Shane's Reviews > The Idiot

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Read 2 times. Last read December 26, 2019.

Can a man who has chosen to always speak the truth in a world filled with intrigue, insincerity and manipulation, be in love with two women simultaneously without bringing about drastic consequences for all? That seems to be the hinge of this book, for Dostoevsky, chooses not to impute meaning but sticks true to his calling as a writer and just records the actions of his eccentric characters, following them through to the tragedies (and comedies) that ensue.

Lef Nikolovitch Myshkin is a prince from an aristocratic line that has run out and is the “idiot” of this novel, so called because his Christ-like nature is out of place in a world of double speak. He suffers from epilepsy and has missed much of coming-of-age life after being in a sanitarium in Switzerland. Upon his return to Russia, he is exposed to two military-aristocratic families: the Epanchins and their three daughters of marriageable age, Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya, with the older two creeping into old-maid status and the youngest one spurning suitors left and right (and with the Prince being one of those spurned); the dysfunctional Ivolgins, in which the patriarch is a drunk and makes up the most fantastic stories that cause embarrassment to the rest of his family. A host of other characters make up the cast that flit between Petersburg and the country resort of Pavlosk during the summer, living, or feeding off, the lives of the idle rich: the dying Hippolyte who is intent on blackmailing everyone with his suicidal threats, Evgenie Pavlovitch, also from the military, who is one of Aglaya’s hapless suitors, Rogojin, the young and devilish nemesis of the Prince, and the mysterious but manic-depressive Nastasia Philipovna who has the Prince and Rogojin in her web of on-again-off-again love. The cast—comprised of military officers, young women seeking husbands, money-lenders, clerks, boxers, radicals, widows, matriarchs, consumptives and drunks—is a cross section of Russian society on the eve of the death of the aristocracy and the advent of the “Coming Men,” termed Nihilists here, but soon to be identified as Communists in the next century.

The novelistic style is theatrical, Shakespearean and polyphonic, where the entire cast assembles at crucial scenes for speeches dominated by one of the characters, and which usually leads to a crisis and plot-inflection point: whether that is Hippolyte with the gun that fails to fire, or the Prince breaking the vase during his diatribe on Roman Catholicism, or Burdevsky trying the expose the Prince as a fake with fake evidence, or Nastasia with her baiting of the Prince and Rogojin, or Mrs. Epanchin’s hysterical outburst condemning the Prince for appeasing swindlers. In between these set pieces, the convoluted plot veers back and forth furiously. One moment Nastasia is to be married off to Ganya, the elder son of the Ivolgins, the next the Prince is madly in love with Nastasia, the next Nastasia has run away with Rogojin, the next the heartbroken Prince is pledged to Aglaya, the next we find that Aglaya is pledged to no-one but has only been leading everyone on. Sometimes the promises and claims made by the characters (except for the Prince) cannot be believed, for, remember, they are engaged in double-speak, often meaning the opposite of what they say. And when a plot point is needed, Dostoevsky just throws one in – like the convenient way the Prince suddenly flashes a letter to say that he has become the heir to a vast inheritance left by a distant relative, thus elevating him from rags to riches in a flash just when the story requires it.

Within this crumbling society, the Prince is considered a Nihilist, for he is exposing all that is bad in the corrupt world by just speaking the truth. Nastasia puts the sins of the aristocracy on display when she plays a game with her guests where they each have to mention the most shameful act they have committed in their lives, and thereby we get an insight into the shallowness of this supposedly well-to-do society. Dostoevsky also gets to talk about what it means to be a prisoner facing execution (an experience the author had, before he was reprieved from the firing squad at the last minute) – and this section makes for riveting reading. And yet, despite his simplicity, the Prince is able to turn the tables on some deviants by sticking to his principles: he exposes Burdevsky, he gets Rogojin to see Nastasia’s limitations, he foils the proposed marriage of Ganya and Nastasia. He sees into people’s souls and speaks the truth, and they recognize his innocence and integrity and respect him for that. But we know that inevitably this world will get the better of him, hence the moniker given to him by many: The Idiot.

The tragic finale is macabre, and not as I had expected - well, at least I didn’t anticipate the way in which the predictive end would pan out. But given Dostoevsky’s experiences with firing squads, I’m sure he never planned any pat endings to his novels that followed. My one criticism of this work is that it is unbalanced and meandering in places, although it bravely explores the issues of the times in those dying days of the Russian aristocracy.
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