Monday, June 27, 2011

"The Idiot" (1869) by Fyodor Dostoevsky


“They call me a psychologist. That is not true. I’m only a realist in the higher sense; that is, I portray all the depths of the human soul.”
- Fyodor Dostoevsky


The main theme of “The Idiot” is the contrast between the naive and innocent Prince Lyov Nikolayovich Myshkin and the materialistic and decadent society of the day. The prince truly believes in the good nature of people; he is constantly insulted, used and abused throughout the story only to instantly forgive and repeat the process once again. He even blames himself for their behavior, sometimes correctly but his reproaches are generally undeserved. Dostoevsky is being a realist in the sense that if a truly innocent were to try to survive without either being polluted and drawn into the world this would be the inevitable outcome. The story centers on a love triangle that develops between the prince, Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaia Epanchin. Plenty of drama ensues.

Prince Myshkin is frequently compared to Christ but I personally do not think this a correct correlation. While the prince is a genuinely good soul, he is not really a mystic or prophet. He is perhaps an ideal Christian, but still a flawed mortal. To me, that makes him more lovable and relatable than the lofty ideals he is frequently swept away with. And I did deeply relate to him; more so than to any other fictional character in fact. Is it too much for him just to have a pure heart?

Rogozhin is one of my favorite characters. He is craftily used throughout the novel; sometimes just a face peering out a window (or was it just your imagination?) and other times a very sympathetic victim of both his heart and circumstances. In my opinion, he is an excellent example of a base man who has become rich overnight and is ruined by it. He is not an evil man at heart but he does engage in villainous behavior as well as good old fashioned debauchery. He does love Nastasya but their coupling drives them both to a downward spiral. She becomes more erratic and scandalous and he behaves even more roguish until they are separated and then he obsesses over regaining her. It is true that Rogozhin is the type of man who will stop at nothing to get what wants. He does care for Myshkin but cannot help but see him as an obstacle between him and Nastasya and naturally resents that she loves Myshkin in a way that she will never love him. Rogozhin wanted to be like Myshkin but was not and Myshkin would have faired much better if he were a little more like Rogozhin. For that reason they are a pair of opposites which are eternally intertwined with each other.

One question that arises after reading this novel is “what is love?” A multitude of feelings that could be considered love are examined in the motives and thoughts of the characters. Rogozhin displays obsession, Myshkin compassion, Ganya mere financial gain with Nastasya over his true feelings for Aglaia, Aglaia cannot admit her feelings towards Myshkin and Nastasya really wants to be with Myshkin but always ends up running off with Rogozhin. From all this drama, the reader is left to ponder over who really loves who and how they end up where they are.

Throughout the story the prince, and reader, are drawn to each of the love interests only to meet their negative side and be repelled by them. Ultimately, it is rather difficult to say who he should choose. Maybe Yevgeny Pavlovich was quite correct when he tells Myshkin that he has really never loved either of them. At least not in the romantic sense; he took flight in altruistic and abstract ideas but never could see them in the normal sense. At the same time he saw people more clearly than anyone, but seemed to miss the fact that Aglaia “loved him like woman, like a human being, not like an abstract spirit” and Nastasya needed him to carry her away as Rogozhin would. This is one area where he is to blame, but he never meant to hurt them. I suppose that is why he is, in the end, an Idiot.

In my opinion, Myshkin should not have gotten involved with either of them as he could not love them as a husband or lover, but only in an altruistic way. He did truly love both of them, but not in the worldly way. He looked at them as wonderful pieces of art without objectifying them. He could have spent the rest of his life just looking at Aglaia but nothing more and she desired to run away with her poor knight in a romantic tryst. Nastasya loved him, but needed him to come down to Earth for her to feel deserving of him and Myshkin was in awe of her but never could be what she really needed him to be.

There are many more colorful personalities adding to the story and Dostoevsky does a superb job of developing all of them fully, showing both their good qualities as well as their short comings. Ippolit the consumptive gossip-hound, General Ivolgin the compulsive liar, Keller and of course Lebedyev cannot be forgotten. You really feel as if they are larger than life prototypes of people you have met in real life.

At the end of the day, I must agree with Prince Myshkin in his quixotic belief that “beauty will save the world.”

1 comment:

  1. Great quote and an enjoyable review with some good insights. I've read the novel 3 times now,('75,'91,'95) was it the 1953 Margarshack translation or a more modern translation you read Osie ?

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