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.