Review Of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/26/06
In his lifetime, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote four famed novels that secured his literary place in history. Chronologically they were Crime And Punishment, The Idiot, The Possessed (or Devils), and The Brothers Karamazov. The last named book I read many years ago, in my youth, and found it quite boring, although I will reread it in the future. Crime And Punishment I read last year, and, while it had some good things to offer, it was too bogged down in stereotypes, and had a dreadfully weak end. I have recently read The Idiot, which leaves only Devils to go.
In many ways, all of Dostoevsky’s works- long and short- read similarly, as does almost all Russian 19th Century fiction. There are many longwinded passages that could be severely trimmed or excised, and the minutia of superfluous detail that many digressions wallow in tends to exhaust rather than inform or entertain readers. The Idiot is no different from Crime And Punishment (or Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace, for that matter) in this regard. Yet, it is a significantly different book dramatically, thematically, and philosophically than its immediate predecessor. Crime And Punishment’s strength is that it posits a philosophic dilemma, then lets things unravel, seemingly naturally, at its best, although the tale eventually loses its way with too many stereotyped characters and actions. By contrast, The Idiot is shorn of most caricatures and stereotypes, but never seems to have any great central existential dilemma that tells a reader why its author felt this particular character’s tale needed to be told. In a sense, the novel is a 19th Century high brow version of the old television soap operas Dynasty or Dallas, with a lone central character who rises above such melodrama, briefly, before sinking back into despair. While it is a much steadier book than its immediate predecessor: artistically, narratively and psychologically- in a sense, a much ‘realer’ look at Russian nobility, and it lacks some of Crime And Punishment’s execrable lows, it also lacks that novel’s highs- such as several scenes of confrontation where Raskolnikov’s conscience seemingly speaks to him via the intercession of other characters who may or may not be real. That said, overall, the two books are about on an artistic par with one another, although I prefer The Idiot’s sustained thrust, although neither could truly be termed ‘great’, in the way Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, or A Tree Grows In Brooklyn are. Simply dismissing narrative weaknesses as the style of the time does not hold up critically in the long run.
The book is divided into four major sections, with numerous subsections. Despite its length and heft it is not really a complex tale, narratively nor psychologically, and in this regard it is almost a direct predecessor to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past, a work (novel or autobiography?) that also sketches mostly 19th Century dilettantes at their worst, although Proust’s dilettante characters are French, not Russian.
The story opens well, on a train, in an almost Hichcockian milieu, with Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, a fair-haired twentysomething nobleman of good nature and much gullibility, heading toward St. Petersburg on a November morning. It is a most subtle entry into the action of the novel by the extraordinary main character. He has spent four years at a Swiss clinic, under the treatment of a Dr. Schneider, for his supposed idiocy and epilepsy. The former charge, we learn throughout the book, is an insidious slander, but the Prince is very out of place in his homeland. Myshkin’s aim is to meet his only relative in the city. This is his distant cousin Madame Lizaveta Epanchin, wife of a powerful general, who is in his fifties. The couple have three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaia, the youngest and, as is always true in such tales, the most beautiful. While waiting to see the general, the Prince talks with a servant about watching a man who was beheaded by a guillotine, and explains that torture is better than instantaneous death because one still has hope if tortured. He also argues, in a typical Dostoevskian Socratic monologue, that to kill for murder is an immeasurably greater evil than the actual crime itself, although his reasoning is hazy. This is one of several interludes where Myshkin will dazzle listeners with his simple philosophies. One of his most noteworthy comes in a later spiel against capital punishment, and guillotining, in particular:
‘As to life in a prison, of course there may be two opinions,’ said the prince. ‘I once heard the story of a man who lived twelve years in a prison--I heard it from the man himself. He was one of the persons under treatment with my professor; he had fits, and attacks of melancholy, then he would weep, and once he tried to commit suicide. His life in prison was sad enough; his only acquaintances were spiders and a tree that grew outside his grating- but I think I had better tell you of another man I met last year. There was a very strange feature in this case, strange because of its extremely rare occurrence. This man had once been brought to the scaffold in company with several others, and had had the sentence of death by shooting passed upon him for some political crime. Twenty minutes later he had been reprieved and some other punishment substituted; but the interval between the two sentences, twenty minutes, or at least a quarter of an hour, had been passed in the certainty that within a few minutes he must die. I was very anxious to hear him speak of his impressions during that dreadful time, and I several times inquired of him as to what he thought and felt. He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience. About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals (of whom there were several). The first three criminals were taken to the posts, dressed in long white tunics, with white caps drawn over their faces, so that they could not see the rifles pointed at them. Then a group of soldiers took their stand opposite to each post. My friend was the eighth on the list, and therefore he would have been among the third lot to go up. A priest went about among them with a cross: and there was about five minutes of time left for him to live.
