This is one of the more famous of Dostoyevsky’s novels, and quite rightly so as it has his very-unique blend of psychology, philosophy and an unrelenting view of the bleakest recesses of the soul.
I read the novel in the original Russian, so this isn’t a review of any particular translation but the work itself.
In brief, the book centres around a Prince who has returned to Russia after being treated for mental illness in Switzerland since his childhood (hence the idiot).
He quickly becomes involved within the upper-middle eschellons of St Petersburgian society, as people become fascinated by his direct honesty, simplicity and compassion. He becomes emotionally involved with a Fallen Woman, and this develops into a love triangle with another woman, ultimately ending in — you guessed it! – tragedy. The Idiot is portrayed as the symbol of a child-like innocence: he genuinely wants everyone to live in harmony and love. However, the falseness, politics and backstabbing of the world of Russian middle-nobility will have none of that.
The plot is quite complicated – but not in terms of twists. The story is quite simple in terms of what happened, however much of it is told inside-out, focusing on the internal world of the characters. So, if you feel like you’ve missed something – a reason for a character’s comment, an event etc, chances are, this will be revealed later on.
Dostoyevsky dwells on the extreme minute aspects of the emotional lives of his charactes. This is the richest aspect of the novel – and these emotions possess all the contradiction and chaos that real people have. There are no total heroes in the book – but I found a part of myself identifying with the Prince, as the grown child who just doesn’t want to accept the “adult” behaviour of interpersonal relationships. I think it’s expected in reading the book that some characters will be loathed, some found amusing and admired, some arousing interest – but not loved. This is because the world portrayed within the book is very inaccessible. It’s hard to identify with anyone in terms of more than the generality of emotion – not just because the setting is remote, but because the characters experience thoughts and ideas that are so different to what most people would. I think this inaccessability was deliberate – as we feel not-quite-at-home in the world of the book, so it highlights how the Prince is not quite at home there – and that’s where the sublime feeling is derived from.
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On a side note, be prepared for the difficulty of keeping track of names, as people are called by their surnames on certain occasions and the rest is first name and father’s name. With heaps of characters and many Russian names, it all becomes a mess. But with some concentration (perhaps making a cast of characters?) that can be overcome and a great read will be had.
A great book that will interact with your emotional world – if you don’t mind heavy reading.