by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Recommended Ages: 14+
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin is the "idiot" named in the title. We first meet this simple-hearted young man on a train to St. Petersburg, returning to Russia after several years under a doctor's care in Switzerland. In boyhood he had been disabled to the point of idiocy by epilepsy, but the support of a wealthy patron and (later) the generosity of his doctor have at least partially cured him, and provided for his education. Now he has decided to return from abroad, but he really knows nothing about how to get along in Russian society. Even before he sets foot on the motherland's soil, his ignorance of the confusing forces in play around him begin to create trouble for the Prince. By the end (mild spoiler, here), his fragile nerves will prove unequal to the strain that arises from the instantaneous love and hate that he excites in the men and women he meets.
I've been pondering how to boil Prince Myshkin's story down into a neat, pithy statement. I am loath to say that Myshkin is a Christ figure; that's probably been said before, and the weaknesses in that thesis have just as likely been pointed out. More tempting is a broader description of Myshkin as the one whole, wholesome, healing person in the world, surrounded by a crowd of sick, sickening people who spread their sickness to one another. But just when I feel ready to go with that thesis, Dosto(y)evsky explodes it by showering his messy, flawed characters with gentle, non-judgmental understanding. In this book, bad people come to some bad ends. But some good people come, arguably, to even worse ends. And you're not sure whether to laugh or cry; or, should you settle on doing both, in which order to do them.
Poor Lev Nikolayevich finds himself torn between the love of two women, two diametrically opposite women whom he loves for diametrically opposite reasons, and who alternately seem to love and hate him in perversely unpredictable alternation, yet in completely different ways. And so we see a good man—perhaps the good man—forced into a situation where he can only do one evil thing or another. And when, at last, the choice has been made, the evil that results is all that could be expected, and more.
Among the other cast members in this novel's hypnotically long and complicated scenes—any one of which could be staged by itself as a piece of experimental theater—are:
- General Yepanchin, a pompous, philandering, yet henpecked husband and gentleman
- Lizaveta Prokofyevna, his bossy, hot-tempered, but basically tender-hearted wife
- Their three unmarried daughters Alexandra, Adelaida, and the beautiful but flighty Aglaya
- Rogozhin, the dangerously unstable heir to a fortune, who is obsessed with a beautiful but troubled woman named Nastasya Filipovna
- Ganya Ivolgin, a young civil servant who is also torn between Aglaya and Nastasya Filipovna
- Ganya's socially climbing sister Varya, his old-for-his-years little brother Kolya, and his father General Ivolgin, who is both a drunk and a compulsive liar
- Lebedev, a sponging and scheming character whose many lines of work include government clerk, pawnbroker, landlord, and interpreter of biblical prophecy
- Hippolyte, a consumptive scandal-monger and nihilist who (in one of the book's most fascinating scenes) publicly reads a manifesto concerning his planned suicide
- Yevgeny Pavlovich, another suitor for Aglaya's hand, who plays an ambiguously sympathetic role in the Prince's fate
All this talk of Myshkin being an idiot will affect you as being cruelly unfair. Whatever he is—naive, pure, honest, lacking a sense of proportion, etc.—he is not, you will be sure, an idiot. Up to a certain point, you may think this book is about the injustice of such a man, of whom the world is not worthy, being called an idiot for his pains. At the end, however, it seems to be more about how the world can actually make an idiot of a good man. It is a novel of disgust with a world where the sanity of the upper, lower, and middle classes alike—of the very religious as well as those fired by political and rationalistic zeal—can destroy the sanity of people like Nastasya Filipovna, Rogozhin, and Myshkin, among others.
It is a novel of messed-up people in collision, and of one supremely messed-up individual who almost, for a little while, seems to have a chance to heal them all. It's a well-known enough book that it's not really a spoiler when I say things don't work out that way. I give you fair warning. Why they don't work out, and how they don't, will be on your mind for a while.