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July 16, 2011

Rohit Reviews: The Idiot

The Idiot

One need not know me well to know that I am rather fond of Russian literature. The frequency with which I reference it, both on this wretched site and in a real life that is far more wretched still, is exceeded perhaps only by the seemingly unending obscure allusions to The X-Files (like this, for instance). That I would choose to pick up The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky back in summer of 2008 so soon after finishing Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov in 2007 (review here), therefore, should come as no surprise. Nor should it shock anyone that, like most things in my life, The Idiot too would fall victim to law school's vice-like grip on my time, becoming yet another law school casualty. Although I had been more than 150 pages in when I left New York that summer, I was forced to start all over when I picked up the book again this spring, finally determined to finish it. Today I accomplished that task, bringing to a close another half-completed remnant of my law school years.

The first thing to note about The Idiot is that, though it is not as philosophical as The Brothers Karamazov nor as powerful as Crime and Punishment (which I read some eleven years ago in the twelfth grade), it is nonetheless a profoundly sad and masterfully accomplished story that captures human existence and nature perhaps better than the other two. Briefly, the novel sets forth the story of Prince Myshkin, simpleminded, innocent, naïve, and compassionate, as he navigates the corrupt, self-serving, envious adult world of St Petersburg. Readers familiar with The Brothers Karamazov will likely draw an instant comparison to Aloshya, who like the Prince, is innocent and childlike. And as one might expect from an encounter between innocence on the one hand and corruption on the other, the result is hardly pretty. Many times throughout the novel, the reader is left to shake his or her head at the utter cruelty of which we (loathsome!) humans are capable.

A deeper analysis of the novel reveals a Biblical allegory. The rise and (spoiler alert) fall of Prince Myshkin can be seen as a rendition of the Christ story itself; the Prince represents the human side of Christ and the challenges he encounters in confronting human emotions, especially with respect to the beautiful and self-loathing Nastasya, make for particularly compelling scenes. Dostoevsky was said to be inspired to write this book by Hans Holbein's The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, which is a particularly gruesome depiction, and in many ways explains the trajectory of the novel.

The aspect that I enjoyed the most was Dostoevsky's development of the characters. Most everyone will recognize many whom they know (if not themselves) in the various portraits. That aspect, however, also proved to be quite irritating at times: the buffoonery and utterly nonsensical monologues of General Ivolgin and Lebedev, in particular, often grated on my nerves. Perhaps that's the greatest testament to Dostoevsky's success: to hate characters (or be annoyed by them), one must be engaged—and I certainly was for all of the 615 pages.

What follows is a passage that stood out to me:

Indeed, there is nothing more vexing, for instance, than to be rich, of respectable family, of decent appearance, of rather good education, not stupid, even kind, and at the same time to have no talent, no particularity, no oddity even, not a single idea of one's own, to be decidedly like everybody else. There is wealth, but not a Rothschild's; an honorable family, but which has never distinguished itself in any way; a decent appearance, but very little expression; a proper education, but without knowing what to apply it to; there is intelligence, but with no ideas of one's own; there is a heart, but with no magnanimity, etc. etc., in all respects. There are a great many such people in the world and even far more than it seems; they are divided, as all people are, into two main categories; one limited, the other much cleverer. The first are happier.1

It doesn't get more real than that. God, people suck. Four stars of five.

^ 1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, The Idiot, 463 (Vintage 2001).

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