Martine's Reviews > The Idiot

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Sep 08, 08

bookshelves: continental-european, nineteenth-century, psychological-drama, russian
Recommended for: people who like long dialogue and larger-than-life characters
Read in August, 2008

Are there countries in the world which are more likely to produce depressing literature than others? If so, Russia must be pretty much top of the list. I have yet to read a Russian novel which ends well for all the protagonists. I can only think of a few in which things end well for even a few of the protagonists. And Dostoyevsky of course loves his tragedies. The Idiot is one of them. While it's not as tragic as, say, Crime and Punishment, nearly all of its protagonists come to a sticky end, and as always, they meet plenty of drama and intrigue on their way there. And it's all classical Russian drama and intrigue, which is to say it's full of passion, obsession, sudden mood swings, tantrums and hysterical fits. In short, The Idiot is a book full of histrionics, but I love it, because for one thing, there's something grand about all those huge emotions, and for another, Dostoyevsky is such a good writer that he gets away with making his characters behave like Greek gods. Every time I read a book of his, I come away wishing he had written his own version of Greek mythology. I'm sure it would have been an astonishing read.

As for the book at hand, it's a book about society -- more specifically, about a modern society that is so corrupt and materialistic that a good man simply cannot survive in it. In The Idiot, that good man is Prince Lyov Nikolayevitch Myshkin, who has spent most of his life in a Swiss hospital because of his epileptic fits, and now returns to the country of his youth. Although many people call him an idiot, Myshkin is not actually stupid; he is just innocent and naïve, and likely to forgive those who have trespassed against him as he is sure they meant no harm. Needless to say, there are those who dismiss him as an inconsequential figure or try to take advantage of him, but he also wins over a lot of people with his innate goodness and refusal to think ill of others. He's a Christ-like figure, but was Christ allowed to live in the society he lived in? He wasn't, and neither, sadly enough, is Myshkin, one of Dostoyevsky's more likeable protagonists. Because Russia, to which Dostoyevsky devotes some choice paragraphs, is too jaded for people like him -- too corrupt and too, well, Russian.

But The Idiot is not just a novel about a corrupt society. Ultimately (and this is probably why I like it so much) it's about love. About the different ways in which people love each other. About loving out of pity. About loving against reason. About mad, obsessive, possessive love. About angry love. About humiliating love. About corrupting love and the fear of love. About the things people do for love, the mistakes they make in the name of love, and the love they simply fail to notice because their eyes are directed elsewhere. At the heart of the book is a fascinating love triangle (or is it a quadrangle? or even a pentagon?), which makes it incredibly romantic despite all the ugly stuff that is going on at the same time. It doesn't have a happy-ever-after ending, but there's something terrifically grand and romantic about the ways in which the various lovers end, and I like that. It's realism with a dose of Romanticism with a capital R, and it works.

As always, Dostoyevsky's characterisation is superb. His naïve hero is pitched against a fabulous cast of sophisticated nobles, desperate wannabes, highly strung concubines, passionate schoolgirls, mad stalkers, dramatic nihilists, and so on. Many of the characters are larger than life, yet you somehow believe them, because let's face it, Russia is the kind place that could spawn these people, isn't it? By and large, the characters are well drawn, and if many of them are either unsympathetic or a tad capricious, so be it. There is enough passion, grandstanding and back-stabbing going on between them to keep things interesting, and plenty of twisted love, too.

The only thing I dislike about Dostoyevsky (and the one reason why I'm not giving The Idiot five stars) is his tendency to go off on tangents just when something exciting is about to happen. In The Idiot, he relates the events of an evening, tells us that the hero will have a secret and obviously important meeting with the girl he loves in the morning, and then, rather than relating the events of the next morning in the next chapter, proceeds to spend four chapters (some sixty pages altogether) telling the reader what happens at the Prince's house late at night, none of which has anything to do with the upcoming meeting with the girl. I'm sure I'm not the only reader who felt cheated there. Other than the tangents, though, Dostoyevsky is a superb writer, and The Idiot is as fine an example of classic Russian literature as you're likely to find anywhere (provided you like long dialogue and slightly mad characters). I'd give it 4.5 stars if I could, but in the absence of half stars, four will have to do.

(And for those of you who care about translations: I read the Bantam version by Constance Garnett and was quite happy with it.)
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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Steve Martine, what an outstanding review! Your "love" paragraph is very thoughtful. I wonder if the numerous "tangents" had something to do with stringing things out (like Dickens) for a novel appearing in serial form? (I don't know one way or the other.) Of his great novels, this one is the strangest for me (that bed scene!), but your piece on Christ not being recognized recalled for me, to some extent, the Grand Inquisitor chapter fron the Brothers K. (I also used the Garnett version, and it worked for me.)

Martine Thanks, Steve! Yes, I'm pretty sure the odd tangets are due to serialisation. Dostoyevsky did serialise his novels. I sometimes wish all the nineteenth-century giants could have stuck to their subjects a bit better, but I still love their books, warts and all. The Idiot is no exception. Yeah, the bed scene is bizarre, but isn't it beautiful? I thought it was remarkably beautifully dealt with, for such a gruesome scene. Again, there's something grand and romantic about it of which I approve.

