The Idiot

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky 1868 / Kindle
translated by Constance Garnett (and I’m sure there are better translations! )

I read The Idiot once before – I think I listened to it several years ago – so I was kind of primed for a good read.  The first time there was so much going on, so many names, so many speeches,  that I had a hard time keeping track of everything.  This time the characters were pretty much my main focus.  (I think I got the main theme and most of the plot the first time round but …)

What is the main theme?  I think it’s that even an almost Christ-like man would not be able to function in a world so horrendously ridden with greed and corruption.  It’s all about money, power and sex.    There is no way to be “pure” in the real world.   If you come close, as Myshkin did (or tried to),  you will be crucified – like Christ.

The Idiot:  Main Characters  (and plot more or less):

*  Prince Lyov Nikolayevitch Myshkin  A very nice looking young man – age 25 or so.  He’s just been released from an asylum in Switzerland and continues to have problems with epilepsy, some sickliness and feeble-mindedness.  He’s called the idiot but really seems to have some other kind of perception.  He’s an orphan and come to find his only living relative – Madame Epanchin who was a Myshkin prior to her marriage.  He also finds out he has inherited a large fortune –  which turns out to be less than was first believed but he doesn’t care.  Myshkin is not in it for the money.

Myshkin falls in love with two women,  both beautiful and temperamental.  One is the lover of Myshkin’s new friend Rogozhin, the other the daughter of his distant relative, Aglaia Epanchin.   Myshkin knows only agape love,  Christ-type love, platonic love. Myshkin is not in it for the sex.

Myshkin believes everyone is basically good – few exceptions.  He is naive and kind of hopeless.  He does have strong philosophical views.  He makes friends with almost everyone.  Mishkin is not in it for the power.

*  Parfyon Semyonovitch Rogozhin meets Myshkin on the train.  They are about the same age but quite different – Rogozhin is a bit heavy,  has quite a lot of money and is impulsive – a bit violent.   Rogozhin and Myshkin exchange crosses – this is highly symbolic because after this Myshkin seems to take on the sins of the world in some way – become like the others (but different) – reflect their sins.  Meanwhile,  it really doesn’t do Rogozhin much good to wear the tin cross from Myshkin.

They become friends but there is always tension because Rogozhin thinks Myshkin loves Nastasya,  his girlfriend.

*  Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov is also in her mid-twenties.  She was orphaned and a man named Totsky took her in but used her sexually as she grew up.  Nastasya wants to go with Myshkin but is afraid of Rogozhin and also afraid of what she will do to a gentle soul like Myshkin –  she really feels unloveable,  and acts out behind that.   But she feels forgiven and loved by Myshkin.  She goes back and forth deciding.

*  Aglaia Epanchin is Madame and General Epanchan’s youngest daughter,  about 20-years old.  She is spoiled,  says whatever she thinks but really wants to please her family.  She loves Myshkin for his gentle ways but is not quite able to put her selfishness aside.  Many other men are in love with her.

Those are the four main characters behind most of the action –   Others are:

*  Afanasy Ivanovitch Totsky – who has kept Nastaya for years but now wants to marry one of the Epanchin daughters so he has to get rid of Nastaya somewhere – hopefully respectably – possibly to a man named Ganya who is Epanchin’s assistant.

*  Ivan Fyodorovitch and Lizaventa Prokofyevna Epanchin – parents of three marriageable daughters.  They are wealthy due to her dowry and his hard work,  but not aristocrats (although Lizaventa was from an upper class family).  Myshkin meets Ivan Epanchin  (the general) first – through him meets Ganya and gets a place to live.

*  Alexandra Epanchin – The eldest daughter,  very pretty and sensible.  ;

*  Adelaida Epanchin –  not so great looking but fun,  engaged to Prince S.

*  Aglaia Epanchin –  see above –

*  Ganya Ivolgin  is General Epanchin’s young and handsome assistant.  He meets Myshkin through his boss,  General Epanchin.  Ganya is ashamed of his whole family and wants to do better.  In love with Aglaia and jealous of Myshkin.

*  Ardalion Alexandrovitch Ivolgin is Ganya’s  father – a drunk, cheat, liar, – sometimes a comedic element.

*  Nina Alexandrovna Ivolgin,  Ganya’s mother,  is thin, aging,  a bit bitter, I think.

*  Kolya is Ganya’s young brother who admires Ganya’s friend,  Ippolit Terentyev,  and Myshkin.

*  Varvara Ardalionovna (Varya) IIvolgin is Ganya’s sister,  a very nice young woman, but ambitious and marriageable.

*  Lukyan Timofeyitch Lebedyev is a fat, unpleasant looking,  middle-aged, hypocritical civil servant.

*  Yevgeny Pavlovitch Radomsky is a smart and handsome friend of Ganya,  infatuated with Agliaia Epanchin.

*  Ippolit Terentyev is a very young sickly and unhappy man who tries suicide but fails.

*  Ferdyshtchenko – a strange boarder of the Ivolgins and a good friend of Nastasya Filippovna.

*  Keller is a professional boxer,  a friend of Rogozhin’s who writes a pamphlet  attacking Prince Myshkin.

Main theme (again)  –    How would a “perfect man” fare in the real, totally materialistic, world?  Not very well,  as he would be too open,  too naive.  The real world is a dangerous place.  Myshkin is attracted to beauty and light and nature –  he sees the good in everyone,  he is exploited by some but loved by others (usually both back and forth) and ends up back where he started – pretty much.

The temptations of the world are sexual love,  money and power.  The crucified Christ (Holbein picture – below) and the traded crosses of Myshkin and Rogozhin  are highly symbolic.

Holbein’s painting “The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb”

Herman Hesse – Thoughts On The Idiot 

Threshold of Representation

The Idiot on a Metaphysical-Religous Level

2 Responses to The Idiot

  1. I love this book. And how fascinating that you picked up on the Holbein – I think the Christ figure in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor (where he’s serene and not a bit battered – more timeless, like a Russian icon) makes for an interesting comparison. In both cases the big question is “what’s up with telling us how to be good, but then making it so darned difficult? Couldn’t you just pull a few strings?” This is the problem he’s so interested in – the cost of freedom and the necessity for it.

    It’s also a rocking crime story – though a little long :p


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