THE IDIOT

SONY DSC

Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821– 81)
Translator: Ignat Avsey
Publisher: Alma Classics (2014 edition)
Borrowed from: National Library

Introduction

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (sometimes spelled Dostoyevsky) is a giant of Russian literature. He and Leo Tolstoy are the most famous novelists from the Golden Age of Russian literature (the 19th century).

In the 1800s, there was a struggle between two schools of thought for influence amongst the Russian intelligentsia. One school embraced the Western European culture and philosophy that first arrived in Russia during the reign of Tsar Peter the Great (1682 – 1725). The other school, called Slavophilism, emerged in the 19th century as a rejection of Westernism in favour of traditional Russian Orthodox values. The clash between these two ideologies spilled into Russian literature of that period, for example in works by Ivan Turgenev (a Westerner) and Dostoevsky (a Slavophile).

Dostoevsky was a young and up-and-coming writer when he joined a group of social reforms in 1846. He and several members of the group were arrested, condemned to death and, apparently, subjected to a mock execution in 1849. Pardoned at the last minute, Dostoevsky was re-sentenced to 4 years of hard labor followed by a term of military service in Siberia. He was discharged from military service in 1859 for health reasons.

Dostoevsky returned from Siberia a changed man. Physically, his already frail health worsened. Mentally, he rejected Westernism and embraced Slavophilism. He had actually completed a novel while he was in Siberia and on his release resumed his writing career. He was an inveterate gambler however and only escaped financial ruin thanks to the success of Crime and Punishment (1866). Dostoevsky isalso known for The Idiot (1869) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

What is the story about?

The protagonist Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin returned to Russia after convalescing abroad. Although he was away for only 4 years, he came back totally alien to the Russian way of life. He was drawn to the violent Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin (his very antithesis). Completing the triangle was Natasya Filippovna Barashkov, a beautiful but bitter young woman who spelled trouble with a capital T (in the mould of Becky Sharp from Thakeray’s Vanity Fair; 1847–8).

Themes

Prince Myshkin was a Christ figure, returning not from the dead but an illness that had transformed him into an innocent child-like individual. He was overwhelmed by the people he met, who were all corrupt, greedy and/or self-centered.

How is the book?

This volume comes with a useful introduction to Dostoevsky and his works.

Finally …

Too long, too many characters and sub-plots.

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