Monthly Archives: April 2024

A long journey not worth making

Book cover of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky showing a hand holding a photo of a woman.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Idiot begins with the young Prince Myshkin coming back to Russia after years of treatment for epilepsy in Switzerland. Poor and sickly, he is hoping to see the one distant relative that he knows of. He meets the gruff Rogozhin on the train to Saint Petersburg, who tells him of his love for the beautiful Nastasya Filippovna. The book’s core is Myshkin’s involvement with this couple, with several subplots and countless characters moving in and out of the story.

There’s an interesting concept here, as Dostoevsky, after Crime and Punishment, decided to write a character quite the opposite of Raskolnikov. Myshkin is an innocent man in a corrupt world, almost a Christ-like character. But Dostoevsky doesn’t really do much with this idea. Myshkin wins many people over with his frank honesty, although it’s unclear whether most of them pity him or really admire him. In the end, his followers get him nothing as he gets tangled up in a tragic mess of crisscrossing love interests that eventually lead to his downfall.

The book seems intended to be a critique of late nineteenth century Russian society, although to this modern reader it lacks bite or humor. I also found the characters to be fairly generic, created to express different points of view rather than being fully fleshed out characters.

As translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the prose and dialogue do read easily, but the book still felt like a very long slog. There are several very lengthy scenes with pages upon pages of exposition. There is lots of talk about morality, the Russian character, and philosophies of Christianity, but to me it seemed to be little more than nationalist and religious ranting. Much is made of a painting, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger. Dostoevsky and his character see this work as confronting and negating Christian faith, but I think Dostoevsky missed the point of this sixteenth century German painting, which was to drive home the suffering that Christ endured, not to imply that Christ wasn’t divine. This misguided, forced argument, to me, represents what is wrong with the novel, as Dostoevsky seems to force actions and opinions on his characters to prove points he wants to make. One way to read this is that he believed their society was hopeless and wouldn’t recognize a Christ-like figure if it encountered it. But in the end, it just doesn’t amount to much more than a yarn.

Making the book even more difficult to read is that there are more than 25 characters to keep track of, each with multiple names. As the translators explain, Russian names are composed of first name, patronymic (from the father’s first name), and family name. Then there are two forms of diminutives used among family and friends–the familiar and the casual or disrespectful. The translators use these as I assume Dostoevsky did, but to this Western reader, keeping track of dozens of unfamiliar names for characters with little to no distinguishing features was extremely difficult.

I did want to love this book. Crime and Punishment was one of my favorite books in high school, and other books with similar approaches are among my favorites, like Don Quixote, The Pickwick Papers, and Being There. But I found this one kind of a mess. Despite an intriguing concept, it just wasn’t worth the time spent on it.