It’s funny how I seem to find myself drawn back to large Russians recently(!), particularly after I’ve had a spell of shorter works. And Dostoevsky, always a favourite of mine, is turning into one of my desert-island writers! I’ve had a very old Penguin Classic of “The Idiot” for longer than I can recall, but it was getting hold of a more modern, larger and easier to handle version, translated by David McDuff, which spurred me on to picking it up.


The book was published in 1869, one of Dostoevsky’s later works, coming chronologically after “Crime and Punishment” and “The Gambler” – so, slap bang in the middle of what might be thought of as his best works. The ‘Idiot’ of the title is one Prince Myshkin, a simple man, subject to epileptic fits, who has spent much of his life living abroad in Switzerland, being treated for his condition and protected from the outside world. As the book opens, Myshkin is on a train to St. Petersburg, returning to his homeland, and here he has what will turn out to be the pivotal meeting of his life – with fellow traveller Rogozhin. This moody, intense personality is obsessively in love with Nastasya Filippovna, a dangerously beautiful woman who in effect drives him out of his mind. In Petersburg, Myshkin goes to visit the Yepanchin family, distant relations, and here once again he encounters Nastasya Filippovna – in the form of her portrait, with which he is instantly infatuated. NF is a troubled woman – abused by her ward, a kept woman for much of her life, adored by many men, but in many ways a lost soul. Two families dominate this story, the Yepanchins and the Ivolgins, closely interlinked. Ganya Ivolgin, the son, is another of NF’s admirers, which causes him to resent the Prince’s presence very much. Then there are the three beautiful Yepanchin daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya. The Prince and Ganya again become rivals, this time for Aglaya, though both of their motives for marriage are suspect. The action shifts between St. Petersburg and the various dachas of the characters in Pavlovsk, and as the protagonists play out their passions and love affairs, against the background of White Nights, hallucinations and fits, it’s sometimes hard to tell what is real and what is dreams.

I’m not going to attempt any more than a brief summary of this long, complex novel because it would take up most of this post. Suffice to say that “The Idiot” is a complex, gripping and absorbing novel from Dostoevsky – not exactly a family saga, not exactly a novel of ideas, not exactly a murder mystery and not exactly a study of men’s souls and motivations. All of these elements are present, but running through them all is the character of Prince Myshkin. Dostoevsky apparently said that he wanted to portray a truly good person, and this is what he is attempting here. Myshkin is only an idiot in that he is prone to epilepsy and he is untrained in, and incapable of taking on board, the social niceties required in the Russia of the time. He’s actually an intelligent, thoughtful and kind man; although he is no plaster saint, and is capable of anger, passion and a wide range of emotions.

The characters in TI are deep and complex, from the dark Rogozhin, completely ruled and unhinged by his passion for Nastasya; through young Ippolit, a dying consumptive driven it seems by hatred and spleen; to Lebedev, a hypocritical, untrustworthy rogue. And then there are the women…..

I think Dostoevsky’s women almost need a book to themselves! From Polina in “The Gambler” through Nastasya here to Grushenka in “Brothers Karamazov”, they’re a complex and capricious bunch. I’m not sure whether FD was trying to comment on a women’s lot in Russia of the time, or whether he had just had bad experiences in love! Certainly, although NF is portrayed as something of a temperamental madwoman (and Myshkin is convinced that she *is* mad), the double standards of the time and the judgemental nature of society would be enough to make any woman with a brain very, very cross. Seduced as a teenager, pursued by men who would be happy to enjoy her favours in secret but would never dream of her as a ‘respectable’ partner, she spends most of the book oscillating wildly between Myshkin and Rogozhin. NF simply cannot decide whether to marry either man, whether either marriage would bring her salvation – she is not sure any more what she wants from life. What the unworldly Myshkin perceives as her madness may simply be the anger and frustration of an intelligent woman trying to rationalise her life. There is a sense of inevitability to her fate (it’s flagged up very early in the book, and referred to all the way through) and it seems that her mania transmits itself to her would-be husbands as well.