He said that those five minutes seemed to him to be a most interminable period, an enormous wealth of time; he seemed to be living, in these minutes, so many lives that there was no need as yet to think of that last moment, so that he made several arrangements, dividing up the time into portions--one for saying farewell to his companions, two minutes for that; then a couple more for thinking over his own life and career and all about himself; and another minute for a last look around. He remembered having divided his time like this quite well. While saying good- bye to his friends he recollected asking one of them some very usual everyday question, and being much interested in the answer. Then having bade farewell, he embarked upon those two minutes which he had allotted to looking into himself; he knew beforehand what he was going to think about. He wished to put it to himself as quickly and clearly as possible, that here was he, a living, thinking man, and that in three minutes he would be nobody; or if somebody or something, then what and where? He thought he would decide this question once for all in these last three minutes. A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them….He happened to look in my direction: I saw his eyes and understood all, at once--but how am I to describe it? I do so wish you or somebody else could draw it, you, if possible. I thought at the time what a picture it would make. You must imagine all that went before, of course, all- all. He had lived in the prison for some time and had not expected that the execution would take place for at least a week yet- he had counted on all the formalities and so on taking time; but it so happened that his papers had been got ready quickly. At five o’clock in the morning he was asleep- it was October, and at five in the morning it was cold and dark. The governor of the prison comes in on tiptoe and touches the sleeping man's shoulder gently. He starts up. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘The execution is fixed for ten o’clock.’ He was only just awake, and would not believe at first, but began to argue that his papers would not be out for a week, and so on. When he was wide awake and realized the truth, he became very silent and argued no more- so they say; but after a bit he said: ‘It comes very hard on one so suddenly’ and then he was silent again and said nothing.
The three or four hours went by, of course, in necessary preparations- the priest, breakfast, (coffee, meat, and some wine they gave him; doesn’t it seem ridiculous?) And yet I believe these people give them a good breakfast out of pure kindness of heart, and believe that they are doing a good action. Then he is dressed, and then begins the procession through the town to the scaffold. I think he, too, must feel that he has an age to live still while they cart him along. Probably he thought, on the way, ‘Oh, I have a long, long time yet. Three streets of life yet! When we’ve passed this street there’ll be that other one; and then that one where the baker’s shop is on the right; and when shall we get there? It’s ages, ages!’ Around him are crowds shouting, yelling- ten thousand faces, twenty thousand eyes. All this has to be endured, and especially the thought:
‘Here are ten thousand men, and not one of them is going to be executed, and yet I am to die.’ Well, all that is preparatory.
At the scaffold there is a ladder, and just there he burst into tears- and this was a strong man, and a terribly wicked one, they say! There was a priest with him the whole time, talking; even in the cart as they drove along, he talked and talked. Probably the other heard nothing; he would begin to listen now and then, and at the third word or so he had forgotten all about it. At last he began to mount the steps; his legs were tied, so that he had to take very small steps. The priest, who seemed to be a wise man, had stopped talking now, and only held the cross for the wretched fellow to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he had been pale enough; but when he set foot on the scaffold at the top, his face suddenly became the color of paper, positively like white notepaper. His legs must have become suddenly feeble and helpless, and he felt a choking in his throat- you know the sudden feeling one has in moments of terrible fear, when one does not lose one's wits, but is absolutely powerless to move? If some dreadful thing were suddenly to happen; if a house were just about to fall on one- don't you know how one would long to sit down and shut one's eyes and wait, and wait? Well, when this terrible feeling came over him, the priest quickly pressed the cross to his lips, without a word- a little silver cross it was- and he kept on pressing it to the man’s lips every second. And whenever the cross touched his lips, the eyes would open for a moment, and the legs moved once, and he kissed the cross greedily, hurriedly--just as though he were anxious to catch hold of something in case of its being useful to him afterwards, though he could hardly have had any connected religious thoughts at the time. And so up to the very block.
How strange that criminals seldom swoon at such a moment! On the contrary, the brain is especially active, and works incessantly- probably hard, hard, hard- like an engine at full pressure. I imagine that various thoughts must beat loud and fast through his head- all unfinished ones, and strange, funny thoughts, very likely!- like this, for instance: ‘That man is looking at me, and he has a wart on his forehead! and the executioner has burst one of his buttons, and the lowest one is all rusty!’ And meanwhile he notices and remembers everything. There is one point that cannot be forgotten, round which everything else dances and turns about; and because of this point he cannot faint, and this lasts until the very final quarter of a second, when the wretched neck is on the block and the victim listens and waits and knows- that’s the point, he knows that he is just now about to die, and listens for the rasp of the iron over his head. If I lay there, I should certainly listen for that grating sound, and hear it, too! There would probably be but the tenth part of an instant left to hear it in, but one would certainly hear it. And imagine, some people declare that when the head flies off it is conscious of having flown off! Just imagine what a thing to realize! Fancy if consciousness were to last for even five seconds!
