Ryan's Reviews > The Idiot

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Feb 18, 08

really liked it
bookshelves: classic-fiction, fiction, owned-books
Read in October, 2006

** spoiler alert ** My notes and quotes:

‘To kill for murder is an immeasurably greater evil than the crime itself. Murder by legal process is immeasurably more dreadful than murder by a brigand. A man who is murdered by brigands is killed at night in a forest or somewhere else, and up to the last moment he still hopes that he will be saved. There have been instances when a man whose throat had already been cut, was still hoping, or running away or begging for his life to be spared. But here all this last hope, which makes it ten times easier to die, is taken away for certain; here you have been sentenced to death, and the whole terrible agony lies in the fact that you will most certainly not escape, and there is no agony greater than that. Take a soldier and put him in front of a cannon in battle and fire at him and he will still hope, but read the same soldier his death sentence for certain, and he will go mad or burst out crying. Who says that human nature is capable of bearing this without madness? Why this cruel, hideous, unnecessary, and useless mockery? Possibly there are men who have sentences of death read out to them and have been given time to go through this torture, and have then been told, you can go now, you’ve been reprieved. Such men could perhaps tell us. It was of agony like this and of such horror that Christ spoke. No, you can’t treat a man like that!’ (p. 47-48).

And what were they so afraid of? A child can be told everything – everything! I’ve always been struck by the fact that grown-ups, fathers and mothers, know their children so little. One must never conceal anything from children on the pretext that they are little and it is too early for them to know things. What a lamentable and unfortunate idea! And how quick children are to notice that their fathers consider them to be too little to understand, while they understand everything. Grown-up people do not realize that a child can give extremely good advice even about the most difficult matters. (p. 94).

I am most certainly to blame, and though, because of the length of years and the change in my character, I have long looked upon my action as that of another man, I still am sorry for it. (p. 181).

An hour later, on my way back to the hotel, I came upon a peasant woman with a newborn baby. She was quite a young woman, and the baby was about six weeks old. The baby smiled at her for the first time since its birth. I saw her suddenly crossing herself with deep devotion. “What are you doing that for, my dear?” I said. (You see, I was always asking questions just then.) “Well, sir,” she said, “just as a mother rejoices seeing her baby’s first smile, so does God rejoice every time he beholds from above a sinner kneeling down before Him to say his prayers with all his heart.” This was what a simple peasant woman said to me, almost in those words – a thought so profound, so subtle, and so truly religious, in which the whole essence of Christianity is expressed, that is to say, the whole conception of God as our Father and of God’s rejoicing in man, like a father rejoicing in his own child – the fundamental idea of Christianity! An ordinary peasant woman! (p. 253).

Lack of originality has from time immemorial been regarded throughout the world as the chief characteristic and the best recommendation of a sensible, business-like, and practical man, and at least ninety-nine per cent of men (and that’s putting it at the lowest) always were of that opinion, and only perhaps one man in a hundred looks and always has looked on it differently.
Inventors and men of genius have almost always been regarded as fools at the beginning (and very often at the end) of their careers – that is a platitude too familiar to everyone. (p. 361).

There can be no doubt that her domestic worries were without foundation, that there was little cause for them and that they were absurdly exaggerated; but if you happen to have a wart on your nose or forehead, you cannot help imagining that no one in the world has anything else to do but stare at your wart, laugh at it, and condemn you for it, even though you have discovered America. (p. 363).

‘Impossible crimes? But I assure you that just such crimes, and perhaps even more dreadful ones, have existed before, and at all times, and not only in this country, but everywhere, and, in my opinion, will occur again and again for a long time. The only difference is that before they haven’t received so much publicity and that people are now talking and writing about them, and that’s why it seems that these criminals have only appeared now.’ (p. 374).

‘It is life, life that matters, life alone – the continuous and everlasting process of discovering it – and not the discovery itself!’ (p. 433).

‘Let me add, however, that in every idea of genius or in every new human idea, or, more simply still, in every serious human idea born in anyone’s brain, there is something that cannot possibly be conveyed to others, though you wrote volumes about it and spent thirty-five years in explaining your idea; something will always be left that will obstinately refuse to emerge from your head and that will remain with you for ever; and you will die without having conveyed to anyone what is perhaps the most vital point of your idea.’ (p. 433).

‘How can you tell, Bakhmutov, what significance this contact of one personality with another will have for the future of one of them? What we are dealing with here is man’s whole life and the innumerable threads which are hidden from us. The best chess-player, the cleverest among them, can only calculate a few moves ahead; a French chess-player, who could calculate ten moves ahead, was written about as a marvel. Well, how many moves have we here and how many of them are unknown to us? In scattering your seed, in offering your ‘alms’, in doing your good deed, in whatever shape or form, you are giving away part of your personality and absorbing part of another’s; you are mutually united to one another and, a little more effort, you will already be rewarded by knowledge, by the most unexpected discoveries. You will at last most certainly begin to look upon your work as a science; it will absorb all your life and may fill all your life. On the other hand, all your thoughts, all your scattered seeds, which perhaps you have already forgotten, will take root and grow up; the man who received them from you, will pass them on to someone else. And how can you tell what your contribution to the shaping of man’s destinies will be? If this knowledge and whole lifetime of this work at last raises to such an eminence that you will be able to sow some great seed to bequeath to the world some great thought, then –“ And so on, I talked a lot during that walk.’ (p. 443).

We have, however, still not answered the question what a novelist is to do with quite ‘ordinary’, commonplace people and how he is to present them to his readers so as to make them at all interesting. To leave them out of the story altogether is impossible, for ordinary people are nearly always the link in the chain of human affairs; by leaving them out, we shall destroy the verisimilitude of our narrative. To fill novels only with types, or, for the sake of interest, simply with odd and fantastic people, would be unreal and improbable and, perhaps, even uninteresting. In our opinion, a writer ought to try to find interesting and instructive traits of character even among commonplace people. When, for example, the very nature of ordinary people consists entirely of their perpetual and unchangeable ordinariness or, better still, when in spite of all their strenuous efforts to get out of the rut of ordinariness and routine, they end up all the same by remaining unchangeably and perpetually ordinary and commonplace, then such people acquire a sort of typical character of commonplace people who simply refuse to be what they are and do their utmost to be original and independent without possessing any qualities of independence. (p. 500).

‘Before dying (because I am going to die in spite of having, as you assure me, put on weight) – before dying, I’d like to feel that I shall go to heaven with my mind incomparably more at peace if I succeed in making a fool of at least one representative of that numberless category of people who have persecuted me all my life, whom I hated all my life, and of whom your brother is such a conspicuous example. I hate you, Gavrila Ivolgin, solely because – you may find it a little surprising, perhaps – solely because you are the type, the embodiment, the personification, and the height of the most impudent, the most self-satisfied, the most vulgar and nasty mediocrity! A pompous mediocrity, a mediocrity always sure of itself and full of Olympian calm! You are the most ordinary of the ordinary! Not the smallest idea of your own will ever take shape in your head or in your heart. But you are damnably envious; you are firmly convinced that you are the greatest genius on earth, but, in spite of everything, doubt sometimes visits you during your dark moments, and you are filled with malice and envy. Oh, there are still dark clouds on your horizon; they will pass when you become completely stupid, and that’s not a long way off. However, you have still a long and chequered road before you, not a very cheerful one, I’m glad to say. To begin with, let me tell you that will never get a certain person.’ (p. 519).
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