Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sir Percival Piggybottom shared his thoughts and insights with me on The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Amazingly, his opinions exactly reflected my own.  What can I say?  Great minds think alike.  Here's what we have to say.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Reading a novel by Dostoevsky is like stepping into a world wind.  There's no down time.  Just when you think a certain scene or situation is coming to an end, someone else shows up and away we go again with nary a pause for breath.  No character possesses neutral emotions either.  Everyone is either turning white with rage or red with...with...even more rage.

The story starts on a train where we meet our hero Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin.  He is returning to Russia after many years in Switzerland.  On the train he meets Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin.  Little do these two men know but they are going to play profound roles in each other's lives.

While riding Prince Myshkin relates his background.  Some years past he suffered a mental break down and was sent to a hospital in Switzerland until he recovered.  Now, though still a young man, the Prince is returning to Russia.  He knows no one but hopes to make a few contacts.

Rogozhin immediately brings up the topic of a woman he is obsessed with, Nastasya Filipovna Barashkova.  He is going to propose to her.  He has raised an insane sum of money, which she has demanded, in order to achieve his desire: her hand in marriage.

Insane is an appropriate word here.  Because all the major players in this novel are insane.  Or desperate.  Or angry.  Or emotionally out of control.  Hence the unalleviated excitement that relentlessly rides the entire novel.

Nastasya is a fascinating character study in her own right.  One doesn't know whether to hate or pity her.  Born into a poverty-stricken family, she was orphaned very young but being very beautiful was soon taken up by Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, a wealthy man of high society, who took her and basically kept her for himself.  No need to spell that out.

Being orphaned and helpless, Nastasya had no choice but to submit to Totsky's..let's call it what it is... sexual abuse.  But a time comes when Nastasya is no longer the helpless one.  She realizes that she holds Totsky's reputation in her hands, especially since he now wishes to marry into an important family.  Totsky understands that he is no longer the one in control of their relationship and his one objective is to get rid of her.  He attempts to acheive this by marrying Nastasya off to a clerk of General Epanchin who also happens to be the father of the woman he wishes to marry.

Totsky offers this clerk, Ganya Ivolgin, 70,000 rubles to marry Natasha. Ganya was pursuing General Epanchin's youngest daughter Aglaya but he breaks his relationship with her and everything looks settled.  Nastasya holds an evening party at her apartment to seal the deal.  

Why Ganya would want to marry Nastasya, other than for the money is beyond me. She lets her contempt for him be known at every opportunity.  She delights in making a fool of him.  And she has one last trick up her sleeve.  

Late in the evening Nastasya's party is crashed by Rogozhin and a bunch of rowdies.  He has come with the money Nastasya has demanded to marry him.  Nastasya grabs the money, throws it in the fire, and tells Ganya he can have it if he'll pull it out.  Then she runs off with Rogozhin.

  Where does the Prince fit in?  He loves Nastasya.  But not the way the other men do.  He feels compassion for her and he wants to save her.  He also proposes to Nastasya.  She understands his pure love but doesn't feel worthy of it so repels him.

Meantime there's Agláya Ivánovna.  Aglaya is a nut case in her own right.  She loves the Prince and wants to marry him.

Then she doesn't.

Then she does.

No she doesn't.  She hates him.

She's madly in love with him!

No, never!

That pretty much describes Aglaya. Strangely enough, the Prince also loves her and in a real romantic sense, but instead of doing the common sense thing and blow her off, his emotions corresponds to her mood swings.

I'm in ecstasy, she loves me!

I'm crushed, she hates me!



I really cannot figure the Prince out.  It's interesting how the other characters respond to him.  They all consider him a fool, even calling him an idiot to his face.  Yet, one by one, they each develop an attachment to him and soon find that they need him to turn to, confide in, be listened to.  He's the only one that genuinely loves and believes in the goodness in each person.

Dostoevsky digs deep into the human soul and bares the desperate sin that lurks there.  By doing so he reveals the light of God that shines on that darkness and disperses it.

There are no tidy endings in real life and Dostoevsky certainly doesn't provide any in his writing.  This book probably has the least satisfying ending of any of the books I've read, with maybe the exception of Demons (also titled, The Possessed).

Spoiler alert!  Don't continue reading if you don't want to know how the story ends.

As much as the Prince loves people, his belief in their inner goodness is finally shattered.  He finally breaks it off with Aglaya (or she breaks it off, who can tell?) and proposes marriage to Nastasya who, after living with Rogozhin, accepts.  

Everything proceeds as planned.  Nastasya, adorned as a princess, approaches the church where the Prince is waiting for her.  In the crowd she sees Rogozhin.  She screams and jumps into his arms.  They run off together.

After searching all over town and St Petersburg, the town where Rogozhin lives, he finally finds them.  Rogozhin, after hiding out in his family apartments, comes to the Prince and brings him home.  

The final part is surreal.  Rogozhin talks about all sorts of nonsense with the Prince but we finally become aware of Nastasya lying under a sheet on a bed in the corner of his room.   Both he and the Prince spend the night together discussing what to do because the body will soon begin to smell.

