The Idiot~ by Fydor Dostoevsky

Yes,  I’m reading The Idiot for the third time.   One of my groups chose it May,  and the last time I read it was about 5 years ago  (SEE THIS LINK).  I wasn’t  sure what all I remembered other than the general outline of the tale, the major characters,  some scenes, the major themes.     In my blog entry for that reading I said it was my second reading so I suppose I must have first read it in my 20s when I first discovered Russian lit. ??

Reading the third time was pretty easy,  but rather boring for some reason.   I remembered as the story went along and it kind of rolled out.  The names and relationships weren’t so difficult this time.   I was familiar with the symbolism and I really didn’t care to go deeper,  into a careful reading or anything.   So I basically just glided over the text for review.

The Idiot
by Fydor Dostoevsky
1869 / 720 pages (or so) 
read by
* Translated by Constance Garnet 

(both read and listened)

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin – our hero – the self-proclaimed  “idiot”  is a strange man – he is afflicted with seizures ( epilepsy)  and has been treated in Switzerland for many years.  He’s quite passive and very polite,  naive,  innocent.   One might say “Christ-like” but I’m not sure about that.     Things seem to come to him but they disappear just as quickly because his interest and love is of people.   He seems not to be really suited for 19th century Russia and has complex troubles with love,  money,  and relationships of all kinds.

On release from the hospital he travels to the home of a distant cousin and her family, the Epanchins,   in Petersburg becoming acquainted with a couple of men on the train.   A month or so later  he becomes involved with a woman named Nastassya Filippovna who has a lot of problems of her own,  primarily with a guy named Rogozhin who was on the  train.

Rogozhin represents the bad and dark side of humanity the way that Myshkin represents the good.   There’s a lot of money thrown around and then there’s another woman,  Aglalia Epanchin,  with whom Myshkin becomes involved.

Myshkin doesn’t love either one in any romantic way.  And he doesn’t view the money in the way the others do.  He doesn’t want power or prestige.   Myshkin cares only for the truth – for love and charity.  So nobody understands – not him,  not the women,  not the friends.  And he doesn’t really understand them.

Basically it’s a good story,  very nicely written, and interesting in terms of psychology and spirituality (?).  Dostoevsky is asking if  the very, very good,  the innocent and saintly souls, are fit to live in Russia of those times –  or any times for that matter.  In the world where the focus and motivation are on money and sex and status and power.  What would happen to such a person, a person whose behavior, by nature,  defied society’s  norms? –

interesting map of the locations mentioned in The Idiot:

The best the good could do is intellectually understand  Myshkin’s ideas of love and charity,  the openness. They recognize the “goodness”  but  they aren’t able to actually live that way,  they aren’t innocent,  they aren’t naive.  Even Aglalia, who is really attracted to Myshkin,  can’t do it.

One thing which strikes me, as a result of recently reading Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf,   is the absence of modern or contemporary techniques and devices.   (Well, duh,  but …)   There is no “stream of consciousness” which would certainly fit in some scenes,  no back stories which would work nicely in other places.   It wasn’t noticeable on prior readings,  but this time it seems a bit odd after I noticed it.   If the story were to be completely redone by a contemporary author,  and the skeleton is definitely worth repeating,  there would certainly be both interior monologues and back-stories,  perhaps to the point of a non-linear chronology.

But the characters in The Idiot are always talking to someone,  even when they are reading something they wrote about themselves.  Ippolit’s  long long monologue is a case in point – he reads what he wrote out loud and it goes on for pages and pages – close to stream of consciousness but still,  he’s explaining things to an audience in his writing – not the same thing.

With Crime and Punishment there is plenty of thinking,  but it takes the form of “interior dialogues” – the protagonist is talking to other people in his mind.

In Mrs Dalloway there is a fair amount of backstory scattered throughout.  With Dostoevsky one character is always telling another what the background to a story is.

And Dostoevsky (or his translator) is very careful about punctuation with quote marks within quote marks when necessary,  commas and semi-colons as carefully and frequently used as in Dickens.   These niceties are absent in the works of  both Woolf and James Joyce.

Psychologist William James, brother of writer Henry James, wrote in his principles of psychology–

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as ‘chain’ or ‘train’ do not describe it fitly… It is nothing jointed; it flows. A ‘river’ or ‘stream’ are the metaphors by which it is naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of the subject of life.

I’m really digressing –  bottom line,  I think I’ll pass on reading it again – I don’t think I got anything really new this time.


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