with you - his language was not like Lermontov's, but he's put incredible amounts of emotional intelligence into his characters, i especially like his "Netochka Nezvanova" with my favourite heroine in Russian literature.
Turgenev was a master of prose, but he's more European than Russian in terms of showing emotion and raw qualities of the human character. He's way too polished for me, and I prefer Dostoevsky for his imperfections.
As for Tolstoy, I like his epic scale, but he is overly descriptive about boring things and there's way too much moralizing in his prose. Not such a great language too.

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Post by teacher_jane1 » 16 Apr 2015, 20:41

I know this is an old thread, but I would love to get thoughts on this question: does Dostoevsky want us to love Prince Myshkin, or not? I felt like the tone was uneven throughout the book, where sometimes he was very difficult to relate to and other times he seemed like an archetypal human that everybody could relate to, but he is not really a character that one grows fond of. Thoughts?
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Jolyon Trevelyan
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Post by Jolyon Trevelyan » 13 May 2015, 18:41

This is my second favorite Dostoevsky book.
A mistake is simply another way of doing things

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Post by Hannah_Graceful » 01 Feb 2016, 18:22

Very apt review on one of my favorite novels! Dostoevsky is my favorite Russian author, even surpassing the great Tolstoy, and The Idiot is a masterpiece. What puts Dostoevsky ahead of Tolstoy, for me, is his wit and his sarcastic sense of humour. This humour is most perfectly displayed in The Brothers Karamazov.

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Post by Beerfish » 30 May 2016, 10:54

Just finished the book, the last part of it was like being on a roller coaster going down wards fast with the part of the track at the bottom missing that you have no power to stop. Overall a great book though Dostoevsky as in the other book of his that I read Crime and Punishment tends to go off on to tangents at times bringing characters into play for the sole purpose of making some point regarding religion or politics or country.

One thing I do have to better educate myself on if I want to read more Russian Literature is the way names are used. I found myself going back to the front of the book often because characters were referred in name a number of ways.

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Post by Bookshelf_lifE » 14 Jul 2016, 02:37

I am surprised this book has so little comments... It really is an amazing piece Dostoyevsky has written.

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Post by the biblophile » 18 Jul 2016, 10:43

one of my favorite Dostoyevsky novels. I also love his short stories they are vastly under rated. The Double and White Nights are two stories I cannot get enough of. I read them several times a year. Poor Folk is classic Dostoyevsky, with it's tale of a doomed love affair. And it's pitiful clerk. Any body Gogal fans?

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Post by DATo » 26 Dec 2016, 18:39

the biblophile wrote:one of my favorite Dostoyevsky novels. I also love his short stories they are vastly under rated. The Double and White Nights are two stories I cannot get enough of. I read them several times a year. Poor Folk is classic Dostoyevsky, with it's tale of a doomed love affair. And it's pitiful clerk. Any body Gogal fans?
The only book of Gogol's that I have read is Dead Souls but I enjoyed it very much.
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Post by the biblophile » 26 Dec 2016, 20:03

DATo wrote:
the biblophile wrote:one of my favorite Dostoyevsky novels. I also love his short stories they are vastly under rated. The Double and White Nights are two stories I cannot get enough of. I read them several times a year. Poor Folk is classic Dostoyevsky, with it's tale of a doomed love affair. And it's pitiful clerk. Any body Gogal fans?
The only book of Gogol's that I have read is Dead Souls but I enjoyed it very much.
Dead souls is an excellent book Gogal was in the process of writing a sequel, but he fell into the hands of a religious sect who convinced him to burn the uncompleted work. He starved himself to death during a fast. The overcoat is my favorite story of his, it was a big influence on Dostoyevsky's early work like Poor Folk.

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Post by Angela Stripes » 08 Sep 2017, 17:44

I've had The Idiot on my shelf for months (my "unread" shelf, which is bursting at the iron-and-wood seems), and had no idea what an accomplishment it is.

Thanks to this conversation, I will bump it up on my "what to read next" agenda. Thank you, all. :tiphat:
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Post by lunablue_x3 » 25 Oct 2019, 15:24

The character of Prince Myshkin works both as a Christ figure, and as a study of an individual with epilepsy.
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