Some Additional, Final Thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”

“It’s a madhouse! A maaaaadhouse!!” – Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes…


I finally finished Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, last Friday (yes, a day late for the readalong) In this book, almost every single character is either mad (in the “crazy” sense), or believed to be mad, or declares one or more of his fellow characters to be mad. I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes for disconcerting reading, and distracts one from thinking or realizing “what is this book ABOUT anyway?”

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. I know what it’s about to ME, however. The titular character, Prince Myshkin, has returned to Russia after several years in a sanatorium in Switzerland, where he was treated for epilepsy and for being an “Idiot.” Though now well, he too easily takes people at their word, and is incredibly naive which, naturally, lands him in trouble frequently. The main source of his “troubles” is that he falls in love. Twice. Once with the strikingly beautiful “fallen woman,” Natasia Fillipovna, and then with the (also beautiful) young daughter of a general, Aglaya Ivanovna.

What I think the novel is saying, perhaps, is that civilization has reached the point that a transparently, unfailingly good and altruistic person “doesn’t stand a chance” in a world of greed and self serving motives. Myshkin will believe anything anyone tells him. He wants to like everyone, or at least find a reason to like them. Try to murder him? No worries. He will “understand” your motives and still be your friend. Mock him? He will fall in love with you for all your other qualities. Laugh at his proposal of marriage? No matter. All you need do is apologize with apparent earnestness and all will be forgiven.

So what is to become of a man like this? Well… ***SPOILER ALERT!*** one of the women he “loves” is murdered by his enemy/friend and the other marries a rich, expatriate, Polish nobleman, who turns out to be actually “none of the above” and turns her against family and friends. This sends a reeling Myshkin back to an asylum, perhaps suggesting that is the only place for someone of such a pure and noble nature in Dostoevsky’s 19th century world. Kind of a downer, huh? Thus, I was fairly disappointed with this book, even though shining through the translation was much of beauty and interest, including some deep thoughts on capital punishment. I’ll lea e you with the following beautiful passage so you hopefully won’t feel to negatively about this book:

“An old, forgotten memory awoke in his brain, and suddenly burst into clearness and light. It was a recollection of Switzerland, during the first year of his cure, the very first months. At that time he had been pretty nearly an idiot still; he could not speak properly, and had difficulty in understanding when others spoke to him. He climbed the mountainside, one sunny morning, and wandered long and aimlessly with a certain thought in his brain, which would not become clear. Above him was the blazing sky, below, the lake; all around was the horizon, clear and infinite. He looked out upon this, long and anxiously. He remembered how he had stretched out his arms towards the beautiful, boundless blue of the horizon, and wept, and wept. What had so tormented him was that he was a stranger to all this, that he was outside this glorious festival.”

This recollection occurs when he – as he frequently found himself – was at a loss to understand the actions and motives of other characters in the novel. Not a bad read, but I much preferred Crime and Punishment to this one.

Your thoughts…?

Sent from my iPad


  1. July 5, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Not sure why, but I’ve always been a bit intimidated by this one… I did enjoy Crime and Punishment so I really need to give this one a try.

    Glad you enjoyed the Gunslinger. I also love the many references to his other works.


    • Jay said,

      July 7, 2011 at 6:05 am

      I found this one rather tough going, but well worth it when all was said and done. Lots and lots of dialogue – much more than I’m used to.


  2. Robyn said,

    July 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Interesting review. Interesting enough that I now feel very little compulsion to read the book myself.


    • Jay said,

      July 11, 2011 at 7:31 am

      Hi Robyn,
      I certainly wouldn’t recommend this one to someone reading Dostoevsky for the first time…


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