Eventually they are found out.  Rogozhin is sent to Siberia and the Prince truly becomes an idiot.  Relapsed into madness he is sent back to the hospital in Switzerland.

There is ever so much more to this story than can be related here.  I cannot begin to count the number of characters in the cast.  As my husband, Josh, said.  "How many people can fit into one room? Can you imagine a stage production of this story?"

Every character is a story all by him or herself.  But if you want those stories, you'll simply have to read the novel for yourself.

Percy says, "I would not have tried to love two women at once.  Wait.  Yes I would.  I'm a Guinea Pig.  That's how we reproduce."

Kindle .99


  1. I cannot wait to read this one. : )

    1. Be sure to put your seat belt on before you do. :)

  2. I'm so impressed that you were able to write a review on this one. When I finished it last year, I felt completely disoriented and couldn't come up with anything.

    The insane desperation is really Russian. I'm kind of used to it now; I try not to pay too much attention to it. It's an interesting dichotomy because on one hand they are very staid and uptight, and on the other, emotional basket cases.

    I really liked Myshkin for the first part of the story. If felt he modelled Christ with his kind and simple demeanour and that Dostoyevsky balanced his character beautifully, but then he kind of lost it part way through.

    I still don't know what to think of this novel but I would like to revisit it one day after I've read more Dostoyevsky. I really think you need to read all of his works to get to know him and then read them all over again to understand them.

    1. Hi Cleopatra. As you can see, I limited myself to the bare bones of the storyline. How does one delve into all the complications and different characters without writing a book oneself?

      I agree with you. Toward the end, when Myshkin seemed to finally desert Aglaya for Nastasya I lost respect for him. He also didn't seem shocked over Nastasya's murder, but he may have already sunk into insanity by then.

      I also wholly believe in reading all the works one can of a certain author in order gain maximum insight into what they are driving at in their work. There are some novels you can read many times in different seasons of your life and still get something new out of them.

  3. Sharon,

    Prince Myshkin is the Holy Fool, an innocent who sees things clearly, the good in the most evil of people. He trusts everybody. His goodness is so obvious that he attracts all sorts of people, most of whom laugh at him, but at the same time like him. But, there are also those who hate and fear him because he can see into their souls.

    The Holy Fool is also very naive and says what he thinks, without being aware of the possible consequences. Unfortunately, the Holy Fool cannot survive in this world and usually comes to a tragic end.

    Melville's Billy Budd is another Holy Fool.

    1. You often have a dichotomy with "fool" characters, in that they can appear like fools but actually are wiser than everyone else around them. I think Myshkin fits into this category; what do you think?

    2. The concept of Holy Fool is thought-provoking. Like Cleopatra, I saw Myshkin as a Christ like figure the first time I read the book. This second time around I had doubts. I thought at first, yes, he is so innocent that he says what he thinks which forces others to deal honestly with him as well.

      But when he pursued both Nastasya and Aglaya I changed my mind. I decided he really did not know what he was doing.

      Also, the way he let other characters, like Ganya's father take advantage of him, led me to think he was truly naive. It's as if he simply couldn't come to terms with fallen human nature.

      Yet he had a genuine love and compassion for others that was truly Christ like.

      Fred, you say that Myshkin is a Holy Fool. I wonder why they are called, "holy"?

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Sorry had a typo so I deleted my comment. Fred: I have not read Billy Budd. I'm going to check this book out. I'm interested in researching this concept of "holy fool".

    5. Sharon,

      The clue is in the first line of your comment: "I saw Myshkin as a Christ like figure."

      Both Nastasha and Agalya are confused and bewildered. He senses the pain in them and is drawn to both, but for different reasons. He reacts to Nastasha's pain and suffering that results from Totsky's treatment of her when she was a young girl, whereas it's Aglaya's confused innocence that speaks to the innocence within him.

      And he is a human being, with all the desires that disturb humans, but he lacks the knowledge of dealing with them.

    6. Fred: I must confess I really don't understand Myshkin's attraction to Aglaya. She is my least favorite character. Maybe she is just young and inexperienced but man! How bipolar can you get? I don't even feel sorry for her when she's married off to the pseudo count. Maybe that says something negative about me, but it's my honest feeling.

  4. Great commentary as always Sharon.

    I very much want to read this. As you allude to, Dostoyevsky creates some characters that, even when they bare their souls out. It is difficult to understand them. I also agree that most of his characters would stand up to months of study. What a mind Dostoyevsky possessed.

    Princess Piggybottom seems to also posses a great mind :)

    1. Hi Brian. Dostoevsky indeed must have possessed a complicated mind. I believe he was not wholly sane himself. He does expose the contradictions in people's hearts. I find his characters enlightening to the human condition but of course with a Russian flavor. I don't think in America we get nearly that emotional over things. Take care!

      PS: The Princess says you make her blush!

  5. "Cold?"

    "Very," said his neighbour, readily. "and this is a thaw, too. Fancy if it had been a hard frost! I never thought it would be so cold in the old country." Today the "old country" is the "old earth" maybe, and that "cold" mean hotter...


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.