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The Idiot



Translated by Eva Martin in 1915

First published in The Russian Messenger between the years 1868 and 1869, this novel is often considered one of the most brilliant literary achievements of the "Golden Age" of Russian literature. It has been adapted for the stage and screen numerous times. It has gone on through the years to inspire numerous authors, poets, and musicians. Christian Bale's character in the film "The Machinist" is seen reading The Idiot at various points. Musician Iggy Pop's 1977 album is called "The Idiot" in reference to the book.

26 year old Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin returns to Russia after spending several years at a Swiss sanatorium. Scorned by the society of St. Petersburg for his trusting nature and naiveté, he finds himself at the center of a struggle between a beautiful kept woman and a virtuous and pretty young girl, both of whom win his affection. Unfortunately, Myshkin's very goodness precipitates disaster, leaving the impression that, in a world obsessed with money, power, and sexual conquest, a sanatorium may be the only place for a saint.

The novel begins with three strangers in a train en route to Petersburg. A young man named Prince Myshkin is returning from a Swiss sanatorium where he has been treated for the past few years for some malady similar to epilepsy. He meets a roguish young man named Rogozhin, who has an unhealthy obsession with a beautiful young woman named Nastasya Filippovna, and a nosy government official named Lebedyev, who figures prominently throughout the novel. Upon arriving in Petersburg, Myshkin acquaints himself with many of the citizens and eventually meets, and is infatuated by, Nastasya. She is pushy, fickle, and impetuous, and bounces from fiance to fiance like a fortune hunter. Her irresistible and psychological stronghold on the men in her life leads to her downfall. The basis of the novel is that Myshkin is not bright, has not had much education, and traverses society with a mentality of simplistic innocence. When speaking his opinion, he struggles to articulate himself with Charlie Brown-like stammering and wishy-washiness. For this reason, people consider him an idiot, but he is a good, honest, sympathetic, and gracious person. When he comes into a large inheritance, he is blackmailed by a man who claims to be the illegitimate son of Myshkin's benefactor; but when the man's story is debunked, Myshkin befriends rather than chastises the culprit and his accomplices. Myshkin also falls in love with and becomes betrothed to a giddy girl named Aglaia, who uses his ingenuousness as a foil for her jokes and sarcasm, despite his undying devotion to her.

The novel seems to say that a saintly man, making his way in a society that is concerned with materialism and cutthroat avarice, will be considered a childish idiot for valuing honesty, kindness, and the simple things in life. Like I said, the ending is a shocker and sends a plaintive message, that in a crazy world, a sanatorium is the only place for a saint. Can a pure heart function in society? Apparently Dostoevsky thinks not except within the boundaries of a mental institution or monastery! This book introduces one of the great figures in fiction and surprisingly one you might like knowing. "Prince Myshkin" is so well intentioned as to be clownish. The author's greatest strength was his humanity and his protagonist is a lasting legacy for all of us to enjoy.--Submitted by Anonymous

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For those who have read Dostoevsky's The Idiot: quick question


Is there a society suitable for Myshkin?

The Idiot by Dostoevsky was my first run in with Dostoevsky and his works and it certainly won't be my last. I was interested by the complex messages that were in the book and reflecting upon it this question came to me. Is there a society that Myshkin could live in without being treated as an outcast such as he was throughout The Idiot? He seemed to be mixed within the Russian upperclass of the time where money alone could buy a woman's heart but Myshkin's own good nature did not seem to fit in. Whenever he expressed his opinions he was laughed at and passed off as an idiot when what he was saying was completely legitimate. Perhaps in a middle or lower class his personality would be more suited. Instead of the two women he was torn between he could find someone kind and uneducated such as himself in a different level of society.

The superiority of the idiot.

I have finished reading the idiot. An absolutely stunning masterpiece,and vastly superior to the brothers karazamov. (which was also great.) From begining to end this book was full of incident and packed with psychological insights. Far more realistic in terms of the characters than TBK,and the speeches by ippolit and myshkin were better than the grand inquisitor equivalent. I really struggle to see why this book is not referred to more. Ive just started 'demons' and im very curious to see if it can match the idiot.

