The Idiot: Book Review

Erik Gaiser

Contributing Writer

“As far as I am concerned, I resign from humanity. I no longer want to be, nor can still be, a man. What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and esthetic ideals? It’s all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone. But am I not already alone in this world from which I no longer expect anything?” – Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair. 

“On one of the first days of my stay in Switzerland, I was strolling about alone and miserable, when I came upon the children rushing noisily out of school, with their slates and bags, and books, their games, their laughter and shouts—and my soul went out to them. I stopped and laughed happily as I watched their little feet moving so quickly. Girls and boys, laughing and crying; for as they went home many of them found time to fight and make peace, to weep and play. I forgot my troubles in looking at them. And then, all those three years, I tried to understand why men should be forever tormenting themselves.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot.

A packed, third-class train car rushes toward St. Petersburg. Situated across from an eccentric man claiming that he will win the love of his life through his dead father’s inheritance and a small, petty official interested in any small scandal he can stick his nose into, is a disheveled man, his only belongings stuffed into a small satchel next to his feet. The man is surrounded by the destitute, the poorest of the poor, and those that have thrown away all morality for the pursuit of instant gratification. However, this man remains vigilant against the distractions of the chaos that surrounds him. He shuffles through the streets of St. Petersburg with a dreamy countenance, physically in the world, but mentally existing on another plane. He interacts with the aristocratic elite and the radical young men of society with the same humility and grace, the thought of conferring favors on the former and chastising the latter never enters his mind. 

According to Dostevsky, he wrote this novel with the intention of portraying, “the positively good and beautiful man,” the paradigm of Christian virtue, constantly at war with the entrapments of material life, and unceasingly defending from the violent attacks of nihilism and atheism. His is the ultimate test, not only of Christianity, but faith in general. His life is the ultimate crisis of faith. 

The novel follows the story of Myshkin, commonly called the Prince throughout the story. He is returning from a four year stay in Switzerland, where he was recovering from his epileptic seizures. He returns to his native land of Russia because he believes he has distant relations to Madame Epanchin, who is descended from one of the oldest of Russia’s nobility. However, once he gains the acquaintance of the Epanchins, he quickly finds himself swallowed in a vortex of intrigue, scandal, and an incredibly painful infatuation with a woman who finds herself at the center of most of the narrative: Nastaya Flipponova. Myshkin interacts with zealous young intellectuals, the old and disgraced, the defeated and indifferent. Myshkin attempts to handle his diverse relationships in the best possible manner, remaining cool-headed and trying to remain genuinely kind to all those who surround him. 

However, given the people that find their way into Myshkins life, many of whom are devoted to increasing their profits, or elevating their position in the social hierarchy, Myshkin finds it increasingly difficult to carry out this task. Myshkin is commonly referred to as an “idiot” throughout the story due to his good nature, many not realizing that his benevolence does not stem from a place of ignorance, but a conscious decision to treat everyone with love. 

Although the most forgotten of Doestoevsky’s four most famous novels, The Idiot contains some of the strongest examples of some of the debates that make up so many of Dostoevsky’s narratives. The position of a God in a cruel world, how religion will come to grips when faced with the base reality of nature, how man must find his place among all these dilemmas and debates, and ultimately trying to find beauty hidden in the heart of all these questions. There are two episodes within The Idiot that particularly touched me, those being Myshkins’ recount of the story of Marie, and Ippolit’s lengthy “final conviction.” 

It is impossible for me to recount the depth and nuance of these episodes here, but I believe that they are just as remarkable as the “Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov, and some of the most memorable moments of any piece of fiction that I have read. After it was initially released, many critics panned The Idiot for its wandering plot that moves incredibly fast and leads to many dramatic moments. I believe some of the genius of this work is that while these claims are in some aspects true, even Dostoevsky conceded to these criticisms, it does not distract from the beauty at play underneath. The plot stays grounded through the enigma of the Prince’s character.

I believe that if there is any “moral” to The Idiot, and summing up a book with so many complicated philosophical and religious ideas does not allow there to be an easy, single “moral,” however, I think it would be the importance of trying to emulate the example of selfless goodness. I think almost everyone has been in a situation where they are sitting in traffic, and they see the person in front of them who has just cut them off as quite possibly the worst human being who has ever lived. Or when you are in a grocery store self-checkout, and the person in front of you is loudly talking on the phone, and you see them as the paradigm of the fall of human civilization. 

We increasingly interact with one another through digital planes, through caricatures we create in our own heads, and through preconceived ideas that very often do not align with the actual person we are thinking about at all. I think if The Idiot is trying to say anything, it is that these methods of thought are incredibly dangerous, and that we should attempt to see these other people that, regardless of whether we think about it or not, make up our everyday, as people just like us. 

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