Published in a series of magazine issues in 1868-69, this is one of the masterpieces by the author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. It made me laugh a great deal, but it is not a comedy. Its climax is mysterious and chilling, but it is not a thriller. Dickensian in its large cast of vividly colorful characters and in its satire on the society of its time, it is not quite a picaresque. Tragic to a truly disturbing degree, it is too subtle and complex to make grand opera, too often given to immensely long talky scenes, featuring too many characters, to translate well into film—though the attempt has often been made to adapt it for stage or screen. It’s a great novel in which a sensitive reader can feel himself totally immersed, only to be shocked out of “willing suspension of disbelief” when its author breaks the fourth wall and begins commenting on his characters as fictional creations. Though it may come as a surprise to those of us who grew up watching a copy of the novel collecting dust in a reverential spot on our parents’ bookshelf, looking so serious and sophisticated that we could hardly imagine trying to read it, it happens to be a vastly entertaining novel. Once you read it, you will not forget it.
Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin is the “idiot” named in the title. We first meet this simple-hearted young man on a train to St. Petersburg, returning to Russia after several years under a doctor’s care in Switzerland. In boyhood he had been disabled to the point of idiocy by epilepsy, but the support of a wealthy patron and (later) the generosity of his doctor have at least partially cured him, and provided for his education. Now he has decided to return from abroad, but he really knows nothing about how to get along in Russian society. Even before he sets foot on the motherland’s soil, his ignorance of the confusing forces in play around him begin to create trouble for the Prince. By the end (mild spoiler, here), his fragile nerves will prove unequal to the strain that arises from the instantaneous love and hate that he excites in the men and women he meets.
I’ve been pondering how to boil Prince Myshkin’s story down into a neat, pithy statement. I am loath to say that Myshkin is a Christ figure; that’s probably been said before, and the weaknesses in that thesis have just as likely been pointed out. More tempting is a broader description of Myshkin as the one whole, wholesome, healing person in the world, surrounded by a crowd of sick, sickening people who spread their sickness to one another. But just when I feel ready to go with that thesis, Dosto(y)evsky explodes it by showering his messy, flawed characters with gentle, non-judgmental understanding. In this book, bad people come to some bad ends. But some good people come, arguably, to even worse ends. And you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry; or, should you settle on doing both, in which order to do them.
Poor Lev Nikolayevich finds himself torn between the love of two women, two diametrically opposite women whom he loves for diametrically opposite reasons, and who alternately seem to love and hate him in perversely unpredictable alternation, yet in completely different ways. And so we see a good man—perhaps the good man—forced into a situation where he can only do one evil thing or another. And when, at last, the choice has been made, the evil that results is all that could be expected, and more.
Among the other cast members in this novel’s hypnotically long and complicated scenes—any one of which could be staged by itself as a piece of experimental theater—are:
- General Yepanchin, a pompous, philandering, yet henpecked husband and gentleman
- Lizaveta Prokofyevna, his bossy, hot-tempered, but basically tender-hearted wife
- Their three unmarried daughters Alexandra, Adelaida, and the beautiful but flighty Aglaya
- Rogozhin, the dangerously unstable heir to a fortune, who is obsessed with a beautiful but troubled woman named Nastasya Filipovna
- Ganya Ivolgin, a young civil servant who is also torn between Aglaya and Nastasya Filipovna
- Ganya’s socially climbing sister Varya, his old-for-his-years little brother Kolya, and his father General Ivolgin, who is both a drunk and a compulsive liar
- Lebedev, a sponging and scheming character whose many lines of work include government clerk, pawnbroker, landlord, and interpreter of biblical prophecy
- Hippolyte, a consumptive scandal-monger and nihilist who (in one of the book’s most fascinating scenes) publicly reads a manifesto concerning his planned suicide
- Yevgeny Pavlovich, another suitor for Aglaya’s hand, who plays an ambiguously sympathetic role in the Prince’s fate
These are only the foremost few of a much larger cast that includes an informer, a slanderer, a stammerer, a money-lender, an aspiring murderer (not to be confused with the actual murderer in the story, who has already been named), a child molester, and various representatives of every level of Russian society in all their glories and foibles. But at the center of it all is a fallen woman who fascinates many men, and who is drawn to destroy herself and those around her; a sheltered and virtuous girl whose happiness is threatened by her own willfulness; and our own dear Prince who, every time you think he’s an idiot, says or does something that makes him seem amazingly wise and clear-headed; only to provoke someone to call him an idiot again in the next paragraph.
All this talk of Myshkin being an idiot will affect you as being cruelly unfair. Whatever he is—naive, pure, honest, lacking a sense of proportion, etc.—he is not, you will be sure, an idiot. Up to a certain point, you may think this book is about the injustice of such a man, of whom the world is not worthy, being called an idiot for his pains. At the end, however, it seems to be more about how the world can actually make an idiot of a good man. It is a novel of disgust with a world where the sanity of the upper, lower, and middle classes alike—of the very religious as well as those fired by political and rationalistic zeal—can destroy the sanity of people like Nastasya Filipovna, Rogozhin, and Myshkin, among others.
It is a novel of messed-up people in collision, and of one supremely messed-up individual who almost, for a little while, seems to have a chance to heal them all. It’s a well-known enough book that it’s not really a spoiler when I say things don’t work out that way. I give you fair warning. Why they don’t work out, and how they don’t, will be on your mind for a while.