Book of the Month


The Idiot
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
translated by
Henry and Olga Carlisle

The title character is Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, who returns to Russia after a number of years spent at a Swiss sanatorium receiving treatment for his epilepsy.  He also has a fragile mental disposition, and because of his naivety and eagerness to trust people, some call him “the Idiot.”

Upon his arrival in St. Petersburg, the Prince immediately befriends Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin, whom the Prince alternates between being concerned for and afraid of.  The cause of this unusual relationship is Nastassya Filippovna, an extremely beautiful woman who has been well-known as Totsky's mistress.  While some people look down on her for her “fallen” state, several men in fact are bewitched by Nastassya Filippovna's beauty, but none more so than Rogozhin.

After Nastassya Filippovna turns down a few marriage proposals, despite the wealth of the suitors, including Rogozhin's, the Prince announces that he has received a large inheritance and proposes to Nastassya Filippovna.  She is touched by the Prince's innocence and finds herself torn between his compassion and her self-punishing desire to submit to Rogozhin.

Moved by jealousy, Rogozhin approaches the Prince to stab him to death, but at the sight of the blade the Prince enters an epileptic seizure, and Rogozhin disappears into the shadows.

The Prince also finds himself in love with Aglaya, one of the daughters of the family from whom he rents a room.  Aglaya refuses to publicly admit she loves the Prince, but her family suspects she actually has feelings for him and for a period even acknowledges him as her fiance.  However, Aglaya and Nastassya Filippovna eventually confront the Prince together to demand that he make a choice between them.  The Prince is indecisive, so Aglaya decides that she can't compete with the Prince's bleeding heart for Nastassya Filippovna and withdraws.

The Prince and Nastassya Filippovna are soon afterward to be married, but then she runs off with Rogozhin.  The Prince follows them, and when he catches up he discovers that Rogozhin has murdered her.  The two men keep vigil over her body through the night, and in the morning the police show up.  Rogozhin confesses to the crime and is sentence to 15 years of hard labor, and the prince has a mental breakdown and returns to the sanatorium.

My introduction to Dostoyevsky and “The Idiot” was through Kurosawa Akira's film adaptation Hakuchi (1951).  The film follows the novel closely, although the Prince is instead a Japanese war veteran.  I found the film quite fascinating, and upon learning that about two hours were missing from this nearly 3-hour long film, I wondered what details were left out and decided to read the book.

“The Idiot” was a difficult read.  It's nearly 700 pages long, and these pages are set in the traditional densely-packed typeset and spacing, not like your modern easy readers with large print and double spacing.  The paragraphs are also very long, containing very long sentences; it's not uncommon to come across page-long paragraphs, and sometimes a single paragraph spans two or even three pages.

The storytelling was a little dry, with characters often launching into long monologues despite being in a conversation with a large group.  Often times there was an excess of unnecessary background detail.  Here's an example I just made up which illustrates this:

The Prince looked out his window one day and observed the milkman making his deliveries as he ambled his milk truck down the narrow, cobbled street.  The milkman had come from a very affluent family and his parents had had high hopes for his future.  He had been sent to the finest boarding school money could buy, and was preparing to leave for law school when he met a bewitchingly beautiful young woman from a disreputable family.  She begged him to run away with her to the country were nobody would be able to find them.  Blinded by his passion, he agreed, and they traveled far into the country were they were strangers.  They quickly married, and then after their passions settled down, her true personality came forth, and he discovered that she was lazy and abusive, but determined enough to not let him leave her.  So for the next twenty years he toiled to provide for his ungrateful wife, never receiving so much as a “Thank you” for his efforts.  Not able to even enjoy his work, the milkman never smiled; he just nodded curtly when people thanked him for the milk he delivered.  “That milkman never smiles,” the Prince said to himself.

The milkman is thereafter never so much as mentioned.

Another difficulty in reading this book is the Russian names.  They are all very long name, and it seems like each character has one or two nicknames which sound absolutely nothing like their given names.  Familiarity with the Russian language would have been beneficial with this.  (It wasn't until I got into the last 100 or 200 pages that I realized that some Russian surnames work like in Polish, where a if man's surname is Falkowski his wife's surname is Falkowska.)

Because of the long paragraphs, and the long monologues, it's difficult to read just a page or two now and then, and then to remember what you're reading about when you later on come back to read more.  Soon after I began reading this book, my life got incredibly busy, often leaving me with insufficient time for long sessions of getting deep into a complex book, so it took me nearly five years to finish this one.

Despite the difficulty I had in getting through this book, I still found it interesting.  I wish however that I had done the following (which I recommend to anyone else interested in reading this book):

  • Take notes while reading.  Every time a new character is introduced, write down his name (and aliases) and something about who the character is.
  • Take a crash course in Russian language and culture.  Cultural familiarity will definitely make it easier to keep the names straight.
  • If you don't understand French, make a note to look up the French phrases used in the book every time one is encountered.  Several characters seem to throw French around like somebody who brags about having “visited Europe” after a brief trip to only one European country.

This particular edition is now out of print, but you can find it at Amazon for as little as $4.

ISBN 0-451-52838-7
Price: US$6.95