The Idiot (1869) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A masterful, piercing, moving novel, where Dostoevsky explores humanity’s inner conflict between self-improvement and self-destruction, the many psychological complexities involved in forming and sustaining romantic relationships, and the clash between society’s religious and moral ideals and the actual society they exist in.

For all the thematic brilliance of the novel – Dostoevsky uses the protagonist Prince Myshkin beautifully and painfully to examine inherent conflicts and issues between the reality of a society and the notions and traits a society holds as the ideal -, it’s the psychologist insight that made the writing transcend from merely a great novel, into a penetrating examination of people, relationships, and circumstances that I found easily parallels with in my own life, memories, and experiences. That old adage about art, fiction, essentially “lies” that in fact tell brutal truths, felt very personally applicable for me here. The character of Natassya Filippovna is one of the most compelling I’ve ever found in fiction. Her twin pulls between self-destructively embracing the role of ‘fallen woman’ wrongfully inflicted on her, and embracing the healing love of one who finds her perfect already…it rings so painfully true, not only as psychological insight, but also as an observation on human nature in general.

While Natassya Fillippovna was the most moving and powerful part of the novel to me, the protagonist Prince Myshkin is also greatly compelling. Dostoevsky said “My intention [in the novel] is to portray a truly beautiful soul”, and throughout the novel he examines how such a beautiful person, an obvious stand-in for the purity and all-embracing love of Jesus Christ, would operate and be received in actual society. While he’s initially just met with shallow mockery, the novel goes on to explore his reception in depth, before concluding with an ending that feels completely supported and backed-up by the many pages preceding it. There is no easy cynicism in the novel. Everything is grounded in Dostoevsky’s impressive psychological, societal, historical, and moral insight.

While Myshkin works perfectly well as a protagonist in his own right, examining him as a religious stand-in is also compelling. Myshkin loves everyone, yes, but what sort of love is that? Is it merely the sort of instinctive, shallow love one might find for a puppy (or a hedgehog, rather)? He loves easily and uniformly, as the Christian God is meant to, but what does that truly mean? Where is the depth, the passion, the strength in such shallow, easy love? Myshkin’s love often seems more a product of his own nature, and of occasional pity for others, rather than something powerful and compelling in its own right. Rogozhin’s love is a strong contrast, as he exemplifies love of pure passion, sexuality, violence. Neither type of love seems truly admirable or aspirational; a middle-ground of unconditional love also alight with passion and strength specific to the individual being loved in question would perhaps be best. The novel helped me understand perspectives others have expressed to me on some of the unconditional love I’ve displayed. Love is complicated, but Dostoevsky has a very strong handle on its many forms.

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There’s so much to the novel, but the insights on unconditional love, and why one might ultimately fall to a seemingly more self-destructive path when a self-improving one seems more intuitive, were the most powerful and moving parts to me. A masterful work, and one of my very favourite novels. I give it five roubles, and a wedding ring.

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