The Idiot by Dostoevsky discussion

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Book One > Chapters 1-2

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message 1: by Tracy (last edited Dec 25, 2017 05:24PM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
This topic will be for discussion of approximately the first 2 chapters of book one. I suggest that we read at our own page, with each discussion thread devoted to 25-30 pages. That way, we'd end up with about 25 discussion threads or an average of 6-7 per "book".


message 2: by Nancy (last edited Dec 29, 2017 02:15PM) (new)

Nancy | 16 comments I read this book and right away I knew I was going to like it. The Prince is obviously the hero at least that is how it impressed me from the beginning. He seemed to have faith that somehow he would be taken care of even though he did not know anyone in Russia. And, of course, we find out that he is indeed taken care of.

Gania, the General's man servant was so ordinary in the way he judged the Prince solely by his clothes. Nothing really changes does it, in the way most ordinary people form judgments.

The General's daughters struck me as rather rude in their questioning of the Prince, especially the youngest one, Agalya.
From the Russian novels I have read, it seems that the girls in the family are raised to be quite expressive. Were American girls in privileged families raised the same way? I would be interested in knowing that.


message 3: by Tracy (last edited Dec 29, 2017 06:41PM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
I'm so glad you started the "conversation", Nancy, and we can move forward beyond my monologuing!

Dostoyevsky does a good job of making the Prince likeable, doesn't he? Clearly, the Prince lacks social graces (he doesn't seem to care about propriety, is more interested in just hanging out with the servant -- society's conventions here in Russia feel like Victorian England!) , but he seems to be friendly, open and unaffected.

We don't get a very positive opinion of some of the other characters initially. Roghozin squanders his father's money lusting after a woman based on physical attraction, and then deals with the consequences by going on a drunken binge. He has very dark features, Dostoevsky tells us immediately, in contrast to the light-haired prince - clearly there's a polarization here in regard to personality too.

In regard to the girls - I wonder if girls in Russian families were bought up in the 19th century with a bit more freedom than in English families - at least in regard to expressing themselves and speaking openly.

Dostoevsky lets us know that they were quite cultured, and makes the intriguing (and appalling) comment: "Occasionally, people talked with horror about the number of books they read." (Oh my, how they would have judged us females hanging out in online book clubs!).

We are already getting introduced to a number of characters who defy convention, and are outside the norm. That seems to me to be one of the differences between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky -- Dostoyevsky created more characters with intense emotionality who were on the edge of social norms and social propriety (and his characters weren't comical eccentrics like many Dickens' characters).


message 4: by Nancy (new)

Nancy | 16 comments I have to say that as I read the 4 chapters I wondered if this was intended to be a comedy. I found myself laughing at various times


message 5: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
Ah, I did read a review of it that referred to comic scenes, and now that I read the segment about Myshkin and the ass, I can see the humor in it!! But I don't experience Myshkin as a comic character, though some see him that way at least initially.


message 6: by Tracy (last edited Dec 29, 2017 09:57PM) (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
One very serious facet of the early chapters that made an impression on me was how Dostoyevsky seemed to use Myshkin as a mouthpiece for his own views/experiences regarding capital punishment - and what a man goes through when sentenced to death.

I find myself wondering if the character Dostoyevsky is creating here would so fully imagine what a death sentence might be like, or if to some extent Dostoyevsky was more invested in writing indirectly about his own trauma of being sentenced to death and reprieved during his last few minutes than revealing Mishkin's character.

(I do question his belief however that a man undergoing torture experiences only physical pain not emotional pain, whereas a man sentenced to death experiences only emotional pain. I suspect that most people who have undergone torture have experienced emotional pain as well as physical --- and some may have lost their faith in humanity and suffered emotionally agonizing PTSD as a result.)

We are getting glimpses of Mishkin's sensitivity to and perceptiveness about other people. For example, he sees beneath the artificiality of Gania's smile. He's already encountered a number of people who judge others by appearances, but he sees beyond appearances and attempts to understand the underlying reality.


message 7: by Nancy (new)

Nancy | 16 comments The scene where Myshkin describes the morning of an execution is chilling because it is so believable. Imagine what it would be like to experience such a thing, man's inhumanity to man ... when will we ever learn to qoute Peter Paul and Mary and a time when we had real folk singers in these United States.


message 8: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
In chapter one, we meet Myshkin.

