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.


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