Shockingly enough, I haven't read The Brothers Karamazov yet. I've heard about the Grand Inquisitor chapter, though, and intend to read it soon. It's clear Dostoyevsky was a little preoccupied with religion, and with Catholicism in particular.

Martine Thanks, Abigail! Your father must be an interesting man. I hope he's having a better life than Myshkin...

Do reread the book. I read a few Russian classics in my late teens and early twenties and simply wasn't ready for them, although I did enjoy parts of them. They're much better now that I'm more mature and have a slightly better understanding of the Russian soul. I can't imagine why they try and make people read these books at school. They're for adults!

message 4: by Kelly (new)

Kelly I also love your Love paragraph. Yes, with a capital L, it deserves it. I think, thanks to this review, I will definitely make The Idiot the next Dostoevsky I read, once I finally get through the Brothers K.

Martine Abigail, I didn't mean to imply that your school made you read Dostoyevsky, although I can see how the phrasing of my comment made it sound like that. I think I can picture you as a very serious adolescent; I was one myself. :-) But there are schools which do suggest pupils read Dostoyevsky once they've finished Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Brave New World and all that. I honestly can't see why. I think most people would be turned off reading for life if they were forced to read Russians at age 17.

Thanks, Kelly! Have fun with The Idiot; I think you'll like it. Meanwhile, how are you getting on with the brothers?

message 6: by Kelly (new)

Kelly Slowly, since we're reading it out loud and reading our own books at the same time. We'll do a couple chapters every few days, so I imagine it'll be another month or so until we make it through. The book also starts out really slow, but its starting to get good now.

My school didn't make us read any Russians. Not even Anna Karenina. I just think its because they were too big and the teachers wanted to do as many books as possible, rather than spend several months on one of them.

Martine Glad to hear you're enjoying your joint reading! Reading books to each other sounds like so much fun. One day my boyfriend and I will have to try it, if we can find a book we both want to read. :-)

My school didn't make us read any Russians, either, if only because none of us actually read Russian. At Dutch schools, pupils are asked to read a (fairly large) number of books in each language they're learning. I took six languages, so I had to read an awful lot of books in those six languages. Sadly, my school didn't offer Russian, so reading Russian literature wasn't an option. Nor was reading Spanish, Italian or Japanese literature, unfortunately.

That said, I doubt anyone at my school would have picked Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky if they had been allowed to read Russian novels, for the very reason you mentioned: their size. It was hard enough reading all the compulsory books without them being nine-hundred page monsters. Most pupils picked the smallest and easiest books they could find, and even then many had problems completing all their assignments.

Bruce Martine,

I just finished The Idiot, and enjoyed reading your review, and have chosen to follow your reviews, if that's OK with you.

Your point about Dostoevsky's characters being larger than life is a very important one. They all have transcendent significance, and that's one reason he's such a great novelist. Nothing is trivial in his stories.

I gave it five stars, and view the interruptions of a line of narrative as a plot device to build suspense. I encounter it in many great storytellers. Also, in The Idiot aren't the interruptions ultimately related to the story line they interrupt? Dostoevsky's plots are pretty tightly interwoven, with no loose threads. All this isn't to argue with you -- if his device doesn't work for you, that's it. I find the interruptions in Moby Dick very irritating, and I'm pretty certain Melville meant them to be, and was deliberately thumbing his nose at the cliff-hanger chapter endings popular in his day.

While Prince Myshkin had many Christ-like characteristics, he was also tragically flawed in his naivete and submissiveness. Christ was neither; think of the violent response to the money lenders in the temple. The introduction in my edition made a very good point: Myshkin often pitied people, but rarely loved them. In return for Nastasya's and Aglaya's love for him, he can only worship, pity or "abstractly" love them.


Serina Russian literature is depressing I agree, may be it is thier severe indurance to the weather and the monarches at the past, may be because Russia is in the middle of 2 different cultures like the 2 edges of the sword, the east end the west!! which gives it the unique character and independance from both and the suffering of being unaccepted by both.

message 10: by Ryan (last edited Aug 25, 2010 11:09PM) (new) - added it

Ryan Hey there Martine, after just finishing this today, I have to say this is a fantastic review

I happen to be 17 years old and I can say that although I got hints here and there at some of the themes you mentioned in your review, you are correct in saying a 17 year old isn't ready to read these types of works (And I read this because I wanted to. Just imagine if I were forced!). This is a definite reread for me.

message 11: by James (new)

James his tendency to go off on tangents just when something exciting is about to happen."""""

One thing you need to remember when reading 19th century books,
is that they weren't written straight to finish as a BOOK.

They were a series of monthly short stories published in a magazine.

Later someone compiled the material.

A result of this type of writing it that every chapter ends with some new problem,
and the reader has to buy the next months mag to find out how that problem was resolved.

Abhinav Mishra Hi,
That is a wonderful review. Love your paragraph about love. It is indeed very true.

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