The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The Idiot (Идиот) is a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was serialised in The Russian Messenger from 1868-69 then published in novel form in 1869 (as was, for example, his Crime and Punishment and The Village of Stepanchikovo among others, Ivan Tugenev's Fathers and Sons and Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace). It's one of my favourite of Dostoyevsky's works and perhaps one of the more upsetting novels I've ever read.

Dostoyevsky tells the story of Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, an almost perfect Christ-like figure in the morally corrupted and morally decaying high Russian society. At the start of the novel he arrives in St. Petersburg having spent the previous four years in a clinic in Switzerland where he was treated for epilepsy (Dostoyevsky too suffered from epilepsy). Through a distant relative, Lizaveta Prokofyevna Yepanchin, he is introduced to the rest of the family and their circle, as well as Yepanchin's assistant Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin or Ganya for short. He is in love with Yepanchin's daughter Aglaya, yet is attempting to woo Nastassya Filippovna who is regarded as a "fallen woman" at the hands of Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, who offers Ganya 75,000 rubles if he marries her, thus allowing him to pursue Aglaya. Meanwhile Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin wishes to marry Nastassya, and, to complicate matters further, Prince Myshkin offers to marry her. Feeling unworthy of Myshkin however she accepts Rogozhin, which ultimately proves to be her tragedy. Nevertheless Myshkin cares very much for Nastassya and tries to help her, finding himself taken advantage of by many. Ultimately however he falls in love with Aglaya, but she refuses to admit her feelings for him.

It is not so much the plot that is the interesting thing about The Idiot, it's Prince Myshkin himself and the circumstances in which he finds himself. It's a painful novel on account of Myshkin's innate goodness amongst the corrupt aristocracy. He is himself a Russian aristocrat but very much an outsider, partly because of his nature and partly for the time he spent in Switzerland. He fails to follow the rules of society and etiquette, not out of awkwardness but in a self-conscious unwillingness to behave in such a limiting manner. He's naïve but kindly, and never pompous or taking himself too seriously. He laughs along at jokes at his expense, but the jokes and the treatment become intolerably cruel. He is the "idiot" of the novel, the fool, and named so because the people around him are essentially too embedded in sin to recognise true goodness. His openness and honesty leads to people quickly taking advantage of him, but, as his acquaintances do not recognise goodness, he does not recognise badness but takes people on face-value and trusts them, and his selflessness makes him an easy target. It's a frustrating novel: I wished very much when reading it that Myshkin's associates would realise that it was them who were the idiots. But that was not the point of the novel, and it is a searing attack on Russian high society. It is "the idiot" who is the ideal man, and he contrasts so sharply with the world, the 'real' world that is is his tragedy.

Comments

  1. As always, challenging aspect of reading Russian lit is the names... I tried to read the synopsis part of your review, but failed to understand it because of the names :))
    Anyway, I think I'm going to love this book.

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    1. I find the names aspect hard too - when I'm reading I make a clumsy attempt in my mind to pronounce them and that helps a little :)

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