A great novel for readers new to Dostoyevsky
I read this book in the beginning of 2021, and was surprised at how quickly I read it. I’m still not really sure what it is exactly that made me read this so fast, seeing as it took me quite a bit longer to get through The Brothers Karamazov, and to this day I haven’t managed to get past the first 50 pages of Crime and Punishment.
One of the big four Dostoyevsky novels (along with Crime & Punishment, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov), this is relatively plot-driven for a Dostoyevsky novel and hence is probably the perfect book if you are new to Dostoyevsky. With that being said, however, it still differs from traditional novels in that it doesn’t conform to the typical exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution template. I couldn’t tell you exactly what the book’s “main conflict” is. Instead, the book centers around Prince Myshkin, a “fool” who has just returned to Russia from his four year stay in a Swiss hospital (where he was admitted due to epilepsy). The whole story is mainly comprised of his interactions with the new friends he makes in St. Petersburg, their impressions of him, how he responds to conflicts, friendship and romantic drama, and a whole lot of philosophizing (yes, it is still a Dostoyevsky novel after all).
Prince Myshkin: the hero of our story. A combination of his epilepsy and (kind, selfless) nature leads others to think he is an idiot. Throughout the novel he is called a fool by numerous characters but I am inclined to disagree. As the story unfolds, readers see that he is actually intelligent and highly perceptive. In many ways, he represents Christ but especially through his selfless nature and willingness to love others who have been shunned by society.
“Do you know I don’t know how one can walk by a tree and not be happy at the sight of it? How can one talk to a man and not be happy in loving him! Oh, it’s only that I’m not able to express it…And what beautiful things there are at every step, that even the most hopeless man must feel to be beautiful! Look at a child! Look at God’s sunrise! Look at the grass, how it grows! Look at the eyes that gaze at you and love you!…”
The Prince is distantly related to General Epanchin’s wife Lizaveta Prokofyevna and seeks an acquaintance with the family upon his arrival at Petersburg. They are wealthy and respectable, and the whole family (the General, his wife and their three daughters Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya) all grow very fond of the Prince. The youngest daughter Aglaya is in love with the Prince but is sometimes ashamed to admit it, which forms one of the novels main “conflicts”.
Natasya was orphaned at a young age and had to rely on a family friend, her only benefactor Totsky as his mistress. She is shown to be self-destructive, cruel and reckless which result from her shame and regret at being subject to the world’s cruelty from such a young age. Through the character of Natasya the novel delivers a critique on society’s views of women and double standards which feels very contemporary.
A mentally unstable young man who is dangerously obsessed with Natasya Filipovna. He is the son of a rich merchant and has recently come into his inheritance. This guy is the token self-destructive “crazy” character that’s pretty much a requirement in all Dostoyevsky novels.
Gavril “Ganya” Ardalyonovich Ivolgin
An ambitious young civil servant, he tries to climb social ladders and please those in higher stations. There are moments in the book where you feel sympathetic to him, but honestly I just could not like his character. The rest of his family are also major characters in the books, especially his father the general who is an alcoholic and compulsive liar and his younger brother Nikolai who is one of the books most likable characters.
Radomsky and Prince S.
Two handsome young men from aristocratic backgrounds with high societal standing, they court two of the Epanchin sisters – Radomsky courts Aglaya while Prince Schc. courts Adelaida. The two men act as a sort of foil to the Prince. They are elegant, wealthy, well-respected and say the right things – quite different from The Prince.
“Sometimes you dream strange dreams, impossible and unnatural; you wake up and remember them clearly, and are surprised at a strange fact: you remember first of all that reason did not abandon you during the whole course of your dream; you even remember that you acted extremely cleverly and logically for that whole long, long time when you were surrounded by murderers, when they were being clever with you, concealed their intentions, treated you in a friendly way, though they already had their weapons ready and were only waiting for some sort of sign; you remember how cleverly you finally deceived them, hid from them; then you realize that they know your whole deception by heart and merely do not show you that they know where you are hiding; but you are clever and deceive them again—all that you remember clearly. But why at the same time could your reason be reconciled with such obvious absurdities and impossibilities, with which, among other things, your dream was filled?
As mentioned, there isn’t too much in terms of plot here. However, it is still pretty plot-driven and actually quite a page turner and you’ll probably appreciate that there is a good story within all the philosophizing.
The book is pretty well-structured and is made up of four main parts. I will summarize each part so if you haven’t read the book and don’t wish to be spoiled, please don’t click show.
“To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible.”
It’s probably much easier to get the meaning of this book if you grew up in the Christian tradition, as it is quite clear that Myshkin is supposed to represent Christ and there are multiple parallels (his self-sacrificial nature, his love for all people, embracing those shunned by society). However, even if you don’t know much about Christianity this book is still worth a read for the thought provoking moral philosophizing (there are a few great ones here thanks to a dying man and a compulsive liar) and the witty social criticism. If anything, this is a good prep before reading The Brothers Karamazov which in my opinion is much more universally relatable and applicable to the human experience.
You Should Read This If You…
- are looking to read for bragging rights but are too lazy to read 800+ pages of The Brothers Karamazov (But seriously, read that anyway cause it’s a wonderful book. Here’s a link to a review I’ve done on TBK). Though The Idiot is only around 250 pages less, I found it to be significantly easier to read.
- tried (and failed, multiple times) to read Crime and Punishment but are still interested in reading a Dostoyevsky novel. If you’re like me and can’t seem to get through Crime and Punishment I found this to be a much easier (and less boring) novel to get into. Gasp, sacrilege.. I know
- are a Russian literature junkie (aren’t we all?). I think The Idiot is a quintessential Russian novel. And this one is quite plot-driven, surprise surprise!
- or just looking for a great, high quality book
The copy I read was published by Vintage and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I don’t know what this particular series of Vintage paperbacks are called but they’re some of my favorite paperback books. I also have all my Jane Austen novels in this edition and they’re always reliable – comfortable to read and quite durable.