Glad I read this translation of The Idiot

I'm not a very literary guy. I started reading it because it was mentioned over and over in a book my wife bought me for my birthday, "Last Night in Twisted River" is Updike or Irving, I can't remember who wrote it, sheesh. Parts of this book were gripping (The Idiot) other times, I slogged along for the sake of self-improvement. I damn near ran aground when I got to thinking about how much Constance Garnett might have woven her own little web in the translation. I actually got a hold of a copy of the book in the original Russian. Talk about slogging through! It got me interested in Russian, and I wasn't very able to corroborate (or refute) any of Ms. Garnett's work. It's interesting how no sexual innuendo wafted off this work at all. There was that place at the end when Nastasia was said to be on her knees, hugging his legs. I hate to tell you folks, that would be enough for me! Obviously Russian people mate, copiously I'm sure, (it's cold there, right?) And it's certainly not necessary to go into details about this and that. I did sort of wonder though about the princes sexual orientation or his virility, a couple of times. Actually, I wish I could be more like Muishkin . He reminded me of the character Elwood P. Dodd, portrayed in that play Harvey. A Gandhi like figure, it's appealing. But the fits and all, I wouldn't care for that. I didn't really follow a lot of the interrelationships between many of the characters. One thing, I wasn't aware of the notion of family members having different names. Here in America, most women take the name of their spouse -- apparently that's not what happens in Russia. I imagine my saying this will reveal my ignorance -- well have a good look. Now it's on to Anna Karenina...

Prince Myshkin's full name?

I've seen it cited as being "Lyov" and sometimes as "Lev". Has anyone read the original Russian and can comment on this?

Self-Loathing in The Idiot

I'm only 200 pages into it, but I've noticed the self-abuse and self-loating common among all of its characters except Myshkin. Almost every character is overly self-conscious (just like the Underground Man) and are aware of their impurity and immorality, and have accepted it. They even take pride in it, but never cease to let go of a chance to criticize themselves. *SPOILERS* It seems that Nastya ran off with Rogizn simply out of spite of herself, believing that she deserves punishment and enjoys punishment. Nastya in particular is so self-conscious that she is able to laugh at herself just as easily as she can at others. Myshkin, on the other hand, is like a little child (as he is called many times in the novel) and does not posess the hyper-consciousness of characters like the Underground Man or Hamlet, and thus is never self-loathing or self-abusive. He seems to live as if in an eternal state of meditation, of inner-calmness. It seems that through Myshkin, Dostoyevsky sees the religious experience as blissful unknowingness. As the Underground Man admitted himself in Notes from the Underground, that knowledge is the "root of all suffering". Myshkin doesn't seem to suffer, for he lives in blissful ignorance and innocence. It seems that Dostoyevsky is pessimistic of the view that the whole world can once again become this innocent child like Myshkin, for nobody really takes Myshkin seriously.

How aware is Myshkin?

The prince seems to appreciate that: Nastasya and Roghozin are in imminent danger, from themselves. And less so Aglaya. The probability of him averting, or even forestalling, disaster is small, and that his best efforts may be ineffectual. His selfless actions endanger himself, physically and mentally. Onlookers would have little sympathy for his noble self-sacrifices. His own fate matters little if he can be neighbour to one in need. Prince Myshkin’s always acted for the good of Ippolit, Keller, Burdovsky and Lebedev. More surprisingly, textual evidence confirms that the prince behaves in the best interests of Nastasya, Roghozin and Aglaya, throughout. The prince bears no responsibility for the disasters that eventually befall the three, and his actions probably forestall disaster, for a time. Prince Myshkin acts out of love (agape), and surely would do nothing different a second time. Despite the unfortunate outcome, his self-sacrifice for friends is admirable and heroic; and especially so considering the outcast status of Nastasya and Roghozin. John 15:13___Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

What themes could be surrounding Hippolite?

I see and hear about many themes surrounding the main character Prince Myshkin, but rarely any with Hippolite. He is dying and starts to notice the significance of the world and the environment around him. So what exactly, are the themes surrounding the character Hippolite?

Interesting paragraphs or scenes

What could the most important or interesting paragraph (or set of paragraphs) in the novel be.. or the most interesting scene?

The prince a "holy fool?"

I know from my studies, independant, of Russian Orthodox spirituality that one category of saints are refered to as holy fools. This is not a minor or obscure aspect of their haigiography. The great cathedral of St. Basil in Moscow is not named after the famous St. Basil who was a wise ancient scholar who was foundational to Orthodox liturgy, but of St. Basil the Holy Fool who terrorised Ivan the Terrible with his preaching. It seems to me that the Prince is clearly a member of this school of people, except for that shocking ending which at some level does not seem saintly to me. The fools may seem simple but the are portayed as stronger than the powerful forces of corruption they confront. I am sure that the princes character comes from holiness, his lack of defensiveness, his direct honesty, his giving freedom to those around him and finnally that he does not judge the souls of the people around him. Thoughts?

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