The Idiot

Russia, mid-1800s.  When Prince Myshkin returns to his native country, he is young, naive, and not fully recovered from the physical and mental illnesses that had sent him to Switzerland.  A sudden inheritance plunges him headfirst into the Russian aristocracy, and he is unprepared for its gritty reality.  Torn between the woman he loves and the woman he pities, Myshkin must face the world for the first time in his life, to either rise above prejudice or be forever labeled “the idiot”.

This was my second Russian lit read, after Eugene Onegin.  I was taking the “History of Russia & the USSR” this fall, so it seemed a good time to read some more Russian lit.  I was drawn to The Idiot, moreover, due to its being Dostoyevsky and because of its “saintly” hero, which, according to the back cover, is the reason why Dostoyevsky wrote it.  Overall, I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  Recommended?  Not sure.

While not necessarily a saintly hero, Myshkin is certainly a suffering hero. Rogozhin, the psychotic anti-hero, sums it up in one line: “Your compassion is stronger than my love.”  Myshkin’s life consists of two goals–one, an unrelenting pursuit of happiness and sanity, and two, changing the world through his overwhelming attitude of compassion.  These two forces in his life are sometimes at conflict with each other, especially when his compassion gets the upper hand.

As for being an “idiot”, nothing could be farther from the truth.  It’s just that Myshkin doesn’t use his wits towards dishonesty or evil, like some of the other characters do.

I read Alan Myers’s translation, in which Myshkin is often just called “Prince”.  I think this is very apt, because Myshkin, to me, represents a kind of fairytale prince, or “Prince Charming”, if you will.  There is an almost Cinderella-story going on between him and the deranged Nastasya Filipovna.  Nastasya is a beautiful woman who, as a child, was adopted and abused by a sick, perverted man, Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky.  Society, of course, views Totsky as forgivable and Nastasya as a fallen woman to be despised.  Myshkin is the only one who vows he will always respect her.  He goes further than that–out of pure compassion, he offers to marry her for who she is, in what must be the saddest, most beautiful proposal scene in world literature.

In another sense, Nastasya and Myshkin could be viewed alter-egos of the same character.  They were both middle-class citizens who received large fortunes, they both lived in innocence until hurt by external evil, and they both lost their mental stability after their disturbing experiences.  If there is any difference, then it is in their initial reactions–Nastasya turned to apathy, almost to the point of cruelty, and Myshkin turned to mercy, love, and compassion.

There is a certain amount of social commentary in The Idiot, even in its main characters.  Totsky can be viewed as both a literal and figurative descendant of the serfdom era, in which Russian aristocrats could use their power and wealth to get away with exploiting the serfs.  The Yepanchins, on the other hand, can be viewed as a foil to Totsky–they are a middle class family who, though wary of social norms, are not afraid to associate with people of lower social status.  They are not wealthy, but they are respected; and, unlike Totsky, the Yepanchins represent the then-modern reforms which came about in Russia during the mid-to-late 19th century.

Realism, on the whole, is the very “dominant image” of this book, which is otherwise quite gothic.  The main plot–or subplot, depending on your viewpoint–is Rogozhin’s obsession with Nastasya, and its gothic tendencies defy realism even at its ultimate end.  Still, while Rogozhin lives in his own fantasy world, Myshkin’s story ends in another cold dose of realism.  There’s a scene in which Myshkin, despite his sense of foreboding and his best efforts, accidentally breaks a precious Chinese vase, and, parallel to the vase, he goes on to have a nervous breakdown.  Rogozhin escapes even death, but Myshkin can’t escape his own mental imprisonment. 

There is, then, a persistent lack of poetic justice in The Idiot, and I think that is why I was disappointed in the ending.  The book is 600+ pages long, but it didn’t seem like anything had been accomplished in the story.  The message is pessimistic and depressing.  Hence, the 4.5 stars.  It kept my attention and gave me a lot to think about, but I’m not sure if it was worthwhile or not.