Draw the scaffold so that only the top step of the ladder comes in clearly. The criminal must be just stepping on to it, his face as white as notepaper. The priest is holding the cross to his blue lips, and the criminal kisses it, and knows and sees and understands everything. The cross and the head—there’s your picture; the priest and the executioner, with his two assistants, and a few heads and eyes below. Those might come in as subordinate accessories--a sort of mist. There’s a picture for you.’ The prince paused, and looked around.
‘Certainly that isn't much like quietism,’ murmured Alexandra, half to herself.
‘Now tell us about your love affairs,’ said Adelaida, after a moment’s pause.
The prince gazed at her in amazement.
Note how Dostoevsky beautifully winds up this scene with offhanded humor. Passages like this, even if they often pop up without warning, and seem out of place, are all redeemed by such moments as the two sisters’ totally missing the point the speakers try to make.
Of course, even after these traits are known, others rarely get Myshkin. The general also thinks little of Myshkin, at first, and disses him:
‘To judge from your words, you came straight to my house with the intention of staying there.’
‘That could only have been on your invitation. I confess, however, that I should not have stayed here even if you had invited me, not for any particular reason, but because it is- well, contrary to my practice and nature, somehow.’
‘Oh, indeed! Then it is perhaps as well that I neither did invite you, nor do invite you now. Excuse me, prince, but we had better make this matter clear, once for all. We have just agreed that with regard to our relationship there is not much to be said, though, of course, it would have been very delightful to us to feel that such relationship did actually exist; therefore, perhaps- ’
‘Therefore, perhaps I had better get up and go away?’ said the prince, laughing merrily as he rose from his place; just as merrily as though the circumstances were by no means strained or difficult. ‘And I give you my word, general, that though I know nothing whatever of manners and customs of society, and how people live and all that, yet I felt quite sure that this visit of mine would end exactly as it has ended now. Oh, well, I suppose it’s all right; especially as my letter was not answered. Well, good-bye, and forgive me for having disturbed you!’
The prince's expression was so good-natured at this moment, and so entirely free from even a suspicion of unpleasant feeling was the smile with which he looked at the general as he spoke, that the latter suddenly paused, and appeared to gaze at his guest from quite a new point of view, all in an instant.
The general thus changes his mind at the man’s openness. The general has an assistant, Gavril Ardalyonovich Ivolgin (aka Ganya), who is unrequitedly in love with Aglaia. Yet, he is power hungry and deceitful, so is trying to seduce a former mistress, Anastassya Filippovna Barashkov of an aristocrat named Totsky, who is willing to pay Ganya 75,000 rubles to take his mistress off his hands with marriage, so he can pursue the general’s oldest daughter Alexandra. We also suspect that Totsky may have abused Anastassya as a child. Myshkin overhears this plot because he is doing a chore for the general, and Ganya thinks so little of him that he believes there is nothing the Prince can do to stop him. Myshkin rents a room from Ganya’s family, who disapprove of Ganya’s seduction of the fallen woman Anastassya. This is where Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, a dark haired twenty-seven-year-old whom the Prince first met on the train into St. Petersburg, declares his love for Anastassya, and vows to bring 100,000 rubles to her birthday party, where she is to announce whether she will marry Ganya or not. Rogozhin is the opposite of Myshkin in every way, and from their first meeting on the train this is evident, and eerily foreshadowing of Hitchcock’s later film Strangers On A Train.
The evening comes, and many guests arrive, including Totsky, General Epanchin, Ganya, and some other minor characters. Myshkin arrives uninvited, which is a pattern he follows throughout the book, though it rouses little anger in others, for he is so sweet and unassuming. Anastassya, on word from Myshkin, refuses Ganya’s proposal. Rogozhin comes with 100,000 rubles, but Myshkin, out of nowhere, offers to marry Anastassya, saying he has come into a large inheritance. She refuses the Prince and chooses Rogozhin. Months go by and the Prince disappears from society, as he pursues Anastassya, who wavers between him and Rogozhin to the prince. Myshkin’s inheritance is smaller than expected, and he pays off the debts of too many hangers-on.
Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg to confront Rogozhin. They discuss religion and seem to get along. Yet, later that day, Rogozhin triess to stab Myshkin at his hotel, but fails when Myshkin has an epileptic fit. Myshkin recovers and leaves for Pavlovsk, a summer resort town the idle rich go to. The Epanchins, the Ivolgins, Anastassya and other minor characters all relax there as well. This is when Burdovsky, who claims to be the son of Myshkin’s deceased benefactor, when he was in the Swiss asylum, Pavlishchev, comes to him and demands ‘just reimbursement’ for his father’s support of Myshkin. Burdovsky is a fraud, but Myshkin helps him anyway.
While at the resort, Myshkin falls in love with Aglaia, and she returns his love, but will not admit it, although she reads him a poem, The Poor Knight, that belies her feelings. She is embarrassed by it, and scorns him, especially when her family welcomes his interest, until he breaks a Chinese vase one evening, in the course of a political and religious speech. Meanwhile, Aglaia forces a choice on Myshkin- he must choose his true love for her of his compassionate love for Anastassya, who loves him, but refuses to corrupt the naïve Prince with her lowness. Earlier in the book, we got hints of this growing rivalry when Myshkin compared the two women’s beauties, and this quite falsely contrived emotional triangle is one of the novel’s weakest elements; most likely a nod to the desire to sell the book to women readers in the general public, , as well as male intellectuals. The Prince hesitates, and Aglaia runs off, seeing no future between them. Anastassya chooses to marry Myshkin, then backs out and runs off with Rogozhin again. Myshkin follows them to St. Petersburg and finds that Rogozhin has stabbed Anastassya to death. Rogozhin is sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia, Myshkin loses his mind and returns to the Swiss asylum, and Aglaia leaves Russia with a Polish count who uses her.
Of course, there are dozens of smaller actions, and subplots, but, as any reader can tell from this summary, the tale is a classic soap opera, through and through, with characters propelling the often absurd social situations along with naturalistic reactions and declarations that contrast sharply to the often ridiculous overt actions they take. Myshkin is, of course, the dominant character, as he is the presumed titular character. His title, as the idiot, is used both literally at start and end of the novel, but is ironically used throughout the bulk of the novel. He is, in many ways, the exact polar opposite of Rodion Raskolnikov, the lead character from Crime And Punishment. Raskolnikov ends up redeemed for his crime, and lives a good life as he did at that novel’s start, and despite his wickedry, which dominates the bulk of that novel. Myshkin, by contrast, emerges from a pre-narrative fog, via his goodness and strength of character, yet is undone by the idiocy and immorality of others in society. The Idiot views Russian society, especially high society, as fundamentally flawed and corrupting, whereas Crime And Punishment proffers a somewhat redemptive, if often foolish and hypocritical, bourgeoisie. Thus, Rogozhin, the killer, is a high society debauchee, while his victim, Anastassya, is from the lower classes, although she is much more effectively sketched than the one dimensional females from Crime And Punishment, even if her masochism is her predictable undoing. Aglaia is a more cardboard character, and a stock critique of the fey and idle rich, too sensitive and indecisive for her own good.
Much of the book consists of people going to parties and plotting, as they do in Proust’s magnum opus. Yet, there is more than a little touch of the baroque in the conversations. Too often someone takes a political or ethical or philosophical stand with no prompt, as if Dostoevsky is just too eager to tell his reader what the scene, or whole novel, is really about, which is always a sign of an artist unsure of their work’s effectiveness. The conversations and ideas just pop up, often at random. A good example is when a minor character, an invalid named Ippolit, suddenly discourses quite schizophrenically on suicide as destructive and also God-like, merely to gain others’ favor and sympathy when he threatens to kill himself. To that point in the novel his character has served no real purpose, and instead of being organically integrated into the novel earlier, with small scenes that may give us an idea to his claims and beliefs, instead, his character just explodes into the narrative, and dominates it. Then, as quickly, he disappears, his didactic purpose being served. Perhaps Dostoevsky felt he was being to coy in Crime And Punishment, and needed to get ideas more above board in this book. Regardless of the provenance, the decision is a poor one. Overall, though, the arguments- such as the Prince’s above one on guillotining- are brilliantly elucidated in words, whether or not one agrees with them, but their often abruptive presence tends to make the book read a bit like a work wrought with fits and starts that obscure the ideas that those very motions hide.
