“The Idiot” is one of Dostoevsky’s most intriguing novels, as it is Dostoevsky’s attempt to write a novel about a character who is purely good. I studied this book in undergrad and so could go on about it for hours, but I shall try to be a bit more succinct.
Prince Myshkin is the central character and Christ-figure of the novel. The name “Myshkin” is quite similar to the Russian word for “mouse.” Myshkin is good, innocent, and quite socially awkward. The book opens with his arrival in St. Petersburg after having spent the past several years being treated in Switzerland for “idiocy” and epilepsy.
It’s worth noting that being an idiot, in Dostoevsky’s view, isn’t a bad thing. Russia in the 19th century had the concept of a holy fool–someone who was crazy, but considered sacred at the same time. Harming a holy fool or trying to take advantage of one was seen as an ultimate evil, and holy fools were permitted to say a lot of things that would get a normal person arrested or worse. The holy fool was basically considered to be under the protection of Christ, and Myshkin’s madness was meant to invoke that association.
The basic plot (bear in mind that I am being very reductionist here) is about Myshkin’s love triangle and his decision about marriage. He loves Aglaya in a more traditional romantic sense of the term. Aglaya is interesting because she is portrayed as an intelligent and sensible woman, which is pretty rare in 19th century Russia. The second love interest is Nastassya Filipovna, who is my favorite female literary character of all time. Myshkin’s love for Nastassya is more of a compassionate love that stems from his desire to save her.
Nastassya is both badass and flawed. After suffering years of sexual abuse at the hands of an older man, she is now on her own, as her guardian/abuser decided to marry someone else. Nastassya believes that the abuse she suffered makes her unsuitable for polite society. Because of this feeling of masochism and self-hatred, she also is far less inhibited than other characters. She doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her because she feels as if she has absolutely nothing to lose. She causes scandals everywhere she goes and stirs up a lot of trouble. In one scene, she throws a suitor’s money into a fire, daring him to reach in and get it.
While I loved the book in general, I was somewhat disappointed with the ending. Dostoevsky developed two very interesting and strong female characters, but I don’t think that he took them very much out of character and screwed them both over. They were never allowed to reach the peak of their own potential.
I don’t think that Nastassya should have died the way that she did. She was too independent to end like that; my own view of what should have happened would have been her pulling out her own knife a la Dunya in Crime and Punishment. And Aglaya? Really? What the hell was up with running away with the Polish dude?! Dostoevsky wrote her character as someone who would have had far more common sense than that. Why after writing such strong and awesome characters would you make them each do something that’s completely out of character?
Overall, I highly recommend this book and/or any of Dostoevsky’s work. I really like the structure of “The Idiot,” because it reminded me of college. Each of the characters have their own relatively boring lives. All of the characters end up in a room together, and shit hits the fan. Then, there is the requisite clean-up and gossip that follows the blowup. By that time, some social event necessitates that everyone is put in the same room together again, and BAM! Drama!