Book Review

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot – Some random thoughts

So, in response to Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, I decided to read the original novel (namely the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), and I came away with a few thoughts.

In the book’s introduction by Pevear, he describes the writing process Dostoevsky had for the book. Written outside of Russia, he had developed a full plan for the book that he tossed after beginning, instead essentially writing the first seven chapters from the hip with the central idea of writing the human Christ in the form of Prince Myschkin.

What we end up getting is a meandering narrative after its introduction that moves from one instance of Myschkin influencing the world around him in Pollyanna-ish fashion. In particular, Parts 2 and 3 feel shockingly unimpactful to the central story of the twisting love affairs between Myschkin, Nastassya Filippovn, Rogozhin, and Aglaya Ivanovna. In fact, Nastassya and Rogozhin disappear for something like half of the book. Novels don’t need to be rigorously focused on one thing, but the near-complete detachment for about half of the book from the characters that define the beginning and ending feels weird.

It really feels like Dostoevsky was in search of a story, but the fact of the matter is that Myschkin is a really passive character. His form of goodness prevents him from being active, especially when it comes to the two women in his life. His love is so pure that he doesn’t actually want anything for himself, so he kind of just sits around until one of them demands that he take them. I’m not really sure how the women would find him so desirable beyond his money (a plot element injected into the beginning of Part 2, coming out of nowhere in a way that feels like Dostoevsky trying to find a way to keep Myschkin in the company of these relatively well-off people without him being a leech).

The reputation of the book upon its publication wasn’t all that positive, and Dostoevsky himself seemed to consider the book some kind of failure, an experiment in creating the ideal man in narrative form gone wrong. That reputation has risen considerably since, but I don’t think it really deserves it. I’ve read both Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamzov, and I found both of them engaging reads, even in the large tangents present in the narrative. The Idiot is the lesser work of a novelist who was capable of much, much better.

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