Dostoyevsky renders a brilliant portrait of the hypersensitive Prince Myshkin, the “idiot” referred to in the title. It’s impossible not to pity the poor guy. The Prince is intelligent, well-meaning, and honest; certainly not an idiot and in fact seemingly normal much of the time. But he doesn’t fit in with any of the several social circles he encounters because he’s overly naive, sensitive, excitable, and serious. In addition, the Prince has passionate views on religion and politics and espouses them at the most inopportune moments. What happens is that virtually everyone who meets the prince considers him to be very socially inept and makes fun of him behind his back or sometimes to his face. What’s worse is that the Prince to a large degree understands his own faults but doesn’t try to improve himself.
Dostoyevsky does such a marvelous job of characterizing the prince that I found myself thinking of other people I know that are similarly inept when dealing with others. I also thought about myself and times that I’d said the wrong things in front of others. Let’s face it, conversing with one or two people is completely different from saying something in front of an audience or in a group / party discussion, even if its a group you know very well. The whole atmosphere changes and you have to be a bit more careful in your choice of words so that everyone understands what you’re saying and also so that their attention doesn’t wander. Many of us know someone who never fails to make a fool of himself / herself in these kinds of social situations, from being perhaps too talkative, too nervous, taking friendly jibes seriously, drinking too much, or what have you. The Prince is one of those people that can be completely likable as a friend, but a total embarrassment at a party or in a group discussion.
... a prince is like acting. It doesn't matter what kind of a person he is, as long as the people ... while this might be good for the Prince, I would think that the people would end up being unhappy. After living ... it is better for a prince to be feared than to be loved by his people. His main reason is ... levy huge taxes any more than the "parsimonious" prince will. The prince must be careful, but it is a bit ...
I read somewhere that Dostoyevsky was describing himself in many ways while writing about the Prince. No wonder the Prince is so astonishingly rendered; the author already knew him intimately. Dostoyevsky does an excellent job with the other characters too, though none are masterpieces like Myshkin. I particularly enjoyed reading about the hilariously different personalities within the Yepanchin family, level-headed Mr. Radomsky, pathetic Lebedev, the sinister Rogozhin, and others.
The story is great, a real page turner. A few other reviews state that the narrative starts out well and then bogs down into disappointment. I didn’t think so, I was interested right up to the surprising ending (poor Prince!).
I do think that Dostoyevsky need not have concocted the bizarre love triangle that he did; the novel would have been just as effective with a more conventional plot and some other focus for the Prince’s compassion and pity, say a family stricken with poverty. It’s the characterization of the Prince that makes “The Idiot” what it is.
Btw, I read David Magershack’s translation (Penguin Classics).
I can’t imagine the translation being much better, it flowed so well that I could easily have been fooled into believing that it was originally written in English.