Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot in the late 19th Century, and it continues to be one of the best novels ever written in the world, across all languages and genres. Dostoyevsky, inarguably one of the greatest novelists ever, authored the book originally in Russian, in 1869. David Magarshack translated the book into English in the year 1955, though he wasn’t the first one to do so.
Plot Summary of The Idiot
The story revolves around Prince Myshkin, an epileptic young man from an erstwhile noble lineage. He moved to Russia from Switzerland, where he spent four years for treatment. While on a train to St Petersburg, he meets Parfyon Rogozhin and takes a liking for him. Rogozhin goes on to become Myshkin’s arch-nemesis, his greatest adversary, and admirer at the same time.
On his return, Prince Myshkin meets General Yepanchin, whose wife was his distant relative, and his family. The General’s youngest daughter, Aglaya Yepanchin is fascinated by Prince Myshkin, and he, too, takes a liking to her. Subsequently, he meets the talk of the town, the woman known far and wide for her beauty, Nastassya Filippovna. From here on, the novel won’t leave your fascination until you complete it and put it down wiping your tears.
Being orphaned at the age of 7, Nastassya, also of noble descent, fell into the guardianship of Afanasy Totsky. A wealthy aristocrat, Totsky, seduced her to become his mistress at a very young age, and due to this Nastassya gained a negative repute throughout St. Petersburg. Despite this, Prince Myshkin begins to like her. However, he isn’t the only one who falls for the infamous mistress. Rogozhin is madly in love with her already.
Towards the end, be prepared for heartbreak, especially if you’ve fallen in love with Nastassya Filippovna and Aglaya Yepanchin, which you definitely will. That’s the moment in the story where you almost hate the protagonist. But when you’re done, you’ll have nothing but sympathy for the poor Prince Myshkin.
Phenomenal to Read
The story is a grippy tale of love, rejection, morality, guilt, depression, and longing, which is exquisitely portrayed through complex relationships, which makes you want to step in yourself and scream in the face of the protagonist, for making decisions that make life hell for almost everyone. Dostoyevsky creates a world with which you would develop a love-hate relationship, a world with glorified imperfections, a world with terrifying moral values, and a world where being perfect is not even hoped for.
The language of the book is not easy, but not complex enough to put you off, and is similar stylistically. The novel was the first which, in the words of Prof Gary Saul Morson, “… violates every critical norm and yet somehow manages to achieve real greatness.” So, if you find some continuity issues in the beginning, keep your calm, and the story will reward you thoroughly. If you have read a few romance novels, and want to go deep with romantic relationships and sacrifices, grab the book wherever you find it. However, please don’t take The Idiot as your first book, as the novel is not at all written for beginners.
What also keeps you immersed, is the beautiful, almost life-like, depiction of the Russian Society of the 19th Century. It portrays the class discrimination, picturesque parks, love for art and culture, and the common state of life in general. If you read this book at a stretch, you will find yourself in the land where Dostoyevsky wants to take you and will experience every bit of it.
The portrayal of the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, heavily inspired by the character of Jesus Christ as depicted in the popular narrative, is utterly fascinating. What’s more interesting is how deeply the conditions and feelings during an epileptic attack are described. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the author, Dostoyevsky, himself suffered from severe epilepsy. In fact, apart from Jesus, he took inspiration for the sufferings of the character from his own life.
The two female leads, Aglaya, and Nastassya are mirror images of each other, with a few subtle, yet impactful differences. Aglaya, the White Angel, is an impulsive young woman who hides her fear of losing her loved ones behind her anger. While on the other hand, the Dark Angel, Nastassya is ready to lose herself to hide the fear of losing the love of her life. Both of them are intense, possess exotic beauty, have a stately background, and are as honest as death.
Then there’s my favorite character, the antagonist, Parfyon Rogozhin. He might have a dominant dark side which we believe to be immoral, but there’s a lot more to it than mere morality. For one, Rogozhin is a man of his word, even if he means to hurt you. He is brutally honest about his aspirations and would kill to fulfill them. Rogozhin is the perfect Judas for the Christ-like Prince.
Besides the central characters, there are several other ones, which play their parts beautifully and make the story intensely engaging. Two of them, however, stand out – Ippolit Terentyev, a dying young man in the final stages of tuberculosis, and Ganya, a young lad who is ready to marry the defamed mistress, but only for her lavish inheritance.
What can we learn from The Idiot?
The greatest lesson from the novel comes from a flaw in the character of the protagonist, Prince Myshkin. This is a mistake many of us make in our lives. And that’s trying to do good for everything and everyone, at all times, and without considering one’s self good. Every human being has limitations, and more than realizing our strengths, it is important to accept these limitations.
This is what Prince Myshkin fails to do, which is exactly what we should avoid. Be positive, and be helpful towards the deprived. However, not so much that you become ignorant of the people who care for you. God Almighty has limited our strength and those who don’t accept this end up having, more often than not, painful endings.
(Note: There’s no way that my review of “The Idiot” can do justice to this masterpiece. I consider this article as a mere confession of admiration and fondness, and a tribute to the story, which I feel is one of the best I’ve ever read, if not the best.)
Check out the video of The Idiot book review.
Noman Shaikh is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bombay Reads. He grew up in Mumbai, a city he loves more than any other, and currently works as a content consultant. His expertise lies in creating high-quality academic and marketing content in the form of blogs, articles, op-eds, etc. Noman has worked with reputed brands, including Economic Times (through Spiral Media), Coinbase (through MattsenKumar), AdEngage, Della Group, GBIM Technologies, VAP Group, etc. For his published portfolio, click here. Contact Noman on noman@bombayreads for engagement.