What is the difference between simplicity and being an idiot? In different ways, this question is asked over and over again over the course of this book. And can an honest man survive in society - to be precise, Russian society in the 19th century.
the titular "idiot," returns to Russia after spending most of his life
in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy. As such, he is sheltered,
simple, honest, and odd. Whether these attributes come from his care,
his personality, or his illness are a little up in the air. But
undoubtedly he does not fit into Russian society, and upsets several
apple carts as society people try to figure out what they think of this
strange, earnest young man.
On his voyages through the rocky seas
of society, Myshkin becomes embroiled in the fortunes of a beautiful
young woman, Nastasya Filippovna, whose character was destroyed by her
guardian, who took her as his lover, and set her up lavishly. In her
realization of what has been done to her, and the irrevocableness of her
split from good, she becomes bitter and volatile. She has been courted
by men of good name, men of no name, but plenty of money, and even by
Prince Myshkin, whose pity for her overwhelms him. One of her suitors,
the one with no title to speak of, but plenty of money, Rogozhin, is
obsessed with her.
Myshkin also makes the acquaintance of a
family of fairly good name, although not of the top tier of society. The
youngest daughter of the family, Aglaia, toys with Myshkin and his
affections - or does she? Is she more in earnest than even she realizes?
examines the superficiality of society at great length, and the
pettiness and cruelty with which people react when faced with a man who
does not tell lies, who says what he means, who has few of the social
graces, but is overflowing with good will and affection. They have
learned to put on a false and carefully scripted genuineness, while
Myshkin's authenticity throws all this into chaos.
Dostoyevsky immensely readable in translation - the two I've read have
both been accessible and easy going. I don't know if they were
translated by the same person, or not, but these are not books that you
have to slog through. The characters are lively and interesting, and the
web that poor Myshkin finds himself in often made me worried for him.
He is just disconcerting enough, while also being very endearing. But
what would a more authentic society look like? If the world were made of
Myshkin's, could it survive?