Tag Archives: Fyodor Dostoyevsky

What I’m Reading, Mini Edition

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My brother and I are still making our way through Crime and Punishment, with the hope of finishing it by the end of the year. I have got past the “crime” now and at the point where Raskolnikov is (once again) losing his mind. It’s a really excellent read this time around, but not exactly holiday cheer, so that’s one reason I haven’t been reading it as much as I ought to be.

The Sickness unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard

Yet another “second attempt book”… guess I was in the mood for those! I am determined to finish it this time. The Sickness unto Death is about despair and how the Christian faith both acknowledges and solves this universal problem. Well… that’s my idea of what the book’s about, anyway. 😆 On a scale of Fear and Trembling to The Concept of Anxiety, this book falls towards the latter end of difficulty, so I cannot recommend it as an starting point. I can’t pretend to understand everything dear old K. is talking about, but there are some gems here for the patient excavator.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector

Picked this up yesterday to read for Brazil in the Reading the World Challenge (I really ought to create a page for this!). The religious-sounding title instilled in me some uncertainty, but the concept—a kind of variation on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis—was definitely intriguing.

I’m at 10% now and I really don’t know how I’m going to feel about it. I can’t decide whether I love it or hate it. 😆 The opening (and the whole book, as I gather), is one long internal monologue, vaguely reminiscent of Steppenwolf. She speaks very obscurely and through metaphors, and at times you don’t really know if she’s in her right mind, but I could empathize with what she was talking about regarding personal identity, so that’s something. Here’s a few quotes that already arrested my attention:

Maybe disappointment is the fear of no longer belonging to a system . . . What I used to be, was no good for me. But it was from that not-good that I’d organized the best thing of all: hope.

Holding someone’s hand was always my idea of joy.

Will speaking to you scare you and make me lose you? but if I don’t speak I’ll be lost, and in losing myself lose you.

I’ll have much more to say about this book, that’s for sure.

The “R-guy”

Stumbled across this and I felt SO called out.

One of the difficulties in reading Crime and Punishment is keeping track of the names of the characters. Not only are the names difficult to pronounce, but a character is often referred to by more than one version of his or her name. As you read, try to pronounce the names of the characters (even if your pronunciation is not correct). Think of the main character as Raskolnikov not the “R-guy.”


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.