Review: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Posted on February 15, 2010
by Adam Burgess
Leave a Comment
The Idiot is Dostoevsky’s attempt at writing down the essence of true beauty, in human form. Prince Myshkin, the idiot himself, is meant to epitomize absolute goodness and fairness. He is kind and generous, forgiving and intelligent. He has money, yet does not covet it. Still, he is naive. He does not quite know how to have an opinion, nor how to assert it. He mistakes pity and an intelligent decisiveness for love and loyalty. He spites (though not intentionally) his true love, for the well-being of a lesser creature, a sad, fallen, lonely “coquette.” The story takes us from Switzerland, to Russia, and back to Switzerland – spanning just a few months, but seeming to tell decades’ worth of story and to be packed with mountains of history, both Russian and human.
The translation, firstly, is excellent. Dostoevsky’s beautiful prose comes across clearly and, though I always wish to be able to read primary texts in their original languages, I did not feel this time as if too much was lost. The story itself is also quite good. Overly ambitious, I think, and Dostoevsky himself acknowledged that his task was almost (if not absolutely) insurmountable. How does one tell of true, complete, unblemished beauty? Is it really possible? I believe Dostoevsky may have gotten closer than any writer I’ve yet had the pleasure of reading. Also, though there were a number of characters – possibly too many (as the 19th C. Russians were wont to include), still the characters seemed, for the most part, to be distinguishable from one another, even if their names often were not! The ending has taken some time for me to digest. I found it immensely exciting and pleasing, though rather incongruous to the rest of this novel. For a novel which seemed more in the vain of the Romantic (capital R, my friends), it ended on rather a Gothic note. I couldn’t help but wonder Jane Austen’s exasperation at such an absurd denouement, but still, I truly find myself satisfied – if not at all, really. I think the reason I’ve embraced this dystopic unsatisfactory satisfaction is that, perhaps, that was the point. To be happy – or at least to concede to – what is unacceptable. Unexpected, unwanted, out of place. Prince Myshkin was all of these things, and treated rather unjustly at times for being assumed so; still, he pressed on in goodness and friendship, never doubting that, ultimately, those around him would come to respect him. That they do is not in question, is it worth it in the end? Hard to say, given the conclusion.
Well, I would have to say, though I mentioned characterization as a plus above, I am also a bit disappointed by it. I believe that the characters were, indeed, distinguishable from one another – which is excellent, considering how many players there were in this drama; however, I do not believe that enough time and attention was paid to those main players. Indeed, the story was ultimately a love-triangle between Prince Myshkin, Aglaia, and Nastasya. While enough time (perhaps) is spent on Myshkin and the development of his character, so that the reader can come to appreciate him and his purpose, not nearly enough time is spent with Aglaia or Nastasya. It is hard to understand most of what they do, what they say, and how they act, because nothing is said, really, about where they come from, who they are, what they want. It is an unfortunate lacking, I feel, on Dostoevsky’s part. I believe he sacrificed some characterization in place of political and religious personifications – which came in the form of Ippolit and his hoodlums (the Nihilists and atheists). Dostoevsky spent quite a bit of time mentioning the Nihilists, loathing the atheists and the devout Catholics (who are not Christian), yet it didn’t seem that Nihilism, atheism, religion, or politics of any sort ultimately played much part in the finale of the story. Too much superficial ranting, I think, and not enough subtlety. Finally, I found the story lagging at times. Not much happened for pages and pages at a time – then, in the turn of a page, we’re reminded that all of the past 500 pages occurred in the course of just 5 weeks time. That actually distracted me for a moment; I couldn’t believe that so much (and so little) had been said, done, and discussed in just over a month. I’ve read lengthy novels which took place in a shorter period of time (a day, for instance) yet – they just didn’t seem to be as stagnant.
The Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5.0
Weighing the pros and cons, I find myself in favor of The Idiot. I think Dostoevsky’s intent was noble, and fairly well affected. Prince Myshkin truly is a beautiful character, though it would be heartbreaking (and irritating) to know such an innocent, un-jaded man. This was well addressed, though, in the attitude and actions of the people around him. So many were annoyed to the point of wanting to do Myshkin harm, yet no one could. Even cross words said to him, or jokes made at his expense, were soon looked on with regret. This shows the good, and the bad, in human nature. Dostoevsky could have, I think, spent more time on the story – and characterized his themes a bit better – but, in the end, I was moved and intrigued. Even a bit inspired.