Many critics have oddly tried to cast The Idiot as a thinly veiled autobiographical piece due to the fact that Dostoevsky, himself, suffered from epilepsy, but how this fact- that Myshkin is Dostoevsky- even were it true, helps the books be understood better, is never clarified. Another of the related main ideas that many critics wrongly point out in this novel is how Prince Myshkin is also seen as a de facto Jesus Christ-like stand in, but this can only be posited by a severe misinterpretation of the Christ myth. Yes, Myshkin is a devout Christian believer- in the old non-Born Again sense, and he seems preternaturally good, but he also subtly manipulates others, perhaps for their own good, if we accept the omniscient narrator’s version of the tale’s events, yet that very fact runs counter to the Christian beliefs of Jesus Christ as a totally selfless being, as do a number of other facts about Myshkin in the book. As with those critics that rather simplistically see Crime And Punishment as a great pro-Christian document, those who see Myshkin as a Christ-like figure see only those qualities in the character that fit their mold, and conveniently ignore those that do not fit. This is because too often the artist is conflated with his aistic creation. Yet, if as some believe, that Myshkin is also patterned after Dostoevsky, ‘evidenced’ by when Myshkin, at a party, late in the novel, embarrasses the Epanchins when he goes on and on with a very reactionary screed on religion that many critics insist is really Dostoevsky’s own pontifications mouthed by his fictive surrogate, does this not also logically mean that Dostoevsky must be claiming himself a Christ-like figure, perhaps because, like a god, an artist is a creator of worlds? You can obviously see how quickly such facile and unsupported critical notions lead to silliness.
Also, this notion is vitiated by the fact that other non-major characters often speak with a dramatic and logical force equal to Myshkin’s, and often in opposition to his views, yet they are somehow not claimed to be Dostoevskian surrogates. As example, at one of the many parties in the novel, a minor character rails that social liberalism is contrary to Russians norms, that a liberal cannot be a Russian, and vice-versa. He says that liberalism is a foreign scourge from the decadent Western European nations, and that social liberalism attacks the very foundations of the Russian social system. This plea for an almost Fascist state is uttered with quite the same conviction as Myshkin’s devoutly held religious beliefs, but no critics try to conflate the sentiments that character expresses with those held by Dostoevsky. Why? Merely because it’s all said by a minor character, and myopic critics cannot believe that a held truth can be uttered in a sly fashion, in an offhanded way? I am not arguing for the proposition that those sentiments were Dostoevsky’s own, but if I were, they would have the same minimal heft as those who argue that Myshkin’s every ideal is a Dostoevskian one, even as the author claimed he wanted to create a wholly decent and guileless character, something one might safely assume Dostoevsky never posited himself as being, lest he’d never be able to be a real artist. Subtlety, it seems, eludes most critical interpretations of art.
Another flaw that haunts the book, and goes hand in hand with the baroqueness of the dialogue, is the length of the book, and, again, as in Crime And Punishment, the dreadful use of an anticlimactic epilogue- chapter twelve of the fourth section, although only one is used in this book. Simply dismissing this as ‘the style’ relieves no modern reader of the burden of wading through unwieldy descriptions and pointless digressions woven merely to show how deeply sketched the background world the main narratives play out against is. Another thing that tests the patience of a modern reader is for Dostoevsky to never merely refer to a character by a Christian name or surname, but by both, often with one or more middle names tossed into the mix, yet then, in the next paragraph, sentence, or breath have that person referred to by a mere nickname, making it seem as if another character has entered the scene, when they have not.
As for the title, The Idiot? I’m surprised that more critical attention has not centered on the question as to whom the title actually refers to. Of course, on the surface level, it refers to Prince Myshkin, but it could also refer to Rogozhin, who is reduced to murderous insanity, or to the narcissistic vanity of Aglaia, or the masochism of Anastassya. In all of Dostoevsky’s works I’ve read thus far, Myshkin is easily the most well-rounded, authentically detailed, and ‘sane’ major character the writer created, so this makes the question of the title’s true referent all the more pertinent, and perplexing in its lack of critical discussion. Another avenue of thought for the title’s meaning could be that it does principally refer to Myshkin, but not for the obvious reasons, but because we realize that he is intelligent enough to recognize the flaws that the other characters mock and tease him of, yet chooses to do nothing to improve his lot. Certainly, this is ‘idiotic’, in the common vernacular, and as idiotic as any of the other characters’ actions.
Yet, despite its flaws, The Idiot is leagues above what passes for literature these days. If only there were not so many Cliffs Notes type sites that contribute to the dumbing down and homogenization of thought about classic novels, many people, especially those younger people in college, would not so easily regurgitate the same misperceptions about such works that are easily disproved simply by reading the work. Imagine that, getting the essence of a book by actually reading it. Perhaps I, and my essays, can start a trend?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Retort website.]
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