Dostoevsky: The Idiot

April 4, 2014

Another novel for our Russian literature group, and I’m really not sure what to make of it! Dostoevsky was clearly a man of ideas, a thinker, and had lots to say, but is he too complex or confusing for the modern reader?

Prince Mishkin, a Christ-like figure or a simpleton, depending on your take, certainly an epileptic, and someone often openly referred to as an idiot, returns to Russia after several years treatment in a Swiss sanatorium. Wherever he goes, he tells the honest truth about everything and anything, to anyone and everyone. People are struck, shocked, impressed even, and mayhem ensues because society doesn’t work on this basis, and though Mishkin may be honest and truthful, nobody else is. Many try to take advantage, financial and emotional.

There is a very complicated plot involving the Prince and two women, each of whom he may be said to love (?) and two other men, one a rich rogue and the other dying of consumption. Woven all through the novel is Dostoevsky’s social criticism, based on his own life experiences, criticism of lberalism, Catholicism, the Russian nobility, and nihilism, not to mention hypocrisy, deceit and decadence. Yet it seems increasingly clear that Prince Mishkin’s approach is not the answer. So is Christ also not the answer?

By the end of the novel, there has been much chaos, much unhappiness, murder, judgement and imprisonment, along with a complete relapse for the Prince.

And yet, once I got about half-way through it, the novel was strangely captivating, even compulsive at times. But it was also shapeless, wandering, constantly off at a tangent – indisciplined is probably the best word to describe it. Also, rather worrying, even unnerving, for this reader. It has got me thinking about whether time makes it much harder to approach and appreciate certain books. Certainly, the notes and family tree appended to the very good translation I read were very helpful. I may return to this broader question later on.

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