Thoughts on ‘The Idiot’

I am getting very close to finishing this book, and so far, it has been both fascinating and (to my knowledge) truly original.  I have a feeling it’s going to end badly–but then again, the plot has not been predictable.  It keeps shifting from scene to scene, focusing on specific characters and their problems, with no continuous plot except the day-to-day life of Prince Myshkin, a very noble character.

There is the common theme of searching: each character is looking for something, and no one has found it yet.  Rogozhin, the anti-hero, is trying to win the love of Nastasya, a mistreated and embittered woman.  She, in turn, is trying to escape from her past and find real happiness.  The middle-aged Yepanchin couple tries (unsuccessfully) to be conventional, and the youngest Yepanchin daughter is looking for independence.  Even Lebedev, a wannabe lawyer, makes it his business to hunt around for gossip. 

And Myshkin?  He searches for stability, peace, and, above all, goodness.  His unfailing, philanthropic love is the source of a lot of his misery, but he doesn’t let that stop him.  He stands by his guiding principles and does what he can for others.

The irony of The Idiot is that, of all the characters in the book, Myshkin is the sanest, even though everyone calls him an “idiot.”  They live in their own fantasy-worlds; perhaps he only seems different because he survives in his own reality.  He also tries to see the good side of people, but he’s not naive.  He knows when a person hates him, and he grieves for them.  There’s a powerful scene in which Myshkin goes to visit his would-be murderer, with an unabashed, courageous attitude of humility.  While he does not quite befriend his enemy (or rather, vice-versa), the result is “a soft answer turneth away wrath.”  Whether he will again be in danger of losing his life is unknown, but for the time, he comes away a victor through his simple act of goodness.

All in all, I’ve been way more impressed by this book than by my attempted reading of Crime and Punishment.  Myshkin is 180 degrees different than Raskolnikov (main character in Crime and Punishment), but there is certainly a similar feeling behind both books: the sense of a disjointed, perverse society and how an alienated person reacts to it.  Raskolnikov may be the rule, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to be the exception, the Prince Myshkin, if you will.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

…I there became acquainted with a Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. This young gentleman was of an excellent—indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes…Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries, and in Paris these are easily obtained.

This is our mysterious introduction to Charles Auguste Dupin, who stars in a short story trilogy written by Edgar Allan Poe.  A sort of French Sherlock Holmes, Dupin lives reclusively in Paris with apparently no aspirations, except the gaining of knowledge and the solving of puzzles, via probability and logic.  In the first story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, the gory murders of a mother and daughter have baffled the Parisian police force; and when the police give up, Dupin must step in and find the killer.

I first read the Dupin stories many years ago and found them, compared to Sherlock Holmes, very boring and difficult to read.  Most likely, it is because Dupin’s narrator is no Watson, eager to write a tale of adventure–instead, he is a rather serious-minded person who begins his story with a short lecture.

Fortunately, however, I enjoyed it this time around; and I became an instant fan of Dupin, with his eccentric nocturnal habits and grave, analytical demeanor. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars, subtracting half a star due to the anticlimactic ending.  The murder details are also very Edgar Allan Poe, if you know what I mean…

Nathaniel Hawthorne / Secret Sharer / Hunted Down

The Secret Sharer
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars. 

What would you do if you found out your roommate is a wanted criminal?  This is the narrator’s dilemma after he rescues a man, Leggatt, from the ocean and brings him aboard his ship.  The narrator finds that they share not only a similarity in rank, but a similarity in appearance; and this strange coincidence helps influence the narrator’s tough decision.

I really enjoyed this short story–the writing style was amazing, as always, and the story itself was more figurative than literal.  Good read.

Hunted Down
by Charles Dickens
Overall rating:  4 out of 5 stars.  

…my first impression of those people, founded on face and manner alone, was invariably true.  My mistake was in suffering them to come nearer to me and explain themselves away.

So states Mr Sampson, ‘Chief Manager of a Life Assurance Office’, who believes in the truth of first impressions.  And one day, he has a particularly bad first-impression–that of Mr Julius Slinkton, a handsome, middle-aged gentleman with his hair “parted straight up the middle”.  Even after they strike up an acquaintance, Mr Sampson has ominous premonitions about this man, and fears for the victims of a crime which has or will inevitably occur.

