I think I read The Idiot when I was about 13, and all I remembered of it was that at a tea party, someone stood on the table and shouted. That memory turned out to be false, but they might as well have, and I can’t imagine what my very young self must have made of this novel. My very old self is having trouble enough with it.
The thing about Dostoevesky—and I have read most of his novels, although none for a long time—is that his characters always behave as if they’re in a frenzy. The Idiot is no exception.
Prince Myshkin returns to Russia from years in Switzerland, where he was being treated for epilepsy, to inquire about a legacy he may receive. On the train he meets Rogozhin, who has just inherited a fortune and is on his way to pay court to Nastasya Filippovna Barashkova. Nastasya Filippovna was orphaned as a young girl then brought up by the lecherous merchant Totsky to be his concubine. Now Totsky wants to marry someone else, but Nastasya Filippovna has threatened terrible scenes if he does. Totsky is scheming to marry her off to Gavrila Ardalionovich Ivolgin for the sum of 75,000 rubles.
When the prince meets Nastasya Filippovna, he is so overcome with pity for her that he becomes irrevocably bound with her fate. Later, when he falls in love and wants to marry Aglaya Ivanovna Yepanchin, his entanglement with Nastasy Filippovna ruins him.
Prince Myshkin is completely naive, yet at the same time very perceptive. Dostoevsky wanted to portray in him a simply good man and show how this goodness is overcome by the cynicism and self-interest of society. At times, he is compared to Christ or to a knight.
Although Myshkin is a sympathetic character, he constantly has bad things done to him—is betrayed, libeled, slandered, and cheated—by the people he knows, many of whom are just plain annoying. There is Lebedev, for example, who constantly tells people how vile he is, then behaves badly. And Ippolit, a student dying of tuberculosis, who sneers at the prince, even while accepting his hospitality. Are people really like Dostoevsky’s characters? you may well ask. Of course, Myshkin forgives everyone.
Did I like this novel? I hardly know. I do know that it is one of the last books on my first Classics Club list.