By Fyodor Dostoevsky
First Published: 1868-1869
Translated by: Constance Garnett
Review © 2011 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Classic, Psychological Thriller
The Idiot is a Russian literature classic by Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote one of my favorite novels of all time, Crime and Punishment. Once again Dostoevsky delves deep into human nature and psychology. In this case, an outsider is thrust into Russian high society where he discovers that almost nothing is as it seems on the outside. The novel is basically a thriller with plenty of mysteries and suspense along with an increasingly foreboding atmosphere as it becomes obvious that events are leading to some kind of tragedy.
The protagonist of this novel, Myshkin, is a man that is incredibly good at heart and has much more than average intelligence. He was also born into the aristocratic class as a very minor prince. However, he was afflicted with epilepsy which led to him being sent to a treatment center in Switzerland where he was highly isolated and did not receive the full education expected of the upper class at the time. Upon reaching adulthood, he managed to grow out of the worst of his epilepsy. It’s at this point that the novel begins, with Myshkin returning to his native Russia. However, due to his educational shortcomings and, even more importantly, due to his simple nature and extreme naiveté, he is frequently derided as an ”idiot”. Thus is born one of the greatest characters set down on paper.
Myshkin is a figurative “prince among men” as well as a literal prince. His innocence and completely artless nature form a stark contrast to the high society types who don’t know what to make of a person who doesn’t have a hidden agenda and doesn’t have a bad thing to say about anybody. Myshkin takes everyone at face value and wants nothing more than to help others. Unfortunately, most of the people he meets are much less generous in spirit and don’t hesitate to take advantage of Myshkin.
With the entrance of the outsider Prince Myshkin to high society in St Petersburg, we have a “fish out of water story” where the reader is plunged into a strange new world right along with Myshkin. He and the reader soon discover multiple mysteries and a beautiful woman who has suffered severe emotional damage during adolescence and has become a “fallen angel” in the eyes of high society. Myshkin immediately feels deep empathy for Nastasya to the point of falling in love. A natural bond forms between Myshkin and Nastasya but he finds that there is already a line of suitors bidding for her hand in marriage. The suitors are all captivated by her to the point of obsession while Nastasya herself appears to be severely depressed and may even be suicidal. Myshkin desperately want to save this damaged soul but finds her trapped within a web of her own daemons as well as societies daemons.
This novel is more than a bit uneven at times through its four sections. Most of the first section is captivating and brilliant as is the last part. However, the middle parts of the novel contain some ramblings and digressions that can get tiring. Apparently, this was primarily due to the novel being written in serial form when the author was in severe financial straits and was finding great difficulty meeting strict deadlines. The second part, in particular, is confusing at best and irritating at worst. However, I highly recommend that you forge on through this section because the final act more than makes up for any earlier shortcomings. The ending, in particular, is guaranteed to generate a lasting emotional impact.
I read the Constance Garnett translation of The Idiot revised for the Heritage Press edition. I highly recommend the translation by Garnett as I’ve read a newer translation for The Brother’s Karamazov that didn’t match the power of the translation by Garnett. The one suggestion I would have for the translation is to eliminate some of the character names. For English readers, it’s always more challenging to get the characters straight in Russian novels because they are called by so many names. Each character has a formal first and last name and also has an additional familiar name. Most characters also have a title. Sometimes they are referred to by title and one of the formal names, sometimes by the formal first and last names, sometimes by the familiar name, and sometimes by the title and the familiar name; all of which creates some confusion during the early going.
While The Idiot cannot quite measure up in terms of consistent writing quality to the impossibly high standards set by Crime and Punishment, it’s an outstanding novel in its own right. Doestevsky explores a multitude of deep themes in The Idiot as he digs into the underbelly of high society and human morals. He contrasts the pure innocence of Myshkin with the often twisted morals and just plain meanness of the members of high society. He looks sharply at how people treat others and at what damages can result. Perhaps the most amazing accomplishment in this novel is how authentic the characters and conversations seem. The Idiot is a novel that everyone should read.