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Dated but worth the read
on 4 September 2014
Like others who have written reviews, I am somewhat disappointed with "The Idiot" after first reading and enjoying "Crime and Punishment". I have read detailed reviews relating to other editions which praise "The Idiot" for being one of the great classics of literature and whilst I think I can understand why they praise it so highly, for me, there is too much which is just too laboured or self indulgent about the book. It is also very dated in its style and whilst it would be unfair to criticise it for that, it does make it a more difficult and less enjoyable read.
I started reading the Penguin version but reverted to the Kindle version after reluctantly facing up to the fact that my eyesight was not able to cope with the print size. The Penguin version started with an introduction by the translator which painted a rather worrying tale of Dostoevsky's struggle to meet publisher's deadlines and therefore receive payment which would allow him to repay gambling debts. It seems to me that the author often didn't know where the story was going and therefore added in some irrelevant events and drew out certain scenes in order to meet those deadlines.
Having said that, there is clearly a lot to be admired provided that it is read with some understanding of the social structure and attitudes which existed in Russia when it was written. The central character is thought by most as an idiot as a result of his epilepsy although it is clear to the reader from the outset that he is anything but. Prince Muishkin (or Myshkin in other translations) is surrounded by a wide range of other characters, most of whom are well meaning enough in their way, but whose behaviours and attitudes are largely dominated by niceties of "society". They simply don't understand the Prince's naive honesty and goodness.
Perhaps the exception to this is a peripheral character, Hippolite, a young man dying of TB. Dostoevsky devotes three chapters to a "confession" from this young man in which his bitterness toward the fawning society he lives among is offered. Perhaps the length of this is overdone but it probably represents a core theme for the author. Whilst the story portrays Hippolite's bitterness as a reflection of the injustice of his illness accompanied by a willfulness to upset others, it probably reflects Dostoevsky's view of Russian Society.
Back to the good Prince, Dostoevsky's "hero". He starts and ends the story as an idiot in the eyes of the the other characters. In between, his alarming honesty and decency impact on those around him but are misinterpreted or exploited. Whilst most of those he has contact with are well meaning enough in their way, the dominance of the view that certain rules of behaviour must be complied with prevents them benefiting from the Prince's inherent goodness. As a result there are really no winners in the story, only losers. Who then is really the idiot? Whilst Dostoevsky was writing for the Russian establishment, my guess is that it he is saying Russia is the idiot.
In summary therefore I wouldn't say I particularly enjoyed reading this but I'm glad I did. It is instructive about the attitudes of Russian society of the time but it is not a page turner. My advice would be that if you are not prepared to complete a hard slog to the end, don't even start to read this.