Friday, November 2, 2012

The Idiot: A Mixed Review

Some of the best books I've ever read were written by Fyodor Dosteovsky.  Notes from the Underground is a fascinating narrative of fragmented, conflicting thoughts.  Crime and Punishment explores the conflict of a tortured yet lovable man who commits a heinous act of violence. The Brothers Karamazov brilliantly presents various philosophies in character dialogues, offering both fascinating and conflicting insight in important aspects of human nature.

Thus, when I finally nestled down with my copy of The Idiot, I eagerly anticipated what was coming in the pages.  I trustfully pushed through the initial confusion that always comes with Russian texts as I tried to sort out the characters in my mind and grasp the scenes.  I waited patiently as Myshkin bumbled his way through the St. Petersburg social scene, anticipating some kind of dramatic character development that would absorb me.  And remembering past Dostoevsky pieces, I fully expected a twist and a dramatic ending.

There were some moments that I loved, and the ending was as unexpected as I had expected.  (If that makes any sense...)  However, the novel as a whole disappointed me.  It's just simply not as good as the others.

To be fair, there are certainly some strengths to this piece.  The irony of the title is ever-present and adds a significant dimension to the story.  Prince Myshkin is generally considered an idiot by the characters, but the readers can clearly see that he is highly intelligent but also highly naive.  Myshkin has spent most of his life in a small town in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy, a disease whose seizures often disturb and bias those who witness them.  All of his seizures in the novel come at pinnacle moments in the story, and it would be interesting to do a study of each of these events.  But there is nothing wrong with his cognitive ability, despite the title of the novel.  He is incredibly compassionate and becomes highly invested in the people he meets in a short amount of time.  His innocence is often met with cynical disdain by those around him, which feels extraordinarily modern to me.  Most of us, especially those of us from the city, would treat someone with such a blind trust in others with similar prideful derision.  In fact, I'm not convinced that Dostoevsky really wants us to admire Myshkin, despite the fondness we might feel for him.  Nevertheless, he is an interesting character in theory.

However, I think that Myshkin's nature is also the primary reason I did not enjoy this novel as much as the others.  For various reasons, I am far more drawn by flawed characters than "perfect" ones.  I just don't think that Myshkin had enough depth to successfully carry the weight of the story.  If The Brothers Karamazov had been all about Alyosha, for example, there's no way I would have enjoyed it as much as I did.  Alyosha provided a valuable dimension to the story, but Ivan and Dmitri were necessary to give the novel its proper balance and ingenious complexity.  The Idiot simply lacked that.

To add my own balance to this review, I want to include another aspect of the story that I did like.  The scene that I will remember the most was the long-awaited confrontation between Nastassya and Aglaya.  Both women have their flaws, and there are certainly aspects of their characters I dislike from a feminist perspective as well.  However, it's not often that two women so remarkably overpower a man in 19th century literature.  As they battled openly in front of Myshkin, I felt the swell of their tension as well as their equal intelligence.  Both women are beautiful, headstrong, opinionated, and romantic at heart, and I felt this combination was incredibly unique among female characters of this era.  Moreover, there are two of them in this one story!  Poor Myshkin was frozen by their confrontation and could hardly react.  I think that one of Dostoevsky's greatest strengths is when he engages in a lengthy dialogue between two characters.  This scene between Nastassya and Aglaya is just as memorable for me as some of the dialogues in his other brilliant works.

It has taken me several months to come to terms with the fact that I did not love this book.  I was so sure that it would impact me the way Dostoevsky's other writing has done.  It helps me to identify the strengths in the novel and to recognize that perhaps my expectations were unrealistic.  Now, all I have left to read of Dostoevsky's masterpieces is Demons.  I may save this one for a while, holding out hope that I will find it to be as brilliant and fascinating as some of the others.  But having now read The Idiot, I think I will lower my expectations and try to keep a more open mind before I begin.  I still consider Dostoevsky my favorite author, and I look forward to reading this last novel someday before too long.

1 comment:

o said...

I loved Prince Myshkin so much I named my budgie after him :)

(That, by the way, is the most unintelligent comment I've ever left on a blog).

My last one on the list is The Brothers Karamazov. For some reason, I am quite drawn to Dosteovsky, and I did very much like The Idiot, but Crime and Punishment and The Demons certainly weren't favourites of mine.