At the beginning of Dostevsky's The Idiot: A Critical Companion, writer/editor Lisa Knapp discusses the significance of the names of Dostoevsky's main characters. I will quote what she wrote about Myshkin because it's fascinating and relevant:

"The case of Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin is especially complex. As a prince, he belongs to an old aristocratic line, but in this case, one that now has little wealth or power. His last name....found in Nikolai Karamzin's History of Russia, lends the aura of historical authority. And yet its Russian root is the same as that for "mouse". Hence it is associated with meekness or lack of power.

"His first name, Lev, means 'lion'. Lev combined with Myshkin makes an oxymoronic menagerie of lion and mouse - suggesting a fable with a moral on the order of Aesop's 'The Lion and the Mouse.' His patronymic Nikolaevich (son of Nicolai, meaning 'victory over the people' in Greek) further suggests that he was born with heroic expectations. But as an orphan, Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin was left on his own to interpret his legacy without the biological parents to whom he owes the names.

"The combination 'Lev Nikolaevich' also belongs to Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, whose War and Peace had already started to be published in serial form....Dostoevsky was forever gauging himself against Tolstoy, and, of course, trying to outdo him."

COMMENT: Given his rivalry with Tolstoy, I wonder exactly why Dostoevsky chose Tolstoy's first two names for Myshkin, whom he portrays both as an "idiot" and a "beautiful man". Thoughts?


message 9: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
Having read a little about Dostoevsky's plans for this book in his notebooks, I find it intriguing that he began the book with a Myshkin/Rogozhin meeting on the train (which is missing from the online video of the miniseries at Youtube but not from the film.

His original plan for Myshkin was to portray an "unredeemed" man at the mercy of his passions and lower self, and the process of his redemption into a "truly beautiful man." But finally, in his 8th plan, he completely changed his perception of Myshkin and basically split him into two characters - his lower side being Rogozhin and his higher side by Myshkin. Due to this dualistic split, we're likely to see Myshkin being frequently in the vicinity of Rogozhin - as one carries one's shadow self around with oneself everywhere!


message 10: by Gösta (new)

Gösta Steneskog (gosta) | 17 comments Nancy wrote: "I have to say that as I read the 4 chapters I wondered if this was intended to be a comedy. I found myself laughing at various times"

When people first meet Mysjkin they tend to laugh or be very suspicious. The next is that they in some way tend to like him. And finally considers him to be an idiot and then a mix of it.


message 11: by Gösta (new)

Gösta Steneskog (gosta) | 17 comments Tracy wrote: "One very serious facet of the early chapters that made an impression on me was how Dostoyevsky seemed to use Myshkin as a mouthpiece for his own views/experiences regarding capital punishment - and..."

Yes, his experience of standing to be executed but pardoned in the last minute will he never forget. He knows exactly. Why should he otherwise have Myshkin to start to talk about it?


message 12: by Gösta (new)

Gösta Steneskog (gosta) | 17 comments Tracy wrote: " Lev combined with Myshkin makes an oxymoronic menagerie of lion and mouse. ..."

In a way he seems to be a mouse but in the long run maybe a lion? I am looking forward to follow his future fate.


message 13: by Gösta (new)

Gösta Steneskog (gosta) | 17 comments The meeting with the servant at general Yepanchin shows how Myshkin surprises him as he treats him as an equal. He suddenly likes him but at the same time he feels wrath. A very contradictory reaction.
Now when I read TI again I will probably keep an eye on how people react upon Myshkin and his very naive openess.


message 14: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Marks (tracymar) | 127 comments Mod
So happy to have you begin the dialogue, Gosta! "How people react to Myshkin" seems to be a major theme in this book - it is quite fascinating to watch the mixed feelings he stirs up in them, and how they project their own feelings and motives onto him. You are likely to be quite perceptive about this because of your own awareness of interpersonal dynamics.


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