“It wasn’t the New World that mattered…Columbus died almost without seeing it; and not really knowing what he had discovered. It’s life that matters, nothing but life — the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself, at all.”
The Idiot is one of Dostoyevsky’s most tragic novels I’ve read so far. While in Crime and Punishment we observe the psychological turmoil of Raskolnikov, The Idiot turns its sight outwards and observes the effect Prince Myshkin-a young naive man with a title and an illness- has on society and how this cold and capitalistic society receives him in turn. Being in the midst of a wide cast of worldly characters for his first time, he finds himself open to manipulation, conflicts, egoism, passion and also love. What makes it tragic though is that there is no window of transcendence.
Prince Myshkin is considered to be the ‘ideal man’, but whose Christlike compassion turns out to be incompatible with society. His conduct is too unrealistic and utopian and although he is genuine and loves deeply, I think his figure cannot be considered a saviour. In fact, he saves no one, not even himself, but rather causes the destruction of the people he wanted to save the most. Maybe because he has ‘no tenderness, only truth’ and lacks the self-protective common sense. Dostoyevsky also presents an accurate description of epilepsy and the effect it has on the life of the Prince. Such sensitivity can be attributed to Dostoyevsky’s personal experience with this illness. Epilepsy labels Myshkin as an idiot but the narrator emphasises the fact that the epileptic fits gave him a heightened sense of self-awareness and spiritual preoccupation. However, these moments of illumination are a precursor to a mental darkness, a darkness in which the Prince completely descends into once compassion fails him.
“It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool’s paradise.”
One of the main themes in the novel is the incompatibility of Eros and Agape; the sexual, often consuming love and the dispassionate unconditional love. Both are important in their own way, and trying to replace one with the other only leads to chaos and disruption. We do get to observe how three men loved Nastasya Fillipovna in terms of three kinds of love: vain (Ganya), passionate (Rogozhin) and Christ-like (the Prince) and how all of them were blind to their own limitations. The novel also touches on themes of corruption by Capitalism. As a Slavophile, Dostoyevsky abhorred the corrupting effects of capitalism on Russian culture and clearly portrayed characters who abandoned their moral values for their greed. There are many other themes discussed throughout the novel, such as religion, nihilism and also death- death in the form of Ippolit’s consumption, the cruelty of capital punishment and the symbolism behind Holbein’s painting of the dead Christ in his tomb.
Dostoyevsky’s writing is always a pleasure to read and while I would not consider this to be a favourite of his work, I still think it is an incredible novel. Simply put, it is a flawed book but with flashes of brilliance that compensate for its shadows. My Penguin classics edition is translated by David McDuff and I would highly recommend it as it is very smooth and easy to read. I am definitely looking forward to my next Dostoyevsky, which will probably be The Brothers Karamazov.
“There is something at the bottom of every new human thought, every thought of genius, or even every earnest thought that springs up in any brain, which can never be communicated to others, even if one were to write volumes about it and were explaining one’s idea for thirty-five years; there’s something left which cannot be induced to emerge from your brain, and remains with you forever; and with it you will die, without communicating to anyone perhaps the most important of your ideas.”