This was a very good mystery short story, written in a style similar to, but somewhat unlike, Dickens’s novels.  The style is concise and fast-paced, and the atmosphere is wonderfully eerie.  I only wish that the plot had been a little less predictable and the story a bit longer, more detailed.


Personal Recollections of Nathaniel Hawthorne
by Horatio Bridge
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  

Just what the title says…a biographical book about Nathaniel Hawthorne, by his college friend, Horatio Bridge.  It focuses on Hawthorne’s college years, careers, family life, and personality; and it’s written in a respectful, accessible style.  I highly recommend it for anyone who’d like to learn more about him, especially if you’re looking for an “eye-witness” type of biography.  It’s also an encouraging read for young authors who struggle with self-doubt, like Hawthorne initially did.

Sylvie and Bruno, volume 1

{Note:  I only just found out that Sylvie & Bruno is a two-volume book–I read vol. 1 and thought it was the entire story.  In any case, I’ll be reviewing this in two parts, and treat vol. 2 as a sequel.}

Outland: a crazy, fantastical world, where the government is about to be taken over by a conniving official, his wife, and his ferociously unruly son.  It seems the wrong place for Sylvie and her brother, Bruno–two fairy-children whose loyal love keeps them together no matter what.  Meanwhile, real-world character Dr Arthur Forester has fallen in love with Lady Muriel Orme, a lady of sense and cheerful character.  Arthur is hesitant about expressing his feelings; and when the handsome, charismatic Captain Lindon comes to visit, Arthur fears he’s lost all chances. 

Lisi Jar
By Leafnode (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno is much like the Alice books, highlighting nonsense and riddles, and featuring children as the main characters.  A unique difference, though, is that Sylvie & Bruno is 1/3 fairy story, 1/3 magic realism, and 1/3 romance.  The setting changes abruptly; and while at first this is confusing, its whimsicality becomes intriguing, pulling you along through quirky plot twists.

The title characters are very extraordinary children.  Sweet and patient Sylvie, who never gets truly angry; and Bruno, whose rambunctiousness is happily equaled by his affection and good-intentions.  Granted, I’ve never met siblings who were always this sugary sweet, either individually or together; but they are fairies, after all.  😉 

The narrator (i.e. Carroll) is quite a major character–an elderly gentleman with a tendency towards matchmaking, befriending fairies, and falling asleep at awkward moments.  The romantic subplot, if a bit fast-paced, fit in surprisingly well; and with it, there are some Christian themes mentioned, including a relevant mention of the importance of reverent, non-stagey worship services. 

Now, according to Carroll’s preface to vol. 2 and Wikipedia, there is also supposed to be a “Theosophical” basis for the book.  I couldn’t say for sure how important it is in the story…I tend to read heavily between-the-lines and if it was there, it was not evident unless you were looking for it.  He seemed to only use it (if ever) in connection with his book’s hypothetical idea, “What if fairies were real?”  Of course, I haven’t read vol. 2 yet; but vol. 1 seemed suitable reading to me.  And I was pleasantly surprised at the intelligence of the romantic subplot–the characters talked about real issues, not just everyday fluff. 

As serious as these subplots sound, they only form the smaller part of the story–the fairies and nonsense/logic are the book’s focus.  One of my favorite parts was the “Outlandish” watch, a time-travelling device.  With this watch, and a neat piece of logic, Carroll solves the Grandfather Paradox…perhaps a bit too logically (à la Mr Spock).  😉  That chapter also includes the scene with the hunted hare–and yes, I cried.  If you never read this book, I’d recommend the second half of Chapter 21 alone; it’s bittersweet, depressing, simple, and profound, all at once. 

I really did think the ending was the end.  But I’m going to read vol. 2 (Sylvie and Bruno Concluded), and would certainly recommend vol. 1 to anybody who values childhood imagination and innocence. 

5 out of 5 stars.