Myshkin himself suffers greatly from his inability to relate properly to other people – tellingly, his closest relationships have often been with children, who are perceived as on the same emotional level as him. He doesn’t have the social skills to deal properly with the sophisticated society world of St. Petersburg, and he simply doesn’t understand it. Dostoevsky uses this to great effect in a powerful and memorable chapter where Myshkin attends a society soiree, contrasting the Prince’s naive and surface-level view of various dignitaries, with the reality of their true feelings and emotions, peeling back the thin veneer of civilisation with which they cover themselves. Although the blurb on the back of my edition claims that Myshkin is caught in a love triangle, there are actually several triangles here: Myshkin – Nastasya – Rogozhin; Myshkin – Aglaya – Ganya; Myshkin – Nastasya – Ganya; Myshkin – Aglaya – Radomsky; and many other variations! Aglaya is also a complex women, stifled at home, saying one thing and meaning another, leading on both Myshkin and Ganya. She is unable to realise that the Prince takes everything on face value, and if she acts like she doesn’t care for him and is horrible to him, he actually believes it! So much for feminine wiles!

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1876

As with many of Dostoevsky’s works, “The Idiot” is deeply personal. Like the Prince, he was subject to epileptic fits (though he was able to predict these to a certain extent and therefore control where he had them); and there is a chilling section at the start of the book where Myshkin discusses the cruelty of the death penalty, relating a tale he has heard of a man who was cruelly taken up to the point of execution and then reprieved at the last moment, as had happened to Dostoevsky himself. The dream-like quality of the story-telling may evolve from Dostoevsky’s constantly shifting state of mind, his habit of pacing up and down while he composed in a state of heightened reality.

“Let us not forget that the causes of human actions are usually infinitely more complex and more various that we are in the habit of explaining them afterwards, and are seldom clearly outlined.”

“The Idiot” is by no means a perfect book. It feels a little uneven in places, with pivotal characters dipping out of the narrative for a surprisingly long time, which probably has something to do with its serial publication (a method which caused the same problems for Dickens in his time). The storytelling is often elliptical, with events and people being dropped into conversation or the narrative with no explanation, leaving the reader to do a little work to find out what’s going on, or just to go with the flow and wait to see what FD reveals; he often simply hints at happenings rather than explaining properly. But the tale is often superbly told, the writing almost modernistic in places, with FD following a character’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts, interspersed with their actual words and actions. This adds to the slightly dream-like quality of the narrative, heightened by the effects of the Petersburg White Nights. And there are many unsettling elements, from the constant references to famous murders and murderers (including the one which inspired “Crime and Punishment”) to the obsession by some of the characters that they are being ‘watched’ by an evil gaze (in one chapter the Prince feels almost as if he’s being chased round the city by Rogozhin’s eyes.)


The book is very much made up of set pieces – a soiree at NF’s; a gathering long into the night at the Prince’s Dacha; another soiree, this time at the Yepanchins’ dacha. These allow dramatic discussions, revelations and denouements, and let the narrative develop at its own pace. There is much consideration of the Russian state of mind, of the attitudes of young people (epitomised by Ippolit and his somewhat nihilistic friends), and whether the ruling class can survive the emancipation of the serfs. Russia itself, as a place and setting, is somehow almost ephemeral – it is the beliefs and the attitudes which are being explored here. The concern for social standing and conventional mores is portrayed strikingly, particularly when the dying Ippolit reads out a most splenetic last testimony (prior to his suicide attempt) – despite its personal and confessional nature, he is met with indifference as the only concern of the listeners is to avoid scandal. And one unusual element I picked up, which recurred in “Notes from Underground” and also turned up in a recent read of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Yellow Coal”, was that of spite! Spite appears here; many of the characters seem to be driven by it; it motivates the Underground Man; and has an unusual use in Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s work. Maybe FD is saying it’s a major part of Russian character?!

The more I read of Dostoevsky, the more I find in his work. Few authors of the time delved into the psychology of human beings the way he did, portraying their loves, passions, beliefs, madnesses with a surprising sympathy and tolerance. “The Idiot” is a wonderful portrait of a good man at odds with society, the corrupt society itself and an amazing array of complex, loveable, unpleasant, realistic and very lively characters. I can’t wait to read more of FD’s work!

(As an aside, the translation by McDuff seems to me exemplary – and the notes are excellent, just the right balance of allowing the reader a certain knowledge of Russian and